Going In Sorrow, But Not in Grief: Islam, Tolkien & Dying Well
It was the summer of 1979 that I visited the local Harrow Green library to borrow Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Around about four years earlier, over the course of a few months in morning assemblies, the head teacher of my primary school, one silver haired Mr. Smith, read to us Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
I was expecting to be enthralled by The Lord of the Rings as I was with The Hobbit; but I was pretty well disenchanted. The first chapter about Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday was filled with too many details for my liking. So I promptly returned the epic back to the local library; disappointed with the book and, I think, with myself.
About a month later, I borrowed the book again. And though I read a few more pages than previously, I still couldn’t manage to complete the first chapter. Again, the book went back to the library!
Three months later, in the winter of the same year, I took it out for a third time. But this time I had resolved to get pass Chapter One, no matter how gruelling it would be. By the third day, I had not only done that, but I had completed the second chapter too; and I was hooked! The next few weeks, sitting by the electric fire in the sitting room, I completed the entire book. I fell in love with the myths; the characters; the languages; the worlds … the detail. I was fast becoming a true Tolkienite!
Over the next decade or so, I would read other works in the Tolkien canon; the canon of middle-earth: The Silmarion, Unfinished Tales, Bilbo’s Last Song and then in 2007, The Children of Hurin. Middle-earth still enthrals me to this day.
In Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings comes The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen. It tells the enchanting, yet bittersweet tale of how Aragorn first met Arwen in Rivendell, and fell in love with her; of how, after a long parting, they met each other again under the trees of Calas Galadhon in the forests of Lothlorien; how they betrothed themselves to each other on the fair hill of Cerin Amroth where ‘they looked east to the Shadow and west to the Twilight, and they plighted their troth and were glad’; and of how at Midsummer, in the year of Sauron’s fall, Aragorn and Arwen were wedded in Gondor; and finally how, after ‘six-score years in great glory and bliss’, Aragorn fell into death’s deep sleep; and how, a short time later, a grief-stricken Arwen, finding death – ‘the gift of the One to Men’ – hard to bear, bade farewell to all whom she loved and left at winter’s end for a now deserted Lothlorien, laying herself to rest upon Cerin Amroth: ‘and there is her green grave, until the world is changed, and all the days of her life are utterly forgotten by men who come after.’
Aragorn’s love for Arwen sends him on a long and perilous path to protect Frodo and the Ring. Arwen’s love for Aragorn, however, demands of her even more. For to marry him, she must forsake an immortal life with her father and her elven-folk, and endure the pain of separation from them. In choosing Aragorn and his fate, Arwen makes her own death inevitable.
When the time comes for Aragorn to ‘move beyond the circles of this world’, Arwen is beset with grief and begs that he stay a while longer. ‘But let us not be overthrown at the final test,’ Aragorn counsels her. His last words to her, before he gives up his life, speak of hope, of happiness, and anticipation of an even better life in a world remade: ‘In sorrow we must go, but not in grief. Behold, we are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!’
Belief in an Afterlife – a realm after death – is central to the faith of Islam. The Qur’an states: Every soul shall taste death. And We test you with evil and with good as a trial. And to Us you shall be returned. [21:35] Death, then, is not the end of life. Once man has died, he will be raised-up; once resurrected, he will be held to account for the time he spent on earth; and once he has been judged, he will be recompensed and treated according to the way he conducted himself in his earthly life. Just as the fictional Aragorn trusts that the purposes of the One in regards to Men, after death, are good ones, and that if he and Arwen bind themselves in obedience to that trust they would be reunited with one another in unendless bliss; then such is the case with the believers when they bind themselves in obedience to the will and purpose of God.
In what follows, Najm al-Din Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi (d.742H/1341CE) – a Hanbali jurist, pietist and preacher – discusses the remembrance of death and the Afterlife. One hadith confronts us with these soaring words: ‘Remember frequently the destroyer of pleasures: death.’1 Indeed, remembering death, recounting the final judgement and other sobering details of Islam’s eschatology, underscores the devotional life of the believers, helping them to recall their ultimate purpose and final return.
This is what he says in the popular Mukhtasar Minhaj al-Qasidin – his abridgement of Ibn al-Jawzi’s Minhaj al-Qasidin; which, in turn, is a redaction of Imam al-Ghazali’s magnum opus, his Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din:
‘Know that the heart of the man who is engrossed in this world and is overcome by its deceptions will certainly be neglectful of the remembrance of death; and thus will fail to recall it. If he does recollect it, he finds it odious and recoils from it. Now, men may either be engrossed [in this world], or penitent beginners, or arrived gnostics.
‘The person engrossed does not remember death, or, if he does, it is with regret for his worldly affairs, and he busies himself with disparaging death. Remembrance of death does nothing for such a man except increase him in distance from God.
‘The penitent man remembers death frequently, so that fear and apprehension might thereby proceed from his heart, thus making his repentance complete. It may be that he fears death lest it seize him before his repentance is complete, or before he musters sufficient provisions for the journey. He is excused in his aversion to death, and is not included in the saying of the Prophet, peace be upon him: “Whosoever loathes meeting God, God loathes to meet him.”2 For he only fears meeting God due to his deficiencies and remissness. He is like a man who is made late for a meeting with his beloved because of busying himself preparaing for the encounter in a way which meets with the beloved’s approval: he is not deemed to be reluctant about the meeting itself. The telling mark of such a man is his constant preparation for this affair and his lack of any other concern. Were he to be otherwise, he would be like the man engrossed in the world.
‘As for the gnostic, he remembers death constantly, because for him it is the tryst with his Beloved: and a lover never forgets the appointed time for meeting the one that he loves. Usually such a man considers death slow in coming and is happy [when it does] that he may have done with the abode of sinners and be borne away into the presence of the Lord of the Worlds – as one of them stated as death approached: “A dear friend has come at a time of need. Whoever repents [at such a moment] shall not succeed.”
‘Thus, the penitent man may be excused for his aversion he feels for death, as this one is excused for his desire for death and longing for it. Higher [in degree] than either of them is he who entrusts his affair to God, Exalted is He, no longer preferring death or life for himself. Instead, the dearest thing to him is that which is more beloved in the sight of his Lord. So by virtue of profound love and loyalty, this man has arrived at the station of absolute surrender and contentment; which is the highest goal and utmost limit.
‘But whatever the situation, in the recollection of death there is reward and merit. For even the man engrossed in the world benefits from recollecting death and acquiring an aversion for this world. Since remembering it spoils and mars its pleasures.’3
1. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2307, where he said: ‘This hadith is hasan sahih gharib.’
2. Al-Bukhari, no.6026; Muslim, no.2683.
3. Mukhtasar Minhaj al-Qasidin (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 1999), 409-10. My translation of the section is heavily indebted to T.J. Winter (trans.), The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1995), 7-9.