Allah recalls the souls or consciousness of humans at the time of their death; and of those also who are living, during their sleep. Then He withholds those against whom He has decreed death, and sends back the others till an appointed term. In that, surely, are Signs for a people who reflect. (Al Quran 39:42/43)
Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
Have you ever had a dream that you were so sure was real? What if you couldn’t awaken? How would you know the difference between dream and reality?
Read the epigraph Quranic verse above, at least three times, before you go on to reading the rest of the article, please. And read on and in the words of Sir Francis Bacon, “Read not to contradict … but to weigh and consider.”
As a devout Muslim and a practicing physician, who has been reading about sleep, for more than 20 years now, I thought that the ending of the above verse, “In that, surely, are Signs for a people who reflect,” should be as much applicable to me as any other student of the holy Quran. So, I have chosen to write this article.
A parent cannot truly be in paradise if his or her child is in hell. I was once listening to a psychiatry lecture about anxiety and depression and the experienced psychiatrist said, “A loving parent can be only as happy as his or her least happy child!” As a father of three sons, I immediately realized how true it was for me almost at every stage of my life.
Many a second wife has been a source of worldly hell for the first wife. If believing men are to have seventy virgins in heaven they may all be in hell, in a manner of speaking!
In other words any concrete reality of the Afterlife, to fulfill the desires of the residents of paradise, will be contradictory. But, there is no denying that everyone can live in his or her own heavenly or hellish dream-state or virtual reality.
The above verse in equating death and sleep also offers us a new metaphor.
We can begin to equate dream-state with Afterlife. Sleep without dreams is almost dead and not life like, whereas a dramatic dream or nightmare is very much alive like our present life and can be equated with our expected Afterlife.
In the last few decades researchers working on human and mammalian brains have discovered that humans live in three states of existence, awake, REM sleep and non-REM sleep. Sometimes some features of one state can intrude into the other state as suggested in the following cartoon, causing different disease or other states of mind:
The three states of human existence, wakefulness, NREM and REM sleep have different physiological features, some of which are exclusive to them. Sometimes, in health or disease, features of one state can intrude into another. This gives us insight into the physical aspects of revelation, while awake. Revelation should be thought of as intrusion of dreaming of REM state into the state of full wakefulness.
A commonly known manifestation of intrusion of one state into another that most of the perceptive adult population has witnessed or at least heard about is sleep walking, which is intrusion of some features of awake state into NREM sleep. Sleepwalkers arise from the slow wave sleep stage in a state of low consciousness and perform activities that are usually performed during a state of full consciousness. These activities can be as benign as sitting up in bed, walking to the bathroom, and cleaning, or as hazardous as cooking, driving, violent gestures, grabbing at hallucinated objects, or even homicide.
The dramatic manifestations of virtual or augmented reality, as it is sometimes called, cannot be described in words or in a video. Only those who have enjoyed a Disney or other virtual reality rides like Back to the Future, can conceptualize what I am talking about.
Until you can enjoy some virtual or augmented reality ride or some dramatic 3D documentary or movie, let me just link two videos below to give you some basic idea:
In conclusion, according to the holy Quran, “No soul knows what joy is kept hidden in store for them as a reward for what they have done.” (Al Quran 32:17/18)
The verse states that all the Quranic descriptions of rewards in paradise like rivers of milk and honey, non-intoxicating alcohol and chaste virgins are only a metaphor and not physical. The ultimate reality is that the Hereafter is a totally new spiritual paradigm that the human mind is completely unable to conceive and appreciate, just like a fetus cannot conceive what awaits him or her after it is painfully ejected through the birth canal!
Likewise, all the Quranic descriptions of punishment in hell are only metaphors not to be taken literally, nevertheless, not to be minimized or ignored either. If someone does that he or she does it at his or her own peril!
I am presenting these ideas, in this article, as merely food for thought and these are not by any means the final or authoritative understanding of Afterlife.