The Human “Self” Does Not Die

The Quran explains about the hidden forces in the Universe and about Human “self” (photo: iStock by Getty Images).

The Quran says that life is not only the life of this world; that life continues after death (2:4). Leaving aside the physical form and appearance that death consumes, it is the internal entity which is the source of human action that moves forward after death (23:35). The Quran calls it “Nafs” (2:48) which modern psychology calls “Self” or “Personality” and Allama Iqbal calls it “Khudi” (self).

Visible manifestation of “Self”

When I pick up a book then I do not say that my hand picked it up. I say that “I” picked it up although my hand picked it. When I walk to the masjid then I don’t say that my feet walked. I say that “I” walked although my feet walked. When I say something then I don’t say that my tongue said it but I say that “I” said this although my tongue said it. So, what is this “I” that is doing all this? In fact, it is this “I” that is accountable. A criminal is told that “you” stole that watch. He is not told that your hand stole the watch. To make one do an act starts from something else inside human beings. It is not his hand, it is not his feet, it is not his tongue that decided to act but that it is the entity that is inside which made the decision and these organs acted only as its tool. If someone wanted to steal something but could not get the chance to do it then in the eyes of the law he didn’t commit any crime. But in the eyes of Allah, he not only committed the crime but that the thought-crime was registered against his internal entity “self” in the divine registry – and it is this entity that moves forward after this life ends. This is the foundation of Islam.

This is the essence of Deen – that no thought or action remains unaccountable in divine registry (6:70, 36:12). These people are surprised with the Quran’s assertion that this life is not restricted to this world only. They ask:

 أَإِذَا مِتْنَا وَكُنَّا تُرَابًا ۖ ذَٰلِكَ رَجْعٌ بَعِيدٌ 

(50:3) – Why? How could we be resurrected after we have died and become mere dust? Such a return seems far-fetched indeed! [Asad]

أَيَعِدُكُمْ أَنَّكُمْ إِذَا مِتُّمْ وَكُنتُمْ تُرَابًا وَعِظَامًا أَنَّكُم مُّخْرَجُونَ

(23:35) – Does he promise you that, after you have died and become [mere] dust and bones, you shall be brought forth [to a new life]? [Asad]

قَالُوا أَإِذَا مِتْنَا وَكُنَّا تُرَابًا وَعِظَامًا أَإِنَّا لَمَبْعُوثُونَ

(23:82) – they say: “What! After we have died and become mere dust and bones, shall we, forsooth, be raised from the dead? [Asad]

Iman in complete accountability 

Islam is the conviction on this very fact that I will be asked about everything that I did or said or thought and that I will be held accountable after I die. This is called Iman in the Hereafter. But this conviction is missing from the Muslim society today. However, we cannot escape accountability of our actions – and even of our thoughts – in the Hereafter (2:281). 

This is the essence of Deen. The Quraysh thought who could hold them accountable? They were the most superior and powerful tribe. And moreover, being the custodian of Kaaba, people bestowed on them enormous respect and authority in all of Arabia. So, who could dare to hold them accountable? The Prophet (PBUH) told them: Well, you will be held accountable in the Hereafter after you die. They would taunt: What Hereafter?  There is nothing like that. We die, we become dust. The earth consumes us. That’s it. Physical death ends everything. How could we be brought back to life? This is a far-fetched idea indeed!   

The human “self” does not die

Over fourteen hundred years ago the Quran described what modern psychologists are finding today the proof for – through extensive research in psychoanalysis. They have come to the conclusion that there is something in humans that is neither the product of the physical body nor is it subject to physical laws nor does it die with the death of the physical body. This is called human “personality” or “self.” The Quran calls it “Nafs.” Psychoanalysts A. E. Jones and Henri Bergson have even come to the conclusion – that human “self” is immortal.  The Quran said this over 1400 years ago:

 قَدْ عَلِمْنَا مَا تَنقُصُ الْأَرْضُ مِنْهُمْ ۖ وَعِندَنَا كِتَابٌ حَفِيظٌ 

(50:4) – Well do We know how the earth consumes their bodies, for with Us is a record unfailing. [Asad]

Tell them: We know what the earth consumes of them. It is only the physical body that disintegrates. It has neither any effect nor any control over human “personality” or “self.” Deeds affect human personality (self) and not the body. Therefore, through the preservation of human personality (self) all deeds of a person are fully preserved with Us. The continuation of this process is called “the life hereafter (akhirah).” 

The earth consumes only the physical body but the “self” remains untouched by earth and moves on to the next world. Please note that this was proclaimed over 1400 years ago by the Quran. Death does not harm the “self”. Death does not have any power over the “self.” Death has power only over the physical body. The material body runs purely mechanically according to physical laws. The body is a material and mechanical thing. It dies clinical death after its physical functions stop working. The beautiful word “تَنقُصُ” exemplifies this process that the earth does not consume the complete body but reduces it. That means there is something which is beyond the earth’s ability to reduce it let alone consume it. And that is the human “self” which remains protected and moves on to the Hereafter carrying along with it the records of all the deeds done in the world. The Quran says that this record remains fastened in everyone’s neck which is opened up for one to read one’s own life record of deeds:

وَكُلَّ إِنسَانٍ أَلْزَمْنَاهُ طَائِرَهُ فِي عُنُقِهِ ۖ وَنُخْرِجُ لَهُ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ كِتَابًا يَلْقَاهُ مَنشُورًا

 (17:13) – And We have fastened every man's deeds to his neck, and on the Day of Resurrection, We shall bring out for him a book which he will find wide open. [Hilali & Khan]

ٱقْرَأْ كِتَـٰبَكَ كَفَىٰ بِنَفْسِكَ ٱلْيَوْمَ عَلَيْكَ حَسِيبًا

(17:14) – [And he will be told:] "Read this thy record! Sufficient is thine own self today to make out thine account!" [Asad]

The struggle between the Truth and Falsehood continues within man himself and the record of this is fastened around his neck. It is not anywhere outside but is within himself. During this life, there are many thoughts, feelings and desires which remain hidden in the unconscious mind. On the Day of Judgement all these will be brought out. In other words, the record which had remained folded hitherto, will be spread out at that time. He will be told to read his own record and decide for himself the punishment he deserves for his wrong deeds.       

Allah’s Law of Requital

Then the Quran says:

 بَلْ كَذَّبُوا بِالْحَقِّ لَمَّا جَاءَهُمْ فَهُمْ فِي أَمْرٍ مَّرِيجٍ 

(50:5) – But they deny the Truth when it comes to them: so they are in a confused state. [Yusuf Ali]

This, the Law of Requital, is the established fact that they deny. They just do not want to believe that they will be called to account. This is why they remain in a state of utter and continuous confusion. 

Quraysh were thinking that they were so powerful that they could do anything they want and no one can question them; that no one can hold them accountable. And this person, the Messenger (PBUH), was saying that even if no one can question them in this world, they will be questioned after death. How strange! How is it possible that anyone can question us when we have died and have been consumed by the earth?! The Quran says that this thought created anxiety and confusion in their hearts.

This is a very important thing that the Quran has mentioned. The reason they didn’t want to believe that they will be held accountable, if not here then definitely in the Hereafter, is that all their pomp and authority will go away. This thought caused turmoil in their hearts.

At least, in the hearts of Quraysh this friction was going on. But in our hearts no such thing is going on because we never pondered on it. In fact, our minds have been dumbed down and numbed by fictional stories that we will go to Jannah by mechanically performing the rituals. Hence complete breakdown of our society. Hence corruption everywhere and at every level in our society.  

The society based on deep conviction of Iman

What is the kind of society that results when even some people believe and have deep conviction that they will be held accountable in the Hereafter? Khalifa ‘Umar (R) used to go on night-watch duty to find out if everything was okay with the people. In one of his excursions he found an interesting episode. A mother (who used to sell milk) was telling her daughter to pour water in milk in order to make more profit. The daughter refused to do that. When the mother asked what happened to you now? You never objected before. The girl said that I listened to Khalifa that one should not cheat; that one should do honest business. The mother said that no one is watching us here, so go ahead and pour some water in the milk. The girl refused again and said to her mother that Khalifa also said that Allah is watching even if no one is watching. This is the result of Iman, which is sadly missing from our society today. 

Our hearts need to change like that girl’s heart did. Our mindset needs to change if we say that we have Iman in the Hereafter. This will be the real renaissance of Islam. The Quran says that unless and until people change their internal mindset there will be no change in the society:

 إِنَّ اللَّـهَ لَا يُغَيِّرُ مَا بِقَوْمٍ حَتَّىٰ يُغَيِّرُوا مَا بِأَنفُسِهِمْ 

(13:11) – Verily, God does not change men's condition unless they change their inner selves. [Asad]

Allah does not alter the condition of a people until they bring about a change in their inner-selves. This is the law of Allah and there is no exception to this law. The inner self must change first like that girl’s inner self did. This is the place from where Islamization must start. Because, without this everything done in the name of Islam will be window-dressing. And this is what most of us are doing these days from top to bottom. At least the Quraysh were thinking. But we have been duped by professional snake oil salesmen. We have been duped that we can earn easy rewards for the Hereafter just by reciting the verses of the Quran, just by parroting what our ancestors have said. So, we cannot even think, let alone changing our hearts and minds. This is true of our professional scholars as well as commoners. 

Divine guidance and Nature 

So, the Quraysh started thinking and were torn between following the status quo or accepting the divine message and warning of the consequences of their unjust behavior. But we – the religious scholars and preachers as well as commoners – do not even want to think, let alone changing our inner selves. We don’t feel any turmoil in our hearts even if the Quran warns again and again of the consequences of not using our God-given faculties of thinking and pondering – even when we are living in the age of knowledge and thought that is literally infinitely advanced compared to the period in which the Quraysh lived, and which is generally known as the period of ignorance (Jahiliyyah) when in the entire Mecca only 17 people were literate, let alone educated. Now imagine, these most backward people in the world at that time were prompted to observe and think how the gigantic Universe and its objects within it are operating so smoothly in perfect order on its own without any external visible support? So, there must be an invisible power behind the operation of this huge Universe. And therefore there must be some invisible power within humans as well because they are also part of this Universe. Arabs traveled in the night under clear blue sky with shining stars guiding them to their destination. They found that these stars never misguided them. 

Please note how the Quran, over 1400 years ago, is explaining to desert Bedouins about the hidden forces in the Universe and about human “self” or “personality” and explaining to them with practical examples what the psychologists only recently have been able to grapple with, and are busy conducting extensive research.

It says:

 أَفَلَمْ يَنظُرُوا إِلَى السَّمَاءِ فَوْقَهُمْ كَيْفَ بَنَيْنَاهَا وَزَيَّنَّاهَا وَمَا لَهَا مِن فُرُوجٍ 

(50:6) – Do they not look at the sky above them - how We have built it and made it beautiful and free of all faults? [Asad]

If they cannot reflect over life after death or the Law of Requital as these are imperceptible facts, they can at least ponder over the Universe which is perceptible; and see how this most amazing system is operating according to divinely ordained laws. Allah's Law is prevalent everywhere. Tell them that they can see the huge limitless space over them and the various cosmic bodies floating therein. See how We have fashioned them and how beautifully We have adorned this ‘ceiling'. They will not find any flaws therein. 

 الَّذِي خَلَقَ سَبْعَ سَمَاوَاتٍ طِبَاقًا ۖ مَّا تَرَىٰ فِي خَلْقِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ مِن تَفَاوُتٍ ۖ فَارْجِعِ الْبَصَرَ هَلْ تَرَىٰ مِن فُطُورٍ 

(67:3) – Who has created the seven heavens one above another, you can see no fault in the creations of the Most Beneficent. Then look again: "Can you see any rifts?" [Hilali & Khan]

If you want to see how wonderfully this divine program functions and how His sovereignty and protection work in absolute harmony, then take a look at the gigantic machinery of the Universe. He has made the various heavenly bodies in outer space in a way that they can maintain complete conformity and not collide with each other. Have a good look all around. You will not find any defects or disproportions in the creation of Almighty Allah. Not once. But look again and again and reflect deeply over it. You will not see any flaws or fissures anywhere. Nothing is out of sync or imperfect. 

And reflect how the earth provides you perfect abode:

 وَالْأَرْضَ مَدَدْنَاهَا وَأَلْقَيْنَا فِيهَا رَوَاسِيَ وَأَنبَتْنَا فِيهَا مِن كُلِّ زَوْجٍ بَهِيجٍ 

(50:7) – And the earth! We have spread it out, and set thereon mountains standing firm, and have produced therein every kind of lovely growth (plants). [Hilali & Khan]

And see how We have stretched the earth in spite of it being spherical and it is moving at high speed. And see how the huge mountains We set firmly upon it, which, besides providing other benefits, are an important link in the earth’s water supply system. The fresh water gets stored in them and when you need water then rivers and springs start flowing that provide drinking water and nourishment to you as well as to your crops on which your life depends. Think about it how We have also caused the earth to grow beautiful plants of various kinds for you to nourish your aesthetic sense.

 تَبْصِرَةً وَذِكْرَىٰ لِكُلِّ عَبْدٍ مُّنِيبٍ 

(50:8) – thus offering an insight and a reminder unto every human being who willingly turns unto God. [Asad]

To every person who wants to pay attention, all these things offer an insight into the realities and serve as a reminder of forgotten truths. 

Those who don’t look back and reflect on what they have been through, never learn from their experience. From the literary point of view also this style of the Quran is so wonderful. The relics of old towns contain considerable data from past history. One who just passes by them and only sees dilapidated bricks and mortar will never look back and reflect. He will never see the hidden messages written on those physical ruins from the past. 


How beautifully the Quran is taking us towards the main point – the hidden forces that power the Universe and human beings? It emphasizes the point that human being is not just the physical body but it has something else – an invisible power that is the essence of human freewill. The Quran wants to emphasize the point that all benefits accruing from the perceptible Universe are in fact the results of the internal force that we cannot see.

The Quran wants us to be cognizant of the internal force that powers the Universe and everything in it. The same is true for humans as well. We see its external form; we see the physical body – but we don’t grasp the internal force that makes us humans; that distinguishes us from animals. Well, if we are not able to perceive the external force then how can we perceive the internal force?! This is, unfortunately, the case with us today contrary to the fact that, by realizing this internal power of “self,” our Prophet (PBUH) and Companions (R) were able to overpower a much larger external force laden with external war resources.  

إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَمَلَائِكَتَهُ يُصَلُّونَ عَلَى النَّبِيِّ يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا صَلُّوا عَلَيْهِ وَسَلِّمُوا تَسْلِيمًا

(33:56) – Verily, God and His angels bless the Prophet: [hence,] O you who have attained to faith, bless him and give yourselves up [to his guidance] in utter self-surrender! [Asad]

FURTHER READING: The Human “Self” Does Not Die (Cont.)

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