Saturday, April 4, 2009

Even if the Day of Judgment is coming, go ahead and plant that tree.

Thinking about death? It could be a good thing.

“I am afraid I do not have good news for you. Your doctors think you have only few years to live” While that does not sound like a definite death sentence (after all that is just likelihood), it is not exactly the kind of thing one looks forward to hearing.
So, once you here that, what happens next? I guess that all depends.

If death is imminent, for example few weeks or a couple of months, we may be more concerned with sorting out our financial loose ends, closing open files with IRS, and making sure we do not leave a huge mess for the ones we leave behind.

If death is anticipated in 10 or 15 years, many would go though some period of emotional turmoil, then carry on with life as usual until the expected day gets closer.

But what if we were given only 2 or 4 years to live; a period of time that is not too short that we focus on financial records, but not too long that we can ignore it and engage in ‘life as usual’.

It has intrigued me, over the last 10 years or so, how people would respond to the realization of their mortality. Of course we all know one day we will die, but we rarely ever behave as if we realize that. And as I get older, I see more and more people who were forced to realize that same fact they have always known, and yet it comes to them as a surprise. And they do not all respond the same way.

I have seen people to turn towards God by indulging in rituals, and forgetting the material world and what is in it. They spend more time in their religious institutions, read their Holy books again and again and, in their own way, start their own monastic life. I have also known of people who decided to travel, have fun, buy the fancy cars their always dreamed of, and indulge in the material life they always wanted, but have always put off waiting for the right time.

I know I would be uncomfortable with either option. And even thought I believe in God, the After Life, and the Judgment Day, turning totally toward ritual-centered life does not seem the right answer to me for I never felt that rituals in excess or alone will be enough for salvation.

I personally do not think my feelings are religiously wrong from the Islamic point of view. In the Quran, Faith in God as been cited coupled with performing good deed over a hundred times. Few times (for example see 2:227 and 21:73), good deeds have mentioned as distinct from prayers and alms giving, suggesting that good deeds are distinct from core rituals of faith.

I grew up hearing a statement frequently, but falsely, attributed to Prophet Muhammad, pbuh:
“Do for this life as if you will live forever, and do for the Life After as if you will die tomorrow.”
And while this valuable advice cannot be authenticated as a saying of the Prophet, its spirit has been endorsed in several other authenticated Prophetic saying.
“If the Day of Judgment erupts while you are planting a new tree, carry on and plant it.”, the Prophet said.
I imagine it is hard to stress more strongly the value of enriching life on Earth, till the last breath of our life.

Another of my favorite Prophet Muhammad saying's is this one:
“Once humans are dead, rewards for them cease except for three things: charitable endowment that out-survives them, knowledge that still benefits people after they die, and good offspring that remembers them in their prayers.
With statement like these, it is hard to see over-indulgence in rituals (or material life) as a healthy response to one’s realization of their own end-of-life approaching.
The appropriate response seems to fulfill ritual requirements as per one’s belief, but then to go on and make the most of the time left to benefit other human beings.

This is not a spirit exclusive to one religion. The same goal has been in the eyesight of people from all beliefs and ideologies.

I know of a middle-aged man, having known he had only 6 months to live, he decided to use his time to write a book about a subject he cherished. He was lucky enough to complete the book before he was gone.

On a more personal level, a former colleague and a friend of mine is going through serious health issues that make the idea of end of life a daily companion. And while religion continued to be on her mind, possibly with more meditation and wisdom, she opted also to go ‘outward’ with volunteer activities. She started sharing her experience with the rest of the world by starting a blog, rich in humor as well as in memories, thoughts and roller-coaster emotions that are part of her life with a tough disease. All that goes on while she carries on with her professional career and takes care of two young children.

During a recent phone conversation she made a notable statement when we talked about what people do with their life in a situation where life may be short. “Sometimes I think [by living] I am planning my own funeral. I want a lot of people to attend my funeral, not because they have to, but because they want to be their”.

And people would want to attend your funeral when they feel that if you are gone, some important part of their life is lost; and that you impacted them, and will continue to affect how they think and live. They feel that losing you is like losing a positive force in their own life. It is not losing you that they would mourn; they are mourning the loss of part of their own future that would have made their lives richer and more meaningful.

I can tie that thought easily with the Prophetic sayings I mentioned above. And that is why more rituals and more material joys do not seem like a good response to realizing that life is short (or shorter than what we expected before). In those kinds of indulgences -- religious and material -- lives of others around you are usually minimally influence positively, if at all.

I would like to live my life knowing that when I know I am dying tomorrow, I would not feel that I need to change anything that I have planned. Only if my life is like that, I would think of it as good life. Thinking of death from that perspective can be a beautiful and a positive for in life.

So, I pray that when my Day of Judgment comes, I would be in the middle of planting a new tree.



  1. Salaam. Excellent articles. Very profound. I will print this one and keep it since life is prommised to no one.

  2. The local NPR station in Houston is running a fund-raiser event- your donation goes toward the planting of a tree (specifically a live-oak) in Houston. These huge, old trees will not directly benefit you, the donor; rather, they will be enjoyed by your grandchildren.

  3. --excellent article. very profound. something i think about every day and strive to do although we all fail in some areas. the middle path. (i will figure this thing out eventually).
    A-R M

  4. Thought provoking, beautiful article. We do not have to wait for someone to give us the news that the "end" is near. If we were to learn from our own lessons that play "live" arround us on a daily basis, we will know that healthy lives, young lives and even baboes die. If God had shown us no other powers, His ability to control our death and destiny is enough for us to take heed and truly take life as if we are going to die tomorrow.... No one has and will ever escape death...

  5. Very wonderful article.

    “If the Day of Judgment erupts while you are planting a new tree, carry on and plant it.”, the Prophet said.

    This reminds me of something from the Talmud -
    "Rabbi Yohasan Ben Zakkai said: If you are in the midst of planting a tree and word reaches you that the Messiah has arrived, do not interrupt your work; first finish your planting and only then go out to welcome the Messiah."

    This article also reminds me of another story from the Talmud -
    Rabbi Eliezer said: "Repent one day before your death." His disciples asked him, "Does then one know on what day he will die?" "All the more reason he should repent today, lest he die tomorrow" (Shabbat 153a).

    I'm extremely secular but I think that it is too bad people usually see the bad aspects of religion. I think one can learn a lot from religious texts without spending time on ritual.

  6. Thank you Khaled for a touching article. I appreciated our talk and I'm glad I was able to give you some fodder for your blog. I do know that I appreciate small things more and understand what is really important knowing that my life may be much shorter than planned. We also talked about the fact that despite having a rather dire diagnosis I still don't know how things will end. I have seen just one card in the deck. Don't forget that while I went back to the cancer rodeo for the fourth time we both learned of a colleagues wife who was killed suddenly by a falling tree.

    We all hear about these stories and I think the majority of us are very introspective for a short while then we have to go pick up the kids and do our taxes and we sink back into the minutiae. The trick is not to forget without losing sight of our obligations. Having my mortality flung in my face every day just makes it easier for me than some to see the big picture. Still, if that's the silver lining of having cancer I think I'd rather get the lesson watching Oprah.

    My blog for all you Khaled fans is: warning, it's real different than Khaleds! no apologies for my irreverence!

    Dr. Bif

  7. The saying of Prophet Muhammed about tree planting is one of my favourite ones and as an environmentalist convinced me to become a Muslim. In peace, Rianne

  8. thanks a million ..
    i was looking for the transelation of the hadeeth for my presentation ..
    and BTW it is such a great article..
    keep the good work up :D

  9. iv'e never seen somethengh like that good job khaled for that toucheng article