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A Letter on Preparing for Death by Imam al-Ghazali

A Letter on Preparing for Death

By the Imam Hujjat al-Islam (The Proof of Islam)
Muhammad bin Muhammad Abu Hamid al-Ghazali
May Allah have mercy on him
d. 505 After Hijra (1111 C.E.)
Translated by Shazia Ahmad

Introduction by the Translator

I came across Risalat Sharh as-Sadr at the Dar as-Salaam Bookstore in Cairo a few months ago. It was a tiny booklet hidden away on a corner shelf, tucked in-between much larger volumes, as if it was patiently waiting to be discovered. It drew my attention because it was a small work written by the esteemed Imam Al-Ghazali, rahimahullah (may Allah have mercy on him), author of the magisterial Ihya Ulum ad-Din (Revival of the Religious Sciences), spiritual master and scholar, and the individual who has been historically credited with merging the outward and inner sciences of Islamic law.

Due to its brevity I assumed that the booklet was an excerpt taken from one of Imam Al-Ghazali’s more substantial works. With further study, however, I came to see that it was in fact an independent text, and was actually a short letter of advice and wisdom on preparing for death. The letter was written in a concise and almost simplistic style, though the message imparted was one of great spiritual depths. I found it very appealing, and thought almost immediately that it would be a beautiful work to translate.

I have attempted to do so in the following pages, and I hope that the author’s wisdom and eloquence has penetrated through the transformation from Arabic to English. I ask Allah Most High to accept this effort from me, and I seek His forgiveness for any mistakes I may have made in writing it.

The phrase sharh as-sadr is a common Arabic expression used to refer to a spiritual expansion of the heart or chest that gives rise to inner enlightenment, tranquility, and relief from anxiety and worry. It is a phrase that is used in a number of places in the Quran. When going to face the Pharoah and convey to him the message of Islam, the noble prophet Musa (alayhis salaam) prayed to Allah, “My Lord, expand for me my chest, ease my task for me, and remove the impediment from my speech so that they may understand what I say.” (Taha, v. 25-28) In reminding the Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) of the great blessings He had bestowed upon him, Allah says, “Have we not expanded for you your chest?” (Al-Inshirah, v.1) Imam As-Sabouni says in explanation of this verse:

“His (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) chest was expanded with true guidance, faith, and the light of the Quran. Ibn Kathir states that [the phrase sharh as-sadr means] ‘We have filled your chest with light and made it expansive and unconfined.’ And just as Allah has made the Prophet’s (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) chest expansive, He has made His Shar’ (Law) generous, tolerant, easy, and without difficulty or narrowness.” (Safwat at-Tafaseer, pp. 553-554).

Imam Al-Ghazali entitled his letter Sharh as-Sadr because properly preparing for death is a means of attaining that spiritual expansion, illumination, and comfort. May Allah make us among those who experience that state, and who ready and beautify themselves properly for the journey to His Divine Presence, Ameen.

Translator

May 2008

Cairo, Egypt
–~–

[I begin] with the name of Allah, Most Merciful, Most Loving. We rely on Him, and seek help from Him alone. All praise is due to Allah, and may blessings be upon the Messenger of Allah Muhammad, his family, and his companions one and all.

Allah the Exalted said,

أَفَمَنْ شَرَحَ اللَّهُ صَدْرَهُ لِلْإِسْلَامِ فَهُوَ عَلَى نُورٍ مِنْ رَبِّهِ فَوَيْلٌ لِلْقَاسِيَةِ قُلُوبُهُمْ مِنْ ذِكْرِ اللَّهِ أُولَئِكَ فِي ضَلَالٍ مُبِينٍ
“Is one whose chest Allah has opened to Islam [sharaha Allahu sadrahu] so that he has received light from his Lord (no better than one hard-hearted)?” (Az-Zumar v. 22)

The Messenger of Allah (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) was asked about sharh as-sadr and he said, “It is a light cast into the heart by which the chest is opened and expanded.”
He was asked, “Is there a way of recognizing one who possesses that light?”
He (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) responded, “Yes. [Such people can be recognized by their] indifference towards the abode of delusions [i.e., the life of this world], their constant turning towards the abode of eternity [the hereafter], and their preparation for death before it arrives.”
He was asked, “How does one prepare for death?”

He (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) said, “Those of you who remember it the most are the best prepared for it.”

–~–

You have asked – may Allah grant you success – about readiness for death, and the conditions and means [of attaining that spiritual state]. When is a servant (of God) ready for death? What should one strive to achieve so that he or she is fully prepared for this path?

Know that death is an expression used for the journey from this world to the Divine Presence, for to Allah is the ultimate return. Anyone traveling to a royal court is in need of three things for his journey: a severing of the ties that keep him from advancing; a preparation of provisions for the road; and an acceptable gift for the king, to present to him and by which to attain his pleasure. Similarly, the traveler journeying to the Divine Presence is in need of three things: preparation of his provisions, a cutting of ties, and the offering of a gift.

The traveler’s provision refers to a deep consciousness of God [taqwa]. Allah says, “…And take a provision with you for the journey, but the best of provisions is taqwa.” (Al-Baqara, v. 197)

The cutting of ties means a severing of the heart from the pleasures of this world. This is what was meant by the Prophet’s (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) words, “an indifference towards the abode of delusions”.

The gift to be presented to the King is love, the origin of which is in true gnosis [ma’rifah] and faith [iman].

We will explain these three essential matters in further detail.

1. Provisions for the Road:

There is no provision for the journey to the hereafter except taqwa. Taqwa means obeying the commandments of Allah Most High and avoiding that which He has prohibited to such an extent that one fulfills all of Allah’s commandments and remains far removed from all of His prohibitions.

If one has always done so, then this is a type of excellence and inner strength that is without equal. If, however, a person has some deficiencies in this matter, then he or she will not be ready [for the hereafter] except by rectifying them. This can be done by analyzing and reflecting on one’s state from when one first reached the age of legal responsibility [bulugh]. The servant must then busy himself with making up for what has passed, and seek to correct those matters in which one had erred.

In regards to the commandments of Allah, the servant should begin with the fundamental pillars of Islam, such as the ritual prayer, the poor-due and the pilgrimage. If one finds a shortcoming in his or her performance of one of these acts, one should seek to remove the burden of responsibility from oneself by making up for them. One should continue doing so until he or she is certain that no obligation remains undone.

As for the prohibitions, [they are of two types]. The first type is entirely related to the rights of Allah [and not the rights of other people], such as fornication, drinking alcohol, listening to musical instruments, and engaging in [other] forbidden acts. [Disobeying a prohibition of this type] can be remedied by sincerely repenting, feeling intense regret for the sin, seeking Allah’s forgiveness and pardon, and resolving strongly and with determination to never return to it again. [Know that] sincere repentance is a remedy for every sin, and a penitent person is like one who has not sinned at all.

The second type of prohibition is related to the rights of other servants, such as wronging someone in terms of wealth or reputation. [Violating a prohibition of this type] can be rectified by giving the oppressed person back his or her due right. The servant should seek to do this in all of one’s dealings with others, and should scrutinize personal relationships carefully [to make sure that one has not been unjust to others].

One should seek to liberate himself from others’ rights upon him by returning what is in one’s possession of their wealth, compensating for what one may have consumed from it, and making amends for backbiting or speaking ill of others. This type of harmful speech is a great wrong, and a person cannot be freed from it except by [seeking the pardon of] the oppressed. The servant must ask forgiveness from every person he has harmed in his life through backbiting or other hurtful words. If a person who has been wronged refuses, then one should be kind to him so that his heart will eventually lean towards forgiveness.

If the oppressed person passes away or becomes otherwise unreachable, the servant should increase in good deeds until he has performed an amount that he believes would be sufficient for the oppressed if it went to him on the Day of Judgment.

Know that sufficient provision for this journey is in obeying Allah’s commands, abstaining from His prohibitions, and striving to perform numerous extra good deeds. Good works are a means of elevating one’s spiritual rank. The more good deeds one performs, the more one increases in safety and faith.

In conclusion, provision for this journey consists of commission or omission of acts in accordance to Allah’s commands and prohibitions.

2. Severing the Ties that Prevent One from Advancing

A traveler may be tied down by his or her debtors, as if they were holding on to the very tails of his clothing and preventing him from moving towards his destination. In order to advance on his journey, the traveler must [free himself from them] and break all ties with them.

Similarly, the attachments that prevent one from journeying towards the hereafter are numerous. Yet all of them are connected to the love of this world, longing for it, and the inclination of the lower self towards it.

One who has no beloved in this world is completely ready for death. One who loves someone in this world, but finds that the love for Allah is stronger and more intense in his heart is also ready, though his level is not like that of the former.

A sign that a servant has true love for Allah is that he or she does not have any feeling of dislike towards death, no matter when it may come. An aversion to death is a sign that this world and one’s status in it is more beloved to a person [than meeting Allah in the hereafter]. One who dislikes death because he has not yet rectified the wrongs he has committed against others or overcome weaknesses within himself may be excused for his dislike, however, this servant cannot be considered ready [for the journey ahead]. One who is ready would have already exerted himself in these matters, and would not have left any task undone that would distract and busy his heart.

Disconnecting one’s heart from the life of this world is not fully achieved unless one also possesses a balanced character and a sound and upright heart. This occurs by purifying the heart from ostentation, envy, hatred, arrogance, and all of the negative qualities that we have mentioned in our work al-Muhlikaat (in the third section of Ihya Ulum ad-Din). These are the ailments of the heart [that must be cured], for an ill person is not one prepared for travel.

It is not a requirement that the servant be entirely free of these negative qualities, but that they remain weak inside a person and are not intensified by actions or words that are contrary to the path of God-consciousness. The Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) said: “The child of Adam will never be safe from three things: envy, fearing evil omens, and having bad opinions of others. I will inform you of a means of escaping from them. If you feel envious towards someone, do not seek to attain what he or she has. If you observe an omen said to be evil, continue without any change in your behavior. And if you think ill of someone, do not try to confirm your thoughts [by discussing them with others.]”

Thus removing these elements entirely from one’s inner self is not a necessary condition for being saved. It suffices that one does not manifest them by acting in accordance to them. A balanced character is what is really essential, and is what is meant by the expression khuluq al-hasan. One does not attain such character except through struggle, hard work, and recognition of the areas in which one has been self-deluded.

All of the [negative] qualities we have mentioned here are produced by love of this world. If a servant realizes that the hereafter is better and everlasting he or she would certainly prefer it over the life of this world. Such a realization is a fruit of this knowledge, and such knowledge is what comprises the branches of faith.

3. Presenting a Gift to Allah Most High

The gift [that a traveler to the hereafter should prepare to present to the Divine] is faith [iman] that engenders love for Allah Most High. We mean here by faith a gnosis [ma’rifa] that overwhelms the servant completely and overtakes his heart entirely, until it is as if the servant actually sees Him. Faith then becomes something vital to the heart, persistent and constant in it, to such an extent that nothing comes to the servant’s mind except Allah, neither in deeply-rooted thoughts nor in fleeting ones. [A constant awareness and focus on Allah, to the extent that not even a fleeting thought enters one’s mind] is the highest state [of faith].

The first [and lowest] level of faith is like believing that someone named Zaid is inside a house because one has been told so by a person one trusts. The second level is like believing Zaid is inside because one hears the sound of his voice. The third [and highest level] is like actually seeing him. Each level produces an increased amount of happiness and delight [for the servant, as compared to the one lower than it]. These feelings cannot be precisely described [but can only be experienced with the heart]. Such are the varying degrees of faith.

As for the branches of faith, they are numerous, while its roots are three: to have belief in Allah, belief in the Last Day, and belief in the truthfulness of the Messenger of Allah (salAllahu alayhi wa salam).

Complete faith in Allah includes belief in His attributes as they are elucidated in the Quran without being combined with innovations, uncertainty, wavering or doubt.  One should believe that He has perfect knowledge and absolute ability, that His will is always realized and effectual [with no exceptions],and one should affirm with certainty whatever one can of His noble attributes.
One should believe in regards to the Last Day that one will be recompensed in accordance to one’s actions, rewarded for obedience [to Allah] and punished for disobedience. [If one understands and believes this,] then this suffices for the servant, and it is not obligatory upon him or her to know more details [of the Day of Judgment than this].

One should believe that the Messenger of Allah (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) was truthful in everything that he taught. If one believes in this, even if one does not know his (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) teachings in detail other than what is obligatory, it suffices for the servant.

–~–

This is what it means to prepare for death; and Allah grants success to those who seek to ready themselves [for the journey ahead].

To Allah belongs success and protection. All praise is due to Allah in the beginning and the end, and may peace and blessings be upon the Noble Messenger Muhammad, his family and companions.

–~–

This letter was completed by Allah’s help and good favor, and may blessings be upon Muhammad and his family.

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45 Comments leave one →
  1. Abu Al Ameen permalink
    May 11, 2010 12:15 pm

    May Allah bless you for this meritorious effort and may He accept it as an act of Ibadah that is done for Him alone.Am richly blessed by reading this book.pls pray for me to be able to do all that is written in this small but very important book.

    • May 12, 2010 9:10 pm

      Ameen, I ask that Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, accept your duaa, and may He (swt) make these words a motivation for all of us to better prepare ourselves for the life to come.

      Thank you for visiting and commenting!

      salaam

  2. kasmahMohamad permalink
    May 15, 2010 1:13 pm

    may us all gain hidayah thru this beautiful risala

  3. kasmahMohamad permalink
    May 15, 2010 1:15 pm

    may i share this one, please…

    • May 15, 2010 6:16 pm

      salaam,

      you are more than welcome to share it or any of the articles here! I would just request that you please link back to this page. Jazaki Allahu khayran.

      salaam 🙂

  4. the middle road permalink
    July 5, 2010 12:51 am

    Assalamu alaikum

    Jazakillahu khair for this beneficial read. Masha Allah, your translations are good; and I know how difficult it can be.

  5. Abu Al Ameen permalink
    July 7, 2010 7:24 pm

    May Allah grant u aljanah firdaus my brother.This is a worthwhile effort.Am putting it on my page for other muslims to learn from.

  6. usman permalink
    June 28, 2012 1:12 pm

    please can it be possible for you to provide the original arabic text ?

  7. October 28, 2012 10:50 am

    Alhamduliilah………I am really fortunate. Nice article…..great effort.

  8. Zaimah Abu Bakar permalink
    November 9, 2012 5:24 am

    Assalamualaikum…Thank you for the beautiful translation..May Allah bless you for your effort.I have been a regular reader of your beautiful blog…Keep up the good work..

    • March 10, 2013 9:09 am

      wa alaykum as salaam wa rahmatullah,

      Ameen for your duaas and Jazaki Allahu khayran for your nice comments! 🙂

  9. Muhammad Ikramullah Sayeed permalink
    February 28, 2013 12:19 pm

    Subhan Allah!

  10. abdul qadeer permalink
    March 10, 2013 6:55 am

    It is a tremendous work.may Allah bless u .My grand father Abdul Qayyum compiled a book translating all letters of imam Ghazali in to english.Pl read book named letters of immam Ghazali and send comment .Thanks

  11. nisarahmedmalik permalink
    May 14, 2013 6:18 am

    Jazak Allah, so nice to learn this beneficial knowledge.

  12. Hamzat Abdulateef permalink
    May 14, 2013 8:01 pm

    This is a mavellous act of ibadah l pray that may Allah accept it as an act of ibadah for you may Allah give us the understanding of HIS words

  13. Bashiru Hamidu permalink
    May 16, 2013 4:58 pm

    May almighty Allah grant us iman like those of the past

  14. Abubakar permalink
    June 23, 2013 9:23 pm

    this is intriguing i have learnt something very fundamental may Allah reward you my brother for the discovery of this letter. i am wondering how it would have been if i did not come across this master piece work of Imam may the almighty reward Imam and you who brought it to us.

  15. Gulzar Rather permalink
    October 27, 2013 5:26 pm

    May Allah Bless you ,It helped me to
    take stock of my deeds

  16. Syed Mubashir Kirmani permalink
    October 28, 2013 6:40 pm

    Subhan Allah.Great work for non arabic readers.May Allah swt bless you and accept your efforts. I have read this article and I am convinced that I am lacking of all tree item needed for eternal Journy.May Allah swt give me the chance for prperation of my final journy. Thank you vry much for this reminder and may Allah swt bless you.
    Engr.yed Mubashir kirmani
    Pobox 4354,Riyadh ,SA.

  17. faruk permalink
    November 18, 2013 8:34 pm

    SubHanalAllah

  18. Ahmed permalink
    November 24, 2013 3:23 pm

    Thanks for sharing. This , In Sha Allah, works as a peaceful reminder.

  19. Rondo Keele permalink
    December 12, 2013 3:30 pm

    Ma’shAllah, this is a very nice translation. May God give you good deeds for your effort.

  20. Abdul permalink
    February 16, 2014 10:29 pm

    All praise is due to Allah, and may blessings be upon the Messenger of Allah Muhammad, his family, and those follow the guidance.

  21. Auwal permalink
    March 3, 2014 1:06 am

    Jaxakallahu,may Allah provide us with effort to use this blessful article.and may he reward u with abundant reward

  22. Dr Mohammad Mahboob Abedin Khan permalink
    March 30, 2014 1:58 pm

    Alhamdulillah such a thought provoking letter! May Allah SWT give us ability to achieve Takwa and grant your translation as a good deed. Ameen. May I circulate this letter in a group in Facebook with link to this page?
    Dr MMA Khan
    l

  23. majid permalink
    April 13, 2014 4:53 pm

    ma sha allah a very good translation may allah give u knowldege and guide you to good deeds for you effort and pray for all of us alla grant us hidaya

  24. July 15, 2014 1:24 pm

    May Allah reward you infinitely for this excellent work. Blessed are the people who do the work for the sake of Allah and for their brothers .we pray that you continue the work with other religious wealth which needs translations.

  25. lookman. abdul. kadri permalink
    August 1, 2014 12:12 am

    I AM VERY DELIGHTED. TO COME ACCROSS THIS VERY IMPORTANT ATICLE ON THE NET MAY ALMIGHTY ALLAH REWORD YOU TRANSLATOR ABOUNDANTLY. THESE TYPES OF SPIRITUAL WORK, IN ENGLISH,IS VERY ESSENTIAL,IMPORTANT AND ADVANTAGOUS. MOST ESPECIALY FOR MILLIONS OF MUSLIMS THAT CAN NOT UNDASTAND ARABIC MAY GOD REWORD YOU HERE AND HEREAFTER.( MAASALA)

  26. shanwaz permalink
    August 19, 2014 1:03 pm

    great advice for me i am looking something like this for a long time.. May allah reward in the hereafter you the al ghazhalli (rahamatulaalai) …

  27. Jibril Muhammad permalink
    November 23, 2014 5:43 pm

    May Allah bless and reward you here and after.

  28. January 17, 2015 9:07 am

    MaashaaAllah. I came to know this most useful message of Imam Ghazzali for our TWO WORLDS on this day of Rabee-ul-awwal 27, 1436, (today) the 986th birth anniversary of this esteemed Imam.
    JazakAllahu khaira.
    Let us celebrate Imam’s 1000th birth anniversary in 14 years in a grand way.

    Where the original Arabic text available?

  29. shameem abdul jalil permalink
    January 23, 2015 6:01 pm

    Alhamdulilah I have read this and would read it again n again to remind me what it takes to have a beautiful death. May Allah place the soul of Imam Ghazalu in jannatul firdous. Alfatehah. And may you be blessed and rewarded for sharing the knowledge. Salam wrm wbt

  30. Yusuf permalink
    March 25, 2015 7:48 am

    hmmmm…IMAM Al Gazali…I love him much. I appreciate the effort of the translator. Masha Allah. May Allah guide us all.

  31. Ameen permalink
    April 27, 2015 11:51 pm

    A very important message & delivered well. We all need to focus on what really matters and not indulge the self in worthless pursuits until the inevitable event arrives.

  32. Dr. Siddiqui permalink
    May 22, 2015 7:30 pm

    Mashallah ! Jazak Allah kheir for your effort! Thanks for sharing. Allah reward your work.Ameen.

  33. June 14, 2015 7:22 am

    May Allah bless you.Make me weep and pray for Sharh as-Sadr

  34. sajida permalink
    June 21, 2015 6:53 am

    I feel so hopeful and inspired by this letter. It’s language is accessible and the love and mercy that Allah has for us is clear in this letter.
    JazakAllahu khair

  35. saifali permalink
    July 8, 2015 7:45 pm

    May Allah reward you for this beautiful effort. Subhanallah. A wonderful gem.

  36. Zalina Azman permalink
    August 4, 2015 1:11 pm

    May Allah bless you for this effort. It is not a book of Imam Ghazalli which I have read and yes as you rightly said, it is a complete departure from his style of writing. Yet insanely complements and completes his works.

    I feel for this piece and thank you as the translating more than justified a formidable piece by a Grand Master… Assalamualaikum.

  37. farida permalink
    November 3, 2015 8:53 am

    salam alaikum.can I share this on wattpad?

  38. December 16, 2015 11:13 pm

    As Salaam aliakum , to whom it may concern, I ‘ve read this letter and have it very inspiring . I will like very much to have personal copy for my study library and also to inform believer. This my email lil99mikel@gmail.com your Brother in Al Islam Maalik Mujaahid El

  39. Abdul jabbar rahman permalink
    July 11, 2016 2:54 am

    Masha ALLAH.
    A beautiful short but powerful reminder of a path to make Allah(swt) pleased with us .
    May Allah (swt) reward you for your efforts & give hidayat to all readers of this risala , aameen.

  40. Raeha Musawir permalink
    August 27, 2016 10:55 am

    Today i just stertet to read your article masaallah it was very helpful. May Allah give stranght your hard work amen summa Amin

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