The English word ‘transition’ enters into our lexicon through the Latin transitio, which denotes a going across or over, a traversing of boundaries, a passage into the new. Indeed, any ‘transition’ is always already infused with an existential dynamism of liminality: to tread across a boundary, physical or otherwise, is to take leave of the familiar terrain on which one stands and to implant oneself in fresh soil. There is perhaps no ground as solidly felt, as unshakeably inhabited, as the ground of our existence itself: that existence which is not an attribute among attributes but constitutes rather the ontological context, the fertile seedbed, for all attributes. When listing a person’s many qualities, let’s call him John, we do not also affirm that John ‘exists’, for the actuality of John’s being is enfolded in our very naming of him. Life is, in other words, that stable resting place in which our quirks and quiddities are intimately nestled; to be is not a state among states but is the condition of possibility for every state. The cessation of our life, then, is the most ‘radical’ transition woven into our finite fabrics: ‘radical’ in the sense that it strikes at the primordial root of our-selves. To die is not merely to lose one of the petals that abundantly adorns our personhood, but it is to be shorn of the very possibility of future flowering: no-thing shall flourish here anymore, for this wayfarer has passed on.
The Qur’an is replete with sonorous insistences on the ineluctability of death: that firm bedrock of vitality on which we repose will ineludibly erode, and all our varying ventures bear the indelible imprint of mortality. In limning the human person’s finitude, the Qur’an relates death to the embodied experience of ‘tasting’, thus conveying something of death’s tangible reality and material immediacy: ‘Every soul shall taste death. Then unto Us shall you be returned’ (29:57). Since all human beings will taste death, it is futile to try and evade it, as it will have the last word: ‘Say, “Truly the death from which you flee will meet you; then you shall be returned to the Knower of the unseen and the seen, and He will inform you of that which you used to do”’ (62:8). Significantly, both of these verses body forth the notion of death as a ‘return’. Indeed, Sufi cosmology elaborates this scriptural motif of ‘being brought back’ to the divine presence by conceiving of our material existence as a terrestrial ‘interim’, a dynamic ‘interlude’, between our pre- and post- earthly states of complete union with God. As the Qur’an affirms in 7:172, all human beings joyously testified to the divine unicity in the ‘Primordial Covenant’ with God, and while we may veer away from this intimate God-consciousness through our heedless absorption in the world, death marks an emphatic re-cognition of this pre-cosmic witnessing. It is perhaps this promise of a spiritual homecoming that undergirds the Prophetic declaration, ‘death is a precious gift to the believer’. In his reflective gloss on this Hadith, the celebrated theologian al-Ghazali (d.1111) affirms that death relieves us of the continual clamour of lower desires and ignoble impulses with which we wrestle in this life, thus laying final rest to the torments and turbulences of our souls.
If death is that ultimate transition that awaits each of us, it is also, crucially, that which pertains universally to all living beings: every creature, in virtue of its very creatureliness, will succumb to death. Indeed, the Qur’an repeatedly directs its listeners’ attention to the rhythmic cyclicality of life and death: the changing seasons, the coursing winds, and the cultivable earth are all signs of an elemental fragility which stands in cosmic contradistinction to the ever-living, eternal God. As 45:5 asserts, ‘in the variation of the night and the day, and in that which God sends down from the sky as provision whereby He revives the earth after its death, and in the shifting of the winds are signs for a people who understand’. We are to reflect on these ‘signs’ of fluctuation and finitude not as distant observers of an external fact but as creatures who constitutively share in this vulnerability to temporality: as the day fades into night, so too will the ‘day’ of our youth pass into the darkness of death; as the earth is rendered arid in times of drought, so too will our mortal frames disintegrate when the water of life is exhausted; and as the breeze gently wafts across distant landscapes, so too will our breath slowly depart from us as we transition into the ultimate unknown. The fact of our finitude bears witness to our ontological kinship with all of material creation: that which is born must die, and in this fundamental sense, despite our pretensions to permanence, we are no different from the humble honeybee, the majestic mammoth, and the delicate dandelion. All must cross the threshold, and return to that divine origin from which they came.