Losing a loved one
We often forget about death as we daily become engrossed in our everyday affairs. It catches us unawares. When we are hit by it, all of a sudden, we cease to be what we were. We would wear a different look. The happy becomes sad; the moving stops; and the standing sits. The heads become lowered either as a sign of rejecting the world that meets our gaze when it is raised or in an attempt to hide the tears that attest to the true position of our defeated psyche. The bold becomes weak. He bites his tongue or lips as a calculated measure to maintain his strength. However, he is in contact with a force far beyond his capacity; a hand that is far beyond his reach has touched him. Whatever is his reaction, he has to yield and accept that the fact that his loved one has left this world and he will never return.
And so last week Tuesday, after returning home from Reception 2000 in Kaduna, I was hit by the harsh reality of losing one of my two surviving senior brothers, Tijjani. He had just recovered from a heart failure and was discharged from Abnira the previous week. I have learnt not to trust the heart, once it starts to have problems. It can stop anytime, just as it did in 1990 to my brother in-law, the late Alhaji Hussein Mustapha Falaki in Kano. May God have mercy on him!
Death is the most shocking news we can have. Al-Motanabbi was right, in the context of metaphors, when in a condolence poem on the death of Muhammad ibn Ishaq al-Tanukhi, he compared their shock with that of Moses, when the latter witnessed the Sinai shatter before his eyes. I was shocked at the news of his death because in our last meeting, he appeared okay. He must have also been shocked because the previous evening, as a man blessed with humor and luxury in pedestrian parlance, he stretched his legs and looked at one of his friends and said, “Ya hajj, Lafiya ta samu. Na haye.” He did not know that he was living in his last six hours.
Different deaths teach us different lessons. But I think, apart from the shock, there are a number of things that death helps us to clarify or at least remind us of. It exposes the weakness of our mind once in contact with forces far more astounding than we can imagine. We become helpless and pitiful. I experienced this right from the moment the news of his death reached me that early morning until the end of the funeral. I was not alone. When I stepped into our family house I met a gathering of women, each wearing a strange face. Some have dried their tears already; some still had wet ones flowing down their cheeks. Others would dry theirs only to shed fresh ones at the instance of a burst from another person nearby. The voices of few, especially that of the deceased’s first daughter, could be heard. Our mother tried to stop her. At a point she pleaded with the grandmother in our Malian Fulani dialect, saying, “Nana accham sai mi boya, dego berde am fewai” meaning “Nana, just allow me to cry. Perhaps, my heart will cool.”
Another lesson is that death reminds us that we are simply nothing. We are just soil. Nothing else. God said: “From the Earth We created you, to it We will return you, and out of it We will bring you out another time.” Here, I often remember the much-quoted verse of the greatest woman mystic in Islamic History, Rabi’at’ul Adawiyyah. She once said: “If I would gain thy Love, everything would be easy. Certainly, whatever is above the soil is (simply) soil.”
The soul is what makes the difference. It has the capacity to attain heights of unimaginable dimension once it is able to transcend the worldly over which the ordinary clamor about. That is why she preceded the above verse with another one, saying, “I wish (what is) between You and me is eternal, and whatever is between the world and me is (just) ruin…”
Yes, that is the best achievement. This Love that binds a servant to His Lord was the experience of another mystic. He said: “We drank, upon the mention of the Loved, a wine. We were intoxicated with it before the creation of karmu. They said to me, ‘Describe it (the wine), for you know it well’. Yes, I have a knowledge of its features: Purity without water, gentle without passion, light without fire and soul without body.”
Death also reminds us of our ultimate destiny. As I looked around the family graveyard I started remembering all the people it has consumed. I then recalled the verses Shumaf bin khalif al ‘abdi that I recently came across in al-Hamasat’ul Basariyyah. He said: “My ancestors have tasted death, they have gone, and I see myself, after their departure, as meeting with it. No soul is given a respite even if it wishes to live, once her Caller has come.”
Yes. ‘al-Abdi was right. “But no soul will God grant a respite when the time appointed (for it) has come...” (63:11). Death will be tasted by every one of us. In three different places, this assurance was repeated as divine decrees, as the late Egyptian clergy, Abdulhamid Kishk constantly put it. He observed that the decrees were framed in a language that precludes exemption: “Every soul will taste death…” (3:185 and 21:35); “Everything (that exists) will perish except His own Face…” (28:88); and “All that is on earth will perish, but will abide (for ever) the Face of thy Lord.” (57:26-27).
Death also offers us the opportunity to reach the deepest level of reflection our intellect could dig in to. It is an irony that this reflection begins the return journey of our strength. It leads us to one point i.e. the conclusion that death is part of life. After all, there is still a chance of re-union in the Hereafter, which will, in sha-Allah, separate us from death forever. “Nor will they there taste death, except the first Death...” (44: 56). At this point, the mind will finally settle and accept everything as the best, given that it was the Hand of God at work.
For me however, the return journey was full of recollection. In my imagination, I was able to travel to various places, visiting various poets and composers. Of course my famous al-Motanabbi, the master of metaphors, was there. I heard him say: “Whoever does not die by the sword will die by something else, the cause may differ, but the Death is one.” In another place he said, “We cry about this world (while) there was no group the world has gathered without them separating. Where are the tyrant Kaisers of early history, they piled treasures and none of them remained…”
I returned to Zaria where our late father and Sheikh, Malam Aliyu Namangi was asking similar questions in his famous Infiraji, He said:
“Yau ina Sarkin Musulmi, Bello ko Abdulsalami, Musa ko AbdulKarimi? Sun wuce wannan Makami, Ba a san daya wanda zai rage ba. Ummarun Dallaji Korau, Ya mace a Kumasi Sallau, Ya mace har dansa Kwasau, ba su Dalhatu yau a Zazzau, su Abashe ina Aliyu Babba? Sun wuce sai ambatonsu, sai tunanin arzikinsu, kyan adonsu da kyan hawansu, ba ka kara ganin dayansu, in ba zuriyar da sun bari ba.”
Again my mind returned to al-Motanabbi when he improvised a poem condoling the family of Muhammad bin Ishaq al-Tanukhi. He said, “I really know, just like any intelligent person, that life, even if desired, is a deception. I did not expect, before your burial in the ground that the stars sets in the ground. I did not hope, before your funeral procession, that I would see (the mountain of) Radwa carried on the hands of men. They brought him out, and with everyone behind him was the shock of Moses (on) the day the Mountain was shattered. The Sun was sick in the heart of the sky, and the earth was shaking, almost tearing...” In a second composition for the family he said: “Endure, the sons of Ishaq, in honor to him; certainly the great endures on the (loss) of a great one.”
Yes. That is the message. Endurance. A deeper reflection now went to the first two verses of Surat’ul Mulk. “Blessed be He in Whose hands is Dominion; and He over all things hath power; He who created Death and Life, that He may try which of you is best in deed; and he is the Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving.”(67:1-2)
The word “blessed” is mentioned in a place where He asserted His Dominion, His power, his creation of the heavens and the earth but which, unlike in Surat’ul Furqan, were preceded with the mention of death and life – not life and death, as we would like to say. Why did He end the second verse with “Oft-forgiving”? Does it mean that death is a blessing? Is death simply a predecessor or a pre-requisite of life? Does beginning with it imply that death is a greater blessing than life, greater than even the heavens and the earth?
The answers came, as fast as did the questions, from various parts of the Quran. Yes. It is a blessing that in God’s hands lay all powers. If it were in the hands of any mortal who is characterized by shortcomings like vengeance or limited lifespan, humanity and all other creations would have perished. Hence, He chose to conclude the first verse, as He traditionally does in all verses of the Quran relating to His Dominion, with “He over all things hath power.”
Yes. Death precedes life because anything living was created from nothing. And since it will cease to be, then its existence is only transitory. Also, life, obviously, is less certain than death. No one knows whether he will survive the next minute. However, he is sure that death will overtake him, sooner or later. Finally, death is a blessing wherever life exists. Without death, life will suffocate, even for microbes. We thank God for creating it and apportioning it among us. It is a relief, we always hope.
The verse that mentioned trial and good deeds as reasons for death and life was concluded with the proclamation of His Might and Forgiveness. With His Might, we are conquered by death and become vulnerable. With it also we are assured that the Judge has overcome every need or fear that bedevils our mortal judges, compelling them to perpetrate injustice. Finally, His forgiving attribute was mentioned to assure us that he will overlook whatever wrong or mistake we might have committed as a result of our inherent fallibility. The perspectives are just too many to exhaust.
It was time for the funeral prayer. I came out of my seclusion, returned to the house and performed an ablution. The atmosphere was still quiet. I could still hear my elder sister Zainab, apparently the most learned among the women there, pleading for endurance. Even as we stood in rows for the prayer, her voice could still be heard across the wall, saying, “Noi tagu waadata e ko jomirawo hoddiri? Sai munyal ai…”
This was the first time I perceived the power of the Funeral Prayer and the wisdom behind an early burial. Immediately the prayer was over, I felt a sense of relief and whatever bitterness the loss of Ahmad might have brought to my mind was suddenly vanished into the thin air. The body was immediately carried to the graveyard. Within few minutes, he was there covered with soil, returned to it to once again form part of it. As we turned away, leaving him alone, he could hear two voices. One, that of God who said, “Oh son of Adam! They have brought you and left, and in the soil they buried you. Had they remained with you, they would have been of no benefit. None is left for you except Me. And I am the Living that does not die.” The second was ours. Each of us was praying that God grants him eternal rest and give us the ability to endure the loss and to take over the responsibility he left behind!
We went ahead to receive condolences. Within some minutes everybody was able to start narrating how he shared his last meeting with Tijjani. Later in the day, when the tempers were cooler, people were able to look farther backwards and recall other shocking deaths in the village during their lifetime. The story was the same: that as we had no hands in our arrival, so would our departure be. It is something we try to run away from, but it will definitely catch up with us. Alhaji Danmaraya Jos has in one of his famous composition, Duniya Ba Ki San Gwani Ba, correctly put it thus: “Yau da gobe karyar Allah, komai gudunmu ta kamo mu.” God Himself has said: “Say, the Death from which you flee will certainly overtake you…” (62:8)
And there lies the source of real worry: accounting for the sins and wrongs that we committed here on earth. Certainly, the late Alhaji Mamman Shata was right in Domin Sayyadina Tijjani when he said, “Ni dai abin da ke ban tsoro, ni dai abin da ke ruda ni…. ba irin saduwarmu da Allah gobe, don ko yar gaskiyarmu kadan ce Shata.”
Yet, we are still happy that God has granted us Tijjani for 45 years and endowed him with 16 children. We will not see him again here, but we will recall him whenever we see any one among them. He did not leave early. He did not rush. We will soon meet him. Again, as Shata said, “Kowa yam mutu bai sauri ba, mu da muke nan ba mu dade ba…”
We pray that God in his abundant Mercy will forgive our sins and overlook our inequities. Otherwise, if we were to be taken on account of our deeds, failure would be certain. But happily, His Mercy is greater than our sins. An ancient poet once said: “My provision is small, I do not see it as sufficient. Would I cry over the provision or over the length of my journey? Would You burn me with Hell, Oh the epitome of ambition? Then where is my hope in You, where is my love?”
Ahmadu, Allah yafo.
I would like to express a profound gratitude, on behalf our family and friends at Tilde, to those that assisted in the burial of our beloved brother, Ahmad, who died on Monday 20th November 2000. We are equally grateful to those who personally came to condole us including His Excellency, the Governor of Bauchi State, Alh. Ahmad Adamu Mu’azu, the honorable Deputy Governor, the Secretary to the State Government, and members of the State Executive Council; the Chairman of Toro Local Government Area Council and other dignitaries. Our gratitude also goes to those with whom I associate on the Taskforce on Special Schools, my numerous friends, colleagues as well as my classmates from the Faculty of Law, UNIJOS. Others made telephone calls from distant places. Suffice it if those that did not know about it earlier than now would simply remember him in their prayer without laboring to come over or try getting me on the telephone. I may be difficult to get. The bottom line is that in as much as death is inevitable, life must as well continue in the interim.