Islam's Fatal Focus on the Afterlife

On October 4, 2014, inside Chicago's O'Hare Airport, three American-born teenagers were apprehended by the FBI. The two brothers, aged nineteen and sixteen, and their seventeen-year-old sister were on their way to Turkey, where they planned to cross the border into Syria and join Islamic State. 

The three left behind letters for their parents, devout Muslims who had immigrated to the United States from India. 

The eldest, Mohammed Hamzah Khan, explained that "Muslims have been crushed under foot for too long," adding that the United States is "openly against Islam and Muslims," and that he did "not want my progeny to be raised in a filthy environment like this."1

But the sister took a different tack. She wrote to her parents: "Death is inevitable, and all of the times we enjoyed will not matter as we lay on our death beds. Death is an appointment, and we cannot delay or postpone, and what we did to prepare for our death is what will matter." In a striking irony, the girl who wrote those lines celebrating the primacy of death was planning to become a physician.

Like her brothers, she had attended a private Islamic school for nearly all her educational life. There she had demonstrated the highest facility with the Quran, becoming "Hafiz," meaning that she had memorized the entire text in Arabic.

In short, the decision of these siblings to join IS was not the result of knowing too little about Islam, much less of ignorance of the sacred texts. Nor can we ascribe their choice to poverty, social deprivation, or limited opportunity. The family lived in a comfortable Chicago suburb, the children attended private school, they had computers and cell phones— although, in a classic example of cocooning, the parents got rid of their television when their eldest child was eight because they wanted to "preserve their innocence."

Rather, this was a choice directly underpinned by contemporary Islamic philosophy and, in particular, its contempt for many of the central values of the West. In the words of a local Islamic community leader, Omer Mozaffar, who teaches theology at the University of Chicago and Loyola University Chicago, Muslim parents "think 'American' equals 'immoral.'"2

And it is not simply our American shopping malls, chain restaurants, movies, and music downloads. It is our values, our social fabric, our very way of life. Americans are raised to believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Muslims such as the Chicago Three, by contrast, are educated to venerate death over life—to value the promise of eternal life more highly than actual life here on earth. 

They see their primary purpose in this life as preparing for death: in the words of that Chicago teenager, "what we did to prepare for our death is what will matter."3 Death is the goal, the event that matters because it leads to the prize of eternal life.

Many Muslims today believe this with a fervor that is very hard for modernized Westerners to comprehend. By contrast, the leaders of IS and similar organizations know exactly how to exploit the Islamic exaltation of death—to the extent that three American teenagers would spend $2,600 on plane tickets with the ultimate goal of hastening their own deaths.

Life and Afterlife

The afterlife is as central to the Islamic mind as the clock has become to the Western mind. In the West, we structure our lives according to the passage of time, what we will accomplish in the next hour, the next day, the next year. We plan according to time and we generally assume that our lives will be long. Indeed, I have heard Westerners in their eighties talking confidently as if they have decades still to live. The old Christian preoccupations with mortality—so vividly expressed in Shakespeare's Hamlet or in the poetry of John Donne—have receded in the face of rising life expectancy, actuarial calculation, and increasingly secular thinking. In the Islamic mind, by contrast, it is not the ticking of the clock that is heard, but the approach of the Day of Judgment. Have we prepared sufficiently for the life that will come after death?

The problem before us, then, is not simply one of better education: the people who hold this belief are not ignorant laborers but highly educated and skilled engineers and doctors. Focusing on death is what they are taught from the beginning of their lives. It was what I was taught from the beginning of mine.

From the time I could learn the most basic lessons, I was taught that our life on this earth is short and that it is temporary. During my childhood, countless people died: relatives died, neighbors died, strangers died—from disease, from malnutrition, from violence, from oppression. Death was on our lips all the time. We got so used to it and it became such a part of us that we wouldn't speak without mentioning it. I could not make the simplest plans with a friend without saying, "See you tomorrow, if I'm alive!" or "If Allah wills it." And the words made perfect sense because I knew that I could die at any time.

I was also told that all of your life is a test. To pass that test, you must follow a series of obligations and abstain from all that is forbidden, so that when it comes to the final trial of judgment before Allah, you will be admitted to paradise, an actual place with water and date trees heavy with fruit. 

Thus, from the beginning, as a Muslim child, I was taught to invest my actions, my thoughts, my creativity not in the here and now, but in the hereafter. The ultimate lesson I learned was that your real, eternal life starts only after you die.

I believed all of this without question—until I reached Holland. There no one talked about death, let alone life after death. Without equivocation they said, "See you tomorrow!" And if I replied, "If I'm alive!" they would look at me quizzically and say, "Of course you'll be alive. Why ever not?"……..



Keith Hunt