God takes the souls at the time of their death, and those that do not die during their sleep; then He withholds those on whom He has passed the decree of death and sends the others back till an appointed term; most surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect.
Sura az-Zumar, 39:42
Imam Zaynul Abidin (a) recited this verse in the court of Ibne Ziyad in Kufa. When Imam was brought to the court the tyrant asked him who he was. The Imam replied: “I am Ali ibn al-Husayn.” Ibne Ziyad said: “Did Allah not kill Ali ibn Husayn?” The Imam replied: “I had a brother whose name was also Ali and the people killed him.” Ibn Ziyād insisted that it was Allah who killed him. In reply to this the Imam recited the above verse of the Qur’an, meaning that Allah takes the souls when death comes, but it is people who are sometimes responsible for the death.
At the time of death, the soul departs from the body and is taken by God. This movement of the soul from the body also takes place at the time of sleep, albeit in a weaker form. The soul’s connection to the body is at a minimum during sleep and it rejoins the body when the person wakes up, coming back for an appointed time. The body-soul connection is a metaphysical reality that is not easy to understand. Perhaps it will only be fully understood once we leave this world, when such truths will become clearer to us. The Holy Quran says of the Hereafter: But now We have removed from you your veil, so your perception today is piercing. (Suraal-Qaf, 50:22)
Sleep has been described as a time for the body to get rid of the poisons it accumulates during the day. It has also been explained as necessary for the body to release its tiredness and rejuvenate itself. However these are physical explanations for the phenomena of sleep. The Qur’an gives us the spiritual understanding of sleep. It is a time when the soul leaves the body and is only partially connected to it for that time. It is a form of minor death, and that is why wudhu and specific prayers are recommended before sleeping.
When we sleep our consciousness fades and we are no longer in charge of our selves. Our bodily functions are maintained but our consciousness sublimates to a different level. The soul is held in a different alternate state. And He it is Who takes your souls at night (in sleep), and He knows what you acquire in the day, then He raises you up therein that certain conditions may be fulfilled (Sura al-An’am, verse 60). The taking of the soul denotes a proximity to God, not of space but of existence. The soul is extended into a different realm of existence, a realm not familiar to the body.
Ayatullah Nasir Makarim Shirazi in Tafsire Namune explains that the connection of the body and soul can be in three stages:
a) Complete connection – when the human being is awake. The soul is with the body and performs all actions along with it.
b) Partial connection – when the human being is asleep. The soul leaves the body but there is some connection to it. The person is then in a state between life and death.
c) Complete disconnection – at the time of death. The soul leaves the body and travels to the other world. It joins the body in the grave for questioning and is then sent to the place where it will abide until the Day of Judgment.
Points to Ponder
1) The human being goes through a weak form of death every time he sleeps. That reminder alone is enough for us to be cognizant of our mortality and the transience of this world. Thus we are told to say the following prayer upon awakening from sleep; All Praise is for Allah who gave me life after death, and to Him is the return. Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (a) also says: When you wake up from sleep say: All Praise is for Allah who has returned my soul so I Praise Him and worship Him.
2) The dreams that a person sees is the experience of the soul as it travels. In sleep the awareness of one level weakens and recedes and we enter into another modality and awareness. The transition from the physical realm to the metaphysical realm involves an experiencing of different realities. Glimpses and flashbacks of these realities are brought back in the state of wakefulness in the form of dreams.
3) When the soul leaves the body, during sleep and at the time of death, it is God who receives the soul. Although other verses mention Malakul Maut, the angel of death, as the one who removes the soul, this is done under the command of Allah. It is He who orders the removal of the soul and He who receives it. It is the return of the soul to its original source – Surely we come from Allah and to Him we return. (Sura al-Baqarah, 2: 156)
Ayatullah Nasir Makarim Shirazi (ed.), Tafsire Namune
Agha Muhsin Qara’ati Kashani, Tafsire Noor
Muhammad al-Ray Shahree, Mizanul Hikmah