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Allāh Removes the Souls During Sleep and at the Time of Death

Imām Ibn al-Qayyim

An explanation on when and what occurs when Allāh removes the soul.

Allāh says:

اللَّهُ يَتَوَفَّى الْأَنفُسَ حِينَ مَوْتِهَا وَالَّتِي لَمْ تَمُتْ فِي مَنَامِهَا ۖ فَيُمْسِكُ الَّتِي قَضَىٰ عَلَيْهَا الْمَوْتَ وَيُرْسِلُ الْأُخْرَىٰ إِلَىٰ أَجَلٍ مُّسَمًّى ۚ إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَآيَاتٍ لِّقَوْمٍ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ ‎

‘Allāh takes the souls at the time of their death, and those that do not die [He takes] during their sleep. Then He keeps those for which He has decreed death and releases the others for a specified term. Indeed, in that are signs for a people who give thought.’
[Al-Zumar, 39:42]

Narrated by Al-Suddī concerning the saying of the Most High:

وَالَّتِي لَمْ تَمُتْ فِي مَنَامِهَاۖ

‘And those that do not die, [He takes] during their sleep,’

He [al-Suddī] said: ‘Their souls are taken in their sleep such that the souls of the living meet the souls of those who have passed away. They reminisce and remind one another [of events that have transpired].’

He said; ‘The souls of the living then return to their bodies so that they may fulfil the remainder of their lives in this dunyā. While the souls of the dead desire to return to their [abandoned bodies] except that they are blocked from doing so.’

[Imām Ibn al-Qayyim said:] This is one of the two opinions concerning this verse. It is that the soul that is prevented [from returning to the body] belongs only to those whose souls have been taken from [their bodies] due to death. While the souls that are returned are those that leave their bodies while asleep [such that they awaken in this dunyà]. Therefore, according to this opinion, its meaning is that the souls of the dead are taken [by the angel of death] and held, unable to return to their physical bodies before the Day of Judgement. The souls of those in slumber are also taken but are returned to their bodies such that the rest of their lives are fulfilled [i.e., their preappointed number of years in this dunyà is completed, at which point] their souls are taken again [for the final time, and they die].

The second opinion regarding this verse is that both types of soul, the ones that are held [from returning to their bodies] and those that are returned, are taken similar to one who enters sleep [i.e. expecting to return]. However, those among them whose lives in this dunyā have been completed are then held, disallowed to return to their bodies [such that they die in their sleep]. While those whose lives have not been fulfilled [i.e., they still have time left in this dunyà], their souls are returned to their bodies such that they are able to complete their course. This [opinion] is the stance of Shaykh al-Islām (Ibn Taymiyyah) [may Allāh have mercy on him and purify his soul], He said: ‘The Qurʾān and the Sunnah testify to this.’ He [also] said: ‘Indeed, the Exalted mentions His taking of the souls of those that He has decreed death upon from among the souls that have been taken in sleep [i.e. in His saying:

فَيُمْسِكُ الَّتِي قَضَىٰ عَلَيْهَا الْمَوْتَ
‘Then He keeps those for which He has decreed death’

referring to those that die in their sleep]. As for the ones whose souls have been taken due to their time of death [while wakeful], they have not been described here, rather they are a separate third party.’1

[Imām Ibn al-Qayyim said:] However, the correct opinion is the first one. This is because the Exalted relates two times that souls are taken: the major taking of the soul at death, and the minor taking of the soul during sleep.

Hence, He has divided the souls into two parties:

  1. A party upon whom death has been decreed and thus [their souls] have been held with Him, taken from their bodies in finality.
  2. Another party whose course of life remains, such that their souls are returned to their bodies to fulfil it.

The Exalted has made the holding and sending of souls two rulings that apply to the taking of any soul, such that this one is held and this one is returned [to its body] [i.e. each ruling is applied to the soul that is appropriate]. Allāh relates to us that the one who has not died [in his sleep] still has his soul taken during sleep. Thus, if the taking [of souls] during sleep was divided into two types: souls that are taken in sleep and in death [i.e. those that sleep and awake and those that die in their sleep, as suggested by Shaykh al-Islām] [Allāh] would not have said:

وَالَّتِي لَمْ تَمُتْ فِي مَنَامِهَاۖ
‘And those that do not die [He takes] during their sleep.’

This is because [for those that die in their sleep], from the moment their soul is taken when they fall asleep, they are considered dead. While the Exalted says here that he has not died. How, then, can He say afterwards:

فَيُمْسِكُ الَّتِي قَضَىٰ عَلَيْهَا الْمَوْتَ
‘Then He keeps those for which He has decreed death’

For those that support the first opinion, they answer this claiming that the saying of the Most High: ‘Then He keeps those for which He has decreed death’, this occurs after his soul has been taken out of sleep. That is, the Exalted takes his soul first for sleep, then later decrees death upon it.

The final truth [in this matter] is that the verse is comprehensive of both scenarios. For the Exalted has mentioned two taking of souls: during sleep and at death. He also mentions the holding of the soul of the dead, and returning the soul of the sleeper. It is well-known that the Exalted holds the souls of all those that pass away, regardless of whether they passed away in sleep or while awake. And anyone whose time of death has not arrived has their soul returned [to their bodies]. Thus, His saying:

اللَّهُ يَتَوَفَّى الْأَنفُسَ حِينَ مَوْتِهَا
‘Allah takes the souls at the time of their death’

comprises those who die in their sleep and those who do not.

Endnotes:

1. Translator note: The opinion of Shaykh al-Islām Ibn Taymiyyah is that this verse only refers to those who are asleep. The souls that are held are those that die while sleeping. Those whose souls are returned will awake. Those that die while awake are a third party of people not referred to in the verse according to him.

Source: Al-Rūḥ 40-1
Translated by: Riyāḍ al-Kanadī

Published: April 15, 2023
Edited: April 19, 2023

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