I was at the airport. Standing in the security line, I awaited my ritual interrogation. But as I stood there, I looked over at a little girl with her mother. The girl was crying. She was clearly sick. The mother reached into a bag to give the girl some medicine. I was struck by how miserable the little girl looked and suddenly I saw something. I felt as though I was looking at someone who was trapped. This innocent, pure soul was imprisoned by a worldly body that had to get sick, feel pain, and suffer.
And then I was reminded of the hadith in which the Prophet ﷺ (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “This world is a prison for the believer and a paradise for the disbeliever” (Sahih Muslim). And for the first time, I understood it very differently than I had before. I think many people misinterpret this hadith to mean that the disbelievers get to enjoy themselves in this life, while the believers have to be restricted in this life by haram (prohibited) and halal (permitted), and have to wait until the next life to enjoy themselves. Or perhaps, some think it means that this life is miserable for the believer, while it is bliss for the disbeliever.
But, I don’t think that’s it at all.
And suddenly I felt as though I was seeing the reality of this hadith in the little girl. I saw what looked like a soul imprisoned because it belongs to another world—a better world, where it doesn’t have to get sick.
But what happens when it’s the opposite? What happens when the soul already thinks it’s in paradise? Would that soul ever want to be somewhere else? Somewhere better? No. It is exactly where it wants to be. To that soul, there is no ‘better’. When you’re in a paradise, you can’t imagine being anywhere greater. You yearn for nothing else. Nothing more. You are satisfied, content with where you are. That is the condition of the disbeliever. Allah says:
“Indeed, those who do not expect the meeting with Us and are satisfied with the life of this world and feel secure therein and those who are heedless of Our signs.” (Qur’an, 10:7)
For the disbelieving soul, this inevitably painful, disappointing and temporary world IS their paradise. It’s all they know. Imagine if a world where you have to fall, bleed and eventually die was the only paradise you knew. Imagine the agony of that.
The one who does not believe that there is any place better—who believes that this world is the best it can get—will become very impatient when this life isn’t perfect. They are quickly angered and quickly devastated because this life was supposed to be a paradise. They don’t realize there is something greater. And so this is all they want. This is all they strive for. Every effort, every ability, every opportunity, every gift endowed to them by their creator, is employed for the sake of seeking this life—of which nothing will come to them except what is written.
Their soul is attached to the worldly body because it thinks that body is the only paradise it has. Or will ever have. So it doesn’t want to let go. At any price, it wants to hold on. To take the soul from its ‘paradise’ at death is the greatest torture possible. God describes the death of the disbelievers as a tearing of the soul from the body. Allah says:
“By the (angels) who tear out (the souls of the wicked) with violence…” (Qur’an, 79:1)
It tears because that soul doesn’t want to leave. It believed it was already in its’ heaven. It didn’t realize that there is something greater. So much greater.
For the believing soul, it’s different. The believer is in prison—not paradise. Why? What is a prisoner? A prisoner is someone who is trapped. A prisoner is kept from his home. Stuck, while he wishes to be somewhere better. The worldly body is a prison for the believer, not because this life is miserable for the believing soul, but because that soul yearns to be somewhere greater. It yearns to be Home. No matter how wonderful this life is for a believer, it is a prison compared to the Perfect life that awaits them. This soul’s attachment is to God and the true paradise with Him. It wants to be there. But this worldly life is what keeps that soul from returning—for a while. It is the barrier, the prison. Although, the heart of a believer holds the only true paradise of this life, the soul still seeks what is beyond. The soul still seeks its Home. But this soul must remain in the bars of the body for an appointed term. It must ‘do the time’, before it can be released to go Home. The attachment of the believing soul is not to the imprisoning body. When the sentence is over and a captive is told he can go Home, he would never hold on to the prison bars. So Allah describes the death of the believer very differently. God says:
“By those (angels) who gently take out (the souls of the believers)…” (Qur’an, 79:2)
The believing soul slips easily out of the body. Its ‘prison sentence’ is over and now it’s going Home. It doesn’t hold on like the disbelieving soul that thought it was already at the best it can get.
And so I could not imagine a more perfect analogy than the one used by our beloved Prophet ﷺ. Indeed this life is a prison for the believer and a paradise for the disbeliever. We will all be called back by the very same caller. The question is, will we live our life so that when that call comes we hold on to the bars of the prison? Or will we live so that the call is a call of release. A call back Home.