How was Belief in the Hereafter Observed in Various Communities throughout History?

Traces of belief in the hereafter have been seen in all communities throughout history strongly or weakly, though not in the Islamic sense. 

The results of the researches related to the history of religions support this fact. There is no nation without a religion in history; there is no community without belief in the hereafter after belief in Allah, at least a belief that the spirit continues to live after it leaves the body [1].

The sarcophagi that date back to thousands of years ago, traces of funeral rituals, items placed on or in the graves have the traces of the hereafter [2]. For instance, the people of the Neolithic Age buried food, drinks, weapons and knickknacks in the grave together with the dead person [3]. In Ur, Mesopotamia, furniture, musical instruments, gambling equipment were found in the graves of the kings dating back to 2250 B.C. Along with weapons, wine and food, there were the remnants of the soldiers who had been killed so that they would continue to serve the king in the hereafter [4]. In the graves in Babylonia, clothes, knickknacks, arrow heads were found; there were combs and perfume bottles next to the decayed bones of a woman, and toys next to a boy [5].

It is said that there was a strong belief in the hereafter in Ancient Egypt. That Ancient Egyptians buried the dead bodies in the same shape of the fetus as in the uterus, that is, in a way that the chin touched the knees, was interpreted as something indicating resurrection, being born into a new realm [6].

Some writers who wrote about the issue said that the most important property that distinguished Egyptian religions from other religions was the importance they gave to the idea of eternity and the attention they paid to their dead people [7]. According to them, the real life was life after death [8]. That the information expressing belief in the hereafter at that time was abundant supports this view. For instance, according to the descriptions in the remnants of Ancient Egypt, this realm, which was ruled by Osiris [9], was a very hard realm that could not be passed easily without answering many minute and hard questions before moving to the eternal land of happiness [10]. If good deeds outweighed in this world, a person would have a good life in the hereafter and if bad deeds outweighed, he would encounter a bad life. The amount of the good and bad deeds are determined through mizan (scales) [11].

Ancient Egyptians had various books that described the situations in the hereafter. The Book of the Dead [12], which consists of various texts of magic written on the walls of graves and tombs, immortal works of ancient Egypt poetry, includes stories and prayers related to the hereafter [13] and the things that need to be uttered in the presence of the divine court [14]. They even buried this book with the dead person so that it would help him [15]. In the book called Pyramids, there are some formulas related to the fate of the king in the hereafter; in the book called Coffins, there are formulas that aimed to protect the dead from the things that threaten them in the hereafter and that will enable them to lead a nice life there [16].

We also see the belief of reincarnation in ancient Egyptians [17]. According to those who had this belief, when the people whose bad deeds outweighed their good deeds died, they were sent to the world again in the bodies of animals. Furthermore, the spirits of good people returned to the world in their previous bodies for a new test after living in Paradise for three thousand years [18]. It is estimated that this belief is the reason why the ancient Egyptians mummified dead bodies very carefully and prevented them from decaying. According to them,  the spirit could keep living only if the body keeps existing; only in that case could the spirit return to the body [19]. Mummification is regarded to be a necessity of showing respect to the dead and pleasing them, and a manifestation of believing in life after death [20].

It was stated that one of the evidences showing the importance ancient Egyptians gave to life in the hereafter was building sound graves and pyramids [21] but the fact that the Egyptians who lived in the previous eras buried their dead in modest graves and that they built big pyramids when their civilization developed denotes the desire to be proud and to boast [22].

This importance given to the hereafter by ancient Egyptians made some historians think that the first nation to believe in the hereafter in history was the ancient Egyptians. One of the pioneers of this claim is Herodotus [23]. His statement "Egyptians are the first nation to believe in the eternality of the spirit " shows that this claims dates back to ancient times. It is possible to see this claim in contemporary scholars, too [24]. Sayyid Qutb agrees with this claim by uttering the following statement: "Belief in reckoning in the hereafter had settled in Egypt exactly one thousand years before the idea of the hereafter occurred in any nation. Egyptians believed in the hereafter before everybody else and this belief spread among other nations after a thousand years passed" [25].

In our opinion, this view is very assertive and needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. For, belief in the hereafter, as Ateş, the translator of the book says, is not gradual. This belief occurred among human beings with Hz. Adam and it was conveyed to human beings through prophets sent to various places in the world in various periods of history: "Verily We have sent thee in truth, as a bearer of glad tidings, and as a warner: and there never was a people, without a warner having lived among them (in the past)" (Fatir, 24)  "For We assuredly sent amongst every People a messenger, (with the Command) "Serve Allah, and eschew Evil" (an-Nahl, 36) The verses above express this fact clearly

Doubtlessly, the belief in life after death frequently seen in ancient Egypt originated from the divine messages conveyed via prophets. As a matter of fact, Hazrat Ibrahim (Abraham) migrated to Egypt, stayed there for a while and Hazrat Yusuf also played an important role in the settling of this belief by ruling Egypt for a long time. "I have (I assure you) abandoned the ways of a people that believe not in Allah and that (even) deny the Hereafter" (Yusuf, 37) The verse above clearly proves that Hz. Yusuf conveyed the message of belief in the hereafter to Egyptians.

While explaining this verse, Qutb writes the following sentences, showing that he gave up the idea we mentioned above: "That belief in the hereafter is mentioned by the tongue of Hz. Yusuf (pbuh) here shows that belief in the hereafter has been one of the principles of belief conveyed by the tongue of all prophets since the beginning of the humanity. It was not included in the creed later as some historians of comparative religion claim. It was included in the idolatrous Jahiliyya belief later but belief in the hereafter was always one of the essential elements of the true divine messages" [26].

Abu Zahra states the following regarding the verse above: "It is seen that the sound of the message of Hz. Yusuf affected the spirits of Egyptians and continued through generations" [27].

Therefore, it is not appropriate to attribute a belief that spread all over the world via prophets to a certain nation or region. Although the Egyptian religious texts on the walls of Saqqara pyramids dating back to four thousand years ago are regarded as the oldest texts describing life after death [28], it does not show that Egyptians were the first nation that had belief in the hereafter. For, as we have mentioned before, there are signs indicating that even the prehistoric tribes had belief in the hereafter. In order to say that Egyptians were the first nation to believe in the hereafter, it is necessary to prove that they were the first nation that lived in the world and that they had belief in the hereafter. Since something like that has not been proved, this claim is groundless. In our opinion, the Islamic scholars who mentioned this claim probably quoted Herodotus without thinking about it much. 

The claim that Egyptians' belief in the hereafter originated from their living conditions and the struggle between the good and the bad put forward by some researchers [29] is a claim put forward without considering the facts presented by divine revelation.

The most obvious property of Hindu religions is the belief of reincarnation. As Biruni puts it, "Kalima ash-shahadah is the distinctive sign of Islam, trinity is of Christianity and shabat is of Judaism; similarly, reincarnation is the distinctive sign of Hindu religion. A person who does not believe in reincarnation is not regarded as one of them" [30].

However, this belief did not come into being with Hindus. At the beginning, Hindus used to believe that man came to the world only once and that Paradise waited for the good people and that Hell, which was ruled by Yama, waited for the bad people [31]. Afterwards, belief in reincarnation entered Hinduism through the texts of Veda [32]. According to the belief in reincarnation, man comes to the world in the body of an animal when he is born again. However, according to some Hindu sects, the spirit comes to the body of a being from the same species only. The spirit of man comes to the world again as man and the spirit of an animal as an animal [33].

In Hindu religions, the spirit attaining eternal bounties by getting rid of the material realm is expressed through different terms. It is called  mukti (emancipation) in Hinduism, salvation in Jainism and nirvana in Buddhism [34].

The law of karma, which is regarded as the cause of coming to the world again until the spirit completes its evolution, has different forms in Hindu religions. In Jainism, karma is not a relative order realizing the return for the deeds but a material thing. Karma mixes with the milk just as milk mixes with water; it does not leave human spirit until man purifies his spirit and keeps away from worldly desires; it causes the spirit to come to the world again and again [35].

As for Buddhism, it resembles a philosophical thought system rather than a religion, It is even stated that Buddha moved away from the idea of belief in Allah and thus he changed meaning of nirvana, which meant union with Allah. Thus, nirvana underwent historical stages. In the periods that followed, nirvana  was defined as the spirit purifying the soul and going up to the highest level of spiritual cleanliness by preventing all of the material desires and cleaning the spirit or liberating human spirit from the karmic cycle [36].

If it is thought that there exists the belief of the pre-eternity of the universe, that it did not have a beginning and an end in Buddhism [37], it can be understood better that it is easy to deny Allah in such a belief system.

When we compare the ancient Egypt and Hindu religions, we see that both have a spiritual belief in the hereafter but that ancient Egyptians showed great care to protect the dead bodies. Belief in the hereafter was widespread in Hindu religions but very limited in ancient Egypt; it was valid only for the Pharaohs because when Egyptians who regarded the Pharaohs as deities saw that they died, they claimed that only the body died and that the spirit was transferred to the body of one of his children and grandchildren as another Pharaoh [38].

Hindu religions resemble heavenly religions in terms of the eternality of the spirit and the recompense for the deeds but they differ from heavenly religions since they look for the recompense in this world [39]. The Hindu religions that have the belief of reincarnation look for the hereafter and eternal life , so to speak, in this world. 

The fact that Hindu religions also have the belief of Paradise and Hell, which seem contrary to the belief of reincarnation [40], can be regarded as some of the remains of their true religions in the early periods [41].

It is stated that the belief of Paradise and Hell which was strong in ancient Egyptians and weak in Hindus and which gradually disappeared in and around China, that the ancient Chinese said when the spirits left the bodies, they stayed together with their families in the world and hence they worshipped the spirits of their ancestors and offered sacrifices to them [42] but it is more appropriate not to regard it valid for the whole of this vast land. For, as it is stated in verse 24 of the chapter of Fatir, a prophet was definitely sent to every nation. Then, it cannot be said that there is no belief of Paradise and Hell in such a vast land and big population. Besides, that something has not been determined yet does not indicate that it does not exist. As a matter of fact, in the Tibetan book called The Book of Death, the stages that the spirit undergoes after its physical death and what the dead person that will undergo these stages needs to do in detail [43].

It is said that Confucius  did not deal with the hereafter but worked for this world; the following statement is attributed to him: "We cannot serve living beings enough; how can we serve the dead; how can we know death ?" [44] According to what is reported from him, "It is better not to search whether there is life after death or not because if it is known that the dead live, their children who love them will try to commit suicide. If it is known that they do not live, some ungrateful children will show disrespect to their parents (!)"[45].

In Shintoism, there is a custom of worshipping the spirits of the dead. These spirits called kami are deified and it is believed that these spirits rule everything [46].

In ancient Iran religions, there is belief of Paradise and Hell, reckoning and scales, the bridge called (Sinvat), discriminating between the good and bad spirits [47]. In Avesta, the book of Zoroastrians, the resurrection of the bodies has an important place [48]. According to the teachings of Zoroaster, "At the end of the world, the dead will get up, every creature will be rewarded and punished for what they did, the angel of the dark will go the dark land with those who follow him and the angel of the light will go to the luminous land with those who follow him, the land of happiness where no evil will touch them "[49]. They are like the traces and leakage of a true religion [50].

The view "Persians probably combined the Hindu creed related to the end of the world and the Egyptian creed related to the reckoning of the spirit and weighing of the deeds for reward and punishment " expressed by Aqqad [51]stating that Persians were influenced by Egyptians and Hindus regarding belief in the hereafter is a weak view. For, to deal with the issue as influence and being influenced acting upon some similarities is not an appropriate approach in terms of Islam. According to the Islamic view, such similarities originate from the fact that Allah sent prophets to all nations with the same beliefs. Afterwards, some of these beliefs conveyed by prophets were distorted and differences occurred [52].

Unlike many other religions, the hereafter in the belief system of Persians is a fixed belief adopted by all sects though there are some differences in descriptions and properties [53].

Sabians had belief in the Doomsday and the hereafter. According to their belief, an angel will roll the sky, the sun and the moon will be destroyed and the light of the stars will disappear [54]. Good spirits will pass barriers very fast and they will be elevated to the realm of light after they are weighed in the scale of Abatur. As for the bad spirits, they will be caught by various barriers and will be punished and tortured. After staying in the sea of Suf  long enough to be purified of their sins, they will be accepted to the realm of light . Those who are completely against the divine teachings will never be elevated to the realm of light [55]. In Sol Ginza, the second main part of Sabians' biggest book called Ginza, only the issues of the spirit, salvation of the spirit and its elevation to the realm of light (eschatology) are dealt with [56]. The Harraniyya (Harnaniyya) sect of Sabians believe in reincarnation. [57]

Ancient Mesopotamians(Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians) believed that the deeds done in the world will be rewarded or punished in the hereafter [58].

That Hittites cremated the dead andput some gifts in their graves indicate that they had a belief in the hereafter peculiar to them [59].

According to ancient Altay Turks, God Ülgen will fight his son at the end of the world and Ülgen will win; he will stay alone in the world; then, he will resurrect all of the dead bodies [60].

Eternality of the spirit had an important place In Greek mythology [61]. However, the views of Greeks on life after death were pessimistic. They believed that the dead gathered under the ground in Hades [62], a cold and dusty place. Despite the efforts of the Christian Church, this belief in an eternal place under the ground is still valid among Greek villagers [63]. Along with this pessimism, they also believed  that Elysium, where the good people went after death and which was believed to be in the world, was a land of happiness and continuous spring [64].

Ancient Romansbelieved in the existence of a person called Sharon, who would take their souls to the other world. They put some money in the mouth of the dead because Sharon worked in return for money. When the dead body was carried, the pictures of the dead person and his ancestors would be carried in front of the dead person; when the funeral ended, the oracles would sprinkle some water on the people and send them back [65].

In ancient American religions, belief in life after death had an important place. According to Aztecs, the state of man after death was based on the form he died. Incas had the custom of mummifying their dead people [66].

Most of the Indian tribes believe that the spirits of the dead lived in another dimension that could interact with the world. Furthermore, Red Indians believed that animals continued living after physical death like in some other cultures [67].

Aborigines, the natives of Australia, has a strong belief in life after death in their belief system. The first works of art carved on the rocks in the north of Australia express that death is not the end [68].

It is understood from the examples we have given from the religions that ruled in various regions of the world that were away from one another that believing in life after death has been a belief shared by the whole mankind. Man has not regarded death as the end and has believed that not everything ends with death.

In some religions,  we see issues like the Doomsday, being accounted for the deeds, mizan (scales), Sirat (bridge), Paradise and Hell, which are mentioned in the Quran, though there are big differences in description. In religions like Hinduism and Buddhism in which it is believed that this realm is continuous, eternal life is sought in this world. In ancient Japanese and Chinese religions which is thought to have no belief in the hereafter it is believed that at least the spirit [69] does not die and that it continues to exist.

These beliefs related to belief in life after death might not be valid in all of the ages of that nation. The issues determined as a result of researches might be the traces of their belief in any period in history. However, we can say that a quest for life after death at least the belief that the spirit continues to live after death has been a common issue in all nations and periods.

That the traces of this belief are seen in every religion whether in a strong or weak form shows that every nation was sent a prophet and that they were not left without guides; that it is seen in different ways originates from the fact that the truths informed by prophets were distorted in the course of time. Another reason why belief in the hereafter varies from religion to religion is the fact that man imagines different things for a realm that he does not see, likens the beings and the events in the hereafter to the ones in the world and makes wrong analogies.

Man's desire in his nature to live eternally has an important role in the continuation of this belief. Man has always sought immortal life and has always felt the need of believing in the hereafter and believed in it in a legendary way though he has not heard and learned the real life of the hereafter informed by Islam.


[1]. Hançerlioğlu, p. 26.
[2].  Raymond A. Moody Jr.Ölümden Sonra Hayat, trnsl by Gönül Suveren,  2nd imp. İnkılap ve Aka Publ., İstanbul, 1983, p. 21; M. Ali Aynî.Hayat Nedir, Ahmet Sait Printing House, İstanbul, 1945, p.61.
[3]. James Thayer Addison,La Vie Après La Mort Dans Les Croyances de L'humanite, Paris, 1936, p. 26.
[4]. Jenny Randles-Peter Hough,Öteki Dünya,trnsl by M. Harmancı,Say Publ., İstanbul, 1994, p. 15-16.
[5]. Addison, p. 27.
[6]. Farajullah Abdulbari Abu'l-Akhir bayna'l-Yahudiyyati wa'l-Masihiyyati wa'l-Islam, 2nd imp., Daru'l-Wafa, al- Mansuriyya, 1992, p. 30-31.
[7]. Abu Ataillah, p.29-30.
[8]. R. Emmanuel, Hint Yunan ve Mısır Mitolojilerinde Gizemli Bilgilerin Kaynakları, Ruh ve Madde Publications, İstanbul, 1995, p. 23
[9]. Addison, p. 74; R. Emmanuel,  p. 26
[10]. Addison, p. 31.
[11]. Sayyid Qutb.Kur'an'da Kıyamet Sahneleri, trnsl by P. Ateş, 2nd imp., Ankara, nd., p.21-22.
[12]. Addison, p. 74, 115; Talat Sait Halman. Eski Mısır'dan Şiirler, 2nd imp, İstanbul, 1995, p. 52.
[13]. ibid, p. 25.
[14]. Muhammad Abu Zahra, ad-Diyanatu'l-Qadima, Daru'l-Fikri'l-Arabi, Kuwait, nd., p.16.
[15]. Randles-Hough, p. 15.
[16]. Challege Felicien.Dinler Tarihi, trnsl by, P. Tiryakioğlu (no printing place or date) p. 32.
[17]. Abdulaziz as-Saalibi. Muhadarat fi Tarikhi'l-Madhahibi wa'l-Adyan, Beirut, 1985,p. 55.
[18]. Hançerlioğlu, p. 45-73.
[19]. Abu Zahra, p.17.
[20]. Haluk Hacaloğlu, Hayat, Ölüm ve Ötesi, Ruh ve Madde Publications, İstanbul, 1996, p. 96
[21]. Muhammad Ahmad Abdulqadir. Aqidatu'l-Ba'th wa'l-Akhira fi'l-Fikri'l-Islami, Daru'l-Ma'rifati'l-Jamiiyya, Alexandria,1986 p. 29.
[22]. Abu Ataillah, p. 31.
[23]. Herodotus travelled in Egypt in 5th century BC.  (Halman, p. 30).
[24]. See Abu Ataillah, p. 33.
[25]. Qutb, Kur'an'da Kıyamet Sahneleri, p. 27.
[26]. Qutb, fi Zilali'l-Qur'an, Daru'sh-Shuruq, Beirut, 1980, IV, 1988,
These statements of Qutb show that he abandoned his previous view regarding the issue. For, his book of interpretation fi Zilali'l-Qur'an, in which these statements are present, was started to be written four years after his work called Mashahidu'l-Qiyama fî'l-Qur'an, which was translated into Turkish asKur'ân'da Kıyamet Sahneleri and it continued for long years. (See Salah Abdulfattah al-Khalidi, Sayyid Qutb mina'l-Mîlad ila'l-Istishhad, Daru'l-Qalam, Damascus, 1991, p. 533, 544).
[27]. Abu Zahra, p. 8.
[28]. Randles-Hough, p. 13.
[29]. Abu Ataillah, p. 32.
[30].  ibid, p. 41 ( Abu'r-Rayhan b. Ahmed al-Biruni, Tahqiqu ma li'l-Hind.  1983, quoted from p. 39)
[31]. Randles-Hough, p. 19; Addison, p. 248.
[32]. Jawhary, X, 2. part, p. 25.
[33]. Ahmad Chalabi. Adyanu Hindi'l-Kubra, Maktabatu'n-Nahda, Cairo, 1976, 4th imp.,p.178.
[34]. ibid. p.117.
[35]. ibid. p.116.
[36]. ibid. p.161.
[37]. ibid. p.165.
[38]. Abdulfattah al-Fawi. Aqidatu'l-Maad bayna'd-Din wa'l-Falsafa, Daru'l-Uruba, Kuwait, p. 42.
[39]. Chalabi. Adyanu Hindi'l-Kubra, p. 64.
[40]. Günay Tümer- Abdurrahman Küçük,Dinler Tarihi, Ocak Publ., Ankara, 1988 p. 240; Randles-Hough, p. 21; Abu Ataillah, p. 44.
[41]. Abu Ataillah, p. 45.
[42]. Abu Zahra, p. 90.
[43]. see Kazi Dawa Samdup, Tibet'in Ölüler Kitabı, trnsl by. Suat Tahsuğ, Ruh ve Madde Publications, İstanbul; see also, A. Moody,  p.123, 124, 126.
[44]. Abu Zahra, p. 90-91.
[45]. Felicien, p.83.
[46]. ibid., p. 91.
[47]. Addison, p. 155-156, 226; Qutb, Kur'an'da  Kıyamet Sahneleri, p. 28-29; Ekrem Sarıkçıoğlu. Dinler Tarihi, Bayrak Publ., 1983 p. 113; Tümer- Küçük,  p. 240-241.
[48]. Addison, p. 155.
[49]. Saalibi, p. 66.
[50]. Abu Ataillah, p. 47-48.
[51]. ibid., p. 46  (al-Aqqad.Allah, Kitabun fi Nash'ati'l-Aqidadeti'l-Islamiyya, quoted from p. 88)
[52]. ibid., p. 46.
[53]. Fawi, p. 50.
[54]. Sarıkçıoğlu,  p. 118.
[55]. See Şinasi Gündüz, Sabiiler Son Gnostikler, Vadi Publ. Ankara, 1995, p. 130-137.
[56]. Gündüz, p. 55.
[57]. Muhammad ed-Dibaji, "as-Sabiatu man hum wa ma hiya Juzuruhum", al-Arabi, issue: 398, p.186. It is stated that Sabiis mentioned in the Quran are the Mindaiyya group (ibid).
[58]. Sarıkçıoğlu, p. 33.
[59]. ibid, p. 56.
[60]. ibid, p. 98.
[61]. see Addison, p. 125.
[62]. Ancient Greeks also called this place Champs-Elysees . This belief, the belief that the dead live under the ground, is present in many nations. Aralu of Babylonians, Sheol of Jews, Tartar of Romans and Amenti of Egyptians are examples of it (see Addison, p. 71-72; Hacaloğlu, p. 74)
[63]. Addison, p. 73.
[64]. Addison, p. 81-82; Randles- Hough, p. 17.
[65]. Saalibi, p. 98.
[66]. Sarıkçıoğlu,  p.102.
[67]. Randles- Hough, p. 29, 37.
[68]. Randles- Hough, p. 27-28.
[69]. In general, the whole mankind believed that the spirit was something that could not be seen and touched, and that was a being like the wind or vapor. (see Addison, p. 12).

Veysel Güllüce (Prof.Dr.)

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