(Draft Article) Objection: ‘How many times does a person live and die?’

(Please read the notice concerning our draft articles)

By MuslimAnswers.net Team[1]

بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيم

We received a message from one of our readers requesting us to answer one article entitled “Quran Difficulty How many times does a person die and live?” This article takes certain Verses from the Noble Qur’an, along with some Ahaadeeth, and tries to present the Qur’an as sowing confusions with respect to this issue.

There are a number of interpretations provided and related objections raised by this article:

1.     First, it is said that the unbelievers live and die twice, with the support for this view being given by the following Verse of the Quran (which says in translation):

‘Our Lord, Thou hast caused us to die two deaths and Thou hast given us twice to live; now we confess our sins. Is there any way to go forth?’ (Quran 40:11)

2.     It is then said that “since the first death refers to physical death the second one must be the punishment of hellfire.” as a consequence of the following Verse (in translation): 

They will never taste death therein except the first death (of this world), and He will save them from the torment of the blazing Fire, (Quran 44:56) 

3.     It is also said that the “second death” is not taken as non-existence or the complete cessation of life, which in the author’s mind makes it “apparent that the second death refers to a person being punished in hell where s/he will be tortured forever and never experience pleasure or happiness again”. This is done after presenting the following Verses from the Quran: 

And say not of those slain in God’s way, ‘They are dead’; rather they are living, but you are not aware. (Quran 2:154) 


Count not those who were slain in God’s way as dead, but rather living with their Lord, by Him provided (Quran 3:169) 

After this, one opinion attributed to Ibn ‘Abbas (Radhia Allahu Anhuma) is presented where the punishment the disbelievers receive in the grave is mentioned as the second death, with the author adding the punishment of the Hellfire as part of the second death. 

4.     Then, the author says that, “the Quran envisions the following pattern: human existence which starts in the womb (first life), physical death (first death), physical resurrection (second life), punishment in the grave/hellfire (second death).” 

5.    With respect to the opinion of some of the Muslim scholars who say that the first death refers to the condition of the people before they were born, the author says that the “problem with this view is that this means that even the believers were dead before they came to life in the womb, which thereby implies they experienced death twice, once before they came into being and another time when they died after coming into physical existence.” He then says that this would contradict Verse 44:56, where only one death in talked about for the believers. 

6.    He then presents the Quranic Verse which talks about the ‘Alust’ covenant taken from humanity when they were brought out from the back of Adam (Alayhi Salaam) [ mentioned in the Quran (7:172-173)]. He then asks the following: “Did Allah make that covenant with dead entities? Or doesn’t this rather indicate that all humans are believed to have been alive in some way at the time Adam was created? But what happened to them after that covenant making experience? Are they then alive all those thousands of years until they are actually conceived and born? Or are they thought to die and remain dead until they are receiving life again in the womb?”  He then says that: “this would mean that the disbelievers actually die three times, i.e. they were dead before they were conceived in the womb, they will die after they are born, and will die once again after being thrown into hell.” 

7.    The author also says that this previous point would raise another problem, since the Quran in another place says: 

How do you disbelieve in God, seeing you were dead and He gave you life, then (thumma) He shall make you dead, then (thumma) He shall give you life, then (thumma) unto Him you shall be returned? (Quran 2:28) 

And for him, this “either suggests that even the disbelievers will escape hell, or that the first death refers to the non-existent condition of humans before their conception.” 

He then says that the first view is incorrect since the Qur’an says that the disbelievers will remain in Hellfire forever so this cannot be the second death, since they cannot come back to life after the second death, if the second death is eternal Hellfire. What this author is trying to say is that the Qur’an contradicts itself by saying in one place that the second death is the punishment of the Hellfire and the disbelievers are brought out of this state into another life, while at the same time claiming that the Hellfire (i.e. the second death) is a permanent state. 

It is then said that if a Muslim wishes to say that the stage before one is born is the first death talked about in Verse 2:28, then the problem with this is that “the fertilized egg is alive from the start, otherwise it could not grow. Thus, the embryo is alive immediately at conception.” And that “More importantly, how can people be dead at a stage before conception when they do not even exist at this point?” 

8.     It is then said that the Quran mentions that those in Hell are neither dead nor alive, as per the Verse:

Verily he who comes to his Lord as a sinner (at Judgment), – for him is Hell: therein shall he neither die nor live. (Quran 20:74)

The author says that this would lead to another contradiction, since in Verse 44:56 “it is said that the believers will not taste death, implying that the unbelievers will, but here it says that the unbelievers will NOT die there. So, if the unbelievers are not going to die there either, where and when will their second death take place?”

9.    Finally, the author says that according to Islamic beliefs, everyone (either believers or disbelievers) will have to enter Hellfire. He says that this position is from the following Quranic Verses (which say in translation):

…then We shall know very well those most deserving to burn there. Not one of you there is, but he shall go down to it; that for thy Lord is a thing decreed, determined. Then We shall deliver those that were godfearing; and the evildoers We shall leave there, hobbling on their knees. (Quran 19:70-72).

He also presents a number of narrations from Prophet Muhammad which describe the state of those believers who have gone to Hellfire, and how they are taken out and placed into Paradise.  The author’s contention in here is that: “Since even believers enter hellfire this means that they will also experience the second death, which soundly contradicts the assertion of Q. 44:56 that they will not.”  

Before we start answering the above objections, we have to mention that the analysis provided above is amateurish, since it is obvious that the non-Muslim author is using shifting Quranic translations, as well as only one quote from an English translation of a Tafsir (interpretation) of the Quran.[2] From our side, we are not trying to give a thorough interpretation of the Verses in question, since the proper manner of learning the Tafsir of the Qur’an is to study it with a scholar of Qur’anic interpretation – so much so that many proper scholars of Islam would rather stay silent concerning the proper interpretation of a Verse that has been misrepresented by the opponent, for the reason that they did not formally learn the correct interpretation of the Verse in question from the teachers. So we can see the huge difference between what certain non-Muslims do in terms of mangling the Qur’anic Verses to fit their desires, and what those who have true desire for the Islamic sciences in terms of the propriety they show towards Allah and His Revelation.

However, given the fact that many non-Muslims try to present the Qur’an in a bad light based on their own interpretations of what they suppose the Qur’an says – which in many cases is an interpretation based on malicious intent, and which should be rejected outright by any objective researcher into the Islamic religion- we will try to ward off such attempts based on what has already been written in major works of Qur’anic and Hadith interpretations concerning the Verses and narrations in question; again, this as an effort in a general sense, and does not serve pedagogic purposes.

Having, said this, our replies are as follow:  

One of the main problems in this article is the author’s supposition that the “second death” being referred to is the punishment of Hellfire, a supposition which he then uses to present what he sees as contradictions in the Quran. This understanding is problematic in that none of the major exegesists understood the second death as referring to hellfire.[3] Indeed, there were a number of different classical interpretations concerning what the first and second death in this Verse referred to, with different scholars sometimes discussing the diverse views and seeing the strengths and weaknesses of such views, but none of the major Tafsirs took the second death as being Hellfire itself.  

For example, in the Tafsir of Imaam at-Tabari (RA), three possible views are given as to what “caused to die two deaths” and “given us twice to live” mean (the Verse mentioned in point #1). First, it is mentioned that they were dead in their father’s loins then they were brought into this world, then the well-known (physical) death occurred to them after which they were brought to life again for the Resurrection. In this case, the connection is drawn between this Verse and Verse 2:28 (mentioned in point #7). Another view is that they were made to die in this world, then they were brought to life in their graves were they were spoken to and asked about their deeds, then they were made to die again, and later they were brought to life in the Day of Judgment. The third view is that they were made to give the covenant of Alust (alluded to in point #6), then they were made to die, then they were brought to life in this world, then they were made to die and then brought to life on the Day of Judgment.[4] In the Tafsir of Imam ar-Razi (RA), he goes into some length explaining why this Verse is a proof for the life of the grave, as opposed to those who deny this truth.[5]

With respect to using the phrase “and He will save them from the torment of the blazing Fire” (from Verse 44:56 brought up in point #2), and that this has to refer to the people of Hellfire experiencing a second death in there (the inference being that the people of Paradise will never experience death ever again, so the phrase following it has to refer to those of Hellfire tasting a subsequent death), the answer to this is that both the people of Heaven and Hell will share in not dying ever again, but the good news is for the people of Paradise only since they are the ones who will be forever safe from all suffering and torments- this being the answer provided by Imam Ar-Razi in his Tafsir[6].

The inconsistency of the non-Muslim’s objection comes to light when he says (point #4): “the Quran envisions the following pattern: human existence which starts in the womb (first life), physical death (first death), physical resurrection (second life), punishment in the grave/hellfire (second death).”  

This classification is obviously erroneous even to a casual Muslim reader, since it is unheard of for any Muslim to say that the disbelievers will first be brought out of their graves on the Day of Judgment (the physical resurrection, the “second life”), judged and sentenced for their misdeeds and disbelief, only to be placed back in their graves as part of the “second death” (which is basically what the non-Muslim author is presenting as part of the Muslim belief). On the contrary, the Muslim belief is that when a person is brought out of his grave to stand on the Day of Judgment, there is absolutely no going back to the grave at all, and his future lies either in Paradise or in Hellfire.[7]

With respect to the non-Muslim author’s presentation of Verses 2:154 and 3:169 (point #3) as proof that the “second death” does not refer to complete cessation of life, the issue we find in here is that the observable death of the people in this world is being confused with the different degrees enjoyed by the Muslims when they die based on the manner in which they passed away. And this is something important to note, since it is part of the Muslims’ belief that all people who die, whether believers or disbelievers, are given a “new life” in the Barzakh[8]. So in these two Verses, the distinction is being made between the “new life” given to those who die in the way of Allah and the generality of mankind who dies by other means- so this Verse is instructing the believers not to consider the deaths of the martyrs to be like ordinary deaths.[9] It does not mean that the Islamic laws of death do not apply to them, as the property of the martyr is divided among his inheritors and their wives are allowed to remarry, just as is the case with every other common Muslim who passes away.  

After this, it is said: “In light of this, it is apparent that the second death refers to a person being punished in hell where s/he will be tortured forever and never experience pleasure or happiness again.”  As mentioned before, this statement is based on a supposition that is not supported by the major interpretations of the Qur’an. 

If there are those who ask how it is possible for something to be called death when there is not a total and complete cessation of all activity in all spheres of a person’s being (body and soul), we say that it is established through the common language of peoples all over the world in all cultures that when the person’s body stops functioning, this is what we call the death of the person.  The terminology used by the Qur’an and other primary Islamic texts includes those words and phrases common to people at large, as well as terms and concepts which help to expand certain aspects of the commonly held views with respect to various observable matters. And this is the case we see in Verses such as 2:154 and 3:169, where a new dimension on the widely observable phenomenon of death is being mentioned in the case of the martyrs, without eliminating the fact that as far our worldly perception of things – and the actions and laws which are based on such perceptions- are concerned, they are treated at par with the rest of the people who have passed away. 

With respect to the point #5 (and also brought up in point #7), that if the first death is taken as the condition of the people before their birth then this would contradict with Verse 44:56, our answer is that Verse 44:56 talks about the believers tasting or experiencing death once, and it does not refer strictly to the number of times that a person may be dead. While discussing Ayah 40:11 and the issue of whether this Verse is a proof or not for the life of the grave, Imam ar-Razi says that causing someone to die (or as Verse 44:56, their having tasted death) is subject to that person first being alive, so Verse 2:28- where there is mention of people being dead before being brought to life- is talking about something different that Verse 40:11[10], where the experience of death or being caused to die is mentioned. 

Concerning point #6, the Alust covenant, and what this has to do with the Verses about the deaths of the believers and disbelievers, it should be noted that in Verse 7:172, what is being talked about is Allah taking this heavenly covenant from the human beings before they took the actual form of their existence.  

Imam al-Qurtubi mentions one of the opinions being that this was the taking of the covenant from the souls before the creation of the bodies.[11] It is thus clear that what is being talked about in here is the preliminary plane of existence for human beings, while the Verses talking about people being “dead” before being created refers to them having no combined body-soul existence prior to Allah creating the bodies of the people and then giving this body a soul. 

With respect to the follow-up comment: “this would mean that the disbelievers actually die three times, i.e. they were dead before they were conceived in the womb, they will die after they are born, and will die once again after being thrown into hell.”  (And this comment is forwarded after speculating about what happened to the people after this covenant was taken (whether they were dead or not)). We say that a number of interpretations mention that every person was taken from Adam’s (Alayhi Salaam) loins, made to take this covenant, and then returned to the loins of Adam (Alayhi Salaam). As mentioned before, since this happened in a plane of existence different from the one where we are currently in, this question should not even arise. This is in addition to the fact that Hellfire is not one of the deaths, as we had mentioned before.

With respect to point #7 and Verse 2:28, the non-Muslim’s comment that this Verse “either suggests that even the disbelievers will escape hell.” is irrelevant.  

The non-Muslim author tried to say that Verse 2:28 is saying that there is a second life after the second death mentioned, and that since the “second death” is Hellfire, then this is a contradiction between the Islamic doctrine and the Qur’an. While it is true that in Islam the disbelievers will not be able to escape Hellfire, the question of a contradiction between this and the second death does not arise, since in all of the major classical interpretations the final step for everyone is their bodily resurrection on the Day of Judgment, and none of them mention that once the fate of the disbelievers is set in Hellfire, that there is a subsequent death in Hellfire. As mentioned before, it is a well-known part of Islamic Aqeedah that there is no death either in Paradise or in Hellfire for its inhabitants.[12]

Concerning the comment that “the fertilized egg is alive from the start, otherwise it could not grow. Thus, the embryo is alive immediately at conception.” and that this contradicts with the Muslim interpretations of the first death being the stage of the human before he is born, or before the soul is placed inside of him, we would say that for every creature there is a moment in time when they do not exist, whether this is before the soul is placed inside the embryo, or (whether we wish to take it as our opponent mentions it here) at the time before conception. It is clear to all that the human being is not alive at all times (that is, he is not alive from “eternity past”), so whatever that first stage is taken to be, we know that there is some stage before that when the human does not exist.[13]

According to the non-Muslim author, another problem with Verse 2:28 is that “how can people be dead at a stage before conception when they do not even exist at this point?”. This question is inappropriate, since we have previously mentioned that the “first death” referred to in this Ayah is the stage of non-existence of the person-whether it is total inexistence or their lack of existence of the person in a complete form. There is no need for there to be a previous life since what is referred to is being in a state of non-existence, not passing from a state of existence to non-existence, or from life to death.

The same general response is given by us to the non-Muslim’s next two objections. Firstly, he presents Ayah 20:74 (where it is mentioned that the disbelievers will not die nor will they live in Hellfire) and then asks: “it is said that the believers will not taste death[14], implying that the unbelievers will, but here it says that the unbelievers will NOT die there. So, if the unbelievers are not going to die there either, where and when will their second death take place?”   Secondly, he says that all the believers will enter Hellfire as indicated in Verse 19:70-72 and from a number of narrations from the Prophet , and that this contradicts what the believers have said in Verse 44:56 (point #2) about having to die only once.

 As we have mentioned many times before, Hellfire does not constitute one of the “deaths” for any person, as is evidenced by the lack of its being mentioned as a possibility by the classical exegesists when discussing the Verses under consideration, so it cannot be said that those believers who enter into Hellfire for some time in order to be purified of their wrongdoings before gaining entry into Paradise are in their “second death”. It should also be noted that Verse 19:71 means that all people will be made to go across Hellfire, not that everyone will be made to enter the Fire.[15] For the believers –those who enter Paradise immediately- this is by crossing a bridge over the Fire, while for the disbelievers it is their admission into it.[16]

Lastly, (just for the purposes of information) even if we take the Verse as presenting a literal entering into the Hellfire for every single person, it is mentioned in certain interpretations of this Verse that for the righteous believer, the entering into the Hellfire would in that case be peace, coolness safety for them, or that it will be entering those portions of the Hell that are free from the Fire; there is a somewhat lengthy explanation about this from Imam Ar-Raazi (RA) in his Tafseer, which may be consulted for whoever wishes to do so.[17] But it would be very clear in this case that whatever the non-Muslim imagines will occur to the disbelievers as per his understanding of the Qur’an (i.e. their supposed ‘death’ therein) would not be applicable to the Muslims in any case whatsoever.  

Having answered the objections brought up by the Muslims, we should note that a number of exegesists have brought together in harmony the different Verses under discussion. For example, to the question that the number of lives and deaths (or being caused to live and die) does not remain only at two (in connection with Verse 40:11), Imam Ar-Razi says that the Verse 40:11 could refer to the number of times the disbelievers have gone through tribulations and trials and these are four, the first death in this world, then their time in the graves, then being put to death in their graves, then the day of Judgment, and these are four times of punishment and torture, but the life in this world was not characterized by such trials and tribulations, and therefore it was not mentioned. Secondly, it could be that they mentioned two lives, the life of this world and the life in the Hereafter, but the life in the grave was not mentioned due to its short duration. Thirdly, it could be that when they were alive in their graves they did not die but they remained alive either in torment or in pleasure. Additionally, even if it were to be taken that the disbelievers have to go through three lives instead of two this would only be an addition to the apparent wording, which is neither affirmed nor denied by this Qur’anic Verse[18] (the reasoning being that if the reality is “three” lives then this Verse is not saying that they only lived two lives, but that they lived at least two lives, and the third one is an addition that does not actually contradict the wording of this Verse). 

Allamah Alusi (RA) mentions that with respect to Verse 40:11, one of the possibilities is that this statement of the disbelievers is in the same mold as Verse 67:4: 

ثُمَّ اْرجِعِ البَصَرَ كَرَّتَيْنِ

 Which literally means “Then return [your] vision twice again.”, but whose meaning is to turn one’s vision again and again and which is written as such to indicate repetition and abundance of this action. He also mentions that in the Quran the saying: 

وَقَالَ ٱللَّهُ لاَ تَتَّخِذُواْ إِلـٰهَيْنِ ٱثْنَيْنِ إِنَّمَا هُوَ إِلـٰهٌ وَاحِدٌ فَإيَّايَ فَٱرْهَبُونِ

And Allah has said, “Do not take for yourselves two deities. He is but one God, so fear only Me. (Quran 16:51)

the actual number is not what is understood from this, but rather the prohibition to take any other gods other than Allah is meant, whatever their number may be. So likewise for Verse 40:11, the disbelievers are as if saying that “You (Allah) have caused us to die time after time, and have made us to live time after time”, so they are now admitting the great power of Allah the Exalted, and that they will not disobey Him neither in the belief in the Hereafter nor in any other matter (and then they say as in the Ayah) “now we confess our sins” which they have committed due to our disbelief in the Resurrection.[19]

Another issue which has been dealt with is how the life in the grave figures in the saying of the believers -while in Paradise- that they tasted death only once. To begin, it is clear that this first death is the death that occurs to the believers in this world, and there is something borne out amongst many of the different Qur’anic interpretations.

Allamah Alusi says that this death extends – for the Ahl us Sunnah – to the one in the grave after the bringing people to life for asking them questions, due to the latter life (i.e. the life in the grave) being irrelevant to the world they are in, since its existence is incomplete and its time is extremely small.[20] The same general line of reasoning is used by Imaam al-Baydhawi (RA) in his interpretation about how this Verse correlates with what is known about the life of the grave.[21] Imam ar-Razi says that the “except the first death” refers to all that happened in this world[22]– referring to all the difficulties and tribulations the believers had to go through in this world, and that these are all combined to refer to the “first death”, while the believer is in bliss and harmony from the moment he dies for eternity, so he can never taste any “death” after he has left the world. Other interpretations, such as that of Imaam al-Baghawi (RA), mention that when the blissful ones die they (or their souls) are taken to the heavenly heights, and they meet the rest and bounty therein as well as their location in Paradise[23], so from this it is known that from the time of their deaths until eternity they will never have any other taste of death as a suffering- unlike what they tasted in this world.[24]

Lessons to learn from this discussion

Seeing the objections from our opponents, and the number of flaws inherent in their arguments, we need to stress one more time that the proper manner in which to learn about the true interpretation of the Quran is not to read various translations of the Quran and then see how one can put the different Verses together based on whatever they understood or wish to present to others. Rather, for both the Muslims and non-Muslims, it is imperative to read what they can of the authoritative interpretations of the Qur’an, and much more importantly, so ask the scholars and learned people who can give them solid answers concerning what are the proper interpretation of a Verse(s), and how different Verses can be brought in harmony if there seem to be some issues with their apparent wordings.

We know that those who are extremely against Islam in their hearts will not resort to this path, but we trust that the Muslims and those non-Muslims who are objective and sincere in their quest for truth will proceed along this way, and not take the course of argumentation and disputation. May Allah guide all those who truly seek His Way and keep us on the straight path. Ameen.



[1] The following is one of the older articles we had written and uploaded to our old site some time back, but since that site is no longer active we are uploading it here, with some modifications.

[2] Even in this case the interpretation used is of a highly questionable nature: The non-Muslim uses the Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs in his work, which cannot be taken to contain a truthful chain leading to this Companion. An exposition of these difficulties is presented in Arabic at: http://www.almeshkat.net/index.php?pg=droos&ref=133, among other places. In synthesis, two key narrators attributing most of the views making up the ‘Tafseer Ibn ‘Abbaas’ have been considered as liars by the scholars of Hadeeth criticism, and this is something that would render the entire work as irrelevant in the field of authentic Qur’anic exegesis.

Even though this matter may not affect this current discussion, the willingness of the author to use any and every source available to him is disconcerting, since for a proper discussion to take place, the authenticity of the sources of knowledge has to be known and be agreed as being of a high caliber by those carrying out the discussion.

[3] As we will see later in this article, this piece of information is important, since the non-Muslim author goes into irrelevant tangents discussing how the second punishment being Hellfire is “problematic” in the context of Islamic teachings.

[4] http://www.altafsir.com/Tafasir.asp?tMadhNo=1&tTafsirNo=1&tSoraNo=40&tAyahNo=11&tDisplay=yes&Page=2&Size=1&LanguageId=1. Here we are only presenting the different views as mentioned in the exegesis, without mentioning the correctness of such views. What is important to keep in mind in here though, is that none of the classical interpretations take the second death as being the punishment of Hellfire itself.

[5] http://www.altafsir.com/Tafasir.asp?tMadhNo=1&tTafsirNo=4&tSoraNo=40&tAyahNo=11&tDisplay=yes&UserProfile=0&LanguageId=1.  Other Tafsirs –such as Allamah Alusi’s (RA) Ruh al-Ma’ani- mention basically the same viewpoints as these two exegesis among the list of possibilities. Some good points are also mentioned in Ar-Razi’s and Alusi’s Tafsirs which effectively answer the objections of the non-Muslims, but these will be presented at the appropriate junctions.

[7] There are narrations concerning those people who may be made to wait due to non-payment of debts, or those believers who first go to Hellfire to be purified before being placed in Paradise, but there is no hint of anyone being made to go to one’s grave after the judgment is passed on him on the Day of Resurrection. 

[8] The Barzakh being the intermediary period between the life of this world and the Hereafter.

[9] Tafsir Ma’ariful Quran, Vol.1, pp. 404-405

[10] And by extension Verse 44:56, since it is in the same mold of talking about those who experience or taste death.

[11] http://www.altafsir.com/Tafasir.asp?tMadhNo=1&tTafsirNo=5&tSoraNo=7&tAyahNo=172&tDisplay=yes&UserProfile=0&LanguageId=1. One can see on the altafsir website that in response to the question of what is the world of “Dhur”, it is mentioned that this is the world of the souls.

[12] There are some narrations in the Tafaasir stating that death will be brought and sacrificed after which both the people of Paradise and Hellfire will be told that there is “eternity without death”. For example, al-Qurtubi (RA) mentions this in his interpretation of Ayah 37:59 (http://www.altafsir.com/Tafasir.asp?tMadhNo=1&tTafsirNo=5&tSoraNo=37&tAyahNo=59&tDisplay=yes&Page=2&Size=1&LanguageId=1)

[13] The issue of when the child can be said to be alive, and the differences between the Muslims and non-Muslims on this issue can be discussed in later on, but it has no relevance to the discussion at hand.

[14] Alluding to Verse 44:56 (point #2), where only one death is mentioned for the believers.

[15] Ma’ariful Quran, Vol.6, p.63

[24] This last sentence is from our side, and if anyone receives a negative feedback from a scholar about this sentence, they may contact us in order to correct it.