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October 18, 2016

About death: Dust-to-Dust and the Other Reality

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Having reached the age of 72, I cannot help thinking more about death.

In many traditional Christian prayer books, funeral services remind us that in death our physical body will return to the earth and once again become “dust” (Ecclesiastes 12:7), the soil from which all things grow.

Some also refer to passages such as “all flesh is grass” (Isaiah 40:6), which withers, dies and similarly returns to the soil. It’s a timeless cycle of which we are all a part; but even though true, it can feel very sad.

Muslims totally agree with such Biblical references to the fate of our bodies, for the Qur’an also clearly states that we are made of dust (earth and its complexity of minerals) (30:20), water (21:30), and the sun’s energy (55:14).

Our biological origins in the union of a male sperm and female egg both trace back to these three essential elements.

But the Qur’an, the Hebrew Scriptures (Torah) and the Christian New Testament also remind us of another fact – our divine origins. We all came from God and at the moment of death, we all return to God.

While dust-to-dust, the most common phrase heard in traditional funeral services, is a very difficult reality to dispute, the fact that the Divine part of us – call it spirit or soul (Qur’an 15:29) – will return back home to its origins is equally difficult to accept.

I have found there are two ways to convince myself of the belief that I do indeed have a Divine spirit that will outlast my body.

As the Qur’an of my faith states, after death my spirit, or real me, will return to God (2:156), while my family and friends return my physical body to its proper home, Earth.

One way is through logic. After all, I am a scientist and engineer; my career took me to the world’s top level of microchip design where logic is essential.

The other way is through love.

Surprisingly, even though my profession demanded rigorous technical diligence, I find this way more effective, more convincing, more beautiful; and I feel good about it.

Let me explain…

The path of logic can be summarized this way. A design requires a designer. And a complex design – such as a universe containing sentient beings – requires a designer with infinite knowledge and creativity. Of course, I’m talking about God.

Good human designers stand by their work and maintain it; so does God.

But God can also communicate with the divine in each of us. We can either receive and acknowledge this communication and live in the wondrous dual reality of physical and spiritual life, or block it out and live in only one dimension, that of dust-to-dust.

By design, the divine in us can (if we choose), think and act independently from God, the ultimate divinity. We humans are not simply living creations like animals or plants, or programmed systems like galaxies or stars – all of which emerge, develop, decay, and die with no questions asked.

The way of love is different. In my tradition, it is the practice of the Muslim Sufis and can be symbolically summarized as follows:

The lover makes a commitment of faith to his beloved; to her truth, her beauty, and her goodness. He thinks about her always.

His understanding of her depends on his love for her. The more he loves her, the more he understands her; and the more he understands her, the more he loves her.

Even if he cannot fully understand her, he can still give her his unconditional love.

So it is with lovers of God. Their faith in, their love of, and their return to God are all “facts” of their lives and are as real as anything that can be empirically weighed, measured, or scientifically described.

Now here is an example from the way of logic:

Scientists have estimated that there are more than 10 million living and interdependent species on Earth, including us humans.

If you presented this data to a designer and asked him or her to merely model it to understand how it works, you might be told that the world’s leading experts would need thousands of years to complete the task, let alone replicate the original.

To appreciate the complexity of the interdependent design that keeps 10 million species – each with its own unique cycle of life and death – in balance, consider this example:

What might human life be like without the bee?

A recent research report notes that this humble insect is actually at the top of the list in importance, due to being an essential pollinator. In fact, bees pollinate at least 70 of the 100 crops that feed 90% of the world. In addition to those species which also produce honey, bees are responsible for crops valued at some $30 billion a year.

If we lost bees, which are already in alarming decline in some areas, the report warns that, “We may lose all the plants that bees pollinate, all of the animals that eat those plants and so on, up the food chain. Which means a world without bees could struggle to sustain the global human population of 7 billion. Our supermarkets would have half the amount of fruit and vegetables.”

Let us take another example, this time from my own area of expertise, microchip design.

A good microchip is designed to perform numerous complex functions at ultra-high speed, while using minimum battery energy and power. This is our basic yardstick for assessing how effective and efficient the design is.

Over the past 50 years, researchers the world over (myself among them), were able to design better and better microchips to fulfill the above criteria at ever-increasing rates of reliability and economy. Our work is evident in each new generation of mobile devices.

But with all our brilliantly miniaturized electronic innovations, it is still impossible to achieve the overall performance of the human brain with its 100 billion neurons. It cannot be done; not now, not ever.

It’s a long scientific and technological story – you can trust me and my colleagues on this. Or, you can read one of my many books on microchip design.

Which brings us back full circle to my opening reflections on the human cycle of life and death.

As biological organisms, our brain capacity is still infinitely greater than the astounding material technology we have developed.

But our uniqueness will always lie in the fact that we are simultaneously physical-material and spiritual beings that are born, live, and ultimately cease being alive in the way we know it.

When we die, those two integrated facets of our earthly identity part company so that one can return its mineral and chemical components back to the soil and the other, the “divine spark within,” can return to its Creator.

Our belief in that promise is how we trust the gentle and beautiful way to understanding life and death, the way of love.

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