Is it metaphysics?
Is it supernatural?
Is it pseudoscience?
Is it real?
Is it a sum of psychological hallucinations or a physiological disorder or both?
Could it fall under the category of the phenomena studied by the field of Parapsychology?
All these are questions that are raised just by mentioning “Near-Death Experiences” (NDE). NDE is a widespread documented phenomenon that takes place among some human beings, but so far science has no scientific explanation for it, and at the same time scientists are unable to deny its existence.
So far, it’s defined as an experience in which a person gets close to the actual physical meaning of death. This person may be undergoing a major surgery, or suffering from trauma or a serious disease which could lead to death. During this period of suffering or illness, a person going through a Near Death Experience perceives events and scenes that seem to be impossible, unusual or supernatural. This is not to be mixed with Lucid Dream.
Here we join a ten-minute interview with Dr. Shabir Ally, the President of the Islamic Information & Dawah Centre International in Toronto, Canada, where he tackles the difficult topic of NDE from an Islamic perspective, based on an objective scientific background.
Host: Safiyyah Ally, of “Let The Quran Speak”
Guest: Dr. Shabir Ally.
Q: A Harvard neurosurgeon, Eben Alexander, became a believer in the afterlife after he had a Near-Death Experience. His experiences are surprisingly common, they include out of body sensations, images of events, religious figures, even heaven.
What lies behind these experiences?
Here with me to answer these questions brother Shabir Ally, President of the Islamic Information Centre.
Brother Shabir, maybe you could first begin by describing what a Near-Death Experience is, because some people might not be aware what it is.
Dr. Shabir: In the 1960s, Dr. Raymond Moody began a series of publications in which he highlighted the experiences of many people who may reach a situation that is very close to death. In that situation, the person comes back out of it with the memory that he or she had been outside of the body. This is sometimes referred to as OBE, or an Out of Body Experience.
Sometimes a person was on the operating table and comes back describing his or her hovering over it, with the body still on the operating table, and seeing what the doctors are doing to his or her body.
In some extreme cases, we have reports where a person might have been pronounced “clinically dead” and then the person is somehow surprisingly revived. And this person may come back with some memory of having been out of the body and having met God or met Jesus or went through a tunnel of unimaginable brightness and having comeback.
Sometimes these individuals turn their lives around following this event. They feel themselves to have been called by God and been sent back to Earth not only to live a wholesome and a righteous life, but also to call people to a similar sort of life.
Q: So how can we understand what lies behind these experiences? I mean some religious people would say the soul has separated itself from the body and then returned back, what are your thoughts?
Dr. Shabir: Yes, of course the religious interpretation of this is usually what people comeback with. And on the other hand, some from the medical community will say nothing like this is possible because science explains everything in terms of material things that we can touch and study in a laboratory. If we talk about the mind and about the soul, this is something that we can’t really put our finger on.
Q: What is interesting about Dr. Alexander’s article is that he had that view initially, until he experienced it himself.
Dr. Shabir: Exactly, this view has been popular and been popularized by a female Australian doctor, who said that the human brain is such that we have a built-in coping mechanism. So, if pain comes too severe, driving us to the point of death, then the brain copes with this by imagining a very serene sort of experience, and that helps the person to cope at this very critical moment.
So the person gets close to death, has this experience, then is revived and feels; “Yes, I’ve been beyond death, and I came back. Death was a beautiful thing, the most beautiful experience in my life.” To that Australian doctor, this is a coping mechanism that kicks in.
But now, this doctor Eben Alexander having been brought up in the school in this kind of theory, he experiences for himself what others had described, and he feels that his experiences are unique. What he describes is that he was admitted to the hospital where he was in fact working as a neurosurgeon, and this was after he had fallen into a coma that lasted for several days.
What the doctors had described in his case was that an Escherichia coli bacterium had entered into his spinal fluid and was eating away at his brain to the extent that that level of brain activity which is associated with humans as opposed to the animal brain, became totally shutdown effectively. This is how it’s described by the doctors who were supervising him and as he said watchful over him in minute detail continuously over this period. So while his brain from a medical point of view was “shutdown” he was having this experience of being in the afterlife.
Q: So how can we understand what was going on there?
Dr. Shabir: I said afterlife, he didn’t put it in this way. He mentioned seeing bright lights, things that he wanted to describe almost as angels, yet he didn’t give them a name as such lest he gives a name that would prejudge the experience that he had. He wanted to put this as scientific terms as possible, just describe the actual things he saw without trying to name them.
Some of the things that he saw will help some believers to feel that this confirms what they already thought existed, like angels which he saw as bright luminous beings parading through the sky leaving traces behind them as they go. He met a woman of extraordinary beauty who assured him that he has nothing to fear.
And some of these descriptions actually remind me of passages from the Qur’an. For example in the Qur’an it says: “Indeed, those who have said, “Our Lord is Allah” and then remained on a right course – the angels will descend upon them, [saying], “Do not fear and do not grieve but receive good tidings of Paradise, which you were promised.” [Surat Fussilat: 41: 30]. The commenter here says that this is what actually happens at the time of death; the angel comes and says this. What Eben Alexander described is actually something similar to this.
Q: So do you think we should take these experiences seriously? I mean, on the other hand, there are individuals from different religious traditions that have their own NDEs that relate to their religious traditions only.
Dr. Shabir: I think we cannot play God and dismiss the experiences of people. When people are describing their experiences which are very real to them, we are not in a position to say no that did not happen.
If I say: “I see a red dot in the sky,” while you don’t see it, you can’t deny that I have seen it. It maybe something as faulty in my vision, perhaps I see things which are not really there. But, you have no way of knowing whether or not my vision is faulty or whether I’m imagining too much. You can only say that you didn’t see it, but you can’t deny my real experience.
So, when we have so many reports of people having these experiences, we cannot just simply dismiss all of them. We have to take them seriously, catalogue them and try to analyze them on an aggregate level and see if perhaps some scientific explanation is available for this, or as Eben Alexander is concluding; there is no scientific explanation yet, and we really are in need of an explanation that will make sense of all this phenomena.
Of course in many cases, as in the case of Eben Alexander himself, people find themselves returning to religion, returning to God, going back to church, and going back to things which are religious.
Now your question is, what about the fact that people from many different religions have similar types of experiences, and in some cases the experiences seem to be very specific for that particular religion in which the person has already been brought up?
In the end, it is possible that God is drawing to Himself people through many different religious paths. The paths which people are choosing for themselves are in a way leading to God, and He makes that path continue to serve the purpose of leading the person towards God. It may be that one religion will not actually fit all people. People come from many different kinds, persuasions, historical origins, and upbringings, and to present one religion with its total system as “the one” for everyone may not actually be practical, and God is doing what is practical and drawing people to Him through the vehicles that they have already started out with.
Q: Has anyone ever described the Prophet Mohamed’s journey to heaven as an NDE?
Dr. Shabir: No one has described it that way. His journey was thought by some early Muslims as having occurred in a sleep state. And some thought that his entire body was transported into Heaven. If it happened in a sleep state, then one would say that this was a kind of an Out-of-Body Experience (OBE).
Interestingly, in light of your question, I may mention that in his book “The Bible is History” Ian Wilson described the resurrection of Jesus as being a kind of NDE, that he came close to death and went over to the other side, and came back with this experience of things that he can now talk about and influence his disciples.
Q: That’s very interesting. Many thanks for that.