In the Name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
A few weeks ago, I experienced the fear of returning to my Lord, knowing how utterly unprepared I was. COVID-19 brought me closer to my grave than anything before in my life, and I felt I was so close to death.
Having heard about my experience, a scholar who I consider to be a friend advised me to write a piece about contracting the illness and the events that unfolded.
My wife and I both tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday 14th November. Like many of us, I had been concerned about the disease that was sweeping the world, but not for a second did I consider that I might be the next death in the daily figures.
For a few days leading up to Saturday the 14th, we had both felt lethargic, and I had a high temperature. As the days progressed, the illness began to take a more serious trajectory. The simplest of tasks, like walking up the stairs at home, became almost impossibly exhausting. I would have to stop for five minutes, completely drained and unable to get the oxygen I needed into my lungs.
By Wednesday 18th November, only a week after feeling absolutely fit and well, my oxygen levels crashed to 66%. I was totally debilitated, unable to do anything. Even speaking was near enough impossible, and I would struggle for breath in between each and every word. When I called the emergency services, an ambulance was at my house within minutes. I was immediately admitted to hospital, where I would spend the next nine days – the most terrifying days and nights of my life.
I was placed straight into priority care, where I had hoped and prayed that some improvement in my condition would happen. But I continued to deteriorate, and it was clear from the chest X-ray that my lungs were riddled. My body was slowly packing up, and I could see the concern in the eyes of the medics. If I had any doubt about how concerned they were, that doubt was shattered when they suggested I should call my family to discuss the risks of the treatment options ahead. My poor wife was still at home fighting her own battle with the infection, and I did not want to worry my elderly mother, so I called two close friends to support me.
The specialists told me they wanted to try me on a CPAP mask for several days in the hope that my body would respond and my oxygen levels would get back up towards the normal range. But I was warned that not every patient could withstand this treatment, and that some did not respond. The CPAP mask was described by the doctors to be like placing your head out of a car window whilst travelling at 70-80 mph. Massive amounts of oxygen would be constantly thrust into your lungs, with the only respite being 10-15 minutes a day for some quick food and drink – the mask would otherwise have to remain on my face 24/7.
I was told in no uncertain terms that should this option fail, the next stage would be to induce me into a coma, where I would spend weeks in intensive care on a ventilator. The CPAP mask was the last attempt before the abyss of unconsciousness – and who knows what beyond.
It’s hard for me to describe the fear of knowing that, any time soon, I would be unconscious and quite simply may never wake up again. I was well aware that outcomes are not good for people on ventilators, and my situation continued to deteriorate. Every time they took me off the CPAP, my oxygen levels plummeted. It seemed like my body was losing the battle. The intensity of my fear was only multiplied by seeing people all around me, fighting for their lives, but not all of them succeeding.
Long nights unable to sleep, with the incessant beeping of machines and the 24-hour activity in intensive care wards, leaves one with a lot of time to think and assess life. How could this be my end? I am only 47 years old. What would happen to my wife, and my children who are still young and need their father? What about all the plans I had in my head for the years to come? Who will take care of my mother? I had constant thoughts about what I should have or could have done and the regrets about what I should not have done.
But piercing through all of this was the overwhelming and certain knowledge that I could not face Allāh. I could not face Allāh. With all my sins, how could I? With all the time I had wasted in my life? What good deeds did I have to show for my life? How many times had I lost my temper and raised my voice at my loved ones? How many times had I shunned things that I knew I should have done? How far away was I from being anything close to the Sunnah of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam)? Had I even done the minimum? I knew, with what I can only describe as terrifying clarity, that if I was to stand before Allāh now, I would be doomed. Every struggling breath brought with it the horrifying truth that it might be too late to do anything about it.
Imagination can be a terrible thing. In and out of light sleep, I could see and hear my friends talking about how they could not believe I was gone. I felt like I was reading social media messages announcing my death, and people saying the usual nice things. I imagined the stark reality that in a few days and weeks, everyone would just carry on with their lives and I would be forgotten, like the billions of others who are long gone before me.
As the nights passed by, I spent more and more hours simply seeking and truly begging for Allāh’s Forgiveness, feeling totally helpless, broken, and fearful. I focused my mind on His Mercy and Compassion. I have been so blessed in my life with blessings that are impossible to count. I spent entire nights in dhikr, sending salawāt on our beloved Prophet, and making the most sincere and heartfelt du’ā of my life, seeking a cure that could only come from Allāh.
By the Grace and Mercy of the Almighty, after the longest days and nights of my life facing the true reality of the closeness and darkness of my own grave, the CPAP mask began to work and the prospect of the need for the ventilator subsided. As I sit now, back in the warmth and comfort of my home, it is impossible for me to describe the feelings of sheer gratitude and relief. There is a sense of being blessed beyond belief with another chance, and a strange certainty in my heart, that I know it was the du’ā, sadaqa, Qur’ān, and tahajjud of so many loved ones that made the difference in removing me from further danger. To each and every one of you, I am eternally indebted. Allāh knows your names, and I beg Allāh the Most Merciful to shower you all with blessings beyond measure.
I would humbly like to share some personal insights that have come from this experience. By Allāh, fearing that your death may be close focuses one’s mind on the things that truly matter. I hope those that read this can benefit and take some khair from them, by the permission of Allāh.
1. Honouring your parents
Sitting in the darkness, I repeatedly thought how the best deed I could do is to honour my mother and take care of her. I believe there is no deed more worthy of our attention than respecting, honouring, and looking after our parents. This does not negate our responsibility towards our own family, relatives, friends, and neighbours. Yet the reward for looking after our parents, as described to us in the Qur’ān and Sunnah, is Jannah. There are numerous verses in the Qur’ān and many hadīth pertaining to this. Whether our parents are living with us, self-isolating, or abroad, there is no excuse not to contact them, whether in person, on the phone, or via video call. Ask after their wellbeing daily. Drop shopping off at their door step. Buy them things that will make their life easier. When it comes to our children, we go above and beyond to fulfil their every need, and rightly so. But just ask those around you who have lost their parents what they would give to just to see their parents again for a moment; they would sell everything they have for this opportunity. Let us all renew our intention to redouble our efforts to make our parents the centre and focus of our lives, and to aid and honour them the way they should be.
2. Keeping as close to Allāh as you can
Our lives are so busy that we sometimes sleep walk into our ‘ibādah and our worship becomes a routine chore, lacking that essential presence of mind. We often focus on the quantity and not the quality. Scholars have discussed on many occasions, and I have learnt this from my teachers, that to say subhān Allāh once with a sincere intention and clear focus is better than all that this Earth contains. During some of those lonely nights in hospital, I can honestly say that I felt Allāh’s mercy and blessings like never before simply by making the dhikr of subhān Allāh and Alhamdulillāh. I visualised every part of my body, including my very blood cells, prostrating to Allāh in shukr. I have never felt this way before. Making dhikr slowly and reflecting on what we are reciting in total silence makes a world of difference. Assign a portion of each day, even if it is for 5-10 minutes, to really focus on thanking Allāh for all His countless blessings. Over time, increase this amount of time if you can.
3. Supporting others
Never hesitate or think twice to help people if you are able to – do it straight away. Do not put off visiting the sick or making a phone call to give your condolences if someone has passed away. It might just be a simple text of support and encouragement, but for the person going through a test, it can mean so much. It can raise their spirits and uplift them with hope just when they need it most. I received hundreds of messages of support and encouragement, informing me of du’ā, repeated khatm of Sūrat Yāsīn, building water wells, distributing sacrificed meat to the poor, and more. This all gave me great hope in Allāh’s Mercy and made a huge difference to me whilst lying in a hospital bed in the darkness. It is often not the actions that go above and beyond that makes the difference, but the little things like speaking with people, asking how they are, sending that text, or dropping off a box of chocolates that people appreciate and need. In this pandemic, just having someone to talk to can make all the difference. If it takes a few minutes to do it right there and then, don’t delay and don’t hesitate, do it.
4. Serving Allāh’s creation
On a personal level, I joined the charity sector 25 years ago, in November 1995. Alhamdulillāh I am grateful to Allāh for placing me in a position where I am able to focus my energy on helping and aiding those less fortunate around the world. Although I have witnessed some challenges in the sector, more so recently than in the earlier years, it has personally been a great blessing in my life. After this experience with COVID-19, my thoughts are now focussed on renewing my intention to serve Allāh’s creation more than ever. To help even more children escape poverty through the power of education, enabling them to stand on their own two feet in a dignified manner. To support our trustees in their strategic vision and to help our staff in achieving our goals. By serving others, we experience barakah and khair in our lives. This does not mean that one has to be in the charity sector or travel abroad to achieve this. During this pandemic, there are so many people in need right on our door step and amongst us every day. Neighbours, friends, the elderly. People we walk past daily that could do with a little help, whether financial or just some company, someone to do their shopping, check that they are okay, or give them a lift. There is so much we can all do to help and aid Allāh’s creation, ultimately as a means to get closer to Him.
My final thought is this: how many millions of breaths have we taken up to this day? It is only when struggling and fighting to breathe just a single breath do you realise the true meaning of the verse, “So which of the blessings of your Lord do you deny?”