Question: Is reincarnation a reality and if not then how does one respond to actual events where people experience ‘past life recalls’ and the information they provide eventually turns out to be true?
Answer: There are two categories of ‘recalls’ of information; the first one of which is something which pretty much everyone encounters and these are generally known as Déjà vu (already seen). Déjà vu is the phenomenon of having the strong sensation that an event or experience currently being experienced, has already been experienced in the past. Islam categories dreams into three types; 1) dreams from the Almighty Allah, 2) dreams from shaytaan, and 3) dreams from the Nafs (self, which show things in dreams, consciously or subconsciously, on the person’s mind).
Déjà vu are actually true dreams (dreams from Allah) of things from the future which we forget upon waking up but when we encounter that incident in real life, we get a strong feeling as if it has happened before. These are routine matters which occur to many people; however, there can be rare cases where a person learns a new language or encounters a shift in personality.
Let’s discuss an example i.e. speaking different languages. I have spoken fluent foreign languages in my dreams and communicated with great personalities of the past (in dreams) and apparently better than native speakers of those languages. However, in real life, my skills are not that great. Upon waking up, the great skills come down to the basics. If Allah wills, He can teach me a language in my sleep which I would remember upon waking up. [The purpose of this paper is to keep it basic and simple while addressing the question at hand and hence some concepts are not reproduced here in detail and instead, explained in easy, summarised language].
Based on Qur’an we know that the Ruh (soul) is a matter of the unseen and mankind has not been given of knowledge except a little. Based on Hadith we know that sleep is half-brother of death and Ruh is taken away in our sleep with only a little connection remaining with the body, may be something like a knot. How are we shown these things and how our Ruh is taken is unknown and how shayateen may interfere is also unknown and we are not going to find it out either.
There are attempts at explaining Déjà vu by science and none of these should be problematic to the Muslims.
The second category of ‘recall’ of information is a more detailed area and one of which we find very few cases. Vast majority of people do not remember ‘previous lives’ which itself should force one to ponder whether these rare cases have some other reason than reincarnation and whether reincarnation is the best answer for these! This second category includes examples which include the following:
- Having memories of another person (from childhood, in many cases), and it is later discovered that these memories belonged to another person who lived in the past
- Knowing a different language, even a peculiar accent of the person whose future life you’re supposed to be living
- Having a personality that mirrors that of someone else who lived in the past, right down to quirks, food habits, favourite places and also deeper character and physical traits such as birthmarks
Here is one such case as an example.
Before I move on to discuss this second category of ‘past life recalls’, let me explain a few terms and beings in brief for those who have little to no knowledge of Islam. Jinn are a creature that are made from smokeless fire and they are invisible to the human eye. The evil ones from the Jinn are called shayateen (plural of shaytaan) and the chief of shayateen is called Iblis (or The Shaytaan). Every person has a shaytaan with him (Qareen) who whispers to him to commit evil and can enter and exit the person through mouth and nose. After a person dies, the Qareen still exist in this world if Allah Wills.
As we have seen above, dreams are of three types. Such incidents, of having memories of another person, are jinn influence in dreams. We do not know of the world of Jinn but we do know what they are and what they are capable of and playing with a person and giving him visions and ‘recalls’ is something they are capable of doing. The following narration of the Prophet (ﷺ) regarding Dajjal (the anti-Christ) gives us some clear ideas:
Part of his (Dajjal’s) Fitnah (trial/tribulation) will be that he will say to a Bedouin: “What do you think, if I resurrect your father and mother for you, will you bear witness that I am your Lord?” He will say: “Yes.” Then two devils will appear to him in the form of his father and mother and will say: “O my son, follow him, for he is your Lord.”
Once a person dies, the Qareen no longer remains the companion devil of that person and he may pass on information of the dead person elsewhere or in rare cases, he may become the Qareen of another person and cause that new person to experience flashbacks of the previous person, cause personality shifts (perhaps something like in the movie ‘Inception’) and so on which that person may perceive as his/her past life. The jinn intervention or influence is also done through the route of dreams but may also be done through other direct or indirect ways.
As stated earlier, the purpose of this paper is to keep it simple and basic. Philosophical arguments for or against reincarnation are not my purpose here and I only wish to present the Islamic stance on real cases of ‘past life recalls’.
Indeed, Allah knows the best.
References and footnotes:
 Qur’an 17:85
 Sunan Ibn Majah, vol. 5, book 36, Hadith 4077