Sufis about Death


Prepare yourself for death, oh my brother,
For it will descend.
Do not draw out your hopes
In case your heart treats you harshly.

Persevere in reflection
Which will make you aware
And move you to do good works,
For life will depart.

Shaykh Ibn al-Habib is the one who has given the above counsel on death. Death can be seen as the physical death, but when the Sufis say that when they are forgetful of God, then they also see this as death. The remembrance of the divine Beloved thus implies life.

Imam al-Ghazzali has said that there are three aspects to the remembrance of death:

• The remembrance of a heedless person, who is involved with the world. He remembers death and loathes it, fearing to be deprived of the pleasures of the world.

• The remembrance of the repenter, who does this so that fear will have more domination over him, so that he will become more firm in his repentance and be more avid in mending the past. The spiritual reward for this is immense.

• The remembrance of the knower, who thinks of the promise of the sight of the Beloved after death and the rendezvous of the Friend is not forgotten. Hazrat Hudhayfah said at the time of death: ‘The Beloved has come at the time of want’.

Beyond the third degree there is another degree, greater than this, in which you do not loathe death, do not seek it, nor do you desire either its hastening or its delay. Instead you prefer that which the Beloved has decreed. You then have reached the station of contentment and surrender.

The Sufis often quote the Prophet who has said: “An-naasu niyaam wa idhaa matu’ntabahu”. This means: “People are asleep and when they die, they awake”. Mawlana Rumi saw in this saying that the Prophet pointed to the coming of the morning light of eternity, in which all actions, which we have performed like dreamers in our present life, will be interpreted properly. Then we’ll see no longer see unclear dream figures, but unveiled Reality.

Mir Dard has the above hadith in mind when he wrote:

O ignorant one! When we die,
It will be proven to us:
A dream was what we have seen,
And what we have heard, was a tale.

The Chishti Sufi Amir Khusraw therefore mentioned:

I talk all night long with a dream image
About the tales of my pain;
Thus my sleeplessness
Comes from these tales.

The Prophet also advised us to die before our death, so that we don’t die when we die. Here is a paradox: The Sufis try to die to the attraction of living as well as to open up to the attraction of life.

Let us first pay attention to the dying to the attractions of life. After death our outward senses stop functioning. During our life when outward senses would stop functioning our inward senses open up. You may know of the practice whereby with your thumbs you close your ears, and with out other fingers you close your eyes, nose, mouth and finally you imagine to withhold the tactile sense.

Sufis, however, also try to open up to the attraction of living.

Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty. The divine Beloved created the universe like a mirror in which His beauty and grandeur can be admired. Sufis worship life. He is al-Hayy, the Living. He is above mortality, death of extinction. We can experience His manifestations in our own environment.

To emulate the name al-Hayy, a Chishti pir advised us to take to self-surrender. “You should become”, he remarked, “such as if you are a dead body in the hands of those giving a funeral bath”.

After death our outward senses stop functioning. During our life when outward senses would stop functioning our inward senses open up. You may know of the practice whereby with your thumbs you close your ears, and with out other fingers you close your eyes, nose, mouth and finally withhold the tactile feeling.

After our death we go to the intermediary world with the reversal of our inner and outer aspects. Our thoughts are now hidden in this world, but in the intermediary world they manifest themselves on the outside.

Hazrat ‘Ali advised us to keep death in mind as if this is the final day of our life, while at the same time we should live as if we had a thousand more years to live.

In Sufism the transformation of the ego inciting us to evil can be seen as a death. Shaykh al-Qashani has mentioned the green, white, red and black deaths as experiences on the Sufi path. Dervishes – or better said Sufis – at times wear a black garment, because of their having died to themselves, while before that they may wear other colours, because they have not reached that level.

The green death implies the wearing of the patched garment made of discarded and worthless rags. If you are content to give up beautiful clothes for this and merely limit yourself to a decent covering sufficient for the performance of prayers, then you have died the green death.

Your life has become green through your abstemiousness and the blooming of your countenance in the verdant grace of the essential beauty within which you live:

As long as your honour is unstained,
Whatever cloak you wear, is fair.

Once when imam Shaf’i was seen dressed in shabby, worthless clothes, some ignorant people criticised him for it. He replied with these verses:

What if my shirt is not worth a penny?
I have beneath it a soul of priceless love.
Your garb is a sun: beneath its radiance – darkness;
Mine is black night, beneath which lies – a sun.

To die the black death implies that you endure the suffering occasioned by people. You are not oppressed by the harm they do and you are not hurt. You rather take pleasure in it as you see it as something coming from the Beloved:

Sweet is the blame for desiring You;
So let them blame me for my love of Your memory.
Seeing myself to be just like my enemies,
I made up my mind to love them, too.

May I fare as well with You,
As I have fared with them!
You belittle me, so I made myself small,
But who is more honoured than one thus scorned?

Thus you have died the black death and are annihilated in God, since you see all the abuse inflicted on you from the viewpoint in which all actions are annihilated in the one action of your Beloved. Henceforth you live by the existence of Truth, sustained by the presence of absolute liberality.

The white death is hunger. It is so named because it illuminates the inward and brightens the face of the heart. In case you do not assuage your hunger you will die the white death. In so doing you will revive your intelligence, for overeating kills intelligence. Whenever your gluttony dies, your astuteness is restored.

In the Sufi usage death is the taming of selfish desire. It is precisely towards this egoistic love that all lusts and natural bodily needs incline. If your self inclines towards a lower level it pulls the heart down with it. Thus the heart dies to a real life of learning and lives a life of ignorance.

In case you train your self and it dies to its own lusts, then the heart proceeds on its natural way of genuine love. In case you succeed in thwarting your ego, then you experience what the Sufis call the red death.

Let us now turn to some experiences of the Sufis. Khwaja Mo’inuddin Chishti locked the door of his cell shortly before his death. People heard a peculiar sound coming from that place. He was a beloved of God and he died in the love of God.

A Chishti pir has this to add: The attitude of the Sufis towards death can be described in this way that they think that if they die they shall be with Allah and if they live Allah will be with them. Thus whether in life or in death they are with the Friend. An eminent saint, named shaykh ‘Abdul Qadir Jilani (d. 1166), better known as al-ghawth al-‘azam (the supreme helper), says that: ‘To remember death is the best remedy for the treatment of all the ills of the self’.

A good life can be led only when one is mindful of death. The recollection of death is the best preparation for the life hereafter. One of the benefits of a pure life is that it frees an individual from the fear of death. Shaykh ‘Abdul Qadir Jilani offered prayers and prayed for the welfare of all. Then he bowed down in adoration and when he raised his head, he heard a voice from the source invisible saying some words, which translated run thus:

O, tranquil self!
Return to your Lord
Well pleased and pleasing!
Enter among My servants
And enter My garden.

By meditating on death we may ask ourselves who we are. Are we our body? But it is our body which dies. What is it that returns to our Lord? What is this tranquil self mentioned above? What are its qualities? How to achieve such a tranquil self?

Just before submitting his life to his Creator, shaykh ‘Abdul Qadir Jilani uttered the memorable words: ‘I seek refuge with God, Who has no equal, Who is living and Who does not die and Who has no fear. Sacred is He indeed Who has the power and authority to send death to His creation. There is no god but God and Muhammad is the prophet of God’. Uttering the aforesaid words he entered the land of eternity.

Baba Fariduddin Ganj-i-Shakar (d. 1265) was reciting the following words at the time of his death: ‘O, the Eternal and the Everlasting!’ In the twilight of his life Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya (d. 1325) used to bow in adoration again and again and used to weep and say: ‘We go, we go, we go!’ He had given up taking food forty days before his death. One day soup was offered to him. He refused to take it and said: ‘What has he to do with the food of this world of whom the prophet is fond?’

The Chishti shaykh ‘Ala’uddin ‘Ali Ahmad Sabir (d. 1291) was living in Kaliyar ( India ) when he died. There was nobody present there at that time. His spiritual disciple and caliph named Shamsuddin Turk of Panipat (d. 1316), on exhibiting a supernatural power, was reminded that his spiritual guide had told him that when he (Shamsuddin) exhibited any supernatural power, he should know that he (the shaykh) had died. He left immediately for Kaliyar. On reaching there, he saw that a circle of light had engulfed and surrounded the dead body of his pir. It was difficult for him to approach the corpse. In spite of this he proceeded and as soon as he moved on, a shining sword cut off his sleeve the sword disappeared thereafter. On moving further he saw that a lion was sitting next to the dead body, as if to protect it. On seeing him the lion left. Shamsuddin made the necessary preparations for the funeral. But there was nobody to conduct the funeral prayers. He was feeling sorry and sad on this account, when all of a sudden, a person with a veil on his face appeared coming on horseback. On coming close to the place he got down from the horse and led the funeral prayers.

After the funeral prayers Shamsuddin was happy to see that there were very many persons, who had attended the prayers. He attributed all this to the person who had led the funeral prayers. When he was leaving Shamsuddin requested him very humbly to show his face to him. The veil was taken off and then he saw his shaykh ‘Ala’uddin ‘Ali Ahmad Sabir himself! Pointing towards the dead body he said to Shamsuddin: ‘Look there. It is mortal. It is fana’ (passing away of the self)’ – and pointing towards himself he said: ‘And look here. It is baqa (unitive life in Allah)’.

Charles Henry Brent has something important to say:

And just at the moment when someone at my side says:
‘She’s gone’,
There are others who are watching her coming,
And other voices take up a glad shout: |
‘There she comes’.
And that’s dying.

Death to the Sufis is not a frightful leap in the dark, but it is the last voyage, leading them to the Friend. But nobody knows when it may come. There is a time for the leaves to fall, for the flowers to wither and for the stars to set; but death has no season. It has all the seasons of its own. Death, to the Sufis is natural, universal and necessary. They die so that they may die no more. Living to them is dying and dying to them is living!

To finish, here is what shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi has said:

O, sleeper! How many people are not sleeping.
You are called, so wake up!
God will replace you in all He asks of you,
If you, at least sleep by Him!

Your heart however remains deaf to this appeal.
You only get awake in the world of creatures,
Which destroys you each time you die because of its hand.
Take care of your soul before its departure:
The provisions of the journey are not a certainty.