By Shiraz Pradhan
Mention of the word ‘death’ whips up emotions of fear and sadness in most people. This is quite natural, because biological death marks the end of physical life on earth. To people, who are preoccupied with material things and sensual delights, death represents an end to all that. Religion aims to awaken in human beings the realisation that while life on this earth is short and transient, it has immense potentialities to achieve higher spiritual stations that lead to life eternal. The Holy Qur’an says:
“This life of the world is but a pastime and a game. Lo! the home of the Hereafter – that is Life, if they but knew.” — 29:64
Unfortunately, man is not impressed by the promise of eternal life which religion offers and hence, he continues to live in a manner so as to make the best of his short sojourn on this earth, believing that death is nothing but a passage into darkness and complete extinction. Shakespeare puts this very well, saying:
We are such stuff,
As dreams are made of;
And this life is
Rounded off with a sleep.
Islam, like all other revealed religions, teaches that death opens up a door into a different realm that enables the soul to experience the secrets of life hereafter. Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) is related to have said:
“This life on earth is a slumber, death marks the awakening of the soul”.
In Ismali tariqa (persuasion) of Islam, which is also a tariqa of jannat-bil-quwwat (potential paradise), anyone who truly offers his bay’at (allegiance) to Imami waqt (Imam-e-Zaman, Imam of the Time) is ushered into this jannah (paradise). In this tariqa, a mu’min (believer), in his search for haqq (Reality) and wasl (union) with haqq, has to come to understand consciously the meaning of death and accept it as an event of the exit of the soul from this world into the next, which is spiritual. His spiritual progress depends on this understanding.
The Imam-e-Zaman leads the believer from the zahir (exoteric) to the batin (esoteric), from the apparent to the hidden, from darkness to light and from the relative to the Absolute. He removes the veil of ignorance which blurs the mind of the believer and gives him the understanding that there is a world beyond this world of life and death which is everlasting and hence, as he fulfils his temporal duties, which he must not ignore, he must also attend to his spiritual responsibilities and prepare himself for the Hereafter, the country of haqq (Reality) and the abode of the Pure. He who attains this abode is blessed with life eternal, and if he so desires he can gain wasl (union) with haqq (Reality). This is the esoteric teaching of Ismailism and because the believer is steeped in the knowledge of the beyond, he is clearly aware of the fact that death is not a complete extinction of life, but it is a passage into eternity.
For a mu’min (believer), the jannah (paradise), the experience of life hereafter, the spiritual stations are all in a potential state and not within his grasp. In order to understand and live these experiences, he has to work at his religion. Like a ‘new born’, the spiritual child has to go through a period of growth and learning and he has to depend on the Imam of the Time for his spiritual guidance and baraka (blessing and grace). His spiritual life passes through four stages, namely, Shari’at, Tariq’at, Haqiqat and Ma’rifat.
Historically and in accordance with Ismaili tradition, the Imam of the time is concerned with spiritual advancement as well as improvement of the quality of life of his murids. The imam’s ta‘lim lights the murid’s path to spiritual enlightenment and vision. In temporal matters, the Imam guides the murids, and motivates them to develop their potential – Clause (F) of the Preamble of the Ismaili Constitution
Shari’at requires of him the observance and fulfilment of obligatory practices, such as, prayers, religious dues and absolute faith (iman) in and obedience to the Mawlana Hazar Imam. Besides, there are other things that call for his constant attention which Pir Shams categorises in his Ginan, saying:
Asha maro, chinta jaro,
Ane ap khudi karo rasoi;
Nindra jito asan jito,
Kare Kirtar so hoi.
Kill (your) desires, practice reflection
and make food of your ego, i.e. subdue your ego;
conquer sleep and control your physical posture (in meditation),
let, what the Creator does, happen, i.e. submit yourself to the Creator.
Desires which stem from lower instincts are the root cause of all physical and mental ills in man. When a mu’min succeeds in killing his lowly desires, all worldly conditions and events, whatever they be, cease to have any adverse effect on him. With lowly passions like greed, anger, lust and jealousy out of his way, he constantly reflects, with a calm and peaceful mind, on the purpose of his existence and on his inner reality. Who am I? What am I? Whence have I come and where will I return? are questions he constantly asks himself in search for the haqq (Reality).
It dawns on him that before his Creator he is a mere speck of dust and that in order to attain higher stations, he has to pray and supplicate.
Only when the believer has conscientiously observed the shariat and developed the right frame of mental attitude that he reaches the station of ishan (well-doing) – “Allah is with the well-doers” – Holy Qur’an, 29:69
At this muqam (stage), the believer serves all and loves all. His horizon is coloured with the hope of wasl (union) with the haqq (Reality). This marks his entry into Tariqat. He now pre-occupies himself in muraqaba (meditation), in which his body, mind and soul are completely absorbed in the dhikr (remembrance) and ‘ibadat (worship) of Allah. Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) has said:
“Worship Allah as if you see him, if you see Him not, yet He sees you”.
When meditation is done with the total awareness of Allah’s presence, it enables the mind to stay on the dhikr and prevents it from wild and fanciful flights and vile thoughts. During the course of meditation, it becomes incumbent upon the believer to come to terms with the concept of death because he is likely to have death-like experiences. The first of these comes when he achieves a high degree of concentration. At this point, he passes away from the world of senses so that he feels nothing, he sees nothing and he hears nothing. The feeling of complete detachment of the senses from sensory experiences can be unnerving for some because such an experience applies only to a dead body which feels nothing, sees nothing and hears nothing.
A mu’min does come to terms with this experience and thereafter, whatever be his worldly circumstances, he lives in a state of calm and peace within himself. In joy, richness and success, he becomes humble and in sorrow, poverty and failure, he seeks strength in patience. In his quest for the haqq, he continues to reflect on the qualities of the Divine Attributes (sifat) with greater intensity and thereby loses his ‘self’ to the Divine. This is yet another milestone in his spiritual journey. Rumi says:
The Beloved is all and the lover but a veil,
The Beloved is living, the lover a dead thing.
This is the muqam of fana-fil-haqq (dissolution in Truth). The personality of the mu’min, his very ‘real self’, melts away in the warmth of the Divine. In relation to the haqq, he no longer exists. He is, but yet he is not. The secret of wasl (union) with haqq is to be dead to the self. If a mu’min, desirous of this union, were to shrink away from losing his ‘self’ to the Divine and hold to its consciousness, he would never attain this union. Duality would plague him for ever, because through the illusion of the ‘self’ he would see the haqq as separate from him.
However, if a salik (seeker) has the courage to lose his ‘self’ and persevere in the state of fana, he reaches the stage of fana-fillah in which the consciousness of having attained fana also disappears. Beyond fana-fillah his the muqam of baqa or ‘eternal life’ in Allah. This then is the life promised to the mu’min. This promise of ‘eternal life’ dispels from his mind all the fears of ‘physical death’. It is, therefore, echoed by our Holy Prophet:
‘Die before you die’.
This is the stage ol Haqiqat. At this point the mu’min gets a compass ‘fix’ of the proximity of haqq in relation to himself.
“Wheresoever you turn, there is the Face of Allah” — Holy Qur’an, 2:109.
Although the saliq (seeker) is now aware of the haqq and experiences flashes of divine ecstasy, yet he has no direct knowledge of the Divine. He passes through a period of great torment as the Divine, now as his Beloved, teases him by veiling Itself from his vision. The salik has a fleeting experience of Divine Love which takes pleasure in hiding Itself. Describing this, Pir Sadardin says:
Kabu-ek pave, kabu-ek khove,
Kabaj vast ehi sab hove.
Kabu-ek hase, kabu-ek rove,
Kabu-ek lag piya gal sove.
Sometimes he attains, sometimes he loses,
sometimes everything comes under his control.
Sometimes he laughs, sometimes he cries,
sometimes he embraces the Beloved and sleeps.
This game of hide-and-seek, played by the Beloved, sharpens the love-desire of the salik which eventually leads him to the stage of ma’rifat (gnosis) which is to know ‘Allah by Allah’ – arafu Rabbi-bi-Rabbi. This state is not dependant on any mental or intellectual process or spiritual discipline of the mu’min. It is a gift and a favour of Allah.
It is Allah’s Grace when His Nur (Light) illumines the heart of the mu’min and leaves him in a state of silence to enjoy the experiences of the fathomless Peace and unbounded Glory.
Date posted: Wednesday, April 3, 2013.
This piece by Shiraz Pradhan originally appeared in Ilm, Volume 8, Number 4 (March 1984), under the title “Die Before You Die” and is published here with minor revisions. Pradhan contributed regularly to the flagship Ismaili magazine which was published by the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for the United Kingdom from 1975 until 1992. Readers will also be interested in another excellent piece by the author on Ismaili spirituality. Please click: The Inward Odyssey in Two Key Ismaili Ginans, “Brahma Prakash” and “Sakhi Mahapada”.
Clause (F) from the preamble of the Ismaili Constitution quoted within the body of the article is not part of the original article. To read the complete preamble, please click: The Preamble Of “The Constitution of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims”
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