Notes from and inspired by Ayatollah Salman Safavi’s presentation to the Next Century Foundation, October 20th 2020.
We are from above and we are going up
We are from the sea and we go to the sea
We are not from there and from here
We are from nowhere and we go to nowhere
(Rumi, Divan Shams, Ghazal: 1674)
«ما ز بالاییم و بالا می رویم
ما ز دریاییم و دریا می رویم
ما از آن جا و از این جا نیستیم
ما ز بیجاییم و بیجا می رویم»
(مولانا، شمس، غزل ۱۶۷۴)
There is a huge amount of literature about the subject of death in Sufism but the poetry of Rumi is of particular importance. The first question to be asked is what is death? Is it destruction or is it the essential transformation of life? From the Sufi perspective on life and the origin of life, death can only be the essential transformation of life. The most famous poem in Sufi literature is the one in which Rumi explains the different aspects and steps and stages of life:
« از جمادی مردم و نامی شدم****و ز نما مردم به حیوان برزدم
مردم از حیوانی و آدم شدم****پس چه ترسم کی ز مردن کم شدم
حملهٔ دیگر بمیرم از بشر****تا بر آرم از ملایک پر و سر
وز ملک هم بایدم جستن ز جو****کل شیء هالک الا وجهه
بار دیگر از ملک قربان شوم****آنچ اندر وهم ناید آن شوم
پس عدم گردم عدم چون ارغنون****گویدم که انا الیه راجعون
مرگ دان آنک اتفاق امتست****کاب حیوانی نهان در ظلمتست
همچو نیلوفر برو زین طرف جو****همچو مستسقی حریص و مرگجو
مرگ او آبست و او جویای آب****میخورد والله اعلم بالصواب
****ای فسرده عاشق ننگین نمد****کو ز بیم جان ز جانان میرمد
سوی تیغ عشقش ای ننگ زنان****صد هزاران جان نگر دستکزنان
جوی دیدی کوزه اندر جوی ریز****آب را از جوی کی باشد گریز
آب کوزه چون در آب جو شود****محو گردد در وی و جو او شود
وصف او فانی شد و ذاتش بقا****زین سپس نه کم شود نه بدلقا»
I died to the inorganic state and became endowed with growth,
and then I died to vegetable growth and attained to the animal.
I died from animality and became human: why, then, should I fear?
When have I become less by dying?
At the next remove I shall die to human,
that I may soar and lift up my head amongst the angels;
And I must escape even from the state of the angel:
everything is perishing except His Face.
Once more I shall be sacrificed and die to the angel:
I shall become that which enters not into the imagination.
Then I shall become non-existence: non-existence saith to me, in tones loud as an organ,
Verily, unto Him shall we return.
Know death to be the thing signified by what the Mohammedan community are agreed upon, namely, that the Water of Life is hidden in the Land of Darkness.
Grow from this river-bank, like the water-lily, greedy and craving for death as the sufferer from dropsy.
The water is death to him, and yet he is seeking the water and drinking it,
And God best knoweth the right course.
Oh, the cold lover, clad in the felt garment of shame, who from fear of losing his life is fleeing from the Beloved!
O thou disgrace to women, behold hundreds of thousands of souls clapping their hands and rushing towards the sword of His love!
Thou hast seen the river: spill thy jug in the river: how should the water take flight from the river?
When the water in the jug goes into the river-water, it disappears in it, and it becomes the river.
The lover’s attributes have passed away, and his essence remains: after this, he does not dwindle or become ill-favoured.
From the Mathnawi of Jalaluddin Rumi, Book III, lines 3901-3915
Translation by Reynold A. Nicholson
In this poem Rumi refers to the concept of different manifestations of being. There are stages before life in this world, there is this world and there is the absent world. According to Sufism our life is not a single finite entity. It is composed of many chapters or levels and in essence we are eternal beings connected to a unified whole. There is no death. Each ‘death’ is an introduction to the next chapter or level. This approach is based on the Sufi understanding of existence – or being – and the origin of that being. In the poem Rumi makes reference to some of the verses in the Koran including one that is very important: ‘We are from God and to God we return. We are from Him and we will return to Him.’
A key difference in Sufism compared with some other religious traditions is that there is no binary concept of heaven and hell as a consequence of external judgement. We ourselves create heaven and we create hell and our actions and behaviour in this world will echo into the next level or manifestation of our being.
For Sufis there are four relationships that must be fully lived and fully nurtured prior to our death. These relationships are to the self, to society, to nature and to the sacred super-nature that has different names in different traditions but in Islam is Allah. Sufism teaches that we need to have a just and constructive relationship with all four of these components of our earthly existence. So there is a very deep connection between how we live before we die and how we will live after it.
The most important of these relationships is that to society. If our relationship to our society is built on justice and goodness then the next level of being will reflect this. If we behave unjustly to our society or to people, whoever we are – politician, businesswoman or man, man of religion – this will equally rebound on us. What we are creating in our lives is the heaven or the hell of our own actions and this conduct determines our pain or our comfort as we transcend from our earthly being to the next manifestation. Our action determines our being – its beauty or its ugliness – and remains with us. The deep connection between this life and the next is held within a fundamental understanding of the unity of existence from which thousands of manifestations emerge. Each human life is a manifestation of the divine unity rather than separated from it, and this can enable us to shape our identity and to choose to live according to that unity of self, society, nature and the divine. In the sense that all are manifestations of the one, there are no divisions in the abundant diversity of humanity – none is above another – and our conduct towards others should embody this fact.
In the manifestations of existence, the lowest state is that of the material world. This material world is a temporary state and the Sufi understanding is that is not ‘real’ but simply the manifestation of which we are aware and which we therefore believe is real. Believing it is not only real but absolute can degrade the individual into believing that reality is the exercise of his own dominion manifested in material accumulation and dominance. In this understanding, war is an inevitable consequence of the imagination asserting that individual reality and its corporeal existence is primary and real. Without an understanding and acceptance that it is actually the lowest state of being, humans cannot be free from time and space and will thus perpetuate the darkness of their own time and space.
The heart is the essence of humankind in Sufism. The heart is light and it is pure. In the course of this life we face darkness. Our behaviour can bring darkness and our heart can become dark, but light is the fundamental essence of the divine and it is eternal. The purity of the heart is the insight that enables us to see our own darkness and to repeatedly return us toward that light. To be a part of that light.
We have great personal responsibility in Sufism. We must define for ourselves what we believe is valuable and pursue that value in order to achieve happiness for ourselves and for others. We cannot avoid wrong actions and darknesses of our own making, but we learn as we move through the stages of experience in this life. In Sufism, happiness is communication. Communication with the four key elements of the life we know, and ultimately communication with beauty, knowledge and divine power. If we work towards this we create positive energy that we can transfer to our societies and to other people. That positive energy is light and the source of that energy is the divine and eternal light that is part of the unity of all existence. For Sufis it is this light that not only defines life but negates the idea of death as finality. In other words, the eternal nature of the light to which we return makes death a logical impossibility.
With much gratitude to Ayatollah Salman Safavi and all at the Next Century Foundation.
Images in descending order:
1. Mystical Scene with Shams Al-Din Tabrizi and the Reflection of Sun in a Pool
2. The Funeral of Jalal Al-Din Rumi
3. Dogs in a Market Listen to Rumi, Who Praises their Understanding and Attention
4. Garden of the Heart, 2004, by Zarah Hussain Courtesy of the artist.
Three Persian miniature images from Tarjuma-i Thawāqib-i manāqib (A Translation of Stars of the Legend), in Turkish. The translation was ordered in 1590 by Sultan Murād III (r. 1574–95) from the Persian abridgement of Aflākī. Iraq, Baghdad, 1590s. Reproduced here courtesy of the The Morgan Library and Museum Collection. Please click directly on images for more information.
Valerie Grove is a multidisciplinary artist working under the rubric of ‘Nature Strikes Back’. For more information about the Elegy Project and more than two decades of other work, please see www.naturestrikesback.com