Dying before you die
Opening the door to Sufi attitudes to death and dying
I’ve just completed the first stage of my end-of-life doula training, and one small task in the course was to explore an unknown (to me) area of religion or spirituality to understand the broader practices and belief systems that make up our world, and how it relates to death and dying.
I was immediately drawn to exploring Sufism, the otherwise ‘esoteric’ or ‘mystical’ branch of Islam. Though it was a quick deep dive, I came away from it with a closer connection to Islam, and I thought I would share some of the most interesting things I found.
I’ll contextualise Sufism with some broad brushstrokes of information, and pick out some of the most insightful things I learned. If I’m found to be doing a great disservice to the culture, rituals or history of Sufism, I’d like to hear about it so I can be corrected. Please add in the comments below or email me directly.
A universal thing
So from my understanding, Sufism is best described as an aspect or dimension of Islam, rather than a sect or sub-sect of Islam. As Paul Salahuddin Armstrong, Sufi and Co-Director of the Association of British Muslims notes, it is:
a more universal thing that transcends a single path.
Sufis could be described as devout Muslims; praying five times a day, giving to charity, fasting etc in that they adhere strictly to the outward observance of Islam. In the West, Sufism has been paid particular attention in the last few decades as it has historically been non-violent, given its deep spiritual tradition and sitting outside of the more controversial/conflictual parts of Islam (i.e. Wahhabism) it has been used by successive Western governments to either find inroads to understanding or as a leveraging tool for policy change. For me, it takes some mental effort to undo all the poisonous work that European and American governments and media have done to paint Islam as a source of terrorism and antagonism. Every religion, culture and creed has fanatics. I won’t go into that further because I am really not educated enough to say more, but this exploration has made me understand more clearly about how Sufism is a portal into understanding how in the end, we are more similar than we are different if you follow a spiritual path.
Sufi practices can be said to help nurture theirs and others' spiritual dimension. These beliefs and practices are not distinct from Sunni or Shi’a Islam in the Muslim world, but rather a form of religious worship that is prevalent in both sects. Sufi orders, known as Tariqas, are found throughout the Muslim world, with each order taking on its own distinct identity based on its practices and structure, and often reflecting the cultural and linguistic context in which it is set.
From what I could discern, it is hard to estimate the number of people following Sufi traditions in the UK. ONS data from 2018 states there are 3,372,966 Muslims in the UK, making it the 2nd biggest faith behind Christianity (33,111,246). Lulu Schwartz, an American Sufi and academic estimates that 5% of the global Muslim population are Sufi, though this is hard to clarify due to the conflicting associations of the term (some Sufi do not consider themselves Muslims). However, given this number we can create an estimated illustration of around 168,848 Sufi in the UK.
Dying before you die
Many of their devotional practices are focused on intense music and dancing. The dhikr (remembrance) usually involves rhythmic chanting of the names of God, sometimes accompanied by poetry, dance, drums or a reed flute. This is the popular image that you may have of Sufis: the ‘whirling dervishes’.
Music, dancing and the arts play a significant part of the Sufi tradition. The collective nature of movement and music has a transcendental effect on people, and like many other religious practices, is used to enter an altered state of consciousness.
Among Muslims, the Sufis tend to pay special attention to the issue of death, they are extremely and passionately attached to the contemplation on death1. One could argue it is one of their core tenets:
The whole dimension of Sufi teaching that is connected with the stages and stations of the spiritual journey describes in voluminous detail the spiritual transformation undergone when a human being returns to God before his physical death2.
They consider death in the widest sense of the word - to understand when they are switching off from being present in the world, paying devotion to Allah, this is a symbolic death, turning away from life. Annemarie Schimmel, an Orientalist and expert in Sufism described as:
...die before you die, for every act of shedding off a lowly quality is a small death; every sacrifice for the sake of others is another small death whereby the individual gains new spiritual value; thus, in a series of deaths, the soul rises to immortality or to a level of spiritualization that it has never dreamed of.
They hold important the notion that in many ways, we only become alive when we die, quoting the Prophet (Peace be upon him) who said:
People are asleep and when they die, they awake.
Tumblr’s favourite philosopher
One of the most poetic ways of engaging both with the ideas, beliefs and philosophy of Sufism is through the work of the Sufi poets, Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, better known in the West as Rumi. His influence on Sufism and Islam is hard to understate.
He is well known in the West, and you probably have heard of him through countless quotations on the internet which are often mistranslated to be secularised and stripped of their Islamic context (which this thread explores).
The story goes, as Rumi was dying, his wife pleaded with him not to die. To which he replied:
Am I a thief? Have I stolen someone’s goods? Is this why you would confine me here and keep me from being rejoined with my Love?
He is rightfully regarded as one of the most important poets, and his work deserves much wider, deeper reading, particularly if you are interested in Sufi attitudes to death and dying but especially to counter the effects of his words being diluted down to remove their religious meaning.
We’re all seeking the same thing
For me, two things compellingly describe the Sufi attitude to death and dying:
The importance of embracing and accepting various forms of death in your life
That the experience of death is not the end but a rejoining with your beloved (Allah)
The traditions, ideas, philosophies of Sufi are incredibly rich, and transcend the narrow common definitions we have in the West around Islam. In many ways Sufism is an expression of the core spirituality that is seen in every faith and spiritual tradition: This is not all there is. Death is not the end. Don’t be afraid to die.
Fahm, Abdulgafar. (2014). A Brief Analysis of the Meditation on Death in Sufism. The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society. 4. 7-14. 10.18848/2154-8633/CGP/v04i03/59266.
Chittick, William C. (1987). Rumi's View of Death. Alserat.