‘Die before you die’
I came across this saying some years back and since then even reading it over and over did not seem to suffice. Some associate this to the Prophet Muhammad (may eternal peace be upon his soul), others refer to it as a Sufi saying. (1)
I would like to think this to be the core of my understanding of spirituality. To die before you die means to sacrifice everything that feeds the nafs (soul, the Self, ego, consciousness) fuel to ignite a dangerous fire that can only lead to self destruction. It means to eliminate the part of our self that says ‘I am’, to remove the ‘I’ from within ourselves, and the foolish thought that we are or ever will be independent from God. To stay far away from arrogance, hypocrisy, greed, dishonesty, anger and all that are not associated with the attributes of God.
Navigating the nafs
The Qur’an makes direct reference to three stages of the Self. Each possessing its unique challenges that amount to a complete purification and subsequent peace. Each steering our metaphorical ship through the ocean of Love. Since God and Love are but One, we hope this ship will only lead us to the pleasant meeting with our Lord.
The first stage (Nafs Al-Ammara) is the part of the soul that feeds on temptation. It commands a person to evil and acts upon ones base desires. The first and most dangerous level of being.
Indeed the nafs that overwhelmingly commands a person to do sin.
Part of the metaphorical death before my physical departure means to truly understand my nafs and all the evil that it is capable of. Allah alludes to the demise of mankind resulting from wronging our own souls. I may only achieve salvation if I shed the part of my Self that binds me to a delusional attachment to the worldly life. How often do we hasten to blame the devil for our inadequate submission to the Lord? Understanding our soul allows one to realise that when temptation is nigh, we become slaves to nafs al Ammara.
The second stage (Nafs al Lawwama) arises when we are able to appreciate sirat al mustaqim (the Straight Path) by becoming aware of our actions and denying the nafs its power to shape our decisions.
And I swear by the reproaching soul [to the certainty of resurrection
This part of our nafs gives us the ability to hold ourselves accountable. It puts our being into its own court, if you may and seeks to serve justice by understanding the sins we have committed and attempt to redress them.
The last and final stage (Nafs al Mut’ma’inaa) is when Al Salaam (the source of peace) grants us inner peace wherein He says,
To the righteous it will be said “oh reassured soul! Return to your Lord well pleased, and pleasing to Him”
This stage of the nafs serves as a reminder that there is light accompanied with darkness. This light is God – for He lies in the depths of our heart and soul. There is kindness, humility and gentleness wherever the Lord is. If He is present within my soul, then surely I will rely on this light to take my nafs out of the abyss. To become mut’main (at peace) with the decree of Allah is part and parcel of the journey to die before ones physical death.
The Month of Ramadan – a lethal weapon in the battle of the Self
When we read aloud our testament of faith we begin by saying there is no God but God. Arabic word for ‘no’ being ‘laa’. A negation, if you may. It is an acknowledgement that nothingness is the core of faith. ‘Laa’ opens our hearts to the Truth of God by understanding that our being is ephemeral and temporary. That all matter in the heavens and on the earth is at the Mercy of the Malik al Mulk (Sole Possessor of All Kingdoms).
Mulla Sadra writes, ‘when God becomes the master of the heart, Mercy pours forth and light shines upon it, the breast is expanded , the secrets of Divine Sovereignty (malakut) are unveiled to it, and the greatest veil is removed from the face of the heart through the benevolence of Mercy and the realities of Divine Affairs illumine it’ (2)
I strive to truly detach myself from my own Self and allow God to become the master of my heart. Not so much for the purpose of attaining freedom from the hellfire, or the bounties of His paradise but rather to ultimately become of those whom are loved by Al Wadud (the source of all love and affection; the Loving and Affectionate Lord).
Fortunate are those who envisage the return to their Lord before death overcomes them. I realise that the hairs on my head may grey before I can truly conquer my base desires and live for the soul purpose of seeking the Truth. However what use would my being on this Earth be, if I am not able to do that which I have been created to do?
And I [Allah] did not create jinn and mankind except to worship Me [Allah]
I hope that we have all left the month of Ramadan eliminating a little bit of our Self that takes us away from the Reality of His Being. May we truly become human manifestations of Allah’s Holy Book.
(1) James Fadiman & Robert Frager, Essential Sufism.
(2) Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Caner K. Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, Joseph E.B. Lumbard & Mohammed Rustom, Tafsir of Surah Al Shura, The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, p. 1187.