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A Sufi View of Spiritual Rebirth: Bawa Muhaiyaddeen

Sufism has been loosely defined as the mystical tradition within Islam (in the sense that, for example, Yoga is a mystical tradition within Hinduism). Actually, there are endless debates about how to define Sufism, as some teachers present themselves as firmly within the framework of Islam, while others regard themselves as teaching a sort of transcendent mysticism that underlies and gives meaning to all religions. (Those with a general interest in Sufism should refer to the links at the end of this article.)

Bawa Muhaiyaddeen was a Sufi master from Sri Lanka who came to America and taught here for about a decade and a half before his death in 1986. I encountered his work recently for the first time and have been struck by both the divine atmosphere that suffuses his photos and writings, and by the unusual perspective his teachings give on the core experience of mysticism. One of the surprises was that his teaching on the afterlife initially appeared to embrace a limited doctrine of rebirth that I have never heard associated with Islam; and this despite the fact that Bawa seems to have operated firmly within traditional Islamic belief and practice. (For example, the recent book The Illuminated Prayer: The Five-Times Prayer of the Sufis by Michael Green and Coleman Barks relates that Bawa taught the five-times-daily prayer discipline of Islam to his Western students; though his primary teaching was that we should practice dhikr, the remembrance of Allah, at all times and not just while praying or meditating formally.)

A resume of Bawa's teachings on the afterlife might shed some light on what is essential or universal among mystics, and what is incidental and perhaps not so universal. I am going to present a number of quotations, primarily from a book by Bawa Muhaiyaddeen called To Die Before Death: The Sufi Way of Life. Nevertheless, I can't claim to have fully captured or understood his teachings on the subject. The book is a collection of short speeches and question and answer sessions, and while certain ideas are repeated throughout, there is never a systematic presentation. Bawa spoke more like a poet than a scientist, with the end of making people experience the truth rather than just understanding it intellectually. Sometimes he answered questions in indirect ways, and sometimes he appeared to evade the question altogether. Some of his beliefs strike me as quite frightening, but he presented his understanding of the truth with a sweetness that I have rarely encountered.

Note: Since this article was originally written several years ago, a couple of correspondents have sent me additional information that has greatly changed my understanding of Bawa's teachings on the soul and the afterlife. It now appears likely that Bawa was speaking of successive stages that a soul may evolve through within a single physical human lifetime. This is a distinctly different position from other religions that teach of literal, physical rebirths. I would like to thank Barbaros Sert for this insight, though he is not to blame for any other mistakes that this article may still contain.

Arrival of the Soul

Regarding the pre-existence of the soul, Bawa has this to say:

My child, what is called the ruh, the soul, is a ray of light that came from God. In the kingdom of the ruh, the souls exist as rays, as magnetic powers. Those rays were dispersed by God and scattered all over, filling all places in creation. They fell upon seven different places—upon earth, fire, water, air, and ether, and upon the light and the plenitude. Those rays, which were constantly in motion, became the countless lives of creation. What kind of life each ray became was determined by where it fell, which energy it fell upon. The rays that fell on the earth became earth lives, and those that fell on fire became fire lives. In the same way, water lives, air lives, and ether lives (lives of illusion) were created.

The rays that fell into the realm of wisdom, into God’s kingdom, became the sixth form of life, the light life, the human soul. That soul sees only the One who is God. The rays that returned to Him became the seventh form, the light of plenitude or completeness. Those souls which fell back into God were the 124,000 prophets and the qutubs.

[...]

The ruhani is different. A man may look like a man, but depending upon where his ray originally fell, he may have, impressed within him, the qualities of a monkey or a lion or some other animal. If the ray fell into water, the qualities of water will be impressed upon him. If it fell into fire, he will have fire qualities, as the jinns do. If it fell into air, the qualities of the angels will be within him. If it fell inside of maya, then the qualities of darkness will enter him. If it fell on earth, he will be filled with many millions of thoughts and qualities, dirt and stench, mud, gold, silver, mercury, copper, lead, oil, and the many colors found in stagnant water. So many qualities will come into the person from wherever his soul fell.

These qualities and the actions that result from them are called ruhanis. Whatever a person gives life to within himself—each thought, each mantra, each elemental miracle or magic, whatever he brings to life using the angels of earth, fire, water, air, and ether or maya—these become ruhanis. They are in opposition to the ruh, the pure soul.

—From an unpublished dialog supplied by Howard Posner

The soul arrives in the unborn infant in stages which are completed by the third month:

In the first month, on the third day after conception, that power known as anma, the essence of the elements, joins with the embryo. Then the embryo starts to move.  In the second month, the avi enters into this. That is the pure spirit, or vapor. By the end of the third month the soul is sent within that pure spirit and the embryo's movement increases. Within ninety days, slowly the pure spirit pushes the soul in from above and life becomes evident in the fetus. —To Die Before Death, p. 79

Rebirths in This Very Life

In one of his discouses, Bawa speaks of rebirth as a metaphor for the spiritual changes we go through during our lifetime:

It is while you are living in this world, in this very birth, that you undergo all these rebirths - about 105 million rebirths. Every day, you are being reborn. Every new quality is indeed a rebirth . . . Look at a person's face, for example . . . The heart and the face reveal the person's state, whether it be happiness, sorrow, anger, vengeance, and all the other states that a person experiences. Each of these is a form that a person has taken at a particular time. In this way, without his even being aware of it, the person is reborn in different forms within his lifetime.
—Ibid
, p. 115

Rebirths in Lower Forms

In other discourses, Bawa spoke of how a person who fails to realize God is "reborn" with various animal qualities. After each "rebirth," one loses some of the potential for the highest level of realization, and becomes capable of only a lower level of realization.

The point is you should do the work while you are still here. You should do it in this very lifetime.
—Ibid
, pp. 111-112

This is the human birth, in which we have divine analytic wisdom., the sixth state of consciousness. This wisdom enables us to discriminate between what is right and what is wrong . . . If a human life dies and is reborn, even once, its value decreases. The sixth level of consciousness and the ability to discriminate is reduced, and in the next birth one will have five levels of consciousness.
—Ibid, p. 108

Thus, if one misses the opportunity to realize God in this birth and dies, he will be reborn with only five levels of consciousness. But even so, he must try and make the most of that. Then he will at least receive a station worthy of that level. He will be born seven times with five levels of consciousness and a human face . . . He will be born seven times at this fourth level, and if he does not achieve the maximum attainment of that level, he will be reborn with only three levels of consciousness. He will be born seven times at this level, and if he does not live up to that state, then he will be born with only two levels of consciousness. After that, he will be born with only one level of consciousness. In that birth, he should at least attain the position given to one who is at the first level of consciousness. If he does, then he will be born as either a tree, shrub, grass, bulb, or flower.
—Ibid, pp. 109-110

If you miss the opportunity in this birth, you may have six more lives, but only your face will be of human form. The rest of you will be like a monkey or a donkey. It is only in this birth that you are a true human being.
—Ibid, pp. 113

That is why it is said that if we miss our chance in this birth, we will have given up our human form and be subject to many different forms and many different births. This is what the wise men were talking about.
—Ibid, pp. 117-118

I originally interpreted these passages as a doctrine of reincarnation, involving physical death followed by physical rebirth in the body of a lower animal. I was forced to rethink this view after receiving the following correspondence:

I do not see my self as a knowledgeable person to make comments about the Shaikhs interpretation but I will try to explain this rebirth issue as far as understand.

When a person looses his humanness in his life time and gets the qualities of the animals or acts like an animal everytime e.g. violent or angry like a tiger or bites the people like a snake and hurts them with his words, his unseen inner form or astral body (Batin) takes the qualities of the animal related to his state. There are hadiths of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) stating that such and such person will be resurrected in the day of resurrection in the form of such and such animal. If one analyses the hadiths in islam, he will find the hadiths referring these issues.

This may happen to the person a lot of times during his life time (one life not many). Person's state keeps changing. A person becomes violent and angry at one moment, and next minute he behaves in another way. So person's state keeps changing during his life time. So everytime his state changes, his previous state dies, but that state is born again on another minute, because the person behaves in the same manner again. So each changes happening is like a death and birth of that person in different states. And this state becomes visible to the eyes of the saints, they can see this person's inner form and understand what qualities one have. These are mentioned as deaths and rebirths by Shaikh Bawa Muhaiyaddeen (K.S).

This should not be confused with the common understanding of Reincarnation. This is not like someone dies physically and his soul comes back in some other person's body or in an animal's body. The shaikh rejects the common reincarnation as we come to life once, and We are given only one life. That is why He keeps repeating "we need to tackle this in this lifetime." Because there is no other chance.

I will not enter in to the subject of common reincarnation and why islam rejects common reincarnation, here as this subject takes pages of explanations. My aim was to explain what the Shaikh Muhaiyaddeen (K.S) was trying to explain to people by the term "Rebirth." I would not want people to take a credit from the shaikh's words to justify common understanding of Reincarnation . . . This may cause misunderstandings and wrong criticisms about the Shaikh by Muslim people in the world.

—Barbaros Sert (Personal communication, 1/30/2007)

You can quote my comments in the website but please make sure that this is my comment and if there is any mistakes it belongs to me. If there is any good in it, it comes from Allah. I do not have the authority to talk on behalf of Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship or Shaikh MR. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen (K.S) himself so any criticism should be notified to me not to BMF or Bawa.

—Barbaros Sert (Personal communication, 1/31/2007)

Aside from general questions of Islamic theology, there are some specific reasons to think that this view of Bawa's teachings may be correct. In the first place, this interpretation tends to harmonize Bawa's statements about rebirth in lower forms with his statement previously quoted under "Rebirths in This Very Life." Also, when discussing these lower rebirths, Bawa repeatedly stresses the difference between one's inner state and one's outer appearance. Thus he says "only your face will be of human form." Bawa can see your animal nature by looking inside you, not by looking at your outward appearance:

When you pass by me and I look within you, I may see something with four legs, I may see a snake, I may see a lion, a tiger, a demon, a cow, a horse, a donkey, or a crab. When I look inside, I will know this. I see this.
—Ibid, pp. 113

Free Will and Destiny

Bawa says that we are not predestined to Heaven or Hell:

My children, it is we who prepare either heaven or hell for ourselves. Our destiny is written with our own hands, then handed over to God, and he gives the judgment.
—Ibid, p. 21

Whenever you ask for forgiveness, instantly He will forgive you . . . If He had already written your destiny, he would not grant these things . . . Further, if God had already written your destiny, there would be no need to pray. Prayer has been reserved for you, so there is no such thing as predestination.
—Ibid, p.22

However, there is a particular lifespan that has been allotted for us:

When the allotted amount of food, water, fire, air, and ether for each man is over, he is called back by 'Izra'il, the Angel of Death. This is called his destiny (nasib).
—Ibid, p. 126

People who die before their ordained time, whether they die in an accident, commit suicide, or are murdered, will roam in the form of ghosts and demons until their destined time comes. Then they are taken by the Angel of Death to be judged.
—Ibid, p. 145

State Shortly After Death

Bawa says that our awareness remains in the body for some time after death:

The soul will remain with you until you are placed in the grave. Until your soul departs, everything you experienced before, all the singing and dancing, all the shouting and drinking, all the attachments to your relatives will be seen by your eyes and heard by your ears, but it will be as though you were under anesthesia. You will not be able to talk or move, but you will be aware of everything. Before an operation, you are given anesthesia so you will not be conscious of the pain, but your body remains aware of what is being done to it. In the same way, you cannot speak or shout, you cannot move, you cannot do anything, but an awareness within your body knows what is happening. Until you are placed in the grave and covered with earth and everyone has taken seven steps away, you will know everything.
—Ibid, p. 86

The Questioning in the Grave

Then a questioning takes place in the grave:

Then he sits up and the two angels, Munkar and Nakir, ask him questions. "Who are you? What did you do? Whose son are you? What are the things that you have done?" . . . So the two angels will ask every organ - eyes, nose, ears, teeth, hands, legs - and inquire into the faults committed by each of them individually . . . Then the person in the grave is asked to write what the eyes did. There is no paper to write on, so the white burial shroud is used as paper. The forefinger is the writing finger . . . You are told, "You have your own ink to write with. That is your saliva." . . . As soon as everything is written, your qiyamah (reckoning) is finished.
—Ibid, p. 164-165

During this questioning, one has a form symbolizing one's tendencies:

When death comes, our form will change. It will be made up of our qualities. If our qualities in the world were like those of a pig, we will take the form of a pig . . . It is of those forms that the questions will be asked.
—Ibid, p. 44

When we are raised up, will rise up in the form that we have assumed through our properties. They will say, "Write!" . . . When you are raised up tommorow, you will have to go in the form that you have assumed, and then the judgment will come.
—Ibid, p. 46

This form that appears after death is presumably the same as the final inward state that you achieved by the end of your lifetime, as discussed previously under "Rebirths in Lower Forms."

The Importance of Burial

Bawa taught that is is important to be buried rather than cremated, to repay the debt we owe to the earth because God made use of it to create us. It is imporant to avoid cremation:

Satan will forever try to trick us. Even at the final stage of our lives, he will try to have our body cremated so that we will burn in fire and not repay our debt . . . God said, "I will forgive whoever pays back that final debt, that trust which I owe to earth. But whoever does not pay that debt will be punished, and I will send him to the fire of hell. —Ibid, p. 134

Additionally, Bawa said that the body should not be in a casket or a vault shielded from the earth.

The earth, the body, must touch the earth. That is the correct way.
—Ibid, p. 138

Punishment in the Grave

According to one of Bawa's statements, you remain in the grave receiving punishment until the final Judgment Day:

Your cycle on earth is finished, and you have to wait until the final Judgment Day in this grave. Until that day, you will be given punishment in the grave according to what you have done. The angels will come, snakes will come, scorpions will come, and you will receive lashes for everything you did.
—Ibid, p. 165

Heaven

But those who have realized God in this lifetime do not linger in the grave:

If one has made the world die within him while in this world itself, then as soon as he is placed in the grave and the mourners walk seven steps away, he is brought back to life immediately, and that moment becomes his day of reckoning. The inquiry is immediate. When they wake him in the grave, his light and beauty and the treasure he acquired from Allah will be revealed. he is given eternal life and is taken immediately from the grave.
—Ibid, p. 158

When that day comes, such a person will no longer be in the grave. He will be in heaven, because any place he is will be heaven. He has no death. Wherever he lives, it will be a palace. On the earth he lives in a palace, and in heaven he lives in a palace. When he is buried, he is in a palace. He has a palace on the outside and one on the inside.
—Ibid, p. 117

Mankind is divided into seventy-three groups. Out of these only one group goes directly to barzakhul-'alam without having to face any questions. These are people who have no attachment. They have died while still in the world, while still alive.
—Ibid, p. 172

The glossary to the book describes barzakhul-'alam as

That sphere or realm between this world and the hereafter . . . That place is in the heart (qalb). The soul resides there and is concealed . . . The place where the soul is contained in the body between the time of death and the time it is raised from the grave is known as barzakhul-'alam.
—Ibid, p. 240

We create our heaven through our own actions:

What is heaven? Heaven is what we take with us. What is goodness? Goodness is what we take with us. For every small act of goodness that we take with us, one thousand or even ten thousand beautiful things will be spread out before us there. A single good act is made into so many thousands of acts of goodness . . . Heaven is the place where all our good actions and good thoughts have been multiplied thousands and tens of thousands of times and reserved for us.
—Ibid, p. 116

A person's good qualities and good thoughts will become the celestial beings who will later perform service to him in the hereafter, and their appearance will be that of innocent children. Even while in this world, his qualities must perform service to him. If he serves the people in the world with his good qualities, those same good qualities will serve him in the hereafter.
—Ibid, p. 156

The Final Judgment

In addition to the judgment in the grave, there is a later, final judgment that affects everyone:

On the Day of Questioning (Qiyamah), the trumpet will be blown by Israfil, the angel of air, and everyone will be woken up. When that air is blown by Israfil, the person will rise up in the specific form that he was reborn in according to the changes in his qualities and actions in this world. It is only then that this new form is revealed. He may have the form of a dog, a cat, or a rat, or some other being, and it is in this form that he will finally be asked questions and have to account for his actions.
—Ibid, p. 116

Hell

Bawa had some extremely bad news for us in the hell department:

I did see hell with my own eyes. When I was flying over, I could see each one of the seven hells. Finally, I saw the fire of hell. I also saw the different beings who had fallen into hell. They no longer looked like human beings, but had the appearance of dogs and various other animals, with their tongues and noses either missing or crushed . . . Even now, when I think of it, I shudder with fear.

There is such a thing called hell. However, it is the hell that exists within us that God shows us on the outside. If we have overcome it here, then we will overcome it there. Those who have not overcome it here in this world cannot overcome it there. There is no hell there that is not present here. Only God can save us.
—Ibid, p. 105

Then he ['Izra'il] motioned me to go further and look, and I saw that the number of people going to heaven were few and the number of people going to hell were many.
—Ibid, p. 101

How Did Bawa Know These Things?

In some cases, Bawa seemed to be relating doctrines that he was simply taking on faith. Several times he finishes one of these discourses about the afterlife by saying things like:

This is what people say. I don't know. If I had studied all this, why would I be here? There would be no reason for me to be here.
—Ibid, p. 91

Whatever, this is my craziness. I have not been there to see it yet.
—Ibid, p. 168

Other things he can confirm from his own experience. For example, he relates meeting visiting graves and talking to the people there who are awaiting the day of judgment (Ibid, pp. 158-159). He also recounts meeting ghosts:

In Ceylon I have captured countless numbers of ghosts and demons, so that they could not harm human beings. Some of these had been conjured up by mantras and made to enter people, some were demons which had been created into gods, and others were ghosts of people who had died prematurely.
—Ibid, pp. 144-145

Bawa had a vision of hell, discussed previously. He also relates a vision of the Angel of Death ('Izra'il) who has four faces, and of a tree with lights representing each life on earth (Ibid, pp. 99-101).

Differences from the Doctrine of Reincarnation

Bawa's teaching differs from the Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh teachings on reincarnation in a number of major ways.

Bawa Muhaiyadden Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh Teachings
One has no earlier births before this human birth. One must be born in all the lower animal forms before it is possible to be born as a human.
Each person has only one lifetime. Within that single lifespan, the soul can go through a series of transformations that are figuratively referred to as "rebirths." One physically dies and is reincarnated in another physical body.
Each inner transformation or "rebirth" is at a lower spiritual level than the preceding one. After each rebirth, a certain reduced level of realization is still possible. If you fail to attain that level of realization, you are reborn at the next lower spiritual level. People tend to progress to higher forms, though occasionally one can be condemned to rebirth in a lower form due to severely bad actions.
Most people never reach enlightenment. Everyone keeps being reborn until they get enlightened.
Burial is necessary, and cremation is to be avoided. Cremation is preferred, as it helps to free the soul from this earthly realm so it can move on to its next abode.
Peoples' qualities in this life result from the element on which their soul first fell when the soul was sent out as a ray of light by God. Differing fortunes in this life are explained as reward or punishment for actions in previous lives.

Similarities to the Doctrine of Reincarnation

  • Human birth is considered a rare and precious opportunity for gaining enlightenment.
     
  • We are held accountable for our actions and rewarded or punished in a life beyond this one.

Similarities in Method and Realization

Other aspects of Bawa's teaching greatly resemble other types of Eastern mysticism, namely

  • God is the only Reality and is completely One, undivided
     
  • We need to turn our attention from the world to God
     
  • It is possible to merge with God inwardly

Bawa said,

Say La Illaha Il Allahu. Don't waste your breath. With every breath, say LA ILLAHA IL ALLAHU.

It must be said with your breath. You don't have to make a sound; your tongue silently repeating: La Illaha, nothing is real; Il Allahu, only God exists . . .

Whatever time or whatever place you may be, whether you are walking or sitting or working or sleeping . . . Say it like this. Do not even waste even one second!

- From The Illuminated Prayer: The Five-Times Prayer of the Sufis, by Coleman Barks and Michael Green. p. 124

Although Bawa was against the use of mantras, this practice greatly resembles the Yogic practice of ajapa japa, or So'ham mantra. Following is a teaching on So'ham mantra from Swami Muktananda, in the book I Am That:

Sit quietly, and watch the going out and coming in of the breath . . . Bhairava says that as the breath comes in, it makes the sound ham, and as the breath goes out, it makes the sound sa. (p. 27)

This is known as ajapa-japa, the unrepeated mantra repetition. One who simply watches the breath, being aware that it is coming in and going out with the sounds ham and sa, is doing ajapa-japa, and this is the true way of practicing mantra. (p. 28)

Muktananda explains that hamsa means I Am That; or, if you focus on the outbreath first, it is heard as so'ham, which means That Am I. Both statements assert your identity with the highest reality. Variations on this mantra are taught by other Hindu masters; for example, some revese the order, associating sa with the inbreath and ham with the outbreath, or give a slightly different pronunciation for the syllables. Also, it is not uncommon for gurus to advise their students to synchronise whatever mantra they are practicing with the inbreath and the outbreath.

It would seem to me, therefore, that these sages of varying traditions are talking about a similar experience of realization, and that they are alike in agreeing that breath awareness is a powerful tool for attaining this realization, especially when combined with an uplifting thought of some kind that focuses one's attention on the divine.

However, there is a crucial theological difference in the way that these mystics characterize our relationship to the divine. In Hinduism, the divine or Brahman is said to dwell within each of us as our inmost self. This would not be an acceptable position in Islam, and even the Sufi mystics seem to steer clear of any statements that would directly equate our self with God. Buddhism takes still another approach, and for the most part tends to undermine our conventional ideas about the nature of self and the ultimate reality, while stressing that the real truth cannot be expressed in words, but must be experienced immediately as a result of meditation, good works, and spiritual practices.

Among the mystics of these varied traditions, perhaps the only common notion is that the Divine Reality cannot really be described by words or doctrines. This leaves open the possibility that there is some deeper level of commonality in mystical experience that is altogether beyond the level of doctrines.

Addendum

I have received some additional correspondence from devotees of Bawa Muhaiyaddeen that I would like to cite here.

In the first place, Bawa seems to have had a complex relationship with Hinduism. He is said to have deeply studied Hindu scriptures such as the Puranas and given talks upon them. However, he could be critical of many Hindu gurus, including Muktananda, though Bawa once was invited to visit and gave a teaching at the latter's ashram.

Another correspondent places a good perspective on the deeper spiritual issues in Bawa's teaching. I quote his message with permission:

I just read your piece on Bawa Muhaiyaddeen where you review the To Die Before Death book. I had the privilege of writing the introduction to the book so I feel qualified to comment on your work. You are questing for the one good point, the placeless location where each joins with the All, and that questing has allowed you to benefit from reading Bawa's material. The evidence is your insight that Bawa remains interested in the transforming power of experience of the Real rather than the coherence of theology or religion. It is to open the heart, the doorway beyond egoism, that should motivate the reader of his work. If that motive is there, then each work will demonstrate a nuanced power to cause the remembrance to happen. He said different things to different people. If one understands that the mind trap is like a labyrinth and the Guru's words the map out, it stands to reason that he would give a slightly different map to different people. Yet, certain principles remain:

1. Only God is real.

2. Wisdom is required to know God.

3. Divine Qualities must be developed to lay the foundation for wisdom to dawn.

4. We are here together to learn, thus always be a student.

So much more to say, but may I suggest that you would enjoy Bawa's Book of God's Love very much,
Love,
Ahamed Muhaiyaddeen

More Information

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To Die Before Death: The Sufi Way of Life, by M. R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen

Many of Bawa's books are available through Amazon.com, including the book from which most of the quotations in this article were taken. Click here for further information on this book at Amazon.com.

illumpry.jpg (5274 bytes)

The Illuminated Prayer, by Coleman Barks and Michael Green.

A beautifully illustrated introduction to the five-times-daily prayer of Islam, in the light of the teachings of Jellaludin Rumi and Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. Click here for further information on this book at Amazon.com.

Or, for much more information, visit the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship Website.



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