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:
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 placesupon 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 Gods 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
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 himselfeach thought, each mantra,
each elemental miracle or magic, whatever he brings to life using the angels of earth,
fire, water, air, and ether or mayathese 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.
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).
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.
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
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
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.
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
—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
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
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
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.
||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
Similarities in Method and Realization
Other aspects of Bawa's teaching greatly resemble other types of Eastern mysticism,
- 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
Say La Illaha Il Allahu. Don't waste your breath. With every breath, say LA ILLAHA IL
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
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