Caravanserai Magazine Archive

Published 1988-2000 semi-annually on behalf of the Sufi Movement International by the Sufi Movement in Canada.


1990 Volume 5. Nuria J. Lawrence. "Modern Sufi Views of the Afterlife as Expressed by Hazrat Inayat Khan"

As a mystical movement, Sufism is more concerned with inner experience than outward form. This is largely because of the feeling that there is a separation between words and meaning, making words tools, not ends in themselves. As Rumi expresses it, "Have you ever picked and held a rose from R, O, S, E? You say the NAME. Now try to find the reality it names."

In keeping with this tradition, Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan feels no obligation to express his ideas in the logical pattern of theology. This does not mean that he is illogical, but that his logic is one of symbolism. His ideas often appear to be a contradictory mixture of many different religions and mythologies. Upon closer examination, however, it is apparent that his ideas are unified by sentiment and personal experience. His views of the afterlife are presented as part of a larger body of mystical thought, meant to improve the condition of the present life by awakening the hearer to the purpose of existence.

The key to understanding any view of the afterlife is in comprehending the underlying view of the nature of the human being. It is thus appropriate to begin with an examination of Hazrat Inayat Khan's idea of the soul.

In The Soul, Whence and Whither, a wide variety of images is used to describe the soul, from a ray of the divine sun, to an exhalation of God, to Intelligence caught by mind and body. In general, Pir-o-Murshid's conception of the soul can be understood as energy that needs a medium in which to function before it becomes recognizable. The soul descends from God into a series of different spheres. At each stage it picks up more layers or 'veils,' as the raw energy attracts 'bodies' of mind, individuality and the physical body. The goal of every soul is to reverse the process by stripping away the veils until it is once more in a state of union with the Divine. Because the perception of individuality is regarded as ultimately illusory, personal survival is not an issue.

The first stage on the return journey of the soul is the death of the physical body. The soul inhabits a physical body on earth because the body has a magnetism that traps the soul. This magnetism is limited and will eventually be dissipated, like a clock that has run down. Death as we know it occurs when, as Murshid says, "this body loses that power of keeping together by which it holds the soul which functions in it. It gives way, and the soul naturally departs, leaving the material body as one would throw away a coat which one no longer needs."

Immediately after death, the soul experiences a period of shock and inactivity. It had become accustomed to identifying itself with the body, and the sudden withdrawal into itself produces an impression of horror. This is especially true if the person had been afraid of death, for, as Pir-o-Murshid says in The Soul, Whence and Whither, "if there remains anything of death with the soul which has passed away from this earth, it is the impression of death according to the idea it has had of death. If the soul has had a horror of death, it carries that horror with it; if it has had agitation at the thought of death, it carries that feeling with it."

The length of time that the shock lasts varies according to the fear of death the person had before dying; the greater the fear, the longer the time. Hazrat Inayat Khan refers to this state as purgatory, similar to the Christian idea in that it is a period of purification. However, it differs from the Christian conception in that it is seen as a purification from a single idea, that of death, and not from sin. Because of this, it is a state that all souls go through, whether they are on their way to heaven or hell.

For Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan, heaven and hell are not separate places, but separate states of mind. They exist in the jinn sphere, which is a world created by the mind, and the next phase after purgatory. When the soul has been purified of the idea that it is dead, it regains energy and reawakens in the world of ideas. This is compared to a dream world, except that one can never waken from it. The jinn sphere contains all of the things that the soul was familiar with on earth, including people and day-to-day activities. The soul lingers in a mental body similar in form to the one left on earth, but 'finer,' with "an incomparably longer life than the physical body." This body, like the physical body, is subject to discomfort. In the world of the mind, Pir-o-Murshid declares that discomfort consists of impressions ".. .of illness, sadness, of misery which the soul has experienced while on earth and has taken into the spirit world." Eventually, this body also decomposes and the soul moves on to the next sphere.

"After the jinn sphere, the soul moves on to the sphere of angels...

Because the world of the jinn plane is not physical, there are fewer limitations, and desires are much more easily met in this sphere. This is not always pleasant. As John Hick, theologian and author of Death and Eternal Life, points out, "We might discover that some of our desiring was repugnant to our better nature." For Hazrat Inayat Khan, it is our desires that create heaven and hell. "Owing to its delusions," he writes, "[the soul] takes upon itself all the conditions that the mind has to go through after death. Therefore the experience after death of the soul that has not attained to liberation is very depressing. If the mind is not much attached to the earthly life and has gathered up the satisfaction of its deeds, it enjoys heaven; if the contrary is the case, then it experiences hell." The progress of the soul is not automatic, and it is possible for a soul to remain in its hell for the duration of its stay in this sphere, by dwelling on negative impressions. However, Murshid says, "If [the soul] knows how to throw them off, he need not take them with him," and many souls learn how to 'throw them off during their time in this sphere. All souls are bound for the same destination, union with God, and in the afterlife, Murshid explains, "the soul finds itself in clearer spheres, therefore it knows its way better than it had known before when on earth."

In this Sufi way of understanding the afterlife, the 'Day of Judgement' of the Western traditions is interpreted metaphorically. The realization of the true nature of ourselves and our desires becomes our 'day,' for as Murshid writes in The Sufi Message of Spiritual Liberty, "Our day is when we are awake, our night is when we are asleep. When the illusionary [ego-centred] life has proved to be not so real as for some time we had thought it to be then comes the day when things appear as clear as in daylight. To some few this happens in this world, but to all in the hereafter."

The worlds created by the soul in the sphere of the jinn are by and large self contained. Hazrat Inayat Khan refers to the soul as "a person here [on earth] and a planet there." It is difficult to know exactly what he means by this. It could be that he means this quite literally, but it is more likely that it was meant figuratively. Each soul creates an individual mind world for itself, filling it with its own particular images brought from life on the physical plane. The self-containment is not complete, however; separate souls may not experience the same world, but, like planets, they do exist in the same realm and can influence each other by "their power of magnetism and by their power of attraction," as Murshid says. They may also communicate with
each other if they wish, or with people still living on earth.

While the jinn sphere is thus not completely isolated, it is not vital for the progress of the soul that there be interaction with other beings and realms. This is especially true for followers of the mystical path, whose goal is generally a subjective experience of God, or rather, an experience of God that goes beyond distinctions and differences. The mystic looks for God within the true self, and the knowledge of the self which a projected mind world would provide could greatly enhance growth, not limit it.

After the jinn sphere, the soul moves on to the sphere of the angels. The angelic sphere is also generally referred to as heaven, but unlike the mind-world, it is not a self-created world. It is a joyous state because the souls are close to the presence of God. Everything belonging to the jinn sphere is left behind, including thoughts. All that the soul retains are feelings and vibrations. The body in this sphere bears little resemblance to the earthly body, due to the changes undergone in each sphere. "When the soul is on its way to the physical plane," Pir-o-Murshid says, "its bodies grow, develop and become more distinct, and as the soul advances towards the goal, so its bodies become more ethereal, luminous but indistinct." It is made up of a special kind of light that is "Light and Life in one." It is visible, intelligent and even audible, for as Murshid says, "The soul, apart from the body and mind, is a sound, a note, a tone, which is called in Sanskrit 'Sura.' If this note is inharmonious and has dissonant vibrations [the result of failing to cast off negative impressions in the previous sphere] it is called...asura, out of tune. The soul, therefore, in the heaven of the angels has not got sins or virtues to show, nor has it a heaven or hell to experience. It does not show any particular ambition or desire; it is either in tune or out of tune."

The angelic sphere is a realm of music, in which each soul attains greater harmony. Even in this sphere, some souls remain undeveloped. The comparison to music allows for the discordant notes, because there are so many souls that each will find harmony with someone. Furthermore, as Pir-o-Murshid points out, the disharmony gradually fades: "The inharmonious people follow the harmonious even as far as in heaven. But as the soul goes farther it improves, it becomes more and more in tune. At the same time the vibrations of every soul are different, one is more harmonious than the other, but they all fit in to the one music of heaven, for the reason that in music you do not want all notes alike; all different notes are necessary.. .There is a chance of harmony at every step even as far as in the heavens, for life is progressive, and therefore there is always hope of improvement."

Eventually the soul leaves this plane and achieves union with the Divine, completing its journey to and from manifestation. This stage is not described by Murshid, because it is a mystical union and thus beyond words.

One of the philosophical advantages of this scheme is that no one is excluded from it. There is a certain amount of predestination involved, in that it is part of the soul's nature to journey towards reabsorption. However, in all of the steps along the way, the soul has both the choice and the ability to make the experience pleasant and further its progress.

Another interesting feature of Hazrat Inayat Khan's explanation is that it can work on two levels. On what might be termed the horizontal level, there is also what could be considered a vertical dimension to the soul's experience. Because this is an explanation based on mystical practice, there is no need to wait until the end of the journey to experience the Divine Presence. "They can go to God even from here," says Pir-o-Murshid, "for God is nearer to them than any sphere of angels or anything else." Through various esoteric practices such as zikar and meditation, the soul can achieve union with God no matter which plane the body inhabits. Each soul goes through the horizontal journey because, "The joy of life is the joy of the journey. If one closed one's eyes and was put immediately on the top of the Himalayas, one would not enjoy it so much as the tone who would climb from height to height, see the different scenery, meet with different people and breathe the different atmosphere and air."

If the purpose of manifestation is for the Divine to come to know itself, once having put on many veils, it is natural that the manifested souls will undergo many different experiences as the veils are dropped. It is also desirable for the soul to experience the vertical journey, so that it is able to appreciate and learn from the other journey. It is this learning that gives meaning to life. In Aqibat, Life After Death, Murshid says, "The work of the Sufi is to take away the fear of death. This path is trodden in order to know in life what will be with us after death. As it is said in the Qur'an 'Die before death.' To take off this mortal garb to teach the soul that it is not this mortal but is that immortal being, so that we may escape the great disappointment which death brings, this is what is accomplished in life by a Sufi."

By providing an image of reality in which the individual is ultimately illusory, Hazrat Inayat Khan avoids many of the philosophical problems associated with personal survival. For many people, the eternal existence of an identifiable ego provokes an existential nausea. In a scheme such as Murshid's, existence is given meaning and purpose—to know the Divine—without the weighty responsibility of eternal individuality.


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