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Summary of question
What does it mean to choose one’s death from the perspective of the Holy Quran and traditions?
What does it mean when people say that some people are able to choose their own deaths or to choose when they die (voluntary death)? Please mention sources from the Holy Quran and traditions in your answer.
Concise answer

It is possible to say that the original source of the term ‘death by choice’ or ‘voluntary death’, which is used in Islamic Irfan (gnosis), first came up in this tradition from the Holy Prophet (s) where he said: "موتوا قبل ان تموتوا"[i], which means: “Die before you die”. In this hadith, the first “death” refers to an act that is done willingly, while the second “death” refers to the death that is not up to us and will take place for everyone.

In the Holy Quran the desire and inclination towards death has been set as the criterion for the people who love God and are pure hearted. Many of the ‘Urafa’ (spiritual travelers towards God) have considered these verses in the Quran to be an invitation to this ‘voluntary death’, through which the real lovers of God are known by and it is the criterion for weighing the love of God.

In practical Irfan many prerequisites, stages, and types have been mentioned for voluntary death. All of these in turn eventually take the spiritual seeker towards the rank of ‘complete death’. These stages of death are listed as: the ‘White Death’ which is listed as the toleration of hunger, the obtainment of effulgence, and the whiteness of the heart. Then there is the ‘Green Death’, which is simple living and poverty. There is also the ‘Red Death’ which is the conflict of the spiritual wayfarer with his own self desires. In addition to all of these there is the ‘Black Death’, which is the carrying of people’s reproach, censures, and the sadness’s which accompany this facet of life. The Urafa have explained and expounded upon many aspects of these four levels of voluntary death that have all been mentioned in their own places.

One of the Irfani stations which explains another side of voluntary death is something called ‘leaving one’s body’. This means that the spiritual wayfarer goes farther than death and his body becomes much like a set of apparel for him; when he wishes he can remove it and when he wishes he can put it back on. This station requires the person to completely let go of the inclinations of their self (nafs) and is the stage of ‘Separation’ which leads to the station of ‘Fana’ (annihilation).

[i] Allamah Majlisi, Biharul-Anwar, vol. 69, pg. 57.

Detailed Answer


Death, and in particular the specific word ‘Voluntary Death’, are terms with specific lexical meanings and are found in various traditions, philosophy, Irfan, and various other sciences. Even though all of these sciences lead to one final truth they all tackle various aspects of that truth and have various approaches towards it. For example this concept of voluntary death has various stages; it also has prerequisites that must be fulfilled as well as extreme limits. All of these stations and steps have been listed as voluntary death.

In essence, death itself is considered an irfani reality which runs current to human existence. The art of dying (voluntary death) is considered the highest irfani and ‘fitri’ art. This means that the human being who is on the spiritual path should become annihilated from themselves and open themselves up for a better life in various stages and positions. This flow and movement of the creation towards their inner and divine nature is counted as a movement towards perfection and completion.

We are going to attempt to explain this subject in a complete manner which encompasses all the various meanings and aspects of voluntary death. We will attempt to explain each one and put them in their proper perspective and place; also we will explain the Quranic and tradition based realities which this subject mentions.

1.     Voluntary death in the Holy Quran and traditions

It can perhaps be said that the original source of the term ‘Voluntary Death’ came about in Islamic Irfan from these words of the Holy Prophet (s) of Islam where he said: "موتوا قبل ان تموتوا"[1], which means: “Die before you die”. In this sentence the first “Die” which is used means death which is a voluntary action and the second “Die” which is used has the meaning of the death which is not optional and is the destiny of every single human being.

Similarly the inclination towards death and desiring it is used as a clear and fault proof method of measuring the love and purity of those who claim to love God. It is repeated multiple times in the Holy Quran that: قُلْ یا أَیُّهَا الَّذینَ هادُوا إِنْ زَعَمْتُمْ أَنَّکُمْ أَوْلِیاءُ لِلَّهِ مِنْ دُونِ النَّاسِ فَتَمَنَّوُا الْمَوْتَ إِنْ کُنْتُمْ صادِقین‏"[2], which means: “Say: O you who are Jews, if you think that you are the favorites of Allah to the exclusion of other people, then invoke death if you are truthful (so that you may reach union with your beloved).”

Many of the urafa have considered these verses as an invitation towards voluntary death and have considered it as the criterion for how much someone loves God.

In another verse in the Holy Quran this same matter has been revealed about the hypocrites where it says that if they are ordered to kill themselves, except for a limited number, they will not do so. "وَ لَوْ أَنَّا کَتَبْنا عَلَیْهِمْ أَنِ اقْتُلُوا أَنْفُسَکُمْ أَوِ اخْرُجُوا مِنْ دِیارِکُمْ ما فَعَلُوهُ إِلاَّ قَلیلٌ مِنْهُمْ وَ لَوْ أَنَّهُمْ فَعَلُوا ما یُوعَظُونَ بِهِ لَکانَ خَیْراً لَهُمْ وَ أَشَدَّ تَثْبیتاً"[3], which means: “And if We had prescribed for them: Lay down your lives or go forth from your homes, they would not have done it except a few of them; and if they had done what they were admonished, it would have certainly been better for them and best in strengthening (them).”

Imam Sadiq (a), in ‘Misbahul-Shariah’, has described the first condition for wayfaring towards God as having a state of readiness for death. He has also given advice for such a person by saying: "فانظر أیها المؤمن فإن کانت حالتک حالة ترضاها لحلول الموت فاشکر الله تعالى على توفیقه و عصمته و إن کانت أخرى فانتقل عنها بصحیح العزیمة”, which means: “Then beware oh wayfarer that if you have this state where you are satisfied with dying then thank God for this blessing and opportunity. If you are not in this state, then leave your previous state with firm intention and purpose (towards the state of being satisfied with dying).”

Hence the spiritual wayfarer can measure the truthfulness of his claim of loving God by using the criterion of his inclination towards death. The master of all ‘Arifs’, Imam Ali (a), was the furthest along on this path when he said: “I swear by God! The fondness of Ali towards death is more than the fondness of a suckling child toward the milk of its mother.”[4]

In reality these individuals were already dead and they had reached the stage of inner martyrdom at the hands of their beloved one. This is because death at the hands of a friend is higher than death at the hands of the enemy. In a famous ‘Qudsi’ hadith it is mentioned that: "من طلبنی وجدنی و من وجدنی عرفنی و من عرفنی احبنی و من احبنی عشقنی و من عشقنی عشقته و من عشقته قتلته و من قتلته فعلیّ دیته و من علیّ دیته فانا دیته", which means: “Whoever seeks me will find what he seeks and whoever finds me will like what he has found and whoever likes me will love me and whoever loves me, then I will love him also. Whoever I love I will have ‘killed’ and whoever is ‘killed’ by me his ‘diyah’ (blood money) is my responsibility. Whoever has his ‘diyah’ on my hands I myself will be his recompense.”

2.     The stages and types of death in Irfan

The Urafa have mentioned various prerequisites, stages, and types of voluntary death; all of these end in the stage of complete death. These stages of death are mentioned as being: 1. The white death: this means being content with "قوت لایموت" (getting enough nourishment just to stay alive) or at least being content with a halal (permissible) livelihood and eating less food which will end up causing an effulgence to come about and a whiteness of the heart. 2. This is mentioned as being the green death which means simple living, wearing simple clothes, and voluntary poverty; these will result in the freshness of life (hence the green color which symbolizes the vitality of life). 3. The third stage is the red death which is the battle of the spiritual wayfarer with the desires of his own self which is considered as being the greatest Jihad (struggle). Since martyrdom in Jihad requires the spilling of one’s blood this stage has been called the red death. 4. The last stage is called the Black Death and this is the toleration of the people’s words of censure and their evil and hurtful words.[5] The Urafa have explained and expounded on these 4 matters and have known these steps to in reality be the way of complete freedom from this world and all that is in it. These four stages have been mentioned as being the base foundations of practical irfan.

3.     Leaving the Body

One of the positions in Irfan which is mentioned as another aspect of voluntary death is that of ‘leaving the body’. This means that the spiritual wayfarer goes in a way ahead of death and his body becomes to him as a set of clothes. He is able to take his clothes off at will and put them back on at will. The spiritual wayfarer is in essence beyond his own body when he reaches this stage.

Shaikh Ishraq, in his works, used this term more than others. For example he said: "لایعد الانسان من المتألهین ما لم یصر بدنه کقمیص یخلعه تارة و یلبسه اخری، ثم اذا شاء عرج الی النور"[6], which means: “You cannot consider someone as a wise man until their body has become to them like a set of clothes which they, under their own will and control, can remove or put back on. Hence, according to their own will, they ascend towards light.

In another place he has mentioned: "و اعظم الملکات ملکة موت ینسلخ النور المدبر عن الظلمات انسلاخاً و ان لم یخل عن بقیة علاقة مع البدن، الا انه یبرز الی عالم النور و یصیر متعلقا بالانوار القاعرة و یری الحجب النوریة کلها"[7] which means: “The biggest irfani aspect which becomes second nature is that of death. This means that with this aspect of death he can leave his body, enter the world of light, while still being attached to his body, and cling to the dominating lights and see all of the veils of light.”

Similar to this example is the supplication of ‘Shabaniyya’ which has stated: "الهی هب لی کمال الانقطاع الیک ....حَتَّى تَخْرِقَ أَبْصَارُ الْقُلُوبِ حُجُبَ النُّورِ فَتَصِلَ إِلَى مَعْدِنِ الْعَظَمَةِ وَ تَصِیرَ أَرْوَاحُنَا مُعَلَّقَةً بِعِزِّ قُدْسِک"‏[8], which means: “Oh Lord! Grant us a complete separation from this world towards you…until we reach the place where our heart can tear apart the veils of light and reach the source of majesty and our spirits become suspended to your holy glory.”

Here it is necessary to note that in many of the various kinds of new Irfan and the spiritual sciences separating the spirit from the body is seen as a very important goal. In lexical terms this action is called ‘throwing the spirit’ or a ‘journey of the soul’. From the philosophical and Irfani perspective this action is counted as the imaginal (mithali) body leaving the material body.

In this act of the soul leaving the body, the imaginal body which carries the soul separates from the material body, either with the will of the individual or unwillingly and with the help and instruction of another individual. It should be known that this issue of the soul leaving the body is considered a stage of the soul not being in need of the body in Islamic Irfan. This stage of the needlessness of the soul from the body sometimes can be for a few moments, sometimes it will happen over and over again, and sometimes it can be permanent in duration. This stage of spiritual wayfaring happens along the path when people begin to purify their ‘nafs’ (inner self) and is the result of repeated self-admonitions. This can happen either when the individual admonishes themselves repeatedly or when others admonishes an individual. Nevertheless, if this stage is achieved through other means, it is no longer irfan and falls under the category of the ‘occult sciences’; it is only an issue of strengthening the power of the spirit. Likewise the accidental occurrence of this state can take place in the case of severe fright or pain; this is in reality a disease and does not count as one the stages or ranks of Irfan.

From what has been said it has become clear that voluntary death and leaving the body are the results of lessening or completely cutting off the desires of the self (nafs). Also these are stages that finally end in the stage of ‘fana’ (annihilation in God) which is the final and ultimate stage that a human being can reach and brings great insight and deep knowledge to the individual.

This stage can sometimes be reached when spiritual manifestations take place for the individual and can sometimes be achieved  under the effects of certain exercises and practices, in order to expand and extend the ‘nafs’ in the world of imagination and metaphor.

Hence, expelling the spirit, in and of itself and without the purification of the self has no effect in terms of reaching human perfection and completion. This action happens to many of those seeking spirituality and leaving the body and voluntary death is actually farther than merely expelling the spirit. This is because it brings about complete changes and transformations in the Arif, which takes him past the stage of his body. From this perspective the material body, under the effects of luminous manifestations comes under the rule of a thin veil which it can leave at any time and this is a very supreme stage of Irfan that differs from just separation of the spirit and material body. In fact Sheikh Ishraq believes that only a few arifs possessed this power.

[1] Biharul-Anwar, vol. 69, pg. 57.

[2] Al-Jum’ah:6.

[3] Al-Nisa:66.

[4]وَ اللَّهِ لَابْنُ أَبِی طَالِبٍ آنَسُ بِالْمَوْتِ مِنَ الطِّفْلِ بِثَدْیِ أُمِّهِBiharul-Anwar, vol. 71, pg. 5.

[5] Adopted from: Hasanzadeh Amoli, Sharh Uyun Masa’il Al-Nafs, pg. 154.

[6] Commentary on Hikmatul-Ishraq of Sohrevardi, pg. 4. With the efforts of Abdullah Nouri and Mahdi Mohaqqeq.

[7] Ibid, pg. 531.

[8] Biharul-Anwar, vol. 91, pg. 98.

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