Mebruke is a thirty-year-old Saudi Arabian living in New York City. At the age of twenty she was swimming in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Italy when she became tired. As she headed for shore, she realized that she was too far out to make it back. She began to struggle and swallow water. Finally she slipped beneath the waves.
“I went under for the fourth time, and my body went limp and I wasn’t aware of it anymore. It was at this point that I saw a beautiful white light. It was so bright and yet it had such a calming effect that the more I looked at it, the calmer I felt. To this day I can’t really say what that light was. In my religion (Muslim) there are beings called angels who are made out of pure white light. Maybe that is what I saw.
“Anyway, while I was underwater, I heard a voice say, ‘You are not to die like this.’ Suddenly I felt this energy shoot through me from my feet to my head, and at the same time I seemed to be propelled out of the water. It was as if someone was physically bringing me out of the water, but I can swear that there was no physical being there.
“I was moved through the water, I don’t know how else to describe it. Before long a boat came, and a man reached over the side and pulled me out. When he did that, I started to laugh because I was so glad to be out of the water.”
2. The Sufi Way of the Heart
In the eighth century, a mystical sect of Islam began which merged the mystical traditions of the Greeks, Buddhists and Hindus with traditional Islamic faith. Concepts found in Sufism can be found in a great many near-death experiences which have been reported. The Sufi masters teach that, after death, a person judges himself thereby bringing about their own heaven or hell. Sufism is known as “the Way of the Heart” and the “Way of the Pure.” It is a means by which one can move from the lower level of self to ascend to the Divine Light that penetrates the entire universe. This light concept is common to many other religions as well as the near-death experience. According to Sufi tradition, there are many ways to ascend, but the essence of the path to God is to find yourself. As the Sufi saying states, “Know yourself, know your Lord.”
Perhaps the most influential Sufi in history is Jalal ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi (1207-1273), more simply known as “Rumi”, who was a 13th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic. Rumi’s influence transcends national borders and his poems have been widely translated into many of the world’s languages and transposed into various formats. Rumi has been described as the “most popular poet” and the “best selling poet” in the United States. The general theme of Rumi’s thought, like that of other mystic and Sufi poets of Persian literature, is that of tawhid — union with the Beloved, from whom he sees himself as being cut off and aloof. His longing and desire to attain it is evident in the following poem from his book the Masnavi:
I died to the mineral state and became a plant,
I died to the vegetable state and reached animality,
I died to the animal state and became a man,
Then what should I fear? I have never become less from dying.
At the next charge (forward) I will die to human nature,
So that I may lift up (my) head and wings (and soar) among the angels,
And I must (also) jump from the river of (the state of) the angel,
Everything perishes except His Face,
Once again I will become sacrificed from (the state of) the angel,
I will become that which cannot come into the imagination,
Then I will become non-existent; non-existence says to me (in tones) like an organ,
Truly, to Him is our return.
Rumi believed passionately in the use of music, poetry and dance as a path for reaching God. For Rumi, music helped devotees to focus their whole being on the divine and to do this so intensely that the soul was both destroyed and resurrected. It was from these ideas that the practice of whirling Dervishes developed into a ritual form. His teachings became the base for the order of the Mevlevi, which his son Sultan Walad organised. Rumi encouraged sama, listening to music and turning or doing the sacred dance. In the Mevlevi tradition, sama represents a mystical journey of spiritual ascent through mind and love to the Perfect One. In this journey, the seeker symbolically turns towards the truth, grows through love, abandons the ego, finds the truth and arrives at the Perfect. The seeker then returns from this spiritual journey, with greater maturity, to love and to be of service to the whole of creation without discrimination with regard to beliefs, races, classes and nations.
3. The Prophet Muhammad’s Journey to Heaven
According to the Islamic legend called “Miraj,” the Prophet Muhammad had an experience that is similar in many respects to a near-death experience. Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven to visit the seven heavens (and, in some accounts, the fires of hell) in the company of the archangel Gabriel. In the Quran, Muhammad’s enemies are quoted as saying that they would not believe him unless he ascends to heaven and brings down a book (Sura 17:92-95).
In Islamic legend, Muhammad is reported to have gone on a mysterious night journey into heaven. Islamic sources state this happened “in the spirit,” his body remaining behind. In this legend, Muhammad is prepared for his meeting with God by the archangels Jibril and Mikail one evening while he is asleep in the Ka’bah, the sacred shrine of Mecca. They open up his body and purify his heart by removing all traces of error, doubt, idolatry, and paganism and by filling it with wisdom and belief. An animal by the name of Buraq, apparently horse-like and white, and with a human face, was provided for a ride from the mosque in Mecca to the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, from where he ascended, supposedly on a ladder of light to the seven heavens. In the first heaven Muhammad meets Adam; in the second, John the Baptist and Jesus; in the third, Joseph; in the fourth, Enoch; in the fifth, Aaron; in the sixth, Moses; and in the seventh, Abraham (who welcomed him as “Good son and good prophet”). Fifty prayers were ordained by Allah to be said by all believers daily. On the journey back, Moses, in the sixth heaven, encouraged Muhammad to go back to the seventh heaven and request a smaller quota, since this large number would be rather impractical to execute. Ten daily prayers were deducted. Again Moses encouraged Muhammad to go back and ask for still fewer prayers, which was repeated three times, until five daily were set for observance. This Muhammad did not dare query.
The legend also provides teachings on what to expect at the time of death. According to legend, Muhammad states that the ladder on which he ascended to heaven was “that to which the dying man looks when death approaches.” A similar concept is described in medieval literature where, at death, the soul is escorted by angels through seven heavens to the throne of God where it receives a preliminary reckoning and is then returned to the grave to await Judgment day.
The following is the full account Muhammad’s Journey to Heaven from the “Sīrat Rasul Allah” verses. 270-271.
“After the Prophet took this night journey from Masjid al-Haram to Masjid al-Aqsa, he ascended to the upper heavens. When the Prophet and Jibril arrived at the first heaven, Jibril requested the gate to be opened. The angel assigned to that gate asked Jibril, ‘Who is with you?’ Jibril answered, ‘It is Muhammad.’ The angel asked Jibril, ‘Was he dispatched? Is it time for him to ascend to the heaven?’ Jibril said, ‘Yes.’ So, the gate was opened for him, and Prophet Muhammad entered the first heaven.
“There, Prophet Muhammad saw Prophet Adam. To Adam’s right, the Prophet saw some bodies, and to Adam’s left, other bodies. If Adam would look to his right he would laugh, and if he would look to his left he would cry. Adam was seeing the souls of his descendants. Those on his right were his descendants who would die as believers and those on his left were his descendants who would die as non-believers.
“Then the Prophet ascended to the second heaven. In this second heaven was where Prophet Muhammad saw Prophets Jesus and John the Baptist. Jesus and John the Baptist are cousins; their mothers were sisters. They welcomed the Prophet and made supplication for him for good things. The Prophet ascended to the third heaven, where he found Prophet Joseph. Prophet Joseph was extremely handsome. Allah bestowed half the beauty on Joseph. Joseph received the Prophet with a warm welcome and made supplication for him for good things.
“Then the Prophet ascended to the fourth heaven, where he found Prophet Enoch. Enoch welcomed the Prophet and made supplication for him for good things. In the fifth heaven, the Prophet encountered Aaron, the brother of Prophet Moses. In the sixth heaven, he encountered Prophet Moses. Each of these Prophets received Prophet Muhammad with a warm welcome and made supplication for him for good things.
“Then the Prophet ascended to the seventh heaven, and that is where our Messenger saw Prophet Abraham. The Prophet saw Prophet Abraham with his back against al-Bayt al-Ma^mur. To the inhabitants of the skies, al-Bayt al-Ma^mur is like the Ka^bah is to us, the inhabitants of the Earth. Every day 70,000 angels go there; then exit from it, and never return. The next day another 70,000 angels go, come out, and never return. This will continue until the Day of Judgment. In this, there is an indication as to the greatness of the numbers of the angels – their numbers are far more than the numbers of the humans and the devils together.
“In the seventh heaven, Prophet Muhammad saw Sidrat al-Muntaha – a very big tree of sidr. Each of the fruits of this tree is as large as a big jar. The leaves of this tree are similar to the ears of the elephants. Sidrat al-Muntaha is an extremely beautiful tree. It is visited by butterflies made of gold. When these butterflies gather on this tree, its beauty is beyond description.
“Then the Prophet ascended to what is beyond the seven skies; he entered Paradise. He saw examples of the inhabitants of Paradise and how their situation would be. He saw most of the inhabitants of Paradise are the poor people.
“The Prophet saw other things on the night of his ascension. He saw Malik, the angel in charge of the Hellfire. Malik did not smile at the Prophet when he saw him, and the Prophet asked why. In answer to the Prophet’s question, Jibril said, ‘Malik did not smile since the day Allah created him. Had he smiled for anyone, he would have smiled for you.’
“In Paradise, the Prophet saw some of the bounties Allah prepared for the inhabitants of Paradise. He saw the Hur ul-^In: females Allah created who are not humans or devils. They are in Paradise and will be married to those men Allah willed them to marry.
“The Prophet saw the wildan ul-mukhalladun: creations of Allah who are not human, devils, or angels. They are a very beautiful creation of Allah whose appearance is like laid-out pearls. They are servants of the inhabitants of Paradise. The least in status of the People of Paradise will have 10,000 wildan ul-mukhalladun to serve him. Each one of them would carry a tray of gold in one hand and a tray of silver in the other hand.
“The Prophet saw the Throne, which is the ceiling of Paradise. The Throne is the largest creation of Allah in size; Allah did not create anything bigger in size than it. The seven heavens and the Earth in comparison to the Kursiyy are like a ring thrown in a desert, and the Kursiyy in comparison to the Throne is like a ring thrown in a desert. The seven heavens and the Earth in comparison to the Throne are like a seed of mustard compared to the ocean. Allah created the Throne as a sign of his Power and he did not create the Throne to sit on it.
“Allah created the Throne to show his Power. It is carried by four angels, and on the Day of Judgment, it will be carried by eight. The Prophet said he was permitted to speak about one of these angels who carry the Throne. In describing this angel, the Prophet told us the distance between his ear lobe and shoulder is the distance a fast-flying bird would cover in 700 years.
“Then the Prophet ascended beyond Paradise. He reached a place where he heard the creaking of the pens used by the angels who are copying from the Preserved Tablet. It is at that location Prophet was given the obligation of the five Obligatory Prayers.
“At first, Allah obligated fifty prayers. When Prophet Muhammad encountered Moses, Moses told him to make supplication to his Lord to ease the obligation of fifty prayers, because his nation could not handle that. Moses said, ‘I have experience with the people of Israel, and I know your nation cannot bear that.’ So the Prophet asked his Lord to lessen these prayers for his people. Five prayers were eliminated. Once again, Moses told the Prophet to ask Allah to lessen the number of prayers. Allah did. Nine times the Prophet made supplication to Allah to lessen these prayers – until these prayers were lessened to five Obligatory Prayers. So Prophet Moses was a great benefit to us. Had we been obligated to pray fifty prayers a day, this would have been a difficult matter for us.
“Also, Allah told the Prophet a good deed would be written for the person who intends to do a good deed, even if he did not do it. Also, the good deed performed would be registered for he who performs it as at least ten good deeds – up to 700 good deeds. For some people, Allah would multiply the reward of their deeds more than that. Additionally, if one performs a bad deed, it is registered for him as one bad deed; yet for the one who inclines towards committing a bad deed and then refrains from committing it, a good deed would be registered for him. Here, one should note the difference between two matters. If a thought crossed a person’s mind about doing something sinful, and this person wavered in this thinking, i.e., considered whether he should do it or not, then he refrained from doing this for the sake of Allah, this is written as a good deed. However, if a person has the firm intention in his heart that he wants to commit a sin, it would be written for him as a sin, even if he does not do it.
“Although Muhammad’s ascension, considered strictly, was a unique privilege, it became common for religious writers to speak of devotional practices (from ordinary ritual prayer to the ecstatic invocations and dances of the Sufi brotherhoods) as ways to accompany the Prophet on his journey to heaven. The Miraj was a favorite theme of Sufi poetry and art. Jalaluddin Rumi, the thirteenth-century Sufi poet, declares that the aim of spiritual life is to “die before you die” and, like Muhammad, to ascend to that intimacy with God which he has withheld from angels and yet granted to his servants and lovers.
4. Muslim Afterlife Beliefs
The notions of resurrection, heaven, and hell have been part of Islam since the time of Mohammed. Both the Quran (Islamic scriptures) and the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed) refer to the afterlife.
The human being, created in God’s image, is composed of a body, the outer shell of which originated in clay, and spiritual breath, which can communicate with God and which is located at the center of the body. This is the microcosmic reflection of the Islamic macrocosm, which is viewed as a globe of infinite realms whose center is full of light, the purest of God’s creations. Its outer shell is made of clay, which represents darkness. The human soul resides within the human being somewhere between these two opposite principles – light and darkness – and is a mixture of the two, unique to each individual, while the spirit that resides at the center (being of godlike nature) is the same for everybody.
When human beings die, they remain in a sort of interworld (Barzakh), a realm located closer to the luminous cosmic center, until the day of resurrection. In this interworld, which somewhat resembles dreaming, the soul of the deceased, liberated from its bodily layers, can awaken and become aware of its true nature. The interworld period is important in preparing for the day of resurrection, which occurs at the end of time, that is, when human possibilities and potential have been exhausted. The day of resurrection (qiyama, the return, or ba’th, awakening), which constitutes one of the essential beliefs of the Islamic faith, is believed by some to last thousands of years. On this day, the souls, rejoined with their bodies, will be assigned eternal life either in paradise (literally, “garden”) or in hell (fire), depending on their merits.
Although the figure of the Madhi is more central to Shiite Islam, it is a popular belief among many Sunni Muslims that a righteous leader (a Madhi, or “rightly guided one”) will reign for a brief period in the last days. He will be followed by an impostor messiah (a parallel to the Christian notion of the Antichrist) who will attempt to lead the world astray. Finally, however, the prophet Jesus will appear to usher in the final judgment. On Judgment Day, the Earth will quake and mountains will become a heap of sand. As in the Judgment Day scenarios of other Middle Eastern religions, the dead are resurrected and the dead are judged.
Paradise (al-Jannah) is located at the macrocosmic center of light and is composed of eight levels (or, according to some authorities, as many as the number of souls inhabiting paradise). It is thought to be a garden where all kinds of delights are prepared for the saved. On the far outer part of the macrocosm lies hell (an-nar), arranged in seven layers, where the soul’s punishment consists of being far from God, which is considered to be the worst chastisement.
More so than Judeo-Christian scriptures, the Quran contains vivid descriptions of both paradise and hell. For instance, in the chapter entitled “The Terror,” the Quran says: “They are brought nigh the Throne, in the Gardens of Delight upon close-wrought couches reclining upon them, set face to face, immortal youths going round about them, with goblets, and ewers, and a cup from a spring and such fruits as they shall choose, and such flesh of fowl as they desire, and wide-eyed houris as the likeness of hidden pearls, a recompense for that they labored.”
Equally vivid descriptions of hell can be found throughout the Quran, as in the chapter “The Pilgrimage”: “Garments of fire shall be cut, and there shall be poured over their heads boiling water whereby whatsoever is in their bellies and their skins shall be melted; for them await hooked iron rods; as often as they desire in their anguish to come forth from it, they shall be restored into it, and taste the chastisement of the burning.”
Islamic theologians, particularly those of the Asharite school, believed that if a believer entered hell, God could forgive his sins or nonconformities and remove him, either immediately or after a certain period during which imperfections had been “burned away.” The basis for this doctrine is the Hadith: “He shall make men come out of hell after they have been burned and reduced to cinders.” In addition to this purgatory of suffering, there is another Muslim limbo – al-A’raf (the “heights” or “ramparts”), described in a chapter of the Quran by that name – in which those souls reside that do not merit damnation yet are unable to enter paradise.
Beyond certain commonalties, the views of Shiites and Sunnis (the two principal Muslim “denominations”) on the destiny of the body and the soul differ greatly. Shiites hold that the human being is a spirit, the “ruh” (spiritual breath, which is immortal by nature), which uses the body as instrument. Upon death, the spirit, liberated from the body, can rediscover its true nature. The souls of those who believed in God live until the day of resurrection, enjoying the vision of God. On the day of resurrection, the bodies of the righteous will join their soul and will enter paradise forever, whereas the unbelievers’ souls will suffer until the last day and, once rejoined with their bodies, will suffer eternal punishment.
Sunnis, in contrast, consider the human being a material compound of body and soul. Upon death, both body and spirit die and spend a certain period in the grave where they undergo a personal judgment by two angels and a divine judge. This personal judgment is followed by a second death, which is abrogated, however, for those who died in the name of God. Souls are then believed to vanish, and to appear again on Judgment Day when they rejoin their original bodies.