“This is the book whereof there is no doubt, a guidance to those who are pious and love God much, who believe in the unseen and offer prayers.” - Quran
At the very beginning of the Quran we find this passage, which clearly outlines the purposes of the book itself, one of which is ‘for those who believe in the unseen.’ The Arabic word Ghayb*, translated as unseen, includes the entire spiritual realm ranging from angels to prophecy, the soul and the spirit, the mysteries, the afterlife, and even to God himself. The unseen is something hidden, non-manifest, and unknown, or in Arabic Batin, which is one of the ninety-nine names of Allah and, as a prerequisite for entry to the afterlife, the mystery of death is unknown and unknowable – at least by our sensory perception.
Today many people are afraid of ‘the unknown’, especially death, darkness and silence; yet on the spiritual path some of the greatest possibilities lay precisely there.
Death in the spiritual tradition
The West has almost entirely broken with tradition, religious or otherwise, and as a result our attitudes and relationship to death has suffered greatly. In general they have become quite functional, and the role of tomb both for deceased and for us has been obscured. However many traditions are still persist in Upper Egypt, where life in close contact with nature and death continues. A great deal is preserved through ritual, much of it dating back to Pharaonic times, so many things can still be learned there. Or better, remembered there.
Death is intimately connected with the tomb, the house of the dead, and in both the Egyptian and Islamic traditions tombs are sacred or holy places. Egypt is literally filled with sacred or holy places – tombs, temples, mosques. So what makes them holy?
The sacred defined
The first time God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, He told him; “Remove your sandals for the place where you stand is holy ground.” – It was holy ground because God revealed himself there.
In Arabic the word masjid – Mosque – literally means “the place where you prostrate.” It is not necessarily a building or even a permanent spot at all, but when it is time to pray, you make it sacred yourself – for the duration of your prayer.
Holy exists in the moment. It is not earthly, nor is it the same for everyone; it is sacred FOR YOU – in your inner heart. Places are holy for those who believe and respect their spiritual merits, but for those who don’t acknowledge them they are not holy.
Spiritual significance of the tomb
One mystical account from Ibn Arabi’s time spent in Mecca states; One day as he was circling around the Kaaba an unknown figure said to Ibn Arabi; “Did you ever suppose that you yourself were dead?”
The Sufis have a special relationship to the tombs of great sheikhs – literally holy men – and visit them whenever they can. All the festivals revolve around these holy men, whose tombs are a point of contact not just with the saint buried there, but with the afterworld in general. Thus in a way the tombs exist more for the living than for the dead. Inside them, it seems like time stands still. The respect and veneration, the daily use of these places and the strict adherence to long-standing traditions in Egypt leads one to believe that this practice first began in ancient Egypt, which throws a completely new light on the actual role of the Valley of the Kings, and the thousands of ancient tombs throughout Egypt; they were places of pilgrimage and spiritual retreat.
Spiritual meaning of the womb
In the Gospel of John, Jesus said; ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus asked, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’
Both for the deceased and for us, entering the tomb symbolizes re-entering the womb – as Jesus mentioned we must; only not of our biological mother, but of Mother Earth. The womb is the place of gestation before our physical birth, the tomb of the second birth. And in the tomb of an enlightened being the implied possibilities are clearly greater.
A baby sets out crawling on the floor to explore the outer world, yet his favorite thing is to see his mothers open arms held out towards him. They symbolize a return to the womb and the unity, peace and safety that he could not find in the outside world.
The Desert Fathers, the earliest Christian saints of Egypt, all went to live in caves; mainly caves in the western desert, hence their name. We unwittingly assume this meant natural rock caves – simple openings in the cliffs; but are the tombs of the ancients not man-made caves? And if one goes into spiritual retreat, are many of the walls there not covered with sacred texts to meditate upon? And did they invent this practice, or was it too a part of the ancient tradition….? The practice of spiritual retreat continues to this day both for Copts – including the Pope – and as part of Sufi ritual, and it takes place on two levels; the inner and the outer.
Several tombs in the Valley of the Kings remained open throughout antiquity and quite a few contain later Egyptian, Greek or Coptic graffiti written on the walls by visitors, usually in praise and homage to the deceased. Many of the temples, like Hatshepsut’s Holy of Holies, became Coptic monasteries – another tradition that began in Egypt, but perhaps much earlier than the Christian version we know today.
Spiritual enlightenment through ritual
The Sufi ritual called sama’* or hadarat*, respectively audition and the Divine Presence involves the enactment of mystical death, being the death of the nafs or ego, through the state of divine ecstasy. Fana or annihilation in God is the term they use for this, and in studying various scenes in the ancient Egyptian tombs, the movements and chanting involved appear extremely similar to those used today in the rituals of several tariqas or Sufi Orders.
Zikr* means ‘the Remembrance of God’ and is frequently used to refer to a more informal, public Sufi gathering such as a festival or family celebration, which also involves musical instruments. These are principally tambourines and drums for percussion, and either flute or violin for accompaniment. Guided by the words and intonation of the Sheikh leading the session, the percussive instruments help to maintain the pulse and rhythm for a much larger group of people (sometimes thousands) during the movements while the flute and violin echo and augment the voice of the spirit as it flies. Hayy!* (the Living One!)
Glossary of terms
Ghayb – Literally something not seen, the Ghayb basically covers the entire spiritual realm including God, the neters or angels, sacred wisdom, prophecy and holy people in general, the Duat, and so on. It also includes thought, belief itself, insight, intuition and the whole psychological world.
Sama’ – Literally ‘audition’ or ‘hearing’, as a Sufi term it refers to a ritual sometimes called an ecstatic session often involving invocations and rhythmic chant to which the movements of sacred dances are performed. They are called ecstatic because their aim is to lead the dervish to fana, whereby his worldly ‘common’ sense is abandoned allowing him to achieve ecstatic union with the beloved; with God.
Hadarat – Another term for the session described above translated as the Divine Presence, referring more to the invocation side of the ritual. Normally referring to the Divine Presence of Allah Himself, it is also used as an honorary title to describe the presence of a saint or holy person. As the latter refers to their divine spirit which is now re-united with Him, there is essentially no difference between them.
Zikr – The remembrance and/or invocation of God. Used many times in the Quran, for the Sufis it takes on a vital importance. Although it can take innumerable forms ranging from the spiritual enactment of any divine command to a simple moment of silent reflection, it is also commonly used to describe the ritual Sufi movements both at private and public gatherings.
Hayy – The Living. Literally the most vital of the ninety-nine names of Allah, it is used to extensively during the ecstatic Zikr sessions.