Sufi teaching story: Angel of Death

Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.
-- Benjamin Franklin

Only two things in life are certain, they say: death and taxes. Having worked for two tax-exempt development organizations, I understand that the second part can be avoided. But the first part – death – now, that really is certain.

There is much we can control in life, but death will come to us sooner or later, whatever we might do to avoid it. There is an old Sufi story that illustrates this point. The story has been retold, among others, by Sufi teacher Idries Shah and the writer Somerset Maugham. In Tales of the Dervishes, Idries Shah attributes the original story to Fudail ibn Ayad, a ninth century Sufi sage.

The story goes something like this:

A student of a Sufi master was sitting in an inn in Baghdad one evening when he overheard two people talking. From their conversation, it became clear that one of them was the Angel of Death. "I have several calls to make in this city over the next few days," the Angel was saying.

The disciple wondered if the Angel had come for anyone he knew. Then he wondered if Death may even have come to claim him. This possibility terrified him. He was not ready for death yet. He decided he would avoid death by moving out of the city for a while. The Angel would be in his city for a few days – to play it safe, the student decided he would stay away for two weeks. He would visit friends in Samarkand, a good distance from Baghdad, and stay out of the Angel's way.

The student slunk out of the inn and went straight to the market where he hired a fine horse to take him to Samarkand, where he would lie low for the next two weeks.

Meanwhile, the Angel of Death decided to pay a courtesy call on the Sufi master, who was an old friend. As they were chatting, the Angel asked the Master about his student. "By the way, what is he doing these days?" the Angel asked. "He should be somewhere in the city, spending his time in contemplation," the Master replied.

"I'm surprised to know he's in Baghdad," said the Angel, "because I'm due to collect him in a week's time in Samarkand."

The story teaches us that, try as we might, we cannot cheat death. We might as well make our peace with this fact and stop living in fear of the inevitable journey ahead of us.

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