There was once a dervish who had sixty disciples who he had taught as well as he could, and decided that the time had come for them to have a new experience. He told them that they must go on a long journey, and that something — he knew not what — would happen while they were on it. Those who had absorbed enough to enter this stage, he told them, would be able to go and remain with him on this journey.
He told them that they all had to memorize the phrase, “I must die instead of the dervish,” and must be prepared to shout it whenever the dervish raised both of his arms. The disciples, upon hearing this, became suspicious of the dervish’s motives and began muttering among themselves.
Fifty-nine of them deserted him, believing that he knew that he would be in danger at some point, and wanted to sacrifice themin his stead. They told him that they thought he might be planning a crime — even a murder — and that they could not follow him under the conditions he demanded.
So, the dervish set out with his one remaining companion. Shortly before they entered the nearest city, a wicked tyrant had taken it over. Wishing to consolidate his control of the city with a dramatic show of force, he assembled his soldiers together and told them to capture someone passing through the town who looked harmless, and he would sentence him as a miscreant. The soldiers obeyed him and set out into the streets to find such a wayfarer.
The first person they came upon was the disciple of the dervish, who they arrested. Followed by the dervish, they took the disciple to the king, where the populace, hearing the drum of death and already frightened, gathered around. The dervish’s disciple was thrown in front of the king, who decreed that he had resolved to make an example of a vagbond to show them that he would not tolerate nonconformists or attempted escape, and sentenced the disciple to death.
Upon hearing this, the dervish called out to the king asking that he be allowed to die instead of the disciple, since he was to blame for having persuaded the disciple to embark on the life of a wayfarer. So saying the dervish raised both arms over his head, and the disciple cried out to the king begging to be allowed to die instead of the dervish.
The king was stunned. He asked his counsselors for advice, wondering what kind of people the dervish and his disciple could be, vying with each other to die; he worried that if their actions were taken as heroism, the populace might turn against him.
After conferring with each other, the counselors told the king that if this was heroism, there was little they could do about it except to act even more cruelly until the people lost heart, but that they had nothing to lose by asking the dervish why he was so eager to die.
When asked, the dervish replied that it had been foretold that a man would die in that place and would rise again and thereafter be immortal, and that naturally both he and his disciple wanted to be that man.
The king wondered to himself why he should make another immortal when he was not himself, and after pondering it a moment, ordered that he should be executed right away instead of the dervish or his disciple.
Immediately the most evil of his accomplices, also eager for immortality, killed themselves. Neither they nor the king rose again, and the dervish and his disciple left in the midst of the confusion.
This Sufi spiritual story is from Thinkers of the East by Idries Shah. His book is a delightful collection of short spiritual stories.