From a talk given Friday Nov. 21st 200
All of us are familiar with the term dhikr – the noun of the Arabic verb dhakaraa / yadhkuru which means mention and remembrance of Allah (swt). Often when we think of dhikr specific words and phrases come to mind such as SubhanAllah, Alhamdulillah, Allahu Akbar, and so on. However we need to open up our understanding of dhikr to be more inclusive and broad – dhikr has many manifestations and includes many other types of words and actions. Gatherings of learning are a type of dhikr. Acts of obedience are a form of dhikr. Duaa and even salah ‘ala an-nabiy (prayers on the Prophet salAllahu alayhi wa salam) are kinds of dhikr as well. The Quran is called Al-dhikr, ie The dhikr and reading and reflecting on its verses are yet another way of remembering Allah.
Generally speaking, the order of preference in terms of the dhikr of the tongue is first recitation of the Quran, followed by dhikr in the more traditional sense of the word (using specific words and phrases such as Alhamdulillah, etc) and then performance of duaa. (Salah is the most meritorious action because it combines all of these in one deed.) However there may be circumstances in which this order changes. An example would be in ruku‘. When bowing for prayer, a specific formula of dhikr is required (‘subhana Rabbil ‘adheem’) and Quran is actually prohibited. Similarly, in certain emotional or spiritual states one form of dhikr may take precedence over another. For example, one may be in a state in which one strongly feels the need to call upon Allah in duaa, or it may happen that one is overwhelmed with the desire to praise Allah because of some blessing that they have been granted. In such circumstances, the order of preference would change in accordance to the state of the person’s mind and heart.
The shari’ [legal] definition of dhikr is “any act of the heart or the limbs, the intent behind which is to worship and draw nearer to Allah (swt).”1
I would like for us to focus today on dhikr as an action of the qalb [heart]. Because dhikr means more than words on the tongue or even certain actions that a person does with their body. If the heart is not present then these external actions and words lose their real value. The proof of this is in a verse in the Quran in which Allah (swt) describes the munafiqeen [hypocrites]:
“…When they stand up for salah they stand without earnestness, to be seen of men, and little do they hold Allah in remembrance.”2
Allah describes them as people who perform the salah with their bodies and say words of dhikr with their tongues – people who, externally, seem to be fully involved in dhikr. Yet they are called people who remember Allah only “a little”. Why is that? Because their hearts are missing. Their minds, their inner selves are busy somewhere else and are not thinking about Allah.
Imam an-Nawawi (rahimahullah) says in his book Kitab al-Adhkar that the most excellent form of dhikr is the type which is both felt with the heart and said with the tongue. The second best type is with the heart alone, while the third and last type is that with the tongue alone, without any presence of heart. So the best type is a combination of both the external limbs and the inner self. And interestingly he put dhikr of the heart alone above dhikr of the tongue – indicating the significance of that inner consciousness and awareness.
When we perform dhikr we should try our best to make it an action of the heart and not just an action of our limbs (though that too is important.) It is something we should be striving to attain though it may be difficult to reach. It requires mujahada - inner struggle, and tazkiya – purification of your self and my self. But when we do reach a state of remembering Allah with our hearts, truly feeling it and tasting it, with our inner selves involved in what we are saying, it brings us such pleasure and happiness. It brings to the heart serenity and peace as Allah tells us in the Quran: “For without doubt in the remembrance (dhikr) of Allah do hearts find satisfaction, peace, contentment.”3
We know that everything around us is in a state of dhikr. The animals, the trees, the oceans, the wind, the molecules, the planets, the universe — everything was created in a state of ‘ubudiyyah [submission and worship] of Allah and is in remembrance of Him. When we are in dhikr we are putting ourselves in a state of harmony and unity with creation which is in this ‘ubudiyyah. While if we are not in His remembrance we are causing discord to this harmony.
When we are remembering Him we are remembering our Creator and the Source of all good and beauty. To give an example, if one sees a beautiful painting, or reads an amazing poem or book, one’s heart may yearn and long to meet the artist and maker of that thing. We know by the beauty of the object we see that the creator must be even more beautiful, and we feel awe and love for him/her. (And Allah is much higher and more exalted than these analogies.) It is a natural expression of the heart when we experience and see the creation around us; the night sky, a beautiful sunset, when we watch waves crash against the rocks, birds soar through the air, a child smile at his mother…. our hearts naturally feels that love, awe, and yearning and want to remember and think about Allah.
Similarly the heart longs to be in remembrance of the One that is beloved to it, that has shown it so much goodness. Isn’t it Allah who created us, guided us to be Muslims, kept us on the straight path when we see left and right so many people getting lost; granted us sight and hearing and the ability to articulate our thoughts and feelings; companionship and family; and opened the doors to be close to Him and know Him. Our hearts, when they are clear and pure, truly love Him and feel attached to Him and want to think about and remember Him.
The sagacious scholar Ibn al-Qayyim (rahimahullah) says in a beautiful description of these feelings, “Truly in the heart there is a void that cannot be removed except with the company of Allah. And in it there is a sadness that cannot be removed except with the happiness of knowing Allah and being true to Him. And in it there is an emptiness that cannot be filled except with love for Him and by turning to Him and always remembering Him. And if a person were given all of the world and what is in it, it would not fill this emptiness.”4
We know that lack of dhikr kills our hearts while its presence brings our hearts life. Our beloved Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) said: “The parable of those that are in dhikr and those that are not is like the parable of the living and the dead.”5
We also know that dhikr protects us from Shaytan and from a state of ghaflah – heedlessness and distraction, a time when Shaytan creeps in and causes doubt and problems in our spiritual state. A hadith states, “Allah ordered you to be in dhikr of Him. The likeness of one in dhikr is that of a man who flees from an enemy until he reaches a fortress of safety. He runs into it and protects himself. So it is with the ‘abd [servant] of Allah – there is no other means to protect himself from Shaytan except through dhikr of Allah.”6
Finally, Allah says, “Fadhkuruunee udhkurkum“.7 “Be in dhikr of Me, I will be in dhikr of you…” Allah remembers you and mentions you to those close to Him when you are in His remembrance. There is a special closeness in relationship granted to those who are in His dhikr, and He grants them His succor and support.
Now, the question is: If dhikr truly does do all of these things, and brings such happiness, peace and contentment to a person… why does it seem like it’s not doing that for us? Why aren’t we ‘feeling’ it?
Here are some reasons why we may not be feeling our dhikr:
– Consistency: Are we trying to be in dhikr enough? Do we set aside time to be in dhikr of Allah the way we set aside time for studying or working out, etc? Dhikr can be likened to a prescription of medicine: If we only take the medicine occasionally when we should be taking it on a regular basis, or the dosage is too little, then it’s not going to have its desired effect.
– The Right Types of Dhikr: We do not worship Allah with ignorance and we should try our best to use the adhkaar [pl. or dhikr] that have been taught to us by our Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wa salam), especially those mentioned for specific times and places. Wouldn’t he (salAllahu alayhi wasalam) know best, the one who was chosen by Allah and guided by Him in all his affairs, what is the most beautiful way of praising Him and remembering Him? We should ask Allah: “Allahumma ‘ainnee ‘ala dhikrika wa shukrika wa hussni ‘ibaadatik”. ‘O Allah, help us to remember You, to be thankful to You and to worship You in the best and most beautiful of ways.’8
Additionally, dhikr should be done with both the body and the tongue. We are a balanced deen – of soul and body, spirit and flesh, and not one without the other. If we think to ourselves, “I’m not feeling this dhikr anyway, so why should I even bother with the external act?”, or “Let me feel it first inside, then I will do it on the outside,” — know that these are tricks of Shaytan and our own lower selves.
We are focusing on substance in this talk, but we need the form as well. Performing dhikr with the tongue is important and it is the first step to reaching higher levels of remembrance.
– It may be that we are not feeling our dhikr because our hearts are clouded by dhunuub (sins). Darkened by committing so many sins they have become numb, feeling little or nothing when one of us reads the Quran, makes duaa, or thinks about Allah. It may even be that our hearts are addicted to sinning, even when the sin doesn’t bring us that initial happiness we felt when it was first started. Ibn al-Qayyim says in a line of poetry9, describing the wretched state of a sinner and his sins:
I drank a cup to taste its pleasure
then drank another to heal its pain.
We persist in sinning even when it doesn’t bring us any pleasure, just because we don’t know how to live without it anymore. SubhanAllah, this is a very sad state of the heart that we may find ourselves in and the solution to it is two fold: We have to realize that the jawaarih [limbs] are inroads to the heart. What we do on the outside affects the state of our heart and its receptivity to dhikr. We have to stop those actions that are hurting and killing our hearts. Along with that, we have to try to cure and revive our hearts with remembrance of Allah. Rasulullah (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) said: “For every thing there is a cleansing agent, and the cleansing agent of the heart is dhikr of Allah Most High.”10
Another reason we may not have quality dhikr is because our hearts are clouded by so many distractions, doubts, images, ideas, memories, etc… everything other than Allah (swt) that we spend our time, energy and focus on. People who want to be able to focus on Allah practice two things:
1. Al-Khalwah – spending time alone, away from people and distractions to be with Allah.
2. As-Samt – Quietness and refraining from speaking.
There are so many harms and negatives that are produced by the tongue: backbiting, lying, complaining, insulting others, talk that has no benefit… and one of its biggest harms is that it prevents us from being in a state of His remembrance. Similarly, being around people, talking about their problems and personal issues, their opinions and what happened to them that day, etc… all of these things drown out a person’s focus on Allah. So when we do try to take a few minutes to perform dhikr, instead of thinking about Allah a million other thoughts comes to mind: “I liked what she was wearing today… I wonder what that email really meant? I have to call so and so back”… flashbacks from a movie, lyrics from a song, etc. It’s almost a type of internal ‘chatter’ just like the chatter of the tongue. This is why Khalwah and Samt are important tools to reaching a deeper state of dhikr. It is a means of quieting down both external as well as internal chatter to help us reach a level of consciousness and attention on Allah.
It’s important to note that these are only a means of achieving an even higher state of dhikr, which is to be around distractions and still be in remembrance and focus on Allah. Such was the state of our beloved Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wa salam), and what a sage intended in his quote, “A sufi is neither an ecstatic devotee lost in contemplation of tawheed, nor a saintly recluse shunning all commerce with mankind. The true sufi goes in and out among the people, eats and sleeps with them, buys and sells in the market, marries and takes part in social intercourse, and never forgets Allah for a single moment.”11
Until we reach that point, we must take time away for the sake of our hearts, to nourish them with the companionship of Allah Most High, away from people, and to ennoble them with Munajaah, communicating with our Lord through duaa and the many other means of dhikr we have described. Only then will our hearts be enlivened and awakened, and taste the sweetness of His remembrance.
I ask Allah make us among those who remember Him often with a heart-felt remembrance, who are thankful to Him, and who worship him in the best and most beautiful of ways. May Allah make this gathering one in which He is remembered so that it is surrounded by the angels, enveloped in His rahma [loving kindness and mercy], one upon which sakeena descends, and that due to our remembrance of Him Allah mentions us and does dhikr of us of to those close to Him. Ameen.