The literal Arabic meaning of the word dhikr is, “to remember, to bear in mind, to mention.” The term has come to be used by the Sufis for the litany of praise of Allah in their ceremonies of remembrance, performed by chanting or repeating the attributes of Allah. Some of them mistakenly believe that this practice will bring them to know Allah, and/or to remember Him, while He says, “…nothing is like unto Him…” (Surah Ikhlas: 112:4)
and His Prophet (saws) said, “I swear by Allah that no one but Allah can know Allah, either in this world or in the Hereafter.”
These profound ceremonies, accompanied by music, chanting, and drumming, during which the participants move in various rhythmic steps, are not considered to be a form of worship as understood in Islam. They are a rite and a celebration, which is what the Persian word ayin, used by the Sufis themselves in this regard, actually means. Ayin also literally means “custom” and “fashion.” It is applied to any kind of festive commemoration.
Thus we must understand that these ceremonies do not replace, add to, or enhance the obligatory forms of worship: salat, the five-times-daily prayer; sawm, fasting during the month of Ramadan; zakat, the alms owed by every Muslim; and hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca undertaken once in a lifetime. On the other hand, a Muslim who does participate in the rites of dhikrullah, the Remembrance of Allah, must be most conscientious in practicing these obligatory forms of worship.
Though there is only one way of doing one’s obligatory prayer, fasting, alms, and Pilgrimage, there are numerous ways of performing the ritual of dhikrullah. They are even called by different names in the different tariqahs, the dervish orders. Mawlawis call their whirling sema: the Turkish term unites the meanings of the Arabic words sama’(hearing, listening, or obeying) and sama’ (sky or heaven). Qadiris call their circular movement devran: to cycle, revolve, rotate. Rifa’is call their ritual dhikr al-qiyam, the remembrance of standing up, rising, resurrection, and, in philosophical terms, existence. Halwatis call their rite, which includes repetition of God’s names with deep controlled breathing, darb al-asma,’ meaning striking by force, by rhythm, the Beautiful Names of God. And the Naqshbandis call their dhikr khatm al-khwajagan, the seal of the Naqshbandi Order. The music, the movements of the various rituals of different Sufi paths, present different appearances, just as their ritual robes, skullcaps, and turbans vary. The speaking and teaching methods of their shaykhs, the heads of their orders, also differ. But what is being sought and, Allah willing, attained, is a common goal. That goal is purification from the all-absorbing influence of worldly life, which dominates our being by submitting us to the desires of our flesh, and the pernicious commands of our egos, leading us to forget Allah.
The reason for using different means for obtaining the same end is that people’s educations, understandings, tastes, and needs differ. An artist and a soldier, for example, surely have different tastes, understandings, and needs. Consequently, during the half-millennium of Ottoman rule in the majority of Muslim lands, artists, musicians, writers of fine sensitivity opted for the Mawlawiyya, whose dhikr, music, and centers were sublimely tasteful. Members of the army opted for Bektashiyya, whose rules were rather liberal, and whose music and rituals were folkloric. Administrative and government officials opted for Halwatiyya, whose dhikr was very orderly and logical. Orthodox clerics entered the path of Naqshibandiyya, who were rather strict in their ways, excluding music and chanting, which they considered to be against religious law.
This matter of music and chanting during the ritual of the Sufis has always been the source of contention and disagreement between orthodox Islam and mystical Islam. Imam Abu Hanifah (ks) considers it sinful. Imam Malik (ks) prohibits it. Imam Shafi’I (ks) considers chanting while praying makruh, disliked, but not forbidden, by God. Yet he does consider it sacrilegious only for the uncultured person, who may take it as nothing more than worldly enjoyment. For a spiritually mature person, music enhances religious feeling.
Imam Qushayri (ks), who thousands of years ago was able to establish understanding, acceptance, and peace between those Muslims passionately devoted to strict observance of canon law and the Sufis, should best be heard in this regard. He confirms the early Sufi interpretation of the following verse of the Qur’an: “…then as for those who were faithful and did good, they will be made happy in a garden.” (Surah Rum 30:15)
He tells us that the garden Allah has promised to the ones who believe in, and who follow His orders, and the Prophet’s example, is paradise in the hereafter, but the communion of the faithful in the circle of dhikrullah is paradise in this life. There they are made happy by the beautifully chanted praises of Allah and His Prophet. Firm believers, he says, are not affected by such music other than by a heightening of divine love, and an increased urge to leave the worldly and come close to their Lord.
The Prophet (saws) permitted and listened to the recitation of poems. During the Battle of the Trench, he listened to a poem that his companions musically recited together out of their devotion to him. With the same harmony and rhythm, he responded to them: “Real life is the life of the Hereafter. Then, Oh Muhammad, bless your companions with the promise of this everlasting life….”
And when one day he entered his house, and heard two female servants singing in the presence of his wife, Hd. ‘A’ishah (ra), he listened and did not stop them. We do not know if the Prophet (saws) ever sang, but that he listened to music and permitted it, is enough license to establish it as permissible.
Finally, both Allah and His Prophet (saws) urged that the Qur’an be chanted. The Messenger of Allah (saws) praised the beautiful voice as a blessing of Allah upon humanity, and disliked an ugly voice as the braying of a donkey.
It is reported that once Imam Shafi`i (ks) was walking with his followers when they heard a beautiful voice chanting. He asked one of them, “Does this voice excite you?” When the man answered no, he remarked, “Then you must be devoid of all feeling.”
Not only beautiful sounds, but anything beautiful cannot be disassociated from Allah. Beauty can only remind us of Allah. That is why the mystics, in their rituals of remembrance, use beautiful music, poetry, costumes, movements, and surroundings, and consider them to be religiously lawful. Yet this is for the people who have eyes to see, ears to hear, sensitivity to appreciate, and the strong faith that, “Allah is Beautiful and loves that which is beautiful.” It is not for those who are blind in this life and will be blind in the Hereafter.
Those who are blind when they participate in these rituals can but imitate. Indeed, these ceremonies have two aspects. When performed by those whose faith in Allah and practice of Islam are lacking, they are an invitation. They are real when performed by those whose faith is sincere, who obey Allah, and who wish to save themselves from the influence of their evil-commanding egos, and shed the dirt cast by worldly life.
Even the sincere believer, who is qualified to perform and profit from a real dhikrullah, may only hope to momentarily receive during the ritual what is called a “natural benefit.” The “spiritual benefit,” which we aspire to, is experienced by very few, for the best of us are rooted in nature, in the material world, and are under the influence of our animal selves.
The natural benefit consists of being momentarily freed from worldly concerns and the demands of our egos. The effect is enhanced by music, heartbeat, rhythm, controlled breathing, and the repetition of Allah’s Beautiful Names. But to come close to the Lord, to reach the Named through the Names we recite, a person must already be relieved from dependence on worldly life through total submission to our Maker. Such people are guided by ruh-i latif-i insani, the human soul that Allah breathed into us from His own Soul. These, in their dhikrullah, need neither music nor drums, nor any sound, not even sight. That ritual takes place in the sightless dark and the soundless silence of our being. There is no outside influence. Wherever they are, whatever they are doing, these people feel themselves under the eyes of their Lord, even if they do not see Him. And their whole being knows that,
“Allah is with you wherever you are,” (Surah Hadid 57:4) and “Allah is Seer of whatever they do.” (Surah Baqarah 2:110) This state is called the state of ihsan.
The true dhikr, which Allah mentions 256 times in seventy chapters of the Qur’an, is either this state, or our sincere attempt to reach this state of continuous heedfulness of Allah’s presence, seeking His pleasure and total submission to His orders. A faithful person who believes in Allah and His Prophet (saws) should consider whether each thing he does, says, thinks, and feels meets the pleasure of his Lord. Whatever happens to him during the day, whether good or apparently bad, he attributes to Allah’s will, and so he accepts and agrees with all of it. Such a person is engaged in the true dhikrullah.
The laborer digging dirt, the lumberjack cutting a tree, the athlete lifting weights, or anyone using his physical strength, if she or he remembers that there is “no force nor strength to do a thing but that of God,” that person will truly be remembering God. The serious seeker who realizes that knowledge is from Allah, and is aware of his Lord, the All-Knowing. Ordinary believers, who when they wake up in the morning, eat their breakfasts, leave their houses, start their jobs, or do anything lawful, say Bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim: “In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent and Merciful,” are cleansing themselves from the preoccupations of this world and taking refuge in their Lord. And the best of dhikr is the five times daily obligatory prayers.
Abu Hurayrah (ra) reported that when the Prophet (saws) was asked, “Who are those blessed by Allah?” he replied, “Those who remember Allah in the mosques,” meaning those faithful who feel the presence of their Lord. When they turn toward the qiblah they feel they are facing Him. When they recite the verses and prayers during their worship they feel they are talking with Him.
The true dhikr is to think and feel, as long as one can think and feel, that Allah is the ultimate Truth, and to help others to realize the same. Hd. ‘Ali (ra) has said, “A human being either learns or teaches. Otherwise he is nothing.” Once we realize that everything we have is the property of its Creator, our recognition is thankfulness. Thankfulness means to give to others from whatever we receive, whether that is money, sustenance, knowledge, time, effort, service, care, or love. This is the true remembrance of Allah.
Once Hd. Junayd al-Baghdadi (ks) and Shaykh Thawri (ks) were at a circle of dhikr. Some people became annoyed and got up to leave. Shaykh Thawri said: “…only those who listen accept …” (Surah An’am 6:36)
and Junayd (ks) responded: “… and you see the mountains – you think them firmly fixed – but then they shall pass away like clouds…” (Surah Naml 27:88)
May Allah the All-Knowing make us aware of the Truth in and around us. Amin.