The practice of silent dhikrullah (remembrance of Allah (swt)) is subtle, and discussing it elusive. Contemplation of the experience of dhikr discloses a pattern that may account not only for its elegance, but for the challenges inherent in describing it. This pattern is a series of apparent contradictions. As soon as an observation or insight is articulated, another valid but opposing one emerges. Four such contradictions stand out, each of which I will explore as a venue for deeper understanding of remembrance.
Expressing the Wordless in Words
The first contradiction stems from communicating about something that transpires in silence. When we attempt to speak or write about experiences that surpass words, we remove ourselves one step from their realities. Yet, there are times and places when we must resort to words. In these circumstances, I have found writing poetry to be the closest I can come to capturing the wordless as it surfaces in the realm of language.
How Beloved can you be
so near to me
so far from me?
Your nearness fills my heart,
Yet my heart feels your distance.
Your distance fills my thoughts
Yet my thoughts feel your nearness.
Memories are moments past and
When we are together moments
Future memories are born.
Remembering is moments past
When we are apart my heart
brings you near.
Now, Beloved, past and passing,
near and returning are one.
I look for you and you, for me
We meet in the passing moment
and it begins its return
Since our first memory
we have never been apart.
Is the pain of separation suppressed by your
Or am I the only one in pain?
My cries stream from my pen
I am surprised no one can hear the paper
sobbing beneath the weight of my words
“Listen to the sound of the reed .…”
Thousands of words I have written to you
Yet Beloved I seek the right word
And of the words spoken all have missed
In those moments of joy, of laughter
In those times of deep clarity of sharing
Each word has a thousand meanings
Each understanding resounds in the universe
How close they are—
my heart full and hollow
my mind in ecstasy and in turmoil
Love of my soul—
I cannot but seek the words that unite our hearts
My head aches in the search for that which
is in my heart so fully.
Where inside of us do these expressions originate? What is that yearning, that desire to draw near to the object of Love, that need to come close to the source of Beauty? What is that impulse that moves us so deeply that even the best words cannot capture it?
The answers, like the impulse itself, defy expression. And so those of us who follow the way of the Sufi strive to master the language not of the mind, but of the soul, and to better understand, beyond the realm of the intellect, our role in our relationship with the Divine. We strive to understand fully what it means to be the lover and the beloved of Allah (swt).
In the progressive journey of Tasawwuf, the traveler, the salik, achieves a state of nearness that transcends all the other experiences of the Beauty, the Magnanimity, the Totality, and the Unity that one thought one had experienced before. When we perceive that nearness, then we know the place within us where we do not feel fear and we do not feel sadness—where we know only that we are surrounded in His Love.
Imam al-Ghazali, writing in Ihya ‘ulum al-din, recounted that the Prophet Musa (as) said, “O my Lord! Are You near, so that I may speak to You intimately, or are You far, so that I may call out to You?” God inspired to him, “I am sitting next to the one who remembers Me.”
When we turn our hearts toward Allah (swt), when we fully concentrate on Allah (swt), when we make any request or plea to Allah (swt), then we establish a relationship with Allah (swt). We whisper to Allah (swt), pouring out our hearts, and Allah (swt) turns and answers our call. When this munasabah (congenial relationship) is established, we are imbued with a special kind of peace. Our eyes fill with tears of joy. Our breaths are filled with the blessings of Allah (swt) as they roll off our tongues. Our ears hear Him reply to us, as He replies to us in our own languages, in our own voices, and His words inspire our hearts.
This is the secret of silent dhikr, the secret of the experience described in the hadith of the Prophet (peace be upon him):
One who remembers God much is loved by God.
This is a secret that cannot be told, for there is no way to express it. It is a secret that must be uncovered by each person in the inner reaches of her or his own heart. At best, we can share with others our understanding of the ways that Allah (swt), the Prophet (peace be upon him), and the shuyukh have guided individuals to experience that secret. But even as we try to communicate these teachings, we confront the second contradiction that arises in discussing silent dhikr. This contradiction relates to understanding that dhikr is not a technique, and yet, as we all know, there are techniques of silent dhikr.
Practices that Supercede Techniques
Islam (like other religions) comprises, on its most obvious level, certain laws, rules and regulations, prescriptions, and prohibitions. But in its more subtle sense, Islam is not its outer forms, but rather a reflection of the Goodness, the Mercy, and the Compassion of God that is seeded within all aspects of God’s creation. So, too, Sufism apparently comprises methods and techniques, including a body of methods referred to as dhikr. Yet dhikr is more than a method. Dhikr is not just the moving of the beads in misbahah. It is not repeating over and over again the name of Allah (swt). Those who think of remembrance as nothing more than recitation will receive limited benefits from their attempts at it.
Dhikrullah in its fullest sense is a harmonization in the heart, which tunes us to a ground note that is in resonance with the Presence of Allah (swt). Dhikrullah is to be present before that which is always Present—al Hayy (the Living), al Qayyum (the Everlasting)—but which is not always seen or known by us because we fall prey to distraction and self-absorption. Dhikr is the result of revelation being experienced personally by an individual—an individual who is seeking a personal experience of the Divine, who is seeking to fulfill that which is intimated in the depths of the heart. It is to know with certainty that which Allah (swt) has revealed in the Qur’an:
To Allah belong the East and West; wheresoever you turn, there is the Presence of Allah (2:115).
Dhikr is not just to talk about, but also to live in, a state of ihsan, as defined by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him):
...to worship Allah as if you are seeing Him, and while you see Him not, [to know that] truly He sees you.
There is no technique to that awareness, just as there is no technique to our natural mastery of language. A baby vocalizes all the sounds of every language known to humankind until it arrives at speaking the language of its parents. The child does not arrive there by technique; it simply absorbs the language that surrounds it. Grammar is mastered without being labeled grammar. Vocabulary develops without being labeled vocabulary. The language’s nuances are also absorbed, including its cultural undercurrents and the messages hidden in how it is used.
Language for the infant and toddler is not a matter of conscious technique. Yet as the child matures, the natural practice of language gives rise to conscious acts of communication. So, too, the spiritual practices of the Sufi are conscious acts of communication that ultimately come to us naturally. If we submit, like a child submits, if we have faith or trust, as a child trusts, then naturally dhikr and muraqabah (meditation) will come to us. The communication will come to us, and the awareness will come to us.
Throughout our lives, we are surrounded by the environment of Allah’s language, Allah’s signs, Allah’s Presence. Allah (swt) reveals in the Qur’an:
We are nearer to him than his jugular vein (50:16)
We are swimming in the ocean of the Divine Presence. But we do not see the water, and we do not hear the voice of Allah (swt), because our ears are plugged and our eyes are veiled. We are like those whom Allah (swt) describes in the Qur’an:
...they have hearts that do not understand, and eyes that do not see, and ears that do not hear…(7:179).
At this stage, as we labor under the accretions of culture, preference, ego, and evil that separate us from awareness of the Divine, techniques serve a purpose. They are means whereby we may begin to remove those accretions, and develop our potential for remembrance.
In my own experience, I have found that the combination of the Islamic practices and beliefs with the unique cosmological paradigm of the Sufis creates a safe, secure, and rapid means of spiritual travel. These teachings provide a means of returning to the experiential reality of Islam, of Sufism, of dhikr, through a path that parallels the path traveled by the prophets, saints, and shuyukh who found the place of nisbah (nearness) to Allah (swt).
The journey takes place through certain subtle bodies or inner organs of perception, known as lata’if. Just as God has provided us with a physical body that may serve as a vehicle for travel in the physical world, so, too, God has created within us other, more subtle vehicles to travel in non-physical dimensions. (To put it in a slightly different way, we cannot travel by car in the ocean; we need another vessel.) The vehicles of spiritual travel are the lata’if, which are awakened through a series of transmissions that the seeker receives from the guide.
My shaykh has described transmissions as a way in which the Sufi master, by virtue of his or her own inner state, uplifts the student’s state. There is a light—the nuur-i-Muhammad, or light of the Prophet (peace be upon him)—that has been passed down through the generations from the hearts of the shuyukh to their successors. Through transmission, that light is passed in turn to the heart of the seeker.
For transmission to take place, at least two elements are required. There must be someone who is qualified to transmit, and there must a student who is ready to receive. Receiving transmission is not just a matter of being physically present. It means sitting with sincerity and openness, unencumbered by other forms of practices or distractions, with love of the path and respect for God. When one achieves such a state of readiness, then through the alignment of hearts, through the transmission from the shaykh to the student, the journey towards full awareness of the Presence of Allah (swt) becomes easy. By Allah’s Grace and the Divinely emanating fayd (effulgent energy), the Sufi connects the human microcosmic world to the macrocosm, and travels through 70,000 veils of light.
But what does it mean to travel? How can we be journeying towards Allah (swt) when (as I have said) the Qur’an and the Prophet (peace be upon him) tell us that Allah (swt) is immanent? Herein lies the third contradiction: the idea that we are striving to come nearer to the Divine, while at the same time, the Divine is always near.
The Journey to A Place One Never Left
This seeming contradiction makes the Sufi journey even more difficult to describe. Typically, when we think of travel, we think of going from here (wherever one is now) to there (some distant destination). The mystical journey might be better visualized as a turning spiral that appears to be moving upward and downward as it comes ever nearer to God.
Such is the juxtaposition of ascent and descent that we find in the Night Journey of the Prophet (peace be upon him), who traversed many realms to higher and higher realities until he received the message that was transmitted, only to then return to transmit that same message to others. From this alternation of periods of apparent distance and proximity comes the sense that we must travel in order to come near to the Divine. In fact, Allah (swt) is always Present; the question is, are we?
Traditionally, Sufis speak of travel in the outside world (sayr-i-afaqi), in contrast to travel inside oneself (sayr-i-anfusi). But the latter really includes the former. The inner world encompasses the outer world. We know, for example, that if our intention is good, or if our prayer is sincere, or if inwardly we are feeling attuned to the Presence of God, then outwardly our affairs will fall into place. Because the inner ultimately shapes the outer, it is the inner toward which the Sufis direct their focus.
In this context, a close or congenial relationship (munasabat) with the guide is necessary. Even more importantly, the teachings must come alive in the sincere effort of the seeker. The process of awakening may be outer-empowered by the guide, but it is equally inner-directed. This means that the seeker needs to cultivate the sense of affinity (nisbah) and attraction (jadhb) in the search for creating a deep, abiding, and intimate friendship with the Divine. We recite, “Ilahi, Anta maqsoodi, wa ridika matloobi”: “My God, You are my goal, and satisfying You is my aim.”
As we strive to satisfy the Source of our yearning, the sole Object of our love, what transpires in our hearts and minds is nothing less that a profound change in all the social, psychological, and intellectual patterns by which we have previously identified our “self.”
This brings me to my fourth and last contradiction: that even as we yearn to go beyond the realm of the self, we seem bound to do so through the self.
Selflessness through Self Knowledge
Indeed, most of us begin the spiritual journey for selfish reasons. We want something. However, if we evolve properly through the journey, we become servants, learning what to give, not just trying to receive.
The self is so much a part of the spiritual journey that many mystical paths focus on it. Think about how often you hear the term “self-realization” in conjunction with particular disciplines or schools. On some levels, these other disciplines may seem to have much in common with Sufism. They, too, teach the value of remembrance and meditation. But we need to understand that there is a profound difference between Sufism and any other mystical path.
By definition, a path that has as its goal self-realization is self-oriented. It is framing the spiritual journey as a search for something for one’s own self. This was made clear to me once when a woman who was interested in spirituality approached me and said that she would give me five years to bring her to self-realization. I asked her, why did she want to waste her time?
Contrast that person’s attitude with the attitude exemplified by Rabi’a (ra), who said, “O God, if I seek paradise or fear hell, give me neither,” and who further prayed,
O God, my whole occupation and all my desire in this world, of all worldly things, is to remember You, and in the world to come, of all things of the world to come, is to meet You. This is on my side, as I have stated; now do You whatsoever You will.
To see in every moment the Presence of the Divine is not a lesser goal than self-realization. Can we imagine, even for an instant, what it would be like to not deviate from that state of consciousness? ...to see with one’s eyes, and hear with one’s ears, and feel with our senses that Light, Love, and Compassion that surrounds us? This is the realization toward which the Sufi strives—a realization that begins when we let go of self-centeredness, and progressively turn our attention away from selfishness toward an understanding of the self as yet another reflection of the Divine Presence. “Who knows oneself, knows one’s Lord,” we are told in a Hadith of the Prophet (peace be upon him).
As we come to this way of knowing, then our “I” gives way to “Thou.” The light of Allah (swt) —the “noor upon noor”—comes to us. “Light upon light, Allah guideth unto His light whom He will” [24:35]. The Beautiful Names of God—the Compassion, the Mercy, the Forgiveness, the Strength of Allah (swt)—begin to act through us. We experience the reality described in the Hadith Qudsi, in which Allah (swt) states:
My servant continues to draw near to Me with supererogatory works so that I shall love him. When I love him, I am the hearing with which he hears, the seeing with which he sees, the hand with which he strikes, and the foot with which he walks….
This is another way of defining ihsan. It is another way of describing a journey that leads to the Presence that is always with us: to the experience of Beauty, Magnanimity, Totality, and Unity beyond anything we have known before. It is another way of describing the practice that supercedes techniques, and the selflessness that comes through self-refinement. It is, in sum, another way of trying to communicate what words cannot express: the elegance of silent dhikr.
Though my door was only left slightly ajar
You entered Beloved
I had waited so long even
thoughts of your not coming
had faded from my mind
Your delay, perhaps, was
my delay in making the chamber ready
Now you are here but a moment
And it is as if you never were but here
Even my memory of your absence began to fade
the moment you arrived
Your embrace, your almond eyes, your smile
give life to a dream that just last night
filled my slumber
Oh Dreamer, dream on
that I never awaken again
but next to You.