A Process-Relational Appreciation of Dhikr
and the Tradition of Chanting God's Names
الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَتَطْمَئِنُّ قُلُوبُهُمْ بِذِكْرِ اللَّهِ ۗ أَلَا بِذِكْرِ اللَّهِ تَطْمَئِنُّ الْقُلُوبُ
alladhīna ʾāmanū wa-taṭmaʾinnu qulūbuhum bi-dhikri llāhi ʾa-lā bi-dhikri llāhi taṭmaʾinnu l-qulūbu
—those who have faith, and whose hearts find rest in the remembrance of Allah.’ Look! The hearts find rest in Allah’s remembrance!
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan:
There dwells within each heart a beckoning, a calling, to live from the wisdom of the Poet of the World: to live from the wisdom of Allah. You can hear the call in the chanting of Allah's name in the video on the left. I can.
This calling is not simply an abstraction we entertain in our minds. It is the baraka of Allah: the blessing and the presence of the divine Poet asking us to become co-poets and help create a world of beauty. Of course Islam is not the only religion in which the calling is heard. Baraka is within each human being as an invitation to become a vessel of divine poetry on earth. The best kinds of poetry we can create -- the ones most pleasing to Allah -- are wisdom and compassion, justice and beauty.
Sometimes this beckoning is hidden from us, like a reed hidden within a bed of reeds. It is hidden by our anger, our jealousies, our selfishness; and it can also be hidden by cultural and historical circumstances that shape our lives. Even our religions can hide it from us. Sometimes our religions help us to become vice-poets on earth and sometime they hinder us.
Still, with help from or despite our religions, the beckoning can be heard if we listen closely, with ears of the heart. This is because, as the Qur'an explains, the beckoning is closer to us than our own breathing. Moment by moment, breath by breath, the beckoning is our initial calling, our initial aim. It precedes our existence, coming from the distant source.
Toward what are we beckoned? We are beckoned to love one another and to live lightly on the earth. We are beckoned to be good parents, good friends, good neighbors, good people. We are beckoned to love all living beings, animals included. And we are beckoned to live from the wisdom of the Poet, rather than from the whims of the moment or the vicissitudes of personal preference. Only when we leave the center of our lives open, so that the spirit can enter, can we love others without making idols of them. When we make idols of things we don't really love them. We just love our attachments to them. This is why it is so important to love the Poet.
Beckoned to Remember
In leaving the center open, we simultaneously remember a quiet voice we may have forgotten. After all, the beckoning has been in us and with us from our very birth. Our remembrance is not the acquisition of new information or new knowledge, but rather a remembering of what we may have forgotten. It is a homecoming.
How to remember? Perhaps we can learn from the prophets and their ways. Prophet Abraham and prophet Moses, prophet Jesus and prophet Muhammad -- peace be unto them all -- offer invitations to remember. Every culture, every people, has its prophets. None of these prophets are perfect people; but all, in their prophetic moments, are invitations to the remembering.
Encouraged by the wisdom of the Prophets, we are encouraged to become prophets ourselves. This does not mean all have the same calling or that we are called to be the same. To the contrary, the Poet beckons all into differences -- different identities, different cultures, different personalities, different ways of loving -- so that we might know each other. In the very knowing there is the joy of being alive. This joy delights Allah, too.
One way to remember the calling is to repeat the names of the Poet, so that the very idea of living from the Center becomes a morning star -- a guiding impulse -- of our daily and corporate lives. The beckoning of the Center cannot be segmented into compartments of life, as if relevant only to the privacy of our minds or personal belief. The beckoning is for the whole of our lives.
The many religions of the world have developed practices which can help us respond to the calling and remember. One of them is dhikr, the practice of repeating the names of Allah in song and silence, so that the very guidance of Allah becomes our frame of reference, our morning star, in times of trial and in times of wonder.
The value of dhikr depends on the spiritual condition of the person who recites the names; he or she needs to be sincere and warm-hearted. He or she needs to want to live from the source. If a self-centered person recites the names of Allah, the very reciting can become a ventilation of the ego or, still worse, a falling into a frenzy of hatred. But if a kind person recites the names of the Poet, then the reciting can be a channel of goodness in the world.
The value of dhikr also depends on the cultural circumstances a person lives. Dhikr is effective if a person lives in a culture of generosity and justice; if there is a minimum of hatred and a maximum of love. Indeed one purpose of dhikr is to help the heart be transformed into a mercy, a compassion, that delights the divine Poet.
This Poet has many names -- at least ninety-nine. Some of them invite a recognition of the incomparable majesty of the Poet and also of the fact that we are accountable to the Poet at each moment and at the end of our lives. We cannot and do not live anonymous lives. Always there is the witness of the Poet. Others invite a recognition of the tenderness of the source, of the fact that the Poet longs for us as fervently, perhaps even more fervently, than we long for the source. Rumi put it well: The One Whom We Seek is Seeking Us, too.
Dhikr helps us remember the Poet and build upon times when we have lived from the Poet's guidance. It makes space within our hearts so that we can hear the Voice. The cumulative effect of dhikr -- the repetition -- creates a melody within our lives by which we can hear the voices of others in grateful ways. If we have ears to hear we know that all sounds are signs (ayat) of the Poet.
The natural world is likewise a sign of the Poet. And so are events in history, either because they remind us of how fall we fall short of who we are beckoned to be, or because they inspire us to become who we are beckoned to be, or both. When we have ears to hear, we also have eyes to see. Eyes of repentance and eyes of hope, eyes of sadness and eyes of wonder.
What to chant? Allah Hu, offered above and below, is one example of a chant available to the community of those who seek to live from the wisdom of the Poet. In listening to versions that come from the surrendered heart, we ourselves partake of the Melody within the melodies. For a moment, if we have ears to hear, we hear the meaning of surrender ourselves, and become the lovers we are beckoned to be. Whatever our religious affiliation, or absence thereof, we become carriers of the poetry and surrendered to its spirit. We become people of the breath.
Allah Hoo (Allah hu) is a traditional Sufi chant (Dhikr) consisting of the word for God (Arabic: الله Allāh) run together three times, followed by Truth (Haqq):
Sounds of Remembrance
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