DHIKR (Arab., "remembrance, mention") is an important Islamic concept and practice best known in the West as a form of Ṣūfī ritual. Because it signifies a kind of prayer, the term dhikr is usually translated as invocation, since it involves the repetition of a name or names of God, often within a set phrase such as "Praise belongs to God." The sources frequently discuss it in conjunction with supplication (duʿaʾ, "calling [upon God]"), which normally adds a request to the mention of a name or names; supplication may take the form of a personal prayer in any language, while dhikr employs Arabic names drawn from the Qurʾān. Both are fundamentally voluntary and in any case need to be distinguished from the daily prayer (salāt ), which is incumbent upon all the faithful.
Studies of dhikr in Western languages usually emphasize the bodily movements and the techniques for bringing about concentration that are employed by various Ṣūfī groups and thus neglect the centrality of the concept in the Qurʾān, where the term is employed, along with various closely related derivatives, about 270 times. Although techniques have certainly fascinated a number of Islamicists and travelers to the East, they have always been of secondary interest within the Ṣūfī tradition itself. Nor is it necessary to search for outside influence to explain their genesis: perseverance in remembering God—and sincere Islam is nothing if not this—will eventually entail a certain concern with the technical aspects of controlling one's thoughts and attention.
The basic meaning of the term dhikr can be brought out by answering three questions:
- What is the object of remembrance? God, whose nature is defined succinctly by the first shahādah, or creedal statement, "Lā ilāha illā Allāh" ("There is no god but God"), and in detail by the whole range of names and attributes (al-asmāʾ wa-al-ṣifāt ) mentioned in the Qurʾān.
- Why should God be remembered? Because human beings are commanded to remember him by his revelations to the prophets and because ultimate human felicity depends upon this remembrance.
- How can God be remembered? By imitation of the Prophet, who provides the model through his sunnah (practice or custom) for all religious and spiritual activity.
In short, to understand the full implications of the term dhikr as it is employed in the Qurʾān and the tradition one needs to have a clear grasp of the three "principles of religion" (uṣūl al-dīn ), namely divine unity, prophecy, and the return to God (in its widest sense, embracing both the "compulsory return" through death and the "voluntary return" through spiritual practice).
The Qurʾān refers to itself as a remembrance (dhikr ) or reminder (dhikrā, tadhkirah ) more than forty times and also alludes to other revelations by the same terms (sūrahs 10:71, 21:48, 21:105, 40:54). God had to send a long series of prophets—124,000 according to a ḥadīth —because Adam's children keep on falling into forgetfulness, the shortcoming of their father (20:110). If the Qurʾān is a remembrance, so also is the human response to it (here the root's fifth verbal form, tadhakkur, is often employed). To be human is to remember: to acknowledge and confirm the obvious. "Not equal are the blind and the seeing man, those who have faith and do deeds of righteousness and the wrongdoer. Little do you remember!" (40:58).
The ultimate object of remembrance is God, since nothing else is truly worthy of human devotion, which is to say that "there is no god but God." The Qurʾān employs the term dhikr Allāh, "the remembrance of God," twenty-six times in nominal or verbal form. In a number of other instances where the word ism ("name") is inserted into this phrase, the emphasis is placed upon the verbal mentioning of the name Allāh, for example, when people are commanded to remember/mention God's name before sacrificing animals (5:4, 6:118, and elsewhere), but the command to remember/mention God's name is also a general one: "And remember the name of thy Lord, and devote thyself to him" (73:8; also 2:114, 22:40, 24:36, 76:25, 87:115). In any case the remembrance of God is almost invariably interpreted to coincide with the mentioning of his name, whether vocally or mentally.
Fifteen verses actually command the remembering of God. But beyond obedience to such commands, human beings must remember God because true life—life with God in the next world—depends on it. In Qurʾanic terms, "to be forgotten by God" is to burn in the Fire; to be remembered by him is to dwell in Paradise. If we want God to remember us, we must follow the divine command to remember him: "Remember me, and I will remember you" (2:152), since God will forget those who disobey this command. Speaking of the resurrection, God says, "Today we do forget you, even as you forgot the encounter of this your day; and your refuge is the Fire" (45:34; also 20:126, 32:14, 38:26, 59:19). Such verses help explain why the Ṣūfī Ibn ʿAṭāʾ Allāh al-Iskandarī (d. 1309) can say in his well-known treatise on dhikr, "All acts of worship will disappear from the servant on the Day of Resurrection, except the remembrance of God" (Miftāḥ al-falāḥ, Cairo, 1961, p. 31).
Just as dhikr brings about felicity in the next world, so too it provides the way to achieve proximity to God in this world. In contrast to the hearts of the godfearing, the hearts of the unbelievers are "hardened against the remembrance of God" (39:22–23). Note the emphasis through repetition in "Those who have faith, their hearts being at peace in God's remembrance—in God's remembrance are at peace the hearts of those who have faith and do righteous deeds; theirs is blessedness and a fair resort" (13:28). The way to achieve this peace of heart (cf. the "soul at peace with God," 89:27) is to follow the Prophet, one of whose names is Dhikr Allāh: "You have a good example in God's Messenger, for whosoever hopes for God and the Last Day and remembers God frequently" (33:21). The Prophet is the perfect embodiment of God's remembrance; hence, his sunnah provides all the details of how to remember God in every act of life. Ibn ʿAṭāʾ Allāh quotes a short ḥadīth that epitomizes the pervasive rationale for the love of the Prophet: "He who remembers me has remembered God, and he who loves me has loved God" (Miftāḥ, p. 46).
The ḥadīth literature provides a wealth of material on dhikr corroborating the Qurʾān picture while emphasizing the practice of mentioning or invoking God's names and the benefits it provides beyond the grave. The Prophet calls dhikr the best act of worship. Every word a person utters in this life will be counted against him or her in the next life, except "bidding to honor and forbidding dishonor" (sura 3:11, 7:157, and elsewhere) and remembering God. When a companion of Muḥammad complained about Islam's many ordinances and asked for a single practice to which he could cling, the Prophet replied, "Let your tongue remain moist in the remembrance of God." The Prophet reported that God says, "I am with my servant when he remembers me. If he remembers me in himself I remember him in myself, and if he remembers me in an assembly, I remember him in an assembly better than his." Such "assemblies" of God's remembrance are well attested in the Prophet's time and became the model for Ṣūfī gatherings.
The ḥadīth s make clear that the important formulas of remembrance or invocation are those still heard throughout the Islamic world on every sort of occasion: "There is no god but God," "Praise belongs to God," "Glory be to God," "God is greater," and "There is no power and no strength save in God." Only the last is non-Qurʾanic, while the first, the Shahādah, is said to be the most excellent. The ḥadīth s also make clear that all of God's names, traditionally said to number ninety-nine, may be employed in invocation and supplication, though certain names, such as All-Merciful or All-Forgiving, have always been employed far more than others, such as Avenger or Terrible in Retribution.
The idea that each name of God has a specific characteristic is already well reflected in the ḥadīth literature. Thus, for example, many ḥadīth s allude to "the greatest name of God" (alism al-aʿẓam ), the name "when called by which he answers and when asked by which he gives." Litanies (awrād, aḥzāb ) composed of divine names, formulas of remembrance, and Qurʾanic verses have been common among Muslims from earliest times. Some of them mention the ninety-nine "most beautiful names"; others, such as al-jawshan al-kabīr (quoted from the Prophet in Shīʿī sources, e.g., ʿAbbās Qummī, Mafātīḥ al-jinān, Tehran, 1961/2, pp. 179–207), list one thousand names of God.
The Shīʿī ḥadīth literature, which includes sayings from all twelve imams as well as from the Prophet, helps to demonstrate that the remembrance of God remained central to Islamic piety in the two centuries following Muḥammad. But while the Qurʾān commands the faithful to remember God, the jurists could not impose remembrance upon the community except in the form of the ritual prayer and other outward acts of worship, since by its nature remembrance is a personal affair related more to the domain of intention than to outward activity. In general, therefore, the Ṣūfīs more than any other group emphasized the importance of the devotional practices. In the words of Khwājah Muḥammad Pārsā (d. 1420), "The root of being a Muslim [aṣl-i musalmānī] is 'No god but God,' words that are identical with remembrance.'" Hence, he says, the soul of the daily prayer and the other ritual practices, such as fasting and pilgrimage, is "the renewal of God's remembrance in the heart" (Qudsīyah, ed. Aḥmad Ṭāhirī ʿIrāqī, Tehran, 1975, p. 30). In the same way, the Ṣūfīs considered all Islamic doctrine and theory to be aimed at awakening remembrance in the soul. If on the one hand the Qurʾān commands human beings to remember God, on the other it provides a full justification for the necessity of this remembrance in its teachings about human nature and ultimate felicity, as, for example, in its description of the "trust" given to human beings in preference to all other creatures (33:72).
In commenting on the Qurʾanic teachings, the Ṣūfīs in particular demonstrate that remembrance of God implies far more than just the ritual activities that go by this name. Full remembrance means actualizing all the ontological perfections latent within the primordial human nature (fiṭrah ) by virtue of its being a divine image. These perfections belong ultimately to God, the one true being, and in his case they are referred to as the divine names. Al-Ghazālī and many others speak of human perfection as "assuming the traits of the divine names" (al-takhalluq bi-al-asmāʾ al-ilāhīyah ); Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1240) even offers this phrase as the definition of Ṣūfīsm (Al-futūḥāt al-makkīyah 2.267.11). Since Allāh is the all-comprehensive name (alism al-jāmiʿ ), the referent of all other divine names, the stage of full human perfection is also known as "being like unto Allāh " (taʾalluh ), or "theomorphism." For Ibn al-ʿArabī and others, the remembrance of the name Allāh is the sign of the fully realized human individual to whom reference is made in the prophetic saying, "The Last Hour will not come as long as there remains someone in this world saying, 'Allāh, Allāh!'" (Futūḥāt 3.248.17, 3.438.21).
The hallmark of this potential theomorphism is the particular nature of human intelligence, which sets men and women apart from all other creatures. Turning to God—remembrance—actualizes the divine image latent within humans; ultimate felicity is nothing but the remembrance of our own true nature, or the realization of genuine human character traits, the names of God.
Ṣūfī teachings and practice can be summarized by the "best of invocations," the Shahādah: "La ilāha illā Allāh " ("There is no god but God"). The aim is to "annihilate" (fanāʾ ) all "others" (aghyār ) and to "subsist" (baqāʾ ) in the divine. In the words of Ibn ʿAṭāʾ Allāh, "No one says correctly 'No god but God' unless he negates everything other than God from his soul and heart" (Miftāḥ, p. 28). Likewise Najm al-Dīn Rāzī (d. 1256): "When one pursues the dhikr and persists in it, the attachment of the spirit to other than God will be gradually severed by the scissors of la ilaha, and the beauty of the monarch of illa Allāh will become manifest and emerge from the veil of might" (The Path of God's Bondsmen, p. 270). For Rūmī as for many other Ṣūfīs, the fire of love drives the seeker to remember God constantly; only this can effect the final transformation: "Love is that flame which, when it blazes up, burns away everything except the beloved. It drives home the sword of lā ilāha in order to slay other than God" (Mathnavī 5, vv. 588–590).
Though many authorities agree that "Lā ilāha illā Allāh" is the most excellent invocation, others hold that the "single invocation" (al-dhikr al-mufrad )—the mention of only the name Allāh —is superior. Ibn al-ʿArabī often quotes approvingly the words of one of his masters, Abū al-ʿAbbās al-ʿUraybī, who held that this invocation is best, since in invoking "no god but God" one could die in the terror of negation, but in invoking Allāh one can only die in the intimacy of affirmation (Futūḥāt 1.329.2, 2.110.21, 2.224.34).
Ṣūfī masters employed various names methodically to bring out the spiritual potentialities and shape the character traits of their disciples. Many Ṣūfī works provide information on names that can be appropriately invoked—though never without the permission and inculcation (talqīn ) of a master—by disciples at different stages of spiritual growth. Works on the "most beautiful names," such as al-Ghazālī's Al-maqṣad al-asnā (partially translated by R. Stade, Ninety-nine Names of God, Ibadan, 1970), often discuss the moral traits and spiritual attitudes that reflect each of the individual names on the human level. Ibn ʿAṭāʾ Allāh devotes several pages to the properties of various names and their influence on disciples at different stages of the path. He points out, for example, that the name Independent (al-Ghanī ) is useful for a disciple who seeks disengagement (tajrīd ) from phenomena but is unable to achieve it (Miftāḥ, p. 35). Nonetheless, those who invoke the name Allāh should not be interested in specific benefits but should exemplify the attitude expressed in the famous prayer of the woman saint Rābiʿah al-ʾAdawīyah (eighth century): "O God, if I worship thee for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise; but if I worship thee for thy own sake, grudge me not thy everlasting beauty" (A. J. Arberry, Muslim Saints and Mystics, London, 1966, p. 51).
Some Ṣūfīs wrote of transcending dhikr, since in the last analysis it is an attribute of the seeker and is therefore "other than God," a veil concealing God from sight (al-Kalābādhī, The Doctrine of the Sufis, p. 107). Ibn al-ʿArabī explains that there can be no invocation after the veil has been lifted and contemplation (mushāhadah ) takes place, for "invocation disappears in the theophany of the invoked" (Futūḥāt 2.245.21). According to al-Nūrī (d. 907), true invocation is "the annihilation of the invoker in the invoked" (Rūzbihān, Mashrab al-arwāḥ, ed. Nazif H. Hoca, Istanbul, 1974, p. 139). Ibn al-ʿArabī's foremost disciple, Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī (d. 1274) writes that the Ṣūfī must gradually abandon all invocation, both outward and inward, until total emptiness is achieved (Al-risālah al-hādiyah al-murshidīyah, MS; cf. M. Valsan, "L'épïtre sur l'orientation parfaite," Études traditionnelles 67, 1966, pp. 241–268). But the final word for most seekers remains with Ibn al-ʿArabī: "Invocation is more excellent than abandoning it, for one can only abandon it during contemplation, and that cannot be achieved in an absolute sense" (Futūḥāt 2.229.24).
Many classifications of types of dhikr can be found in Ṣūfī works. Some of these refer to the depth of concentration achieved by the disciple, such as invocation of the tongue, of the heart, of the innermost mystery. Another common classification distinguishes between loud or public and silent or private dhikr. The former was usually performed in groups according to various ritual forms that took shape within the different Ṣūfī orders. Sessions of public invocation range from the reserved to the ecstatic; some groups, such as the Mawlawīyah, or "whirling dervishes," considered music and dance aids to concentration, while others banned anything but sober recitation. Most Ṣūfīs would probably agree that public sessions are really a secondary form of Ṣūfī practice, since the individual's progress on the path, to the extent it does not derive totally from God's grace, depends upon his or her own efforts. Thus Saʿdī (d. 1292) is not speaking metaphorically when he says at the beginning of his famous Gulistān: "Every breath taken in replenishes life, and once let out gives joy to the soul. So each breath contains two blessings, and each blessing requires thanksgiving." It is the silent and persevering remembrance of God with each breath or each heartbeat, always within the context of the prophetic sunnah, that takes the seeker to the ultimate goal.
For a representative sampling of the ḥadīth literature, see al-Khaṭīb al-Tabrīzī's Mishkāt al-maṣābīḥ, 4 vols., translated by John Robson (Lahore, 1963–1965), pp. 476–492. Shīʿī sources provide more of the same in far more detail, for example, Majlisī's Biḥār al-anwār (1956–1972; reprint, Beirut, 1983), vol. 90, pp. 148–285. Al-Ghazālī brings together Qurʾān, ḥadīth s, the sayings of the pious, and the views of contemporary theologians and Ṣūfīs in the chapter on dhikr and supplication in his Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, 5 vols. (Cairo, 1932), translated by K. Nakamura as Ghazali on Prayer (Tokyo, 1973).
For dhikr in the Ṣūfī tradition, see Louis Gardet's entry in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed. (Leiden, 1960–), and J. Spencer Trimingham's The Sufi Orders in Islam (New York, 1971), pp. 194–217, both of which deal mainly with techniques. A far more insightful treatment is provided by Annemarie Schimmel's Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill, 1975), pp. 167–178. Among translated texts a brief overview of the views of the early Ṣūfīs is provided by al-Kalābādhī's The Doctrine of the Sufis, translated by A. J. Arberry (Lahore, 1966), pp. 105–108, while a comprehensive explanation of its significance is given by Najm al-Dīn Rāzī's The Path of God's Bondsmen from Origin to Return, translated by Hamid Algar (Delmar, N.Y., 1982), pp. 268–285. For a description of various forms of dhikr within the context of contemporary Egyptian Sufism, see Michael Gilsenan's Saint and Sufi in Modern Egypt (Oxford, 1973), pp. 156–187.
William C. Chittick (1987)