‘I’m remembering Allah, but my heart’s not in it; what’s the point’ is a typical anguish for many of us? ‘When I make dhikr, my heart doesn’t have focus, it’s all over the place. Is there any use’ is another one?
So should we stop making dhikr because out heart lacks focus on Allah; because there isn’t any hudur al-qalb – “presence of heart”? There are some who are dead set on the issue. There is no point in making dhikr when the heart is heedless, to do so would be making a mockery of dhikr – or so they’d have us believe.
But that’s not quite right. That’s not what those whom Allah has blessed with a huge share of fiqh and profound insight into the realities of faith (haqa’iq al-iman) teach us. Instead, as Ibn al-Qayyim explains, dhikr ‘is sometimes performed with the heart and tongue, which is the best dhikr; sometimes with only the heart, which ranks second; and sometimes with only the tongue, which ranks third.’1 And whilst dhikr with the tongue alone does not yield the fruits of gnosis (ma‘rifah), divine love (mahabbah) and intimacy (uns) as does dhikr with the tongue and heart combined; nonetheless, it still has its benefits. In fact, for most people it begins with dhikr of just the tongue. Imam al-Ghazali wrote: ‘It starts with dhikr of the tongue; then by the heart being pressed into remembering; then the heart remembering spontaneously.’2
The truth of the matter is that if we were to make dhikr only when our hearts were fully present, absorbed and focused on Allah, most of us would never make any dhikr at all! Masters of the inward life instruct us that if, whilst engaging in dhikr, we drift into the valleys of heedlessness and idle thought, when we realise we simply bring our hearts back into focus and continue in our dhikr. In this, as with all other matters, it is Allah’s fadl and karam that we rely upon; not our own efforts.
Perhaps the finest articulation of this reality (the reality of dhikr with just the tongue, and dhikr with the tongue and heart combined) is presented to us by Ibn Ata’illah al-Iskandari in his celebrated Hikam or collection of “Spiritual Aphorisms”. In one such aphorism, he states:
‘Do not abandon dhikr because you do not feel the presence of Allah therein. For your heedlessness of the dhikr of Him is worse than your heedlessness in the dhikr of Him. Perhaps He will lift you from dhikr with heedlessness (ghaflah) to dhikr with vigilance (yaqza); and from dhikr with vigilance to dhikr with presence (hudur); and from dhikr with presence to dhikr wherein everything but the One being remembered becomes absent: And that, for Him, is not difficult. [14:20]‘ 3
In his commentary to the Hikam, al-Shurnubi teases out some of the subtleties in the above aphorism. He writes: ‘Do not, O aspirant, forsake dhikr – which is an invitation to sanctity (manshur al-walayah) – because your heart isn’t present with God in it, due to it being preoccupied with worldly distractions. Instead, remember Him in all states and conditions. For your forgetfulness of His dhikr, in that you abandon it entirely, is far worse than your forgetfulness while making dhikr of Him. For at least, in this state, your tongue is moving in His remembrance, even if your heart is heedless of the One remembered. Perhaps you will be taken, by His grace, from dhikr with heedlessness to dhikr with vigilance; in other words, with an attentive, awakened heart; for this is the courtesy (adab) which befits His Presence; and from dhikr with vigilance to dhikr with presence, presence of His closeness; and from dhikr with presence to dhikr where all becomes absent except the One being remembered. So the person is “lost” even to his own dhikr … When dhikr flows from the tongue in this state, it does so spontaneously, without intent. Instead, his tongue only utters what the Manifest Truth [Allah] wants it to, for such a person is at the Station of Divine Love – which the [next] hadith refers to: ‘ … and My servant continues to draw near to Me with optional works (nawafil) so that I love him. When I love him I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, and his tongue with which he speaks.’4 None knows the reality of this lofty station except the spiritual wayfarers (salikun). So accept it wholeheartedly, even if you aren’t from its people: and follow not the desires of those who have no knowledge. [45:18] And hold tightly to the means, then the veil shall be lifted for you: And that, for Him, is not difficult. [14:20]’5
1. Al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 176.
2. Kitab al-Arba‘in fi Usul al-Din (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2006), 87. Also see the related article on this blog: How to Nurture Presence of Heart with God.
3. Ibn Ata’illah, al-Hikam al-Ata’iyyah (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), no.47.
4. Al-Bukhari, no.6137. Even though the meaning is sound and correct, the phrase: ‘his tongue with which he speaks’ is not part of the wording of this particular hadith. This phrase occurs in a hadith related by Ibn Abi Dunya, al-Awliya, no.45; Ahmad, Musnad, 4:256; and others. But the chains all have defects in them and are therefore da‘if. See: Ibn Rajab, Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:331-32.
5. Al-Shurnubi, Sharh al-Hikam (Beirut & Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2008), 111-12.