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Should I Stop Making Dhikr If My Heart Isn’t In It?

Islam-Prayer-Beads-Hand‘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.

40 Day Spiritual Retreat: Does It Have a Basis in Islam?

cave&lightIn Islam, is there any significance to the period of forty days? Why do certain people insist on going into spiritual retreats for this length of time? Some allude to the verse: And when We appointed for Moses forty nights [Qur’an 2:51], saying that it points to the importance and justification of a forty day spiritual retreat. What, then, is the reality of this claim; and what is the ruling (hukm) of such retreats of solitude and seclusion in Islam?

Undeniably, this forty day retreat of seclusion (khalwah, ‘uzlah) prepared Moses, peace be upon him, for the august meeting with his Lord and the lordly gift he was about to receive.1 Moreover, the Bible has it that Jesus, peace be upon him, also retreated into the wilderness, fasting for forty day. It was after this that his ministry began.

As for in Islam, a forty day retreat (khalwah) seems to have no specific mention in our Sacred Law. Besides his retreats to the cave of Hira before prophethood, there is no hadith to show that the Prophet ﷺ ever entered into this type of retreat after he was commissioned as a prophet; nor did he legislate it for others. Ibn Taymiyyah insists that forty day retreats are not part of the Prophet’s Sacred Law ﷺ, but rather the Law of Moses – which is now abrogated by the Muhammadan shari‘ah.2

There is a hadith which says: ‘Whoever dedicates to God forty days, the wellspring of wisdom shall manifest itself from his heart to his tongue.’3 This hadith, however, is weak (da‘if); though not fabricated.4 Something resembling this was echoed by Imam Malik who said: ‘It has reached me that none renounces the world and is God-fearing, except that he shall speak wisdom.’5

The famous pietist, Sahl al-Tustari, also has similar words: ‘Whoever renounces the world for forty days with sincere devotion, miracles shall emanate from him. If they do not, there is an absence of truthfulness in his renunciation.’6

All in all, then, nothing sound and concrete seems to be legislated in the Sunnah with regards to retreating from the world specifically for forty days. Certain words have been recorded from some of the early pietists based on their experience (tajribah) in this matter, and rooted in the generally accepted wisdom that habits can be forged in forty days. Imam al-Munawi has said that, ‘The wisdom in specifying forty days is that this is the time needed to persist in changing or forming basic habits; as is known by experience.’7

As for seeking seclusion so as to worship Allah through personal acts of devotion – in other words, taking some spiritual ‘time-out’ – Ibn Taymiyyah remarks: ‘It is vital for a person to set aside some time for themselves so as to engage in earnest supplication, remembrance, prayer, contemplation, introspection, setting the heart right and other spiritual practices that require solitude and seclusion.’8 For it is in a state of solitude that the heart’s gaze can best be diverted away from creation and be focused solely on the Creator. Ibn ‘Ata’illah offered us this piece of spiritual wisdom: ‘Nothing benefits the heart more than a spiritual retreat wherein it enters the domains of meditation.’9

If someone specifies forty days (or, for that matter, any length of time) for a personal retreat, or to try and nurture spiritual habits – then provided the specific period is not believed to be an established Sunnah, and provided that one’s other religious duties or worldly responsibilities are not neglected – this would be in keeping with the overall spirit of the faith and the received wisdoms of some of our predecessors. Of course, intending to engage in any lengthy period of seclusion and solitude must be done so under the guidance of those learned in shari’ah; the sacred law, and versed in tariqah; the method or path of inward purification. Indeed, going it alone in such a prolonged spiritual practice can be fraught with great danger to mind, body and soul.

And Allah knows best.

1. As per: al-Alusi, Ruh al-Ma‘ani (Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-‘Arabi, n.d.), 1:257; Ibn ‘Ashur, al-Tahrir wa’l-Tanwir (Tunis: Dar al-Tunisiyyah, 1984), 1:497.

2. See: Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 10:393-95.

3. Abu Nu‘aym, Hilyat al-Awliya, 5:189; Ibn Abi Shaybah, al-Musannaf, 13:231; Hannad, al-Zuhd, no.678.

4. Al-Qari says that Ibn al-Jawzi cites it in his anthology of fabricated reports, Kitab al-Mawdu‘at, but believes it to be an error in judgement. For the chain is merely weak, not fabricated. Cf. al-Israr al-Marfu‘ah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), 315; no.454. Its chain being weak is also the grading given it by al-Sakhawi, al-Maqasid al-Hasanah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2003), no.1052. Al-Albani declared it weak in Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma’arif, 1992), no.38.

5. As was recorded in al-Dhahabi, Siyar A’lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 8:109.

6. Recorded in al-Qushayri, al-Risalah al-Qushayriyyah (no info., n.d.), 190. Also refer to its English translation by A. Kynsh, al-Qushayri’s Epistle on Sufism (Reading: Garnet Publishing, 2007), 367.

7. Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 6:44.

8. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 10:426.

9. Al-Hikam al-‘Ata’iyyah (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), no.12.

Despair Not if Response to Your Du‘a is Delayed

13547973-silhouette-of-female-muslim-praying-in-mosque-during-sunset-time‘Why isn’t my supplication (du‘a) being answered?’ is a common complaint that some Muslims make. If we put aside the obvious gremlins (lack of sincerity in making du‘a, impatience with the response, asking for something sinful of for breaking family ties, not ensuring one’s income; food; and clothing are halal), there are other factors that play a part in the response of a du’a not being apparently forthcoming. We read in one hadith: ‘There is no Muslim who makes a supplication, in which there is neither sin nor cutting ties of kinship, save that Allah will grant because of it one of three things: either He will grant him a prompt response, or store it up for him in the Hereafter, or avert from him an equivalent harm.’1

That the response to a du‘a could be put-off, or be responded to in ways the petitioner doesn’t anticipate, is the theme of one of Ibn Ata’illah al-Iskandari’s (d.709H/1309CE) famous Hikam, or “Aphorisms”. The Kitab al-Hikam, or Hikam al-Ata’iyyah is the most famous collection of wisdom sayings in the corpus of Islamic literature, composed by the accomplished Maliki jurist and sufi, Ahmad ibn Ata’illah of Alexandria, Egypt. The Hikam has a reputaion for its succinct exposition of spiritual realities and practices to spur seekers on to the stations of ihsan. Its appeal is that it combines brevity, energy of expression and layers of meanings, couched in beautiful rhyming Arabic prose. This, together with its many large and small commentaries, has ensured its popularity among laypeople and scholars alike till this day.

Below is the sixth aphorism in the collection (in red), followed by a brief commentary by Shaykh ‘Abd al-Majid al-Shurnubi (d.1348H/1929CE). The theme of this aphorism, as said before, addresses the issue of du‘a and the subtle wisdom behind why Heaven’s response to it is sometimes delayed:

6. If, in spite of intense supplication, there is a delay in the timing of the Gift, let that not be the cause for your despair. For He has guaranteed you a response in what He chooses for you, not in what you choose for yourself; and at the time He desires, not the time you desire.

‘That is, let not a delay in the timing of a gift [response] – despite persistence and firm continuance in making du‘a – be a cause to despair about a response to the du‘a. For Allah, transcendent is He, has guaranteed you a response, as per His words: “Call upon Me, and I will respond to you” [60:40] in what He chooses for you, not what you choose for yourself. For He knows what is better for you than you do. Perhaps you may ask for a thing, the denial of which is better for you. The author writes later: “Sometimes He gives while depriving you, and sometimes He deprives while giving to you.”2 This is witnessed by those who realise the station: It may be that you hate a thing though it is good for you, or love a thing though it is bad for you. Allah knows, but you know not. [2:216] This is why one of the gnostics stated: “His withholding from you is, in reality, a form of giving.”

Likewise, He has guaranteed you a response in the time He chooses, not in the time of your choosing. Cultivate a Moses like patience, for patience and avoiding hastiness more befits the servant. Don’t you see that Moses would supplicate against Pharaoh and his folk and Aaron would say: “Amen” to it: “O Lord, destroy their riches and harden their hearts so that they persist in disbelief, until they face the painful torment.” [10:88] Yet only after forty years were their prayers answered, as He said: “Your prayer is answered. Follow, both of you, the right path and do not walk in the footsteps of those who know not.” [10:89] In one hadith [it says]: “Indeed, Allah loves those who are persistent in supplicating.”

It has also been related that when a righteous slave supplicates to Allah, exalted is He, Gabriel says: O Lord, your slave wants a need of his fulfilled. So Allah says: “Leave my slave; for I love him and love to hear his voice.”4

So, O aspirant, fulfil what Allah has instructed you with in respect to supplication, and submit to His will. Perhaps you will be responded to by Him withholding from you and giving you other than what you were seeking, by which you are then granted the greatest good, and even more. [10:26]’5

1. Ahmad Musnad, 3:18; al-Hakim, Mustadrak, 1:463, where he declared the chain to be authentic (sahih).

2. Ibn Ata’illah, al-Hikam al-Ata’iyyah (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), no.83.

3. Al-‘Uqayli, Du‘afa, no.467. Al-Munawi graded it weak (da‘if), Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), no.1876; al-Albani graded its chain as very weak (da‘if jiddan) in Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), no.637. The meaning of the hadith, however, is sound and is supported by other hadiths which speak about the virtues of frequently supplicating to Allah.

4. Al-Tabarani, al-Awsat, no.8442; al-Bayhaqi, Shu‘ab al-Iman, no.9562. In his Majma‘ al-Zawa’id (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, n.d.), 10:151, al-Haythami points out that its chain is weak (da‘if), as it contains a narrator who is abandoned (matruk).

5. Al-Shurnubi, Sharh al-Hikam (Beirut & Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2008), 69-71; no.6

Pitfalls of the Practising Muslim

sujud3It is said: “Whoever acts by what he knows, God will bequeath to him knowledge that he does not know.”1 Thus, as a person practices what they know, they are guided to a deepening of faith, a sharpening of the spiritual faculty, and an intensifying of taqwa. The Qur’an insists: While those who are guided, God increases their guidance and grants them God-fearingness [47:17]

There are, we are cautioned, certain pitfalls along the path which we must steer clear of; and it is not uncommon for those committed to religious observance (“practicing Muslims” is the usual term) to stumble headlong into such dangers, corrupting works of faith and poisoning the soul and health of the heart. Of these pitfalls is ‘ujb: vanity, conceit, vain-glory, egotism.

In the case of religious works, ‘ujb is when we fail to realise that the act of worship we have performed, or the knowledge we have gained, or the charity we have given – for instance – is not of our own doing; but is a gift from God. Only when blinded to such a reality do we then start to see these works as being of our own accomplishment and efforts. We then begin to become vain, egotistical and bask in our own self-glory. Ibn ‘Ata’illah counsels us: ‘Let not acts of obedience make you joyous because they come from you. But be joyous because they come from God to you. Say: “In the grace of God and His mercy, in that let them rejoice. This is better than that which they hoard.” [10:58]’2

Akin to the dangers of ‘ujb is that of kibr – arrogance, haughtiness, pride, hubris. One hadith defines arrogance as being: batr al-haqq wa ghamat al-nas – ‘rejecting the truth and looking down on others.’ [Muslim, no.91] Seeing ourselves as better than others or viewing others with contempt, disdain or as being inferior, is outright arrogance or kibr. There are many manifestations of kibr. Being boastful about one’s looks, wealth, worldy achievement, or social status are among the most common; as is considering oneself to be religiously more devout or more pious than others. Ibn ‘Ata’illah writes: ‘Disobedience which bequeathes humiliation and extreme brokenness, is better than obedience that bequeathes conceit and arrogance.’3

This is not an encouragement to make light of disobedience, or to casually sin and to then appologise to God. That would be sheer impertinance and mocking the majesty of God. It is urging us, however, to do works of faith with humility and abject spiritual need and poverty (faqr), realising that we can never worship God in the way He really deserves.

Again, from a religious angle, kibr is a failure to see the reality behind works of faith. Not only is the ability to do such works Heaven’s grace (giving us no cause, therefore, to bragg or to gloat over accomplishments which are not of our own doing), we don’t even know if our acts are accepted by God or not. For what counts is not the deed, but its acceptance. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘None of you shall be saved due to his deeds.’ It was asked: Not even you, O Prophet of God? He replied: ‘No, not even me, unless God covers me with His mercy and forgiveness.’ [Muslim, no.2816]

Masters of the inward life have said: la budda min al-‘aml wa bihi la nasal – ‘Works are indispensable, but we do not arrive by them.’ Rather, reaching God is only by His love, mercy and unmitigated grace. That is, man progresses towards God, not by his works or efforts – though they are a precondition – but by God’s compassionate “attraction” with which he draws the seeker to Him. Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

1. Cited by Abu Nu‘aym, Hilyat al-Awliya (Egypt: Dar al-Rayyan, 1986), 10:14-15, where he says that the chain has been forgently ascribed to the Prophet, peace be upon him; although its overall meaning is sound and echoes the verse cited a few lines down.

2. Al-Hikam al-‘Ata’iyyah (Egypt: Dar al-Salam, 2006), no.58.

3. Al-Hikam al-‘Ata’iyyah, no.96.

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