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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.

You Have Wings to Fly, So Don’t Crawl

Hand glidersIn January of this year, I had the opportunity (the good fortune) to accompany Shaykh Jaleel Ahmad Akhoon on one of his travels in the UK. My reasons for wanting to do so were simple: Shaykh Jaleel isn’t only a scholar of the outward shariah sciences, he is a profound spiritual guide too. Keeping company with those who can instruct you in shariah rules and more importantly, whose presence can help reform your inward state, is a crucial teaching of the Qur’an – and one which is too often forgotten or overlooked. O you who believe! Fear God, and be with the truthful ones [9:119], says Allah in the Qur’an.

What follows are just a few of the pearls the three of us who accompanied the Shaykh gleaned from our suhbah, or spiritual companionship with him. All our conversations were in Urdu; so for the most part I have sought to convey the overall meanings of his words, while at other times I have attempted a direct translation of them:

Having settled down in our car journey (and with his permission), I asked the Shaykh, may Allah protect him, how one can acquire presence of heart (hudur al-qalb) in one’s prayer and other acts of worship?

The Shaykh replied that there are two things that are powerful aids in bringing about presence of heart: (i) Constant remembrance (dhikr) of God. (ii) Vigilance (muraqabah) of God. Vigilance is to focus on God, particularly the afal al-rabb or “Divine Acts”, so as to see that all the good in this world emanates from God’s acts and His enabling grace (tawfiq); and all evil as being from His acts but our own acquisition (kasb).

The actual morning of the journey was a delightful surprise for Shaykh Jaleel. Coming as he does from Pakistan, the Shaykh had never seen, or experienced, snow before. So to see the entire street, the cars, trees and roof-tops covered in a thick fluffy blanket of snow did nothing short of bring a radiant smile to the Shaykh’s face. About an hour or so into the journey, as we were on the motorway, the Shaykh asked what the lorries in front of us were doing. We said that they were gritting the roads, so as to give the tyres better grip on the snowy road. He asked what they were using. Rock salt (grit), we told him. He then went on to say:

Allah has placed much blessings in salt. Here, he said, you use it to grit roads to make it safer to drive. In Pakistan, we use it to help gel ice-cream. Salt, he said, is also found in the sea. If Allah hadn’t put salt there, how could it be kept clean or purified – given the number of sea-creatures or corpses that die and decay in it on a daily basis. He sighed for a bit and then said: Our tears have salt in it, out of Allah’s love and compassion for those who weep. It helps keep eyes healthy when they shed tears. I think, at that point, we all sighed and exclaimed, subhana’Llah! A few minutes later, vigilance of the afal al-rabb, I felt, was beginning to deepen in me.

Along with his God-given gift of stirring in souls an acute love and yearning for Allah, Shaykh Jaleel also felt it important to speak about the inherent natures of truth (haqq) and falsehood (batil), and of faith (iman) and disbelief (kufr). As we were approaching the north of the country, he said:

Truth is like a needle, with ease it can puncture a hole in the fabric of kufr! He also said that we needn’t fret about the huge sums of money or resources being ploughed into propping-up the current global, materialistic monoculture; and neither be overly concerned about the lack of resources at the disposal of believers. Falsehood, he went on to say, is like a corpse; while truth is like a living person. It requires a lot of effort and power to prop-up a corpse; even more to make it move. But just a little effort – a nudge, even – is all that is needed to make a living person move! In other words, he said, do whatever little you can in terms of the truth, and it will be filled with much barakah.

In between a little casual chat, some resting, and the dhikr, reflection and long periods of silence, Shaykh Jaleel, may Allah protect him, also stressed the following:

The salik or “seeker”, in this day and age, tends to be negligent of three matters: Firstly, nurturing a strong connection (rabitah) with his shaykh, in much the same way a child is connected to its mother and her nourishment. Secondly, being constant in his dhikr of Allah. Thirdly, striving against sins.

There were many other gems to be gathered in the overall two day trip: not all of them were verbal. Many were simply a matter of keeping to adab and silence, and observing and learning. I hope to relay more of such benefits in a future posting, insha’Llah. May Allah shade and protect Shaykh Jaleel Ahmad Akhoon, and reward him with abundant goodness. Amin.

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