Sacred Tranquility in Our Age of Angst & Anxiety
The main thrust of this piece is a short discussion from Imam Ibn al-Qayyim concerning how his shaykh, Ibn Taymiyyah, would recite the six “Verses of Tranquility” in the Qur’an whenever he would feel under pressure or find himself in straightened circumstances. Ibn al-Qayyim writes that when he tried this spiritual remedy for himself, he too found relief from the agitation or anxiousness he would be experiencing. The post wraps-up by briefly mentioning the two kinds of anxiety that afflict people, and how the Qur’an is a spiritual healing for life’s angsts and anxieties.
In what is possibly his most developed work on Muslim spirituality (tazkiyat al-nafs, ‘ilm al-suluk, tasawwuf), Ibn al-Qayyim commences his discussion on the spiritual quality of tranquility (sakinah) by saying it’s a virtue gifted by God through His unmitigated grace: it cannot be earned or acquired through spiritual works and exertion.1 He then tells us that sakinah is mentioned in six verses of the Holy Qur’an. These verses are:
1. وَقَالَ لَهُمْ نَبِيُّهُمْ إِنَّ آيَةَ مُلْكِهِ أَنْ يَأْتِيَكُمُ التَّابُوتُ فِيهِ سَكِينَةٌ مِنْ رَبِّكُمْ – Their Prophet said to them: ‘The sign of his kingship is that there shall come to you the ark wherein is tranquility from your Lord.’ [Q.2:248]
2. ثُمَّ أَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ سَكِينَتَهُ عَلَى رَسُولِهِ وَعَلَى الْمُؤْمِنِينَ – Then God sent down His tranquility on His Prophet and the believers. [Q.9:26]
3. إِذْ يَقُولُ لِصَاحِبِهِ لَا تَحْزَنْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ مَعَنَا فَأَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ سَكِينَتَهُ عَلَيْهِ وَأَيَّدَهُ بِجُنُودٍ لَمْ تَرَوْهَا – [W]hen he said to his companion; ‘Do not despair, for God is with us.’ Then God caused His tranquility to descend upon him and supported him with invisible forces. [Q.9:40]
4. هُوَ الَّذِي أَنْزَلَ السَّكِينَةَ فِي قُلُوبِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ لِيَزْدَادُوا إِيمَانًا مَعَ إِيمَانِهِمْ وَلِلَّهِ جُنُودُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ عَلِيمًا حَكِيمًا – He it is who sent down tranquility into the hearts of the believers, so that they would have more faith added to their [present] faith. God’s are the hosts of the heavens and the earth, and God is Knowing, Wise. [Q.48:4]
5. لَقَدْ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ إِذْ يُبَايِعُونَكَ تَحْتَ الشَّجَرَةِ فَعَلِمَ مَا فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ فَأَنْزَلَ السَّكِينَةَ عَلَيْهِمْ وَأَثَابَهُمْ فَتْحًا قَرِيبًا – God was well pleased with the believers when they swore allegiance to you under the tree. And He knew what was in their hearts; thus He sent down tranquility on them and rewarded them with a near victory. [Q.48:18]
6. إِذْ جَعَلَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا فِي قُلُوبِهِمُ الْحَمِيَّةَ حَمِيَّةَ الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ فَأَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ سَكِينَتَهُ عَلَى رَسُولِهِ وَعَلَى الْمُؤْمِنِينَ – When the disbelievers had set up in their hearts chauvinism – the chauvinism of the Age of Ignorance. Then God sent down His tranquility on His Messenger and the believers. [Q.48:26]
After listing the verses, Ibn al-Qayyim then goes on to reveal: ‘Whenever matters became intense, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah, may God have mercy upon him, would recite the Verses of Tranquility (ayat al-sakinah). I once heard him say concerning a serious incident that afflicted him during an illness of his …”When the matter became acute, I said to my relatives and those around me: “Recite the Verses of Tranquility.” I would then be relieved from this condition and my heart would be freed of its troubles.”
‘I [Ibn al-Qayyim] also experienced this on reading these verses, when my heart became disturbed over something that troubled it. I experienced their tremendous effect, in terms of the calm and peace they brought to it.
‘The root of this sakinah is the heart’s peace (tuma’ninah), composure (waqar) and repose (sukun) that God causes to descend upon the heart of His servant, in times of disquieting troubles.’2
Of course, such verses should be recited with an overall awareness of what one is reciting, in order for them to yield their true benefits. Ibn al-Qayyim makes this point in another of his works. While teasing out the theological benefits and spiritual fruits of the verse: And remember Job, when he cried unto his Lord: “Affliction has seized me. But You are the Most Merciful of the merciful” [Q.21:83], he notes:
‘This supplication (du‘a) combines in itself the essence of tawhid, manifesting indigence before the Lord, the taste of divine love in the praise and the flattery of Him, affirming His attribute of mercy and that He is the Most Merciful of those who show mercy, seeking the means to approach Him through [mention] of His attributes, and one’s dire need of Him. Whenever the afflicted one feels this, his affliction will be removed. Experience confirms that whoever repeats this [verse] seven times, especially with this awareness, God shall lift from him his affliction.’3
Ours is an age filled with two kinds of angst or anxiety. The first is what is referred to as “existential angst”: an anxiety and despair born from falsely believing that life is devoid of meaning; everything is here by some cosmic “chance”; and that despite our freedom to choose, death is our ultimate end: therefore life is pointless. The believer is shielded from such an anxiety because of knowing that life has a God-centred purpose; that death is not the end; and that the good we do, seeking God’s good pleasure – even if unappreciated by others – is known by God and is accepted and rewarded by Him, through His unmitigated grace. In this way, the believer is known to God and loved by Him.
The other kind of angst can afflict anyone – believer or unbeliever, saint or sinner – and is an intrinsic part of human life. This kind of anxiety is, for a want of a better term, more of a “clinical angst” and is usually experienced in the context of a physical threat, a trauma, or a situational problem or crisis. By clinical, I mean that it may be (and usually is) treated with conventional medicine, or professional therapy, or meditative practices and spiritual healing – or even a combination of two, or of all three. And whilst certain anxieties, such as trauma brought on in childhood, isn’t the individual’s fault, it is their responsibility to try and remedy or cope with it.
For a Muslim, the Qur’an is a powerful shifa’, or healing: And We reveal of the Qur’an that which is a healing and a mercy to the believers. [Q.17:82] And whilst the primary healing of the Qur’an is in curing the intellectual doubts, falsehoods or half truths concerning God, humanity’s true purpose, life’s essential meaning, and our ultimate end; and in providing humanity with a practical and liveable morality suitable for all times or places, it offers psycho-spiritual relief to mind and soul as well. Reciting the words (alfaz) of the Qur’an, and pondering over their meanings (ma‘na), are both a healing – the former is a means to the latter, with the latter being the greater goal and purpose of the Holy Qur’an: Will they not ponder over the Qur’an, or are there locks upon their hearts? [Q.47:24] For some, the six Verses of Tranquility – when recited with an overall awareness of their meanings, coupled with feeling needy and indigent before God – has proven an effective remedy in bringing about relief from the heart’s troubles and the mind’s anxieties. With the correct adab, and mustering enough sincerity and neediness, it could very well do the same for us too?
We ask Allah for His kindness and grace.
1. Madarij al-Salikin (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 2005), 2:404.
2. ibid., 2:404-5.
3. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 292. As for the shari‘ah justification of repeating dhikr formulas a specific number of times, when such a number has not been specifically mentioned in a text from the Qur’an or the Sunnah, consult: Dhikr Repetition: Is It Allowed?