Emptying the Heart: The Power of Dhikr


By Professor Zachary Wright

The following is the full transcript of a lecture from The Sacred Path of Love Retreat 2011 entitled “Come Back to Allah: The Power of Dhikr” by Professor Zachary Wright.

Alhamdulillahi robbil alameen
Wassolatu wassalam ala ashrafil anbiya’i wal mursaleen.

Assalamualaikum. I’m actually here filling the slot of Shaykh Muhammad al Yaqoubi who was originally slotted for this time. So it’s not as if I’m the last and most important speaker. But thank you for your time and attention. I’m very impressed with the conference, may Allah increase all of you.

I’m giving a talk today called “Come to Allah”, or rather, “Come back to Allah: The Power of Dhikr”. Since I’m really not qualified to speak about this, I’ll be presenting mostly based on this book, Kashif al Ilbas (The Removal of Confusion), which contains a chapter on the excellence of dhikr. In it, Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, the 20th century Senegalese Shaykh who died in 1975, collects evidence from the traditional tasawwuf before him, from the traditional Sufi orders and also the scholars of the past. So when you see me quoting scholars, it’s not because I’ve done the individual research myself, I’m building upon his work.

I would highly recommend this book. In it, Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse said, “I have collected the cream of the texts of the tradition of tasawwuf.” Basically this book is a masterful defence of tasawwuf in the 20th century. I think those of you from a variety of different traditions would appreciate how the different Shuyukh are put into dialogue, for example Shaykh Ahmad Zarruq and Ibn Ata’illah as Sakandari and a variety of different Shuyukh from different traditions are all represented.

The Purpose of Dhikr

Dhikr is the essence of prayer, as pointed out to us by Professor Usman in a gathering at one of our houses, and prayer is the essence of religion, and religion is the essence of Man.

Dhikr is also, of course, the essence of tasawwuf, and it’s been refreshing for me to come to a conference where tasawwuf is talked about so openly. Nonetheless with all of these fancy hats and fancy handshakes, different people with their prayer beads and things, don’t let that distract you. The essence of tasawwuf is dhikr, and dhikr is something that no Muslim can do without. As I heard my esteemed Shaykh Ninowy say in the hallway, “The tariqah is nothing but an extra promise, to make extra dhikr.”

Dhikr is the invitation to return to God. In this talk, I’ll be talking very briefly about the types of dhikr, the merits of dhikr, the different levels of dhikr, and the result of dhikr.

Before launching into that, I will just quote from ibn Abbas. This is a narration that’s included in the Jawaahir al Ma’ani, the primary text of the Tijaniyyah, of Shaykh Ahmad Tijani about his life and thought. He said,

“That which keeps creatures distracted from Allah, the Exalted, is nothing but their preoccupation with themselves. If only they would abandon this preoccupation with themselves, and distance themselves far from it, all of them would behold Allah with their own eyes.”

This is the injunction of Ihsan, to worship Allah as if you see him. In my own personal journey to Islam, I’ve come to find this out in a very real way.

As a junior, I’d almost finished up my degree, and I was feeling a great lack of inner peace, suffering from insomnia. I had a Hindu roommate, and I asked him, “I see that you’re meditating. Can you teach me how to do that?” He said, “You need to have a mantra, a two-syllable word, a long vowel, and you need to repeat this word over and over in your head, and it’ll get more and more quiet until you’re left with the word alone. You should choose a word that’s important to you.”

I’d taken some Arabic, and the word that came into my head was “Allah”. So, I used to sit and meditate on my meditation cushion, saying “Allah, Allah.” I can’t really say that I was convinced of God’s existence before that, but very quickly, Allah showed Himself. This was real, that Allah exists, there is no doubt. So I continued with this for a month. But I could not replicate the spiritual state that I had at the beginning, all the time, so I remember praying the Muslim prayer as best as I could.

I had a friend who was Muslim. I wasn’t particularly religious, but I thought that that was the best way to pray. That was when I was 22, so I probably butchered the prayer, but I did the best I could and I threw away my prayer cushion. I remember supplicating “Allah, show me the way to worship You, because I can’t take this and that (take a piece of Hinduism, a piece of Islam.)”

That’s when I got the grant to go to Senegal and the community of ahlul dhikr there, who really embodied for me what was Islam. Then, I converted to Islam. It still doesn’t make it easy, to still always fight your nafs.

In any case, those of you who are non-Muslim or have friends who are non-Muslim, keep in mind that the knowledge of God is the essence of this religion. That’s what people want. Challenge them if they don’t believe in God. Sit alone for a few minutes, think about God. Try to put away all the distractions, and if God wants them, then they will know.

That also goes for you younger Muslims, and it’s also advice for myself as well. If you’re caught up in the dunya, caught up in the distractions, go back to the essence of your faith. Don’t rely only your religious obligations. Go back and witness who is Allah.

So, to summarize, the essence of dhikr and the purpose of dhikr, is ma’rifatullah: knowledge of God. Allah says, “Ma khalaqtul jinna wal insa illa liya’budun: I have not created the jinns and the men except to worship me” (51:56). Ibn Abbas, the great mufassir (tafsir expert) of the Companions, said the meaning of this verse is ya’rifun: to know God. In a Hadith Qudsi, Allah says, “Know Me before you worship Me, because if you don’t know Me, how can you worship Me?”

The Types of Dhikr

We have among the types of dhikr: the Qur’an, tasbih, istighfar, calling on Asma ul Husna (the 99 beautiful names of Allah), and salat ‘ala nabi is also considered a form of dhikr because in reality, Allah is the one making salat upon Rasulullah .

Shaykh Ahmad Tijani said that The best of remembrances is remembrance of Allah at the time of His command and prohibition.” This dhikr that prevents you from going into haram and allows you to fulfil your wajibat (obligations) of the religion, is even better than reading the Qur’an. If you’re reading Qur’an and you’re not stopping where Allah says “Stop”, and you’re not doing what Allah says to do, then the Qur’an is cursing you. Na’udzubillahi min dzalik, we seek refuge in Allah.

Some of these dhikr, such as tasbih, must be identified as leading to the knowledge of God’s essence.

There are three levels of knowledge of God:

  1. Knowledge of Allah’s essence
  2. Knowledge of Allah’s attributes
  3. Knowledge of Allah’s works.

Calling upon Allah by His names is of course, meritorious, but will only lead to knowledge of Allah by a particular name, unless one calls upon Him by the names that represent His essence, such as “Allah”, or “Huwa”, or others.

The Merits of Dhikr

Shaykh Ninowy mentioned this verse in his talk earlier on: Fadhkuruni wa adhkurkum: Remember Me and I will remember you. According to Shaykh Ahmad Zarruq, the 15th century Shadhili sufi and Shari’ah Law expert, “There is no greater karamah (miraculous bounty) of dhikr than this verse of the Qur’an.” The fact of Allah’s remembering you is infinitely greater than your remembrance of Him.

In the last talk, you heard that Imam Abu Hamid al Ghazali said to make sure that when you remember Allah, be present in your remembrance of Allah. This is the ideal, but Ibn Abbad al Rundi says,

“Do not abandon the remembrance for your lack of mindful presence with Allah therein. Your heedlessness in the absence of remembering Him is worse than your heedlessness while remembering Him.”

In other words, it’s better to be heedless in your dhikr, than to just not make dhikr, or to be heedless in your heedlessness.

The reality is that the servant’s remembrance of His lord is inherently incapacitated. Whether you’re making dhikr with abject heedlessness in it where you’re thinking of going to the movies afterwards, or when you’re making dhikr while your heart is very centred and you’re having all sorts of experiences, Wallahu ‘alam, there’s not much difference between those and the end. The true remembrance belongs to Allah, and as long as you think it belongs to yourself, you’re suffering from being veiled.

The Levels of Dhikr

Ibn Abbad al Rundi, in his commentary of the Hikam of Ibn Ata’illah, says:

“It may be that Allah will raise you from heedless remembrance to wakeful remembrance, from wakeful remembrance to remembrance with presence of mind, and from remembrance with presence of mind to remembrance that is absent from everything apart from the one being remembered, and that is not difficult for Allah.”

So your effort to make dhikr for Allah, even if you’re distracted, is your taking one step towards God, and so Allah will take ten steps towards you.

Allah can as easily raise you up from a state of wakeful and present remembrance, to a state of fana’ or to knowledge of Him just as He can raise you from heedless remembrance. So make dhikr even when you’re heedless. If the only time you can make dhikr is while you’re watching TV, it’s better than nothing.

This idea of the different levels of dhikr, is elaborated by the 18th century Shadhili Shaykh from Mauritania who’s very famous in West Africa, Shaykh Muhammad al Yadadi, who wrote a very famous tafsir of the Qur’an. He also wrote a book called Sharh al Khatimi ila Tasawwuf. In it, he details four levels of dhikr:

  1. Dhikr of the tongue
  2. Dhikr of the heart under obligation
    Here, the heart requires vigilant observation to be present in the remembrance, for if it is left to its own natural inclination, it will wander about in the valleys of thought. We’ve all experienced this.
  3. Dhikr of the obedient heart
  4. Absorption in God Himself.

Regard the absorption in God Himself, Shaykh al Yadadi says,

“This is where the servant is not concerned with directing the heart’s attention to remembrance, or with the heart itself. He is wholly absorbed by the one who is remembered.”

He goes on to say,

“The first stage of the remembrance is remembrance of the tongue, then the remembrance of the heart under obligation, then the remembrance of the obedient heart, then the servant’s occupation by the One remembered and the erasure of the remembrance. As long as the heart is conscious of the remembrance, it has turned away from Allah. The heart is not rid of hidden shirk until it comes to be totally absorbed in The One, The Real. This is the true doctrine of tawheed.”

Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse has a commentary on this in a public speech he gave in Mauritania, I think around 1960. He says,

“A person desires arrival to God, but finds a veil between himself and God. But this veil is only the creation. If he should persist in the remembrance of God the Blessed, the Exalted, making his heart present to God, the creation will vanish from him, and he will arrive to God the Blessed and Exalted. The creation becomes, like the mirage in a desert, which the thirsty man mistakes for water until he comes upon it and finds nothing, and instead, finds God with him.”

The greatest Shaykh, Ibn Arabi al Hatimi, said, “Whoever sees the creation as a mirage, he has lifted the veil.”

Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse goes on to comment,

“If the aspirant should come to the perfected Shaykh desiring arrival to God, the Blessed and Exalted, the Shaykh will first occupy him with the remembrance of God the Blessed and Exalted, until he becomes connected with the presence of God, the Blessed and Exalted, by way of fana’ (annihilation). Should the servant not annihilate himself in the essence of God, he has not completed his faith. If the veil should remain with him here, he should be aware of a type of punishment inevitably overtaking the servant, as the Most Highest said, “Nay, on that day, they will be veiled from their Lord, then they will indeed enter the hellfire.” So whenever should arrive the veil, there arrives the punishment. If the servant continues with the remembrance of Allah, he attains extinction.

As quoted in Jawaahir al Ma’ani, Shaykh Ahmad Tijani also goes on to say,

“You have not perceived the reality of the doctrine of tawheed, as long as you say the creation and Allah are both existing, for where is the Oneness if there are two? There is no Oneness except when the Oneness is for Allah alone, by Allah alone, and to Allah alone. The servant does not enter in or exit from it, and this is not possible except though fana’ (annihilation).”

So long story short, the fourth and the most important essence of dhikr, the inner core, is this annihilation of the self in the presence of God.

Now, the reason why it’s a dhikr, a recollection, is because it’s conceived of as knowledge that you already know. It’s something that is contained with the ruh of every human being, according to the Shuyukh.

To quote Ibn Ajiba in this regard,

“This reality of the soul is linked to the Holy Presence (Hadhratul Qudsi). It is only the receptacle that restrains it (meaning the “form”), and from this realization, ascension begins.”

This is also quoted in Kashf al Ilbas by Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse.

Herein is quoted the poetry by Ibn al Farid, if I may translate:

They said to me, “Describe it (the ruh) for us, for you are informed of its attributes.” “Of course, for I do have knowledge of its descriptions. It is the purity of purest water, but without water. The wind’s subtle grace, but without air. Light without fire, spirit without body. Its beginning preceded all existing beings. It is ancient without shape, present without form, all things begin by it, and then because of Divine Wisdom, it was veiled from whoever lacks understanding.”

So this inexplicable relationship of the human ruh to the Hadhratul Qudsi (Divine Presence), is the connection that the dhikr is meant to go back to, to tear apart the veils of the corporal forms of distraction, to access this knowledge that is in all of us.

So, once again, going back to Ibn Abbas,

“That which keeps creatures distracted from Allah the Exalted is nothing but preoccupation with themselves. If only they would abandon this preoccupation with themselves and distance themselves far from it, all of them would behold Allah with their own eyes.”

How does this happen? How is ihsan manifested? How is it possible to see the infinite with the finite eyes? Well, this is of course the subject of discussion among the mutakallameen as well. I don’t want to go into what this ru’ya (vision) actually means, is it with the physical eye or with the heart.

But once again, using Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse’s quoting of Ibn Ajiba in the Futuhhat al Ilaahiyya, this is a poem that Ibn Ajiba does not identify the author. Nonetheless, I find it very striking, in its describing of how it is possible for the finite being to witness the infinite. The unknown author said,

“My Beloved graciously manifested Himself, making Himself known to me, until I became certain that I am seeing Him overtly, without illusion. In every state, I see Him continuously on the mountain of my heart where He speaks to me. In this embrace there is no union and no separation, Exalted is He from either of these. How is possible for the like of me to contain the like of Him? How can the tiny star be compared to the full moon? But it happened that I saw Him, in the purity of my inner being. There I saw perfection too mighty and exalted to be partitioned, just as the full moon shows its face in the still pond although it shines high in the heavens.”

So here we come to the result of dhikr itself, and this must be described as some sort of embodiment of the essential knowledge of God (Ma’rifah). This is how Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse describes it in al Kashf al Ilbas:

“The heart becomes in the presence of the remembrance, empty of the entirety of existence, so that nothing remains in it other than Allah, might is His remembrance. The heart thus becomes the house of the Manifest Truth, Allah becomes the tongue with which the servant speaks. If one possessing such a heart would strike a blow, He would be the hand with which he strikes. If he hears, He is the hearing with which He hears. The Exalted One being remembered has taken possession of the heart, so He controls it. He has taken possession of the limbs of the body, so He uses them for what is pleasing to Him. He has taken possession of all the attributes of this servant, so He alternates them however He wills, for His pleasure. For this reason, the remembrance emerges without any effort. Good deeds and obedience are undertaken with tearful animation and delight, rather than as a wearisome burden.”

So here is the essence of dhikr, that you become the beloved of Allah. This is replicating the Hadith Qudsi:

“My believing servant continues to draw close to Me with superogatory acts of worship until I love him, and when I love Him, I become his hearing, his sight, his tongue, his foot and his hand. Through Me he hears, and through Me he sees and through Me he speaks, and through Me he understands, and through Me he strikes. If My servant were to ask of Me, I would surely grant him his wish.”

This, then, is the essence of dhikr. It’s not that you will rise up on a spaceship and leave the planet Earth, but it’s that you will come back, and everything that you do, following the Sunnah especially, following the Shari’ah especially, will be the most delightful of actions that you can engage in. Why? Because this is the ordinance of Allah to His prophets ‘alayhi salam. So you would undertake these activities with great pleasure, with great honour.

Relevant in this discussion as well, is the discussion of the Ism ul ‘Azm. I’ll only mention once the statement of Abu’l Hassan as Shadhili, he said,

It’s not important that you know the Greatest Name of Allah, it’s that you become the Greatest Name of Allah. In this case, then, your will becomes subjected completely to the Will of the Real. Nothing would emerge from your mouth except His will.”

I asked my teacher, Shaykh Hassan Cisse about this story. He said, “Yes indeed. He spoke the truth, because in this state, whatever you say will be.” This is the position of tasarruf (the disposition). Another way to explain it would be that your will has become synonymous with the Will of the Real: you don’t have any will left to yourself. So what else is left but the Will of the Real?

I will just end with a description. May Allah make us among those who remember Allah to the point that we are witnessing Him, with all of our being. Humankind, as described by the Shuyukh, exists at three levels.

  1. The ordinary Muslims: When they see something in the creation, they see Allah after it.
  2. The righteous people: When they see something in the creation, they see Allah in it.
  3. The ‘arifeen billah (knowledgeable people of God): Before they see anything in creation, they have already seen Allah before it. So they learn from Allah about the creation, may Allah make us among them. Ameen.

This exigency of Ma’rifah, as I said, is not to encourage you to have some psychedelic spiritual state. This is to encourage you to tear apart the veil, to understand what true tawheed means. To exempt yourself from punishment, and the punishment is attached, inevitably, to the veil, in whatever sense it may be.

Shaykh Ahmad Tijani was asked once about the hadith where the Prophet  said,

“My community will divide into 73 sects, and only one of them will be saved.”

Throughout Islamic intellectual history, we find all of the different sects claiming that that’s themselves. Shaykh Ahmad Tijani responded, “They are the knowledgeable people of God.”

In any sect, in any time, in any tariqa, if you get the knowledge of God, then you will be safe. That is the exigency, then, of ma’rifah, to tear apart the veils, to practice the dhikr, to understand what true tawheed is. It is not to hide behind the veil of Sufism or to be part of any sect or not. It is to get knowledge of God, and everybody needs it, because that’s the purpose of creation. In order to worship God, we need to know Him.

So Assalamualaikum, That’s all I have to say about the topic. May Allah bless you and thanks again for your attention. I hope that I’ve been able to keep the talk less than the time, for once. I know you are all very tired. Assalamualaikum.