Feeling a Prayer - Reframing Dhikr on the Night of Power
Today's snowflake is al-Nur, the Light, a particularly appropriate one for Laylat al-Qadr which, in many Shia traditions including my own, is observed tonight, on the 23rd night of Ramadan, based on traditions passed down from Hazrat Ali & Bibi Fatima (peace be upon them). In a non-Covid world, I would be spending tonight in jamatkhana, delivering wa'ez (like a sermon or khutba), offering supplications, and meditating on the nature of life and the divine. Since that isn't possible this year, I was given the opportunity to submit my wa'ez as a podcast, which you can listen to here. It is, of course, more focused on the Shia Ismaili tradition, but most of it applies to us all, so I've decided to share it text form here too.
Wishing you all love and light, tonight and every night,
“Take one step towards Me and I will take ten steps towards you. Walk towards Me and I will run towards you.”
In this Hadith Qudsi, Allah tells us of his deep and abiding love for us, the deep and enduring bond we share with him, just as he does throughout the Qur’an. Laylat al-Qadr, the great Night of Power, is a reminder, an opportunity to enact this hadith. For many of us, Laylat al-Qadr is a night on which we spend an entire night in contemplation of Allah, a night when we take one step towards Him and wait with bated breath as He takes ten towards us.
That step is taken in various ways by each of us, especially during this unique time. Perhaps you will read and reflect on the Imam’s guidance; perhaps you will sing or listen to devotional music about your love for Allah; perhaps you will supplicate yourself in prayers to Allah’s majesty and grace. But perhaps the thing that most distinguishes Laylat al-Qadr from other days, particularly in more esoteric traditions in Islam, are the dhikr we recite, dhkirs that we recite in congregation only during this sacred time, and which carry great power for us for this very reason.
These dhikr remind us of the nature of God. In them, we recite Allah’s attributes, which we find in the Qur’an – we speak of Allah who is Awwal and Akhir: the First and the Last; Allah who is Zahir and Batin: the manifest and the hidden; Allah who is Rab and Rehman: the lord, the most compassionate. The power of these words lies in the dhikr, the remembrance, of Allah.
But what is it that we are remembering? These dhikr, of course, help to turn our minds from the mundane issues of everyday life to the contemplation of Allah and our relationship with him. But why is this remembrance important?
There is a story that comes to us from the Qur’an that is particularly relevant here. In Sura 7, we are told about Yawm Alastu. On this day, Allah brought forth all the offspring of Adam, all of us that ever would be, and asked “Alastu bi Rabbikum?” – “am I not your Lord?” And they replied “Bala, shahid’na” – “yes, we testify that this is so.”
Allah reminds us of this moment in the Qur’an so that we cannot say that we did not know, that we were unaware of this covenant that was made. We ourselves, each and every one of us, have already given Allah our allegiance and obedience as our Lord. It was given at the very beginning, before we were even fully formed as physical beings in this temporary world.
It is this agreement, this testimony, that we so frequently forget. Far too often, we forget Allah. We forget our relationship to him. We forget that we come from him. And we forget the love that He has for us and we for Him. In this forgetfulness, we do a disservice to to ourselves as Allah’s love knows no bounds. This understanding lives deep within us, and is expressed most fully in our devotional literature and in the great works of our mystics, when they speak of love and the beloved.
Allah wants to be known. He wants to be known by us. Indeed, in a hadith Qudsi, Allah says: “I was a hidden treasure and I loved to be known. Hence I created all things in order to be known.” In our forgetfulness, we rob ourselves of that knowledge, leaving a purpose of our creation unfulfilled. Dhikr allows us to recollect that purpose, to remember and seek to know Allah, to walk towards Him rather than away from Him.
Dhikr is therefore a long-standing tradition in Islam, one that can be traced back to its earliest days. Indeed, on Laylat al-Qadr, some 1,450 years ago, the message that was given to Prophet Muhammad (SAAS) was a reminder of what humanity had forgotten, a call to remembrance.
We know that Prophet Muhammad himself was already practicing dhikr at the time of revelation. He was in the cave in Mount Hira contemplating Allah, as often did, when the angel Jibril came to him. But the Prophet belonged to a people who had forgotten and this was one of the reasons that his own dhikr was so exceptional.
This contrast between remembrance and forgetfulness is one of the ways in which we can understand Allah’s first revelation to the Prophet in Surah al-Alaq. In it, Allah reminds us that it is He who created us, He who taught us. Allah points out us for our forgetfulness, our misguided notion that we are self-sufficient. Indeed, the verse ends with an injunction to worship and draw close to Allah, reminding us, as Mawlana Hazar Imam* does that “remembrance itself is an act of submission.”
Prophet Muhammad once said that “for everything there is a polish and the polish for the heart is dhikr of Allah.” This polish helps to clean our hearts, to rid us of the dust and dirt that we collect in our day-to-day lives. We live our lives through smudged glasses, like looking in a rusted mirror. Our lives make us forgetful. We get bogged down in our families, in school or work, in phone calls and emails. We get lost in the constant barrage of input, especially now, in the incessant stream or news, in our very real worries and fears, and all of that can overwhelm us, so that we lose sight of our true purpose. Our smudged glasses make us think that this life is all there is. They makes us focus on getting through the day, on the next moment, the meeting, the task. We are by nature forgetful of our true selves and that forgetfulness rusts the mirror that is the human heart and prevents it from experiencing and reflecting Allah’s light as it was meant to. Dikhr is a remedy to that forgetfulness. Remembrance of Allah helps to polish the mirror, to see and reflect the light more clearly.
Now all of this is likely familiar to many of you. That is one of the many reasons that pray, particularly during Ramadan and on Laylat al-Qadr. We know that dhikr is important. We know that we must devote time to remembering Allah, to polishing our hearts. And so we sit and we pray and we recite our dhikr and, particularly on nights like Laylat al-Qadr, we often feel that sense of peace and satisfaction that dhikr provides.
But what happens when Laylat al-Qadr is over and this blessed month has passed? How do we continue to walk towards Allah? How do we continue to polish our hearts? It is here that we often struggle. Out in the world, in our everyday lives, we often find it difficult to enact this aspect of our faith. Some of us carry or wear a tasbih, which we occasionally take out and use. This is one, very important way to practice dhikr in our lives, but I would like for us to consider another one.
The irrepressible and insightful Anne Shirley, better known as Anne of Green Gables, once said:
“If I really wanted to pray I'll tell you what I'd do. I'd go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep, woods, and I'd look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I'd just FEEL a prayer.”
What Anne is talking about here is also dhikr. Certainly not dhikr in the sense it is traditionally used, dhikr in the form of tasbihs and formulaic prayers, but dhikr in a broader sense. Anne’s remembrance is deep and pure, a kind of spontaneous dhikr that occurs in the core of one’s being, a recollection of the abiding connection between ourselves and our Creator.
This kind of remembering is often triggered in moments of joy and beauty that inspire, leaving us breathless and awe-struck. Anne’s deep woods and blue skies, or majestic mountains, or beautiful music – these things often remind us of the deep connection we share with the Divine. But that remembrance also comes in moments of peace and simple contentment, even in moments of deep sorrow, or difficult periods like the one we find ourselves in right now. Because our connection to Allah lies at the very core of our being, every moment in our lives holds the possibility of this kind of dhikr. The Qur’an tells us that “wherever you turn, there is the face of God” (2:115). The wind on your skin, the sun on your face, laughing with your friends, sharing a meal with family, the saltiness of tears, your strength in the face of adversity – these are all things that can remind us of Allah and can provide us with the opportunity to sit with that remembrance in a meaningful way.
When we think of dhikr in this way, as constant, as internal to us, as the experience of God’s immanence in the world, then even the most mundane moments become sacred. Dhikr then becomes a constant remembering. This kind of dhikr can change the tenor of our lives, the fervency of our prayers. And it bring us closer to God. This kind of dhikr is like running towards Allah with open arms. And if Allah tells us he runs towards us when we walk towards him then what might happen if we ran? What might happen if we were able to carry the deep peace and satisfaction, the deep connection we feel on Laylat al-Qadr with us every day?
This is the kind of dhikr we strive for. The kind of remembrance that wipes away all the dirt and rust from our hearts and makes them clear, allowing them to fully reflect Allah’s light. It allows for true illumination. And remember what Rumi tells us “If light is in your heart, then you will find your way home.”
There is a hadith of the Prophet called an invocation for going to the mosque. It is a beautiful way of thinking about our purpose as we come to prayer, as we come to supplicate ourselves before Allah. This du’a, this calling out to Allah, is special. It is a request, a plea from a man whose heart was a polished mirror, to the Creator whose light he sought in every moment of his life. And as we reflect on the night that marks the beginning of his journey as a Prophet and the renewal of our own journeys, I would like to conclude with that prayer. May it be granted tonight and every day for the rest of our lives, and may it help us to remember Allah in our hearts, always.
Place light in my heart
And on my tongue light
And in my ears light
And in my sight light
And above me light
And below me light
And to my right light
And to my left light,
And before me light
And behind me light.
Place in my soul light.
Magnify for me light
And amplify for me light.
Make for me light
And make me a light.
Grant me light
And place light in my nerves
And in my body light
And in my blood light
And in my hair light
And in my skin light
Make for me a light in my grave
And a light in my bones
Increase me in light
Increase me in light
Increase me in light
Grant me light upon light
*Note: Mawlana Hazar Imam refers to His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims. For more information, see https://ismaili.imamat/