Invocation (al-Dhikr)

Wa ladhikru' Llāhi akbar, "the dhikr--remembrance, recollection, mindfulness, naming, or invocation--of Allah is greater" or "the greatest thing." 15 With these words the Quran (XXIX, 45) states the primacy of the dhikr both in terms of relative value in relation to other ritual prescriptions, such as the canonical prayer mentioned in the preceding verse, and in terms of absolute value, the invocation being affirmed as the path of salvation par excellence. Doctrinally speaking, the dhikr is the becoming aware by the creature of the connection that unites him for all eternity to the Creator. Seen in this way, the dhikr constitutes the very essence of religion, as much in its exoteric dimension (where man remembers God as his Master and transcendent and omnipotent Judge) as in the esoteric order (where the Divine Presence reveals itself as the inner dimension of the human being). From an operative and theurgical point of view, each of the means that the Revelation has placed at the disposal of believers in order to help them to attain this awareness is dhikr. There are, on the one hand, ritual practices that are obligatory for all of the faithful, those who are connected to the five pillars of Islam and whose powers of recollection (quwwāt al-dhikr) have often been commented upon by the mystics. 16 Next come the supererogatory deeds that the most devout Muslims, Sufis or non-Sufis, are able to carry out ad libitum to get nearer to their Lord, such as the reading of the Quran, preferably during the night, the voluntary fasting and almsgiving and the numerous prayers and rogations (du`āt) recommended by the Sunnah. There are, finally, in the Sufi cadre, spiritual exercises based on the repetition and contemplative penetration of certain Quranic formulas, especially those that contain the Names of the Divinity.

Numerous verses of the sacred Book recommend multiple performances of dhikr, invoking God morning and night, in fear and humility, until the soul is appeased. The following are some of these injunctions:

Call upon God, or call upon the Merciful; whichsoever you call upon, to Him belong the Names Most Beautiful. (XVII, 110)

Remember Me, and I will remember you (or Mention Me, and I will mention you). (II, 152)

O believers, remember God oft, and give Him glory at the dawn and in the evening. It is He who blesses you, and His angels, to bring you from the shadows into the light.... (XXXIII, 41-43)

In temples God has allowed to be raised up, and His Name to be commemorated therein; therein glorifying Him, in the mornings and the evenings, are men whom neither commerce nor trafficking diverts from the remembrance of God and to perform the prayer, and to pay the alms. (XXIV, 36-37)

God guides to Him... those who believe and whose hearts are at rest in God's remembrance because surely, in God's remembrance are hearts at rest. (XIII, 27-28)

Some sayings of the Prophet as recorded by his disciples have the same import:

Men never assemble to invoke Allah without being surrounded by angels and covered by Divine Blessings, without peace (sakīnah) descending on them and Allah remembering them.

There is a way of polishing everything and removing rust and that which polishes the heart is the invocation of God.

"Shall I tell you the best of your deeds? The purest in the eyes of your King, He Whom you hold to be at the highest level, Whose proximity is more beneficial than the act of giving (in the guise of alms) gold and silver or of meeting your enemy and striking him down or being struck?" The companions said, "Tell us." The Prophet answered, "It is the invocation of God the Most High." (Al-Tirmidhī, as told by Abu'l-Dardā')

Among the numerous formulas employed in invocation, certain ones have always found favor among the Sufis, such as "the most beautiful Names" mentioned in the Quran, from which a list of ninety-nine, corresponding to the number of beads on the rosary, are recited individually or collectively.

The majority of the Divine Names taken individually can also be made the object of a dhikr, just as several Names possessing special affinities in common can be associated in the formulas of invocation. Some of these groupings are yā Hayy, yā Qayyūm! (O Living, O Immutable!), yā Rahmān, yā Rahām! (O Merciful, O Forgiving), and similarly the basmalah, the formula for consecration in the Name of God, which contains the latter two Names. The repetition of the first part of the profession of faith, Lā ilāha illa' Llāh, is universally practiced in mystical circles, in conformity with the teaching of the Prophet, "the best invocation is 'There is no divinity but God,'" (Al-Tirmidhī, as told by Jabir). Its particular effectiveness comes from evoking the two phrases of spiritual realization, negation (nafy) of all divinity, that is, of all secondary reality that has not sufficient meaning in itself, and affirmation (ithbāt) of the sole Reality of the Absolute Being, effacement of the creature and return to the Creator, annihilation of the separate self (farq) and reunification with God (jam').

However, the invocation par excellence is that of the Name Allāh, the unparalleled name of the Divinity, the Supreme Name (al-ism al-a'zam), the Unique Name (al-ism al-mufrad), the Name of Majesty (ism al-jalālah). With its symbolic two syllables and four letters, this Name concentrates all the redemptive efficacy of the Divine Word. 17 "God is present in His Name," say the Sufis. To the degree that, through the conjunction of this Presence and a serious concentration on the part of the invoker, he finds himself effaced, absorbed in the One invoked, the dhikr becomes God's dhikr alone, in which the invocation, the invoked, and the invoker are one with the One without second. 18

Given its incomparable grandeur, the invocation of the Supreme Name can only be practiced under certain conditions, with the authorization of the murshid and under his control. Thus, the authorization to practice invocation outside of collective gatherings is not generally granted to the murīd the time of his entry into the tarīqah but at a later stage, when the shaykh has sufficiently tested the disciple's qualifications and has recognized in him the quality of "traveler" (sālik) on the mystical path and not only that of being "affiliated with the blessings" (mutabarrak) that surround the tariqah.

The right to invocation thus constitutes for the faqīr, according to the saying of Abū 'Alī al-Daqqāq, master and father-in-law of Qushayrī (d. 465/1072), the "symbol of initiation" (manshūr al-wilāyah), so that "he who receives the dhikr is enthroned, while he who loses it is dismissed."

If such precautions are necessary to avoid the dangers to which novices could expose themselves by wrongly performing dhikr, they are not needed at collective sessions, where the presence of the older and experienced shaykh and fuqarā' provides a guarantee and a security against excesses and other undesirable psychic manifestations to which the beginners on the Sufi path could be subjected. 20