The other day I was chatting with a friend about Ramadan, and he asked me how I would characterise zikr, a term that comes up frequently in the Quran which expresses the idea of ‘remembrance of God’. We need not be sitting in a dark, quiet room in a meditative state, to be mindful of and remember God, my friend quite rightly stated.
At the time, I was sitting with my mom in the family room in our family home. As I browsed the web, she was intently watching an Oprah show re-run, which she likes to do for afternoon breaks on weekdays. A few minutes later without warning, my mom kissed the palm of her right hand and then clenched her fist lightly to kiss the tops of her fingers curled into her palm, her eyes still fixed on the television screen. She did the same with her left hand and then mumbled a short phrase of gratitude to God under her breath for something.
My mom has periodically performed the same gesture during the day throughout my life, usually when something she sees on TV or in her surroundings causes her to realise and appreciate the blessings in her life. She’ll stop momentarily to give thanks for the home she owns, the food in the fridge, her health, the peacefulness of her surroundings and the peace of mind this has afforded her. While taking in a daily dose of talk shows, my mom’s very honest act of remembrance displays how easy it is to be mindful and conscious of God at any time.
Whether we are watching television, cooking, cleaning, working, exercising, driving, shopping, or socialising, we can take a minute to ponder how at that moment, we have a great deal of blessings to be grateful for. That is how I define zikr; it is the act of being mindful of God continually throughout our days so that we attain a state of consciousness where we are continually aware of His presence.
Regardless of the uncertainties and challenges we may face at any given time – and there will always be something – zikr as a continual practice allows us to maintain enough perspective to identify the blessings we already have so that we are not overshadowed by the misgivings, doubts, problems and complex dilemmas that we will inevitably encounter.
“There is a polish for everything that takes away rust; and the polish for the heart is the remembrance of God.”
This is a Hadith among the collection of sayings of the Last Prophet, Muhammad ﷺ, which succinctly describes the power of heedful remembrance of God. When something is polished, light shines through it or reflects off of it more radiantly than when it is stained or soiled. Having consciousness of God throughout the day helps you regulate your emotions and reduce the impact of negativity which can cloud your mind and darken your heart.
I think it is relevant to note that I am writing this entry on what I would call an ‘off day’ for me. I woke up this morning with a mind consumed by apprehension due to a series of uncertainties in my life. Three weeks ago, I found out I would need to start searching for a new job because my current contract would not be renewed due to downsizing. This among other anxieties both related and unrelated began to swirl in my head.
What zikr does for me is it sieves and refines the enormity of my dilemmas so that I am not swallowed by them. Self pity is inevitable, but within the routine of remembrance my sojourn in utter discontent is far shorter. By practicing zikr, I am forced to identify at many points of the day what I am thankful for, and by virtue of this I can get right back to enjoying the blessings of this moment rather than dwelling on difficulties that are destined and unavoidable. Remembering God and being appreciative of our blessings, whether substantial or subtle, becomes part of our habit and routine.
One of the triggers for me in discovering how to live in submission to God (Islam) was hearing a sufi sheikh say, “Don’t try to fit God into your life. Make your life revolve around God.” I was attending the sheikh’s weekly sermon for the first time, on invitation of a friend. I don’t typically enjoy sitting through religious sermons, but his simple words struck me, and I made a note of them on my BlackBerry.
The phrase lingered in my mind for days, waking me up to the fact that I was so far from doing that; God rarely crossed my mind. Many of us are accustomed to thinking about God when things in our lives get rough or we’re faced with a moment of desperation that compels us to reflect. Once circumstances ease, however, thoughts of God often return to the backburner of our minds. Zikr involves carrying that remembrance we are so good at when we are suffering to times when things are going well.
The point of zikr is to draw our attention back to God throughout the day so that we don’t get too caught up in the facade that daily life proves to be, in good times and in bad.
It can be spoken or silently expressed in the heart. You may hear a Muslim say or repeat “la illa ha il Allah”, meaning “there is no God but God”, which flows smoothly off the tongue and is designed to draw one’s attention back to the Divine so that we can reflect and be grateful.
‘Subhan’Allah’, which means ‘Glorious is God’, we will say or repeat when we witness a miracle of nature or are reacting to a turn of events that shows the inherent destiny of things.
‘Allahu Akbar’, or ‘God is the Greatest’, is said frequently to acknowledge His Glory and the view that He has a Hand in everything that happens in our daily lives.
‘Alhamdulillah’, or ‘All praise is due to God’, is a common method of expressing gratitude for all of life’s twists and turns, knowing that they are all tests and blessings.
‘Astaghfirullah’ is an Arabic phrase meaning “I ask God forgiveness”. When something or someone agitates us and we feel we have reacted too harshly, Astaghfirullah enables us to express that we are aware of our mistakes and ask for forgiveness then and there.
The simple yet rich line that begins the Quran is also recited regularly. ‘Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem’, “In the Name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful”, is said before eating, getting out of bed, working, travelling, preparing for a public speech—anything. Sometimes I say it before turning a corner while driving.
My friend was perfectly right. You don’t need to be in a state of meditation or prayer to remember God; you can do that at any time and anywhere. Practicing zikr disciplines our thoughts and enables us to exude the positivity and peace that God intends for us.
“They are those who believe and whose hearts find comfort in the remembrance of God—surely in the remembrance of God hearts can find comfort” (13:28)