19th February 2005
“EVERYTHING has its polish which takes away rust and the polisher of hearts is the remembrance of God — Dhikr Allah,” said the Prophet Muhammad.
It is well known that Islam enjoins its followers to observe the five canonical daily prayers, to fast during daylight in the month of Ramadan and to undertake the Great Pilgrimage — the haj — to Mecca at least once in a lifetime if one has the financial and physical ability. These acts of worship have their own times and modalities associated with them. This is not the case with dhikr, however, which believers are asked to engage in constantly, with God Himself inviting all of us to: “Remember Me and I shall remember you. Be grateful to Me and deny Me not” (Koran 2:152).
The Prophet Muhammad warned his followers to be on their guard lest their hearts harden through absorption in worldly affairs and urged them to soften them through the regular practice of dhikr. His admonitions on this subject have a noble lineage. In the Old Testament, the Psalmist poured scorn on those “nations that forget God” (Psalms 9:17) and observed that: “We will remember the name of the Lord our God” (Psalms 20:7-8).
Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, regarded the Passover liturgy of the Exodus as firmly anchoring the world’s Jews as “a community based on remembrance” (Hebrew: zakhar).
Given that our heart is the place where God casts His gaze and the receptacle of all our hidden thoughts, the role of dhikr in expelling any impurities becomes more central. In his book Unweaving The Rainbow, the Darwinian thinker and atheist Richard Dawkins contends that our poets have not sufficiently used their gifts in order to draw our attention to the insights into the wonders of the universe that science has revealed to us. These discoveries are, Dawkins passionately argues, more than worthy of capturing the imagination of poets.
The Koran too calls on humankind to reflect on the universe around us and says that this should provide added certainty for those who engage in dhikr: “Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for people of understanding — those who remember God standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides” (Koran 3:190-191). Indeed, the Arabic word for the world (al-’aalam) comes from the root word alam, or sign. The study of the workings of the Universe is regarded as a sure means of establishing a belief in and greater appreciation of the sheer omnipotence and omniscience of our creator.
No other species possesses a communication system as competent for the transmission of abstract concepts as human language. The late Muhammad Hamidullah, a translator of the Koran into the French language, believed that it was no coincidence that the first words of the Koran revealed to the Prophet Muhammad draw our attention to this gift: “Read! In the name of Your Lord who created, created humankind from something which clings, Read! And your Lord is the most noble, who taught by the use of the pen, Taught humankind that which they knew not” (Koran 96:1-5).
Nevertheless, there have been persistent attempts in the past century to advance the cause of atheistic materialism under the guise of science, by portraying human beings as just another animal species. Yet, to believers, there is something astounding about the appearance of our species. The scientist and Christian, Sir John Polkinghorne, while accepting the Darwinian view of how species evolved, maintains that the coming to be of persons is: “. . . the most significant event in cosmic history that we know about. The Universe became aware of itself, and science became a possibility.”
Would it not be the irony of ironies if human beings were to use their ability to explore, examine and understand their environment, while forgetting about the existence of the very creator that exhorts them to do just such?
Inayat Bunglawala is the secretary of the media committee of the Muslim Council of Britain