HIS GREATEST NAME
The dhikr is the repetition of a sacred word or phrase. It can be the shahâda, "Lâ ilâha illâh 'llâh," but it is often one of the names or attributes of God. It is said that God has ninety-nine names, but foremost among these is Allâh. Allâh is His greatest name and contains all His divine attributes.
When Abû Sa'îd ibn Abî'l-Khayr heard the verse from the Qur'an, "Say Allâh! then leave them to amuse themselves in their folly,"(1) his heart was opened. He gave up his scholarly studies and retired to the niche of the chapel in his house, where for seven years he repeated "Allâh! Allâh! Allâh!"... "until at last every atom of me began to cry aloud, 'Allâh! Allâh! Allâh!'" He tells the story that first alerted him to the importance of this dhikr. He was with Shaykh Abû'l-Fadl Hasan, and when the Shaykh picked up a book and began to peruse it, Abû Sa'îd, being a scholar, couldn't help wondering what the book was. The Shaykh perceived his thought and said:
Abû Sa'îd! All the hundred-and-twenty-four-thousand prophets were sent to preach one word. They bade the people say "Allâh!" and devote themselves to Him. Those who heard this word with the ear alone, let it go out by the other ear; but those who heard it with their souls imprinted it on their souls and repeated it until it penetrated their hearts and souls, and their whole being became this word. They were made independent of the pronunciation of the word, they were released from the sound and the letters. Having understood the spiritual meaning of this word, they became so absorbed in it that they were no more conscious of their own non-existence.(2)
According to an esoteric Sufi tradition, the word Allâh is composed of the article al, and lâh, one of the interpretations of which is "nothing." Thus the actual word Allâh means "the Nothing." For the Sufi the fact that His greatest name means "the Nothing" has great significance, because Truth, or God, is experienced as the Nothingness. And one of the mysteries of the path is that this Emptiness, this Nothingness, loves you. It loves you with such intimacy and tenderness and infinite understanding. It loves you from the very inside of your heart, from the core of your own being. It is not separate from you. Sufis are lovers and the Nothingness is the Greatest Beloved in whose embrace the lover completely disappears.
Shortly before his death, the Naqshbandi Sufi Master Bhai Sahib said, "There is nothing but Nothingness." He repeated it twice and it points to the very essence of the Sufi path, as Irina Tweedie explains:
There is nothing but Nothingness.... Nothingness in the triune, triple sense: Nothingness because the little self (the ego) has to go. One has to become nothing. Nothingness, because the higher states of consciousness represent nothingness to the mind, for it cannot reach there. It is completely beyond the range of perception. Complete comprehension on the level of the mind is not possible, so one is faced with nothingness. And in the last, most sublime, sense, it is to merge into the Luminous Ocean of the Infinite. I think this is how one has to understand it; that is how Bhai Sahib had meant it, when he spoke of the Nothingness and of the One.(3)
Thus, the name Allâh contains the essence of all Sufi teaching: to become nothing, to become annihilated in Him, so that all that remains is His Infinite Emptiness. This is the path of love, it is the cup of wine which is drunk by His lovers. In the words of Rûmî:
I drained this cup: there is nothing, now, but ecstatic annihilation.(4)
At the core of the dhikr is the principle of remembrance. Through repeating His name we remember Him, not just in the mind but in the heart, and finally there comes the time when every cell of the body repeats the dhikr, repeats His name.
It is said, "First you do the dhikr and then the dhikr does you." It becomes a part of our unconscious and sings in our bloodstream. This is beautifully illustrated in an old Sufi story:
Sahl said to one of his disciples: "Try to say continuously for one day: 'Allâh! Allâh! Allâh!' and do the same the next day and the day after, until it becomes a habit." Then he told him to repeat it at night also, until it became so familiar that the disciple repeated it even during his sleep. Then Sahl said, "Do not consciously repeat the Name anymore, but let your whole faculties be engrossed in remembering Him!" The disciple did this until he became absorbed in the thought of God. One day, a piece of wood fell on his head and broke it. The drops of blood that dripped to the ground bore the legend, "Allâh! Allâh! Allâh!"(5)
The way that the name of God permeates the wayfarer is not metaphoric, but a literal happening. The dhikr is magnetized by the teacher so that it inwardly aligns the wayfarer with the path and the goal. It is for this reason that the dhikr needs to be given by a teacher, though in some instances it can also be given by the Higher Self or, traditionally, by Khidr.
Working in the unconscious the dhikr alters our mental, psychological and physical bodies. On the mental level this is easily apparent. Normally, in our everyday life, the mind follows its automatic thinking process, over which we often have very little control. The mind thinks us, rather than the other way around. Just catch your mind for a moment and observe its thoughts. Every thought creates a new thought, and every answer a new question. And because energy follows thought, our mental and psychological energy is scattered in many directions. Spiritual life means learning to become one-pointed, to focus all our energy in one direction, towards Him. Through repeating His name we alter the grooves of our mental conditioning, the grooves which like those on a record play the same tune over and over again, repeat the same patterns which bind us in our mental habits. The dhikr gradually replaces these old grooves with the single groove of His name. The automatic thinking process is redirected towards Him. Like a computer we are reprogrammed for God.
It is said that what you think, you become. If we think of Allâh we become one with Allâh. But the effect of the dhikr is both more subtle and more powerful than solely an act of mental focusing. One of the secrets of a dhikr (or mantra) is that it is a sacred word which conveys the essence of that which it names. This is "the mystery of the identity of God and His Name"(6) ("In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.") In our common everyday language there is not this identity. The word "chair" does not contain the essence of a chair. It merely signifies a chair. But the sacred language of a dhikr is different; the vibrations of the word resonate with that which it names, linking the two together. Thus it is able to directly connect the individual with that which it names.
He, the Great Beloved, cannot be named, because any name is a limitation. He is without form and without name, just as it is written of the Tao:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.(7)
And yet mankind calls upon Him in many different ways, and in whatever way He is called, He will answer. Thus the Sufi says, "In the name of Him who has no name, but who appears by whatever name you call Him." If you call Him by the name of Christ, He will appear as Christ, if you call upon Him as Ram, He will appear as Ram. But the name of Allâh is loved by the Sufis because it is closest to the nothingness which is His essence. This name is an opening onto His divine essence, allowing His servants to come closer to Him. It can evoke His presence within the heart, helping us to remember Him and in remembering Him become united with Him, become lost in His nothingness.
PSYCHOLOGICAL AND PHYSICAL TRANSFORMATION
On a psychological level the dhikr is a powerful agent of transformation. Working in the unconscious it both realigns our psychic structure and transforms its energies. The dhikr is an archetypal sound and word symbol which is magnetically aligned with the path. Archetypal symbols have a specific psychological function: they act as transformers of psychic energy. They convert the libido (the instinctual life force) from a "lower" into a "higher" form. As an archetypal symbol, the dhikr has the potential to arouse, concentrate and transmute the energies of the unconscious. It disentangles and frees us from the knots and psychological blocks with which we have consciously and unconsciously enchained ourselves, due to our desires, prejudices and the accumulated effects of our attachments and conditioning. One of the most visible examples of this transformative process is the effect that the dhikr can have on fear or anxiety, feelings which so often attack the wayfarer. The repetition of His name can so often help in dissolving these feelings or loosening the hold they have on us.
The process of transformation also embraces the physical body of the wayfarer. Every atom of creation unknowingly sings His name and longs to be reunited with Him. The dhikr infuses this unconscious remembrance with the light of consciousness, with the conscious desire of the lover to remember his Beloved. The light hidden in the darkness of matter responds to the call of this continual prayer and begins to reverberate at a higher frequency. Thus the physical body becomes gradually aligned with the higher consciousness of the Self; the atoms begin to resonate with the song of a soul going home. This transformation was beautifully imaged in a dream in which the dreamer's body first became a heart and then the cells became musical notes:
I dreamed that my body transformed into a human heart with all of its chambers. The heart travelled in a vast universe. As the heart travelled it would turn inside out and outside in, not missing a beat in between. The voyage was endless with the heart tumbling through space like a large asteroid.
Then the cells of my body began taking the form of blue and gold musical notes. At first the cells were each slowly changing into the blue and gold notes. The rate and number of cells transforming into notes then progressed rapidly until my whole body was composed of the blue and gold notes.
It was as if I were above my body watching this transformation. As this process progressed my body became less and less distinct and more and more formless. There was a blue and gold glow as my body and the musical notes became less distinct.
I awakened, and had an extremely calm feeling. As I awakened, the borders of my body felt beyond their usual boundaries, gradually returning to their usual boundaries.
Within our heart we are united with the Beloved. Our heartbeat is part of the great rhythm of creation. But for most people this is like a memory buried so deep we have forgotten it. When we consciously aspire to remember Him the practice of meditation and the dhikr awaken this pre-existing state of oneness. Our heart opens and we begin to feel how its rhythm is attuned to the song of the universe. Slowly this inner attunement resonates throughout the whole body, and every cell becomes a note in the symphony of creation. From the depths of the heart to the fingertips and the soles of the feet, every part of us unites in the one song which is creation's offering to the Creator.
For the lover there is a deep joy in repeating the name of his invisible Beloved who is so near and yet so far. When He is near it is wonderful to be able to thank Him for the bliss of His presence, for the sweetness of His companionship. When He is absent it helps us to bear the longing and the pain, for we can cry out to Him with every breath. In times of trouble His name brings reassurance and help. It gives us strength and can help to dissolve the blocks that separate us from Him. When we say His name He is with us, even if we feel so alone with our burdens. He helps His servant whenever He can, and in times of great need His name can save us.
A friend who had learnt to say His name had a very difficult relationship with a man she loved. He had been caught in the self-destructive grip of drugs and would often be in a state of paranoia. One day, while under the influence of drugs, he took her for a drive in the country and began to blame her for all his troubles. Stopping the car beside a field he took a gun he kept with him and forced her out of the car. He held the gun to her head, intending to shoot her. She knew that this was no empty threat and all she could do was cry, "Allâh." The moment she cried His name a change came over the man. His paranoia disappeared and he gave her the gun, asking her to keep it away from him. He was deeply sorry for his actions, and asked her to drive him back home.
Allâh loves those who love Him. He remembers those who remember Him. Through the dhikr we bring into consciousness the bond we always had with Him and become aware of the deeper secrets of our real unity. The name which we repeat is the name by which we knew Him before we were born. It is the name engraven into our hearts. The dhikr brings the imprint of the heart into the world of time and also leads us back to Him. Gradually we become conscious of the depth of our connection and how in our hearts we are always united.
The name reveals that which it names, and the lover begins to see that there is nothing other than God:
God made this name [Allâh] a mirror for man, so that when he looks in it, he knows the true meaning of "God was and there was naught beside Him," and in that moment it is revealed to him that his hearing is God's hearing, his sight is God's sight, his speech is God's speech, his life is God's life, his knowledge is God's knowledge, his will God's will and his power God's power....(8)
Through repeating His name the lover becomes identified with his Beloved who had been hidden within his own heart. The Beloved loves to hear His name on the lips and in the hearts of His servants, and in response gradually removes the veils that keep Him hidden. Then the lover finds Him not only secreted within the heart, but also in the outer world, for "whithersoever ye turn, there is the Face of God."(9)
The Beloved becomes the constant companion of the lover. The lover also becomes the companion of God, for the "eyes which regard God are also the eyes through which He regards the world."(10)This relationship of companionship belongs to the beyond and yet it is lived in this world. It is the deepest friendship and it demands the total participation of the lover. We are His servants, and He loves to be known as "the servant of His servants."
Through the dhikr we attune our whole being to the frequency of love. We embrace the pain of separation as well as the joy of knowing Him from whom we are separated. We say the name of our Beloved because it reminds us of Him for whom we long. When Allâh cries from the heart it is both our prayer and the answer to our prayer. We cry to Him because we have not forgotten Him. To always remember Him here, in this world, is to always be with Him. The heart knows this, even if the mind and ego do not. Rûmî tells the story of a devotee who was praying when Satan appeared to him and said:
"How long wilt thou cry 'O Allâh'? Be quiet for thou wilt get no answer." The devotee hung his head in silence. After a while he had a vision of the prophet Khidr, who said to him, "Ah, why hast thou ceased to call on God?" "Because the answer, 'Here I am' came not," he replied. Khidr said, "God hath ordered me to go to thee and say this: 'Was it not I that summoned thee to my service? Did I not make thee busy with my name? Thy calling "Allâh!" was my "Here I am," thy yearning pain My messenger to thee. Of all those tears and cries and supplications I was the magnet, and I gave them wings.'"(11)
The same story was told in a woman's dream in which she was howling at the moon and felt a terrible failure and despair because there was no answer. Later she realized the deepest intimacy of love, which is that our cry is His cry to Himself. In crying out to Him we share in the mystery of His creation, which is that He who was One and Alone wanted to be loved, and so He created the world.
Our longing and our cry to Him are the stamp of our companionship with Him. We are His lovers and we look to Him. As we turn our hearts and look towards Him we recognize both for ourselves and for the whole world the link of love that unites the Creator with His creation. And we abandon ourselves to love:
Verily there are servants among my servants who love Me, and I love them, and they long for Me, and I long for them, and they look at Me, and I look at them.... And their signs are that they preserve the shade at daytime as compassionately as a herdsman preserves his sheep, and they long for sunset as the bird longs for his nest at dusk, and when the night comes and the shadows become mixed and the beds are spread out and the bedsteads are put up and every lover is alone with his beloved, then they will stand on their feet and put their faces on the ground and will call Me with My word and will flatter Me with My graces, half crying and half weeping, half bewildered and half complaining, sometimes standing, sometimes sitting, sometimes kneeling, sometimes prostrating, and I see what they bear for My sake and I hear what they complain from My love.(12)