Constance Padwick, introducing her classic book Muslim Devotions, commented, “In Islam, as in any other faith, a stranger desiring not to remain a stranger could best feel the pulsing life of religion through a study of the devotions actually in use.”[i] In her desire to ‘not remain a stranger’ but to better understand the devotional life of Islam, Padwick explored the popular devotional prayer booklets which are to be found in bookshops or grocers, at the entrance to mosques or stacked beside the doorway of shrines, or held by people sitting on buses or in parks as they murmur over the contents, in every country in the Muslim world.
Another path, which I pursued, is to sit with people in dhikr sessions, and to learn something of how they understood and practiced their contract with God, through the popular invocations which they recited. Whether repeated phrases, or actual songs or choruses (tarnim or anashid), dhikr draws deeply on the formative affect of music, with rhyme and rhythm, on people’s minds and lives. Dhikr is also closely linked with the phrases and sentiments of salah (formal) daily prayer.[ii]
Refuge and Forgiveness
The dhikr times I attended most commonly began with taking refuge, and invoking the name of God:
“I take refuge in God, the Hearing, the Knowing, from the accursed devil
‘a‛udhu billahi al-sami‛i al-‛alim min al-shaytan al-rajim
In the Name of God the Compassionate the Merciful”
B’ism Allah al-rahman al-rahim
‘Taking refuge’ is also at the start of salah, and is supported by oft-prayed Qur’anic verses.[iii] Together with the invocation of God’s name, it is a protective prayer in the context of the uncertainties of daily life (whether in health, education and employment, communal relationships or wider politics) and in the face of surrounding spiritual forces and the impact of the evil eye. While the Qur’an generally seeks refuge from external danger of the devil or people, the women in this programme linked it often to their felt need for forgiveness from God:
“I take refuge in You from the evil I have done, and I come to You in Your grace to me, and I come to you in my sin, so forgive me, for there is no one who forgives sins except You.”
a‛udh bik min shirr ma sana‛at, ‘abu’ lak bi-na‛matak ‛alayya wa-‘abu’ bidhanbi faghfir li f’inahu la yaghfir al-dhanub ‘ila ‘anta
This longing for forgiveness recurred in the constantly heard “God, forgive!” istaghfir Allah, and a number of other common invocations, such as this one which links with the title of God as most Merciful:
“There is no god but You, praise You. I was among the wrong-doers, and You are the most Merciful of the merciful.”
la ilahu ila ‘inta subhanak ‘iniy kunt min al-dhalimin wa inta ‘arham al-rahimin.
In this view, the ‘wrong doers’ or sinful are those who wrong themselves in sinning – sin is against the sinner, not against God. Humanity (created weak by God)[iv] tends by nature to sin, while God’s nature is to mercy. God’s sovereignty excludes any necessity to forgive. However it is easy for Him in his omnipotence to forgive: because He has not been sinned against, it does not cost Him. In the transaction between Forgiver and forgiven, there is no obligation to forgive, nor any cost in forgiveness.[v]
Blessing us, and blessing Muhammad
God is praised for His unique greatness with chanted phrases, whether short such as:
“There is no god but You, may You be praised” La illahu ‘ila ‘inta subhanak,
or more extended invocations. His attributes are also recited and repeated, perhaps to affirm the reciters’ faith or to invoke God’s help. Attributes I often heard were those that reflected the worshipers’ needs: including Healer, Giver, Defender, Forgiver, the One who relieves troubles, who offers help, orders affairs, hears our voices and answers petitions.
God is sovereign and bestows forgiveness, and other blessings such as protection, healing and provision of needs, as He wills. On the recipients’ side, they place themselves in position to receive through pious practices, including the use of prescribed invocations, often at particular times of the day, or for a set number of repetitions.
Dhikr sessions also involved asking God’s blessing on Muhammad, reflecting the belief that God will bless those who call down blessing on Muhammad, such as:
“Prayers and peace be with you, O lord, O messenger of God”
al-salah wa-al-salam ‛alayk ya sayydiy ya rasul Allah,
“Prayers and peace with our lord Muhammad and on his family and friends.”
al-salawat wa-al-salam ma‛ sayyidna Muhammad wa-‛ala ‘ahlahi wa-‘ashabahi
Muhammad might be invoked with titles such as ‘Beloved of God,’ ‘Advocate’ and ‘Healer of hearts.’
Dhikr and Du‛a’
Dhikr is closely linked with and usually concluded by du‛a’ (petition). The mosque teacher commented, “The dhikr must be completed with du‛a‘ – the person has asked forgiveness from God, and is clean and pure from inside, and God willing, the petition will more likely be answered.” While the two overlap, the move to du‛a‘ usually sees a slight change in position, hands extended palm-up rather than occupied with prayer beads. The petitions are more specific, praying for Muslims throughout the world, for “our sisters” in places where there is conflict or oppression. At the end all recite the Fatihah (first chapter of the Qur’an) quietly together, and a number of the women wipe their palms over their faces, bringing the blessing of the recitation back on themselves.
Dhikr is also associated with emotional expression. The preferred leader of group prayer is often the one whose leading and voice is most likely to elicit emotion and tears among those in the group. When I attended the early morning Ramadan prayer in a Middle Eastern mosque, at 2-3a.m. the mosque was tightly packed with 5-700 women in the upper section and many more men below, crying ‘Amin’ after each du‛a’ with rising emotional intensity. Spontaneous tears are expected as a normal part of prayer, and this is facilitated by the communal experience of worship.
Through the recited dhikr we may gain a sense of the “pulsing life of religion,” the heart-desire of those who pray. Dhikr prayers show Muslim women’s yearning for a God who will offer refuge and safety in the precariousness of their lives, and also their felt need for Divine forgiveness. Dhikr prayers express hope that God will offer healing, protection, beneficence, hearing and answering their prayers. The exalted titles and prayer for Muhammad evince their desire for him to act as their effective intercessor with God. Dhikr is linked with du‛a’ because the worshiper needs to evoke God’s forgiveness before He will hear their petition. Through transactional faith practice of dhikr and other pious duties, Muslim women seek God’s intervention in daily life.
What is the place of dhikr for women who follow the Messiah?
Dhikr prayers show a poignant heart-longing for God’s care, which is most fully encountered through personal covenant relationship with the Messiah. And the emotional expression of dhikr reminds us of the importance of communal expression of that relationship.
Being mindful of God, meditating on Him, and memorising and reciting God’s Word, are activities deeply rooted in ancient Judeo-Christian practice. While these forms are common to both followers of the Messiah, and adherents of Islam, they are linked with deeper meanings specific to each faith.[vi] However the commonality lets us ask how we might take up such practices in discipleship of those from Muslim background who follow the Messiah.
[i] Padwick, Constance E. Muslim Devotions: A Study of Prayer-Manuals in Common Use. Oxford: Oneworld, 1961, p.xi.
[ii] For a more detailed discussion, see Dale, Moyra. Shifting Allegiances. Networks of Kinship and of Faith. The Women’s Program in a Syrian Mosque. Australian College of Theology Monograph Series. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2016, pp. 180-201.
[iii] Al-Nahl 16:98, Al-Falaq 113:1, Al-Nas 114:1: also Al-Mu’minun 23:97-98.
[iv] Al-Nisa’ 4:28
[v] Nor does receiving forgiveness from God entail any requirement to forgive others.
Nicholls, Ruth. “Liturgy to Focus Mind and Heart: Fostering Spiritual Growth among Muslim Seekers.” In Longing For Community, 205–16. Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 2013.
© When Women Speak… February 2018
Moyra Dale spent over two decades in the Middle East (particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) with her family working in education, specializing in Adult Literacy (Arabic) and teacher training. She is an ethnographer whose research has included exploring adult literacy in Egypt and the women’s mosque movement in Syria through women’s accounts and understanding of their own lives and realities. Currently based in Melbourne, Australia, she writes, teaches, trains, and supervises students in Islam and cross-cultural understanding, with a focus on Muslim women. Moyra holds a PhD in Education (La Trobe University) and DTh (Melbourne School of Theology).