Dhikr (zikr) and Sama: Symbols of a Religious Institution, Expressions of Love and Annihilation (fana)

When this Earth was not there

When this heaven was not there

And the when secret of Haq was not revealed

And there was nothing here

But there was only You, and You, and You, ALLAH HOO!

(An Urdu mystical Qawwalli by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan)

Dhikr and sama are two of the most visible symbols of the Sufi tradition.  Dhikr simply means recollection of God, and may involve repetition of divine names or religious formulas either silently or aloud, and quite often with a captivating rhythm.  Sama refers to a mystical concert or dance to achieve wajd, which literally means “finding”, but in Sufi contexts it metaphorically implies ecstasy in the realization and presence of God[i].  The following paper argues that beyond being very important symbols of institutionalized Sufism, dhikr and sama  are also very important meditative techniques that address the heart of the Sufi philosophical and mystical tradition.  In fact it is most likely that, because dhikr and sama offer possibilities for contemplation of the fundamental Sufi metaphysical concerns of love and annihilation, that they have indeed become the most visible symbols of the institution.  The paper primarily discusses two themes: first how the genres of dhikr and sama have been vehicles for contemplation of love and annihilation; and second, how dhikr and sama may have contributed to the enormous success of the Sufi Islam in the Muslim world, and its continued popularity among the overwhelming majority of the Muslims world wide.

Dhikr is the distinctive ritual and free prayer of the Sufi.  It is considered by many as the most important pillar in the path to God because one cannot reach God without constantly remembering Him[ii].  Love is the last station on the mystical path and fana is the end of that path.  The origins of Sufi preoccupation with the love of God can be traced from the prayer ascribed to the prophet, as quoted by Schimmel[iii].

O God, give me love of Thee, and love of those who love Thee, and love of what makes me approach Thy love, and Thy love dearer to me than cool water (p. 131).

The other starting point could be the following Hadith Qudsi, again as quoted by Schimmel[iv].

My servant ceases not to draw nigh unto Me by works of devotion, until I love him, and when I love him I am the eye by which he sees and the ear by which he hears.  And when he approaches a span, I approach a cubit, and when he comes walking I come running (p. 133).

In light of the above, the Sufis consider an all encompassing and all consuming love of the One as a necessary prerequisite for a mystical experience.  Dhikr and sama play a very important role in instilling this love of God in the mystics.  One cannot really love somebody and not remember him or her constantly.  Love, expression of love, and remembrance of the beloved cannot be limited to the ritualistic five prayer times or any other prescribed occasions, they have to be constant, intense and all consuming.  Dhikr leads to complete spiritualization, for God has promised in the Hadith Qudsi, as quoted by Schimmel, ‘I am the companion of him who recollects Me[v].’  Dhikr is generally divided into two branches—vocal recollection (dhikr alaniya, jali, lisani) and the recollection in the heart (dhikr khafi, qalbi).  The later is recognized as superior to the former, as Schimmel quotes Kharraz[vi]:

A recollection with the tongue not felt by the heart—that is the usual recollection; a recollection with the tongue in which the heart is present—that is a recollection seeking reward, and a recollection when the heart is wandering in recollection and lets the tongue be silent, and the worth of such recollection is known only to God (p. 171).

Dhikr was later theoretically formalized, e.g., Schimmel describes Sha’rani’s seven fold formulation: dhikr al-lisan—with the tongue; dhikr an-nafs—which is not audible but consists of inner movements and feelings; dhikr al-qalb—when one contemplates God’s glory in its inner recesses; dhikr al-ruh—when mediation leads to perception of the lights of the attributes; dhikr as-sirr—in the innermost heart, when divine mysteries are revealed; dhikr al-khafiy—the vision of the light of the beauty of essential unity; and finally, the dhikr al khafi–the most secret, which is the vision of the Reality of the Absolute Truth (haqq al-yaqin)[vii].  There have also been more formal and elaborate formulations of dhikr among the various silsilas (Sufi orders).  The recitation of the various names of God and the meditation on those names has been a particularly popular mode of dhikr with most Sufi silsilas, again with the intention of expressing one’s intense love fo rthe One and in a constant quest for His companionship.  It also may not be out of place to mention here that some of the most beautiful poetry in the Islamic world, e.g., that of Maulana Rumi, Shah Abdul Latif and Sultan Bahu in South Asia, has been a mode of dhikr.  In fact, some of the most captivating musical genres in the Islamic world, including my personal favorite—qawwalli—are basically just modes of dhikr.

The ultimate objective of a Sufi is to attain fana (annihilation), and dhikr is also useful to that end.  As mentioned in one of my earlier papers on Sufism, in the philosophical and legalistically disposed schools of Islam, humans and God are two separate entities and their relationship is like that between a slave and a master, or a lover yearning for the beloved.  According to these legalistic orthodox schools of Islamic thought, humans can only meet God upon death, while in the Sufi conception of things, one can encounter God, while still living and breathing in this world.  Humans and God are not necessarily separate entities, and the object of Sufi contemplation is to try to regain union with the One infinite God.  The mystical life for the Sufi, as described by Schimmel, is a permanent striving to[viii]:

return to one’ origin, that origin that was in God and from which everything proceeds, so that eventually the mystic should reach the state, “in which he was before he was.”  That is the state of the primordial covenant (sura 7:171), when God was alone and what was created in time was not yet existent.  Only then can man perfect tawhid; only then can one witness the God is one from eternity to eternity (p. 58).

Dhikr is also an important way of getting to the primordial covenant as Schimmel again describes, that in response to God’s query alastu birabbikum ‘Am I not your Lord?’ the man answers[ix]

 with words of glorification, until in permanent recollection he may reach the stage in which the subject is lost in the object, in which recollection, recollecting subject, and the recollected object become again one, as they were before the Day of Alast.  What has been created disappears, and the only tru subject, the everlasting God, is as He had been and will be (p. 172).

Sama is particularly pertinent in this respect of the attainment of fana.  The quest to gain freedom from oneself by attaining wajd or ecstasy of finding the One through, singing, dancing and even narcotics, formed the practice of sama or mystical dance and music.  It was a very controversial mode of meditation especially with the sober legalists who frowned upon music anyway.  Some of the more sober orders like the Naqshbandiyya followed the example of the theologians and the legalists in banning the use of dance as a form of religious worship, but other, e.g., the Chishti orders in South Asia encouraged it and the Mevlevi order of the whirling dervishes went so far as to institutionalize it[x]Sama is understood by the Sufis to be an expression of their ecstatic love for God and a metaphoric action of breaking the fetters of the body as a step towards unfettering the soul, which wants to fly off and reach the communion with the beloved.  Rumi the most famous advocate of sama describes the dance as ‘movement induced by the vision of the beloved, who himself may dance on the screen of the lover’s heart in the hour of ecstasy’[xi].  Abu Hafs Suhrawardi has described the significance of sama as follows[xii]:

 Music does not give rise, in the heart, to anything which is not already there; so he whose inner self is attached to anything else than God is stirred by music to sensual desire, but the one who is inwardly attached to the love of God is moved, by hearing music, to do his will . . . [to the spiritually perfect] through music, reveals Himself unveiled (p. 182).

With the crystallization and formalization of sufi brotherhoods or Tariqahs starting in the tenth and eleventh century, Sufis also got their own places of worship and meditation known as khanqahs or zawiyahs.  These places were often called samakhanas, where Sufis could listen to music and dance.  Often the place for these khanqahs or zawiyahs was the tomb of the founder of the Sufi order or other important personalities in the order.  It was partially this spatial concentration of the Sufi activities that was to later prove instrumental in the acceptance of the Sufi Islam by the masses.  It is to the discussion of the role of dhikr and sama in the resounding success of the Sufi Islam in the general populace that we now turn.

Dhikr and sama provided an outlet for the religious emotions of the pious, a need which was not necessarily fulfilled by ritual prayer.  It was this informal and more passionate aspect of the Sufi fraternities that attracted the masses[xiii].  The paradox that the subjective, ineffable, and deeply personal experiences of Sufism could become a basis for social life and become historically decisive, and the fact that the most personal and esoteric form of piety should become most popular, can be partially explained by the prevalence of dhikr and sama among the Sufi fraternities[xiv].  In many of the pre-Islamic religions of the present lands of Islam, unstructured worship, meditative techniques, music and dance were integral part of religious and spiritual life[xv]Dhikr and sama provided an outward sense of continuity to the ordinary people of these areas with their religio-cultural traditions and acted as a bridge between the old and the new.  The obvious Sufi piety, the institutional strength of Sufism in the form of fraternities, and the hierarchical structures of the fraternities in the form of the pir (master) and murid (disciple) institution made the whole enterprise very attractive to the general public.

Dhikr and sama were also the main means by which, the Sufis were able to combine their spiritual elitism with a social populism.  Dhikr and sama sessions of the Sufi fraternities were not just limited to the active disciples, they were open to the ordinary people, at time of all religious persuasions, who attended for the sake of pious edification or a sheer blessing[xvi].  This was also coupled with a remarkable tolerance of the Sufi masters towards other religions and the ability to see something good in all of them, e.g., Khawaja Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi whose pious humanistic teachings had a very wide appeal among both Hindus and Muslims.  Each of the Sufi fraternities cultivated their own peculiar brand and mode of dhikr and sama, and that served the purpose of distinguishing each of the brotherhoods, as well as an attractive outward symbol of their collective spirituality to the lay public.  Perhaps it was precisely because of the Sufis’ universalistic Islamic messages eased the transition of the new converts from one religion to Islam that they were so successful in gaining converts.  It is often said, for example, that metaphorically speaking all Indonesians are mystics.  If that held true in pre-Islamic days then it is hardly surprising that it was the Sufis who were the main channel for the propagation of Islam in South East Asia.

It takes more than just a logical argument or two, or strict rationality and reason to get people to abandon their religion and cosmology developed over thousands of years, in favor of a relatively upstart religion like Islam.  Sufis by bridging the gap between the old and the new through their transcendental spirituality did an enormous service to Islam.  I am constantly struck in my study of Sufism by the similarities between its spirituality and the spiritual underpinnings of other great religions like Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and others.  Dhikr and sama have been the most potent instruments in the hands of Sufis for both a deeper and emotional understanding of their own spirituality, as well as for communicating it to the lay public.  Love and fana underlie the Sufi spirituality and also define it.  To draw a somewhat crass analogy for lack of a better one, just as scientists seek truth about the nature of things through the scientific positivist method the Sufi spirituals express their love and seek fana through the techniques of dhikr and sama.  It can be a subject of debate as to how much the true Sufi message pervaded the batin (hidden) life of the ordinary people who profess to be followers of various orders, but there can be no doubt that dhikr and sama are the two of the most obvious ways in which the people’s lives and their cultures have been enriched.   Dhikr and sama by their communal nature, and consistency with preexisting cultural traditions in many societies, are the most obvious ways for people to have something of a spiritual experience.


[i] Schimmel, Annemarie, 1975. Mystical dimensions of Islam, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, USA.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid. p. 131.

[iv] Ibid. p. 133.

[v] Ibid. p. 168.

[vi] Ibid. p. 171.

[vii] Ibid. p. 174.

[viii] Ibid. p. 58.

[ix] Ibid. p. 172.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid. p. 185.

[xii] Ibid. p. 182.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Hodgson, Marshall G. S., 1974. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. Vol. 2, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, USA.

[xv] Schimmel 1975.

[xvi] Hodgson 1974.

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