The following is a transcript of an address given by Pir Zia Inayat-Khan in 2003 at the start of a weekend Zikr retreat.
Beloved ones of God, dear friends,
Welcome to this gathering of sema and zikr. I am very happy to share a weekend together with you to explore the nuances of the sacred practice of Zikr-Allah, the remembrance of God. Zikr-Allah is the very core of the sufi path. Exploring the nuances of this sacred practice is very meaningful.
Come early to the zikr circle so that you do not find yourself interrupting. Come as the circle is being formed. Find yourself a place in the circle. If more people are coming, be ready to move back and incorporate more people into the zikr circle. Open the circle, so that everyone can be included. If you come late, one must not interrupt the zikr that is in progress. But you can silently come and sit just behind the circle.
If you have a tasbih or prayer beads, this is for your own practice, in your personal zikr practice. But if you are in a circle of zikr you need not (and ought not) count the tasbih. Only the zikr leader, the sheikh, the “zakir” will do this. He or she is the one who will count, so you need not count.
Keep your glance oriented to the zikr leader. It is very important to be attentive to the zikr leader — this is something that I find is very often lacking in group zikrs.
Zikr is not only vocalizing, invoking, singing or saying the words. It is as much about listening as about vocalizing — and very often this is forgotten. One becomes intoxicated with one’s own voice, yet it is more important to listen. One must not sing or vocalize louder than the zikr leader. One has to be ready for subtle changes in the zikr, and those will come from the zakir who leads the circle. One has to be alert and attentive to those subtle shifts. Zikr is not a mechanical process where you just go on repeating a phrase at a fixed rhythm and tone. There are fluctuations that represent the inner dynamic of the group process inwardly. And the zakir, the zikr leader, is the one who is trained to understand and guide that process. We must always be attentive and responsive to him or her. With the glance, with our hearing, we respond to the zakir.
The zikr will begin with the invocation. In some zikr circles, one form will be practiced for the full term and in other cases there will be other forms introduced. At the beginning and whenever a new form is introduced, the zakir will do the form once, will say the phrase and make the motion. In that first recitation one does not yet join in. Let the zakir do one recitation, one demonstration of the motion, and then only on the second recitation everyone can join in. That is very important to remember.
From the very outset be attentive to the zakir, to what is being offered, and then reproduce that exactly. Zikr is not a spectator sport. It means that exactly what is introduced by the zakir must be done by each participant of the zikr — the movement and recitation are important. Do not be simply present in the zikr circle while other people are doing the motions and making the recitation while you listen. That will not serve the group. Each one must be present and must be practicing the zikr. Each zikr has a movement and a rhythm. It is important to be attentive to what that movement is.
Now your voice — the voice is the breath. It is the articulation of the breath in sound. This reproduces the very creation of the cosmos which flowed forth first as the Divine breath was exhaled, as a sign of creative passion, out of pre-eternity when the divine qualities could be held back no more. The names were aired through the breath. And this breath is experienced morphologically in the letter “Ha,” the h sound which is the essence of Allah. When we are saying the “h” sound we are touching upon the breath of all breaths, the “all pervading life in space.” [note — a reference to the Healing Prayer]
Just as the Divine breath became articulated within archetypal qualities that represent the Divine essence, in the same way our breath is articulated within sounds, letters. And these are expression of the divine logos. When we speak, zikr will remind us that whatever we say in the course of our daily lives is our de-limitation of the essence of our being, of our breath. The way we condition, channel, and utilize our breath demonstrates who we are and what we contribute to the life of this world — what meaning our existence has. And then we become very circumspect with regard to our speech. Just think of how adverse we are to hearing ourselves on tape. What if the day of resurrection involved listening to all of the words that we spoke during the course of our lives — that would be a real judgement! And those words exist once uttered. Those words echo throughout the cosmic dome.
So zikr reminds us of the luminous power of breath and voice. The breath is the very essence of ourselves and in the zikr we are offering it in the highest mode of expression that we know to invoke the divine names that represent all that is the greatest, most profound, most beautiful, most awe-inspiring that we can imagine. We utilize our breath to express and invoke these qualities. And in doing so, we awaken these qualities within ourselves.
If we do this habitually, then we will find that outside of the zikr we are less and less inclined to speak, because by contrast what do our words signify? And so as one practices zikr, one becomes more and more prone to periods of silence. It is wonderful to schedule in one’s life, a rhythm of silences. It could be as Murshid (i.e. Hazrat Inayat Khan) taught to his disciplines, have silence twice per day for one half hour at least. It takes a special effort in this modern world of cell phones and emails. So it means that you have to make a deliberate act of carving out space within your life’s rhythm for this purpose. But the benefits are innumerable.
So then you find that if you are doing zikr regularly in your life as a practice, it begins to erupt within your life. It is not only when you are doing the ritual of zikr that you are remembering God. When you find suddenly when you wake up in the middle of the life, that the first words that come to your lips are “La illaha illa ‘llah Hu” — that is a wonderful feeling. That means that the zikr has become rooted in the heart and then you find yourself confronted in your life with a challenging situation – someone is acting aggressively towards you, confronting you and then you feel your temperature rising, and you begin to react. Then there is a counterpoint to that reaction, a little voice within your heart — “La illaha illa ‘llah hu”. It gives you a tremendous sense of peace and security.