Considerations on the methods and levels of the ritual invocation (Dhikr)

“…for you who know the letter, this is the not manifest Self

each of your breaths on it rests.

In hope or fear of this letter be aware

 to careful listener my speech is pearl.”

Hadrat Najmuddin al Kubra (QS)


Nowadays there is an increasing confusion on understandings and meanings of classical terms of Islamic traditional sciences. Unfortunately even technical and religious aware linguistics, from which we should expect a better grasp fail to deal with such misunderstandings. May be this is due to the spreading of the modern mentality, the process of simplification of several current languages, and the too easy accessibility to “translated” versions of texts, written to be taught instead only under the guidance of a teacher. Well known examples of it is the use of the word “soul” to indicate extremely different terms as “ruh” and “nafs”, due to a sort of Cartesianism of the modern western languages, or the assumption that the origin of the emotions is the heart, where is exactly the opposite[1]. Therefore it is easy to realise how extremely technical information such that on methods and levels of “remembrance” when translated in language such English can lead most of the public completely astray.

To partially repair to this happening we wish to clarify here some aspects of the ritual “remembrance” used as cardinal tool in the spiritual path of the Islamic tradition, according to what has been reported by the great scholars of this way and the teachings which we have heard from some of their contemporary followers.


The word dhikr in Arabic has several meanings, its root, which recalls the word Dhakar or “masculine”, points to an “active” action exerts towards a “passive” receptor. Therefore its extent meaning of “remembrance” is to be understood more correctly as “to induce to remember”, “to make to remember”.

In the Din its use is highly variable and can easily induce confusion. In large extent any act of ‘ibada is a dhikr, each act done according to the shari’a law or to the sunna of the Prophet (SAS) induces or better implies the “remembrance of Allah (JWS). However dhikr is also and even more precisely the “recall” of Allah (JWS) by the pronunciation of its Name/s. Finally dhikr is the “conscience” of the Presence of Allah (JWS). Each of the above three meanings can be related to a different level of the Din, nominally: Islam, Iman, Ihsan, experienced through the Shari’a, Tariqa[2] and Haqiqah.[3]

We will try here to precise methods and effects of the dhikr as practice of “call upon or recall Allah (JWS)” through Its Names/s or in extend His words, therefore we will limit this short dissertation to the boundary of the Tariqa.


The human condition extends its borders in what we can summarise as three levels: one is the Physical world, where its body acts. One, which is still formal but not physical, is the Imaginative world, where its soul (nafs) dwells and finally the dimension which is above the all, pure of physical limits and forms, the Spiritual world. This last dimension cannot be really perceived by itself until the formal condition is not “overcome” therefore is “touched” through its “reflections” on the Imaginative world. The use of symbols without forms as “lights”, ”scents” and “tastes” is a way to points to the realities of such dimension.

This short as well simple considerations make clear that any “human act” or is physical or is imaginative, being for our condition always formal, therefore any spiritual effect must have a physical or imaginative “trigger”, more often has both of them. The dhikr does not make an exception.

Great confusion generally arises when the different methodologies and levels of dhikr are discussed. The first are not exactly the same of the second ones, even they are obviously linked. The above section implies that the methods cannot be other than two (physical or imaginative) with the logical possibility of a third method, which combines physical and imaginative action.

The physical action in the “calling” cannot be other that the vocal dhikr, the obvious form of the “call upon the name of Allah” it is the utterance of the word “Allah”, or one of its Names, or one of its words (ayat al quran)[4]. However it can be done according other two ways as detailed by Hadrat Jami (QS) (reported by Laarii in Takmila-yi nafahat al-uns), which is consistent with what it has been already said:

“ To Utter the dhikr at low voice is the way of some Shuyukh, between them of the Great Shaykh Muhiddin Ibn Arabi (QS)[5]. The way of most of the teachers is to utter the dhikr loudly (bar sabil-i jahr), but the way according the imaginative action (takhayyul), otherwise known as the “silent (khafi) dhikr”, it is the base of the Path of the Masters (Tariq-I Khwajagan, currently called Naqshabandiyya). “

However a further clarification must be given, the vocal dhikr has two components one is the sound and the other the breath, being the human being not able to utter sound without using its breath. A dhikr based only on a breath component, without sound will be still physical, and not exclusively imaginative. This requires a cessation of the breath[6]. It is easy to conclude that most methods of adhkar have necessary both the aspects physical and imaginative. The last consideration also implies that the essence of life itself is dhikr, independently from the awareness of it.

The deep reason because the main tool, which allows the path to the Truth, is an invocation, is linked to its nature. The physical world is characterised by of 4 tendencies[7], plus a fifth which is their origin: the “Ether”, this is the link between the imaginative world and the physical world, the place where the last one was manifested, through the “vocal” divine order of “KUN”. Therefore the return path cannot start elsewhere. The nature of the invocation is sound and breath, both in fact occur in the “Ether” of the physical world, in its original point[8].

To reach the worlds beyond the formal existence and there to activate the “adhkar” which belongs to such dimensions, the physical remembrance must acquire a imaginative aspect or be replaced by a imaginative method. Those vary greatly according the different silsilah and usul of the Tariqa. Sometimes the imaginative support are the Arabic letter of Divine Names, others the image of the teacher or specific colours, symbolic aspects of the human body. Classical writers on this subject as Imam Al Ghazali (RA) and Hadrat Ibn Arabi (QS) strongly underline that the efficacy of the vocal invocation is based a mental presence, which will allow the dhikr to “impress” the imagination, without this any progress is absent.

In some case the imaginative aspect of the dhikr is reached without any support which could point to it, just a simple “passage to the limit”. In several branches of the Kubrawya this is done during the khalwat in which the vocal dhikr is incessantly repeated loudly at high voice, until the voice faints naturally away, at this point the dhikr become “spontaneously” imaginative.

To give a “glance” of the unlimited possibility of the dhikr methodology we would like here to report a short tale about a Master of the Path and its deaf and dumb slave.

“The Shaykh had noticed the right spiritual disposition of his slave, but he could not teach him the adhkar and the award according the usual methodology. Then he took three stones, in one he wrote his name, in the second the name of Hadrat Mustafa (SAS) and in the third one the Ism al Mufrad (ALLAH, JWS,). He gave the stones to the slave instructing him to keep them always with him and to be ritually pure each time he touches them.

Years later a disciple of the shaykh reported that being assaulted by a lion asked for help through his assistance, then the slave appeared and rescued him. The shaykh called the slave and took back the stone with his name on. Time pass by and during one of his retreat the shaykh was visited by the blessing presence of the Prophet (SAS), who appears in front him, under the aspect of the slave. The shaykh called again the slave and this time took away the stone with name of the Prophet (SAS).

With the time both slave and shaykh grew old, one day the shaykh sent the slave in a near village to carry on some business for him, his wife unaware of it had left at the same time instruction for the slave to cook the dinner for the guests and the students of the shaykh as usually. That evening, the dinner was ready served in the refectory of the tekkya as usual, but the slave was back only the morning after.

The shaykh called him, made him free and gave him his hirqa and his stick and told to leave, he could not do any more for him.”

The different Master used extremely different methodology to guide in the very same journey, from a intense form of khalwa, where only the loudly repetition of tahlil is used to the simple daily companionship without any further practices out of those prescribed as compulsory by the shari’a.


The methods of dhikr consist in how this is done, but the dhikr has different effects according from where it is done. To indicate these we use to talk about different levels of dhikr. Of course different methods will correspond in some way to different levels, but they still will be or vocal or imaginative.

The Tariqa scholars have described the levels of dhikr, linking them to “subtil” aspects of the human body or LATAIF, to specific colours, and specific Names of Allah as well to the wasila (spiritual assistance) of a specific Prophet (SAS) “under” which a given vocal or imaginative invocation is carried out.

In the summary table here presented we tried to simplify the different maps of the spiritual journey of the dhikr, as transmitted in the main silsilah of the Tariqa. The links with symbolic colours and with the main Prophet, however, can change from teacher to teacher, they depends on the specific taste of each soul and her qualities. For the very same reason we have avoided reporting the locations of the lataif according the different systems.

In the teachings of Qaderi and Shadhili silsilah the levels of dhikr are simplified to three, the two levels beyond the “sirr” are in fact more detailed aspects of it. The same author in some text mentions a three level system, to detail in others a five level one. For the same reason some branch of Khalwatya, which bases the dhikr on “Sahba al Asma” (the Seven Names), inserts a further levels between the Sirr and the Khafi, to build a consistent correspondence between the Names and the levels.

The system with five levels does not take into consideration the initial stages of the journey in the physical and imaginative world; if we consider these also the system has seven levels. This last form is more spread among Persian and Asian silsilah, which more attention give to the doctrine of the levels of dhikr than the North African ones.

However, independently from the silsilah some Master of the Path, use different form of invocations according the levels, other the very same one. The reason of it also depends on the quality of the teacher and of the student as well their spiritual tastes, and as already mentioned from the “conditions” under which the spiritual journey occurs. In the tables we have only reported the names according the schemes more often found in the classical texts.

We have to underline that the transmission of an invocation from the teacher, linked to a given level does not at all mean that the level is someway “granted” to the student, but only that he has got the potentiality to reach it. In absolute no invocation depends from the level as no level depends from the invocation. All depends from Allah (JWS) and His Mercy.


Hadrat Abdel Qadir al Gilani (QS), in the section on “Dhikr” in the Sirr al Asrar, clearly describes how the dhikr travels across these levels, and “generates” different more higher forms of “remembrance”, which are beyond the invocation, these are “forms of conscience”, levels of Ihsan.

“The remembrance of the heart (Qalb) is to feeling in oneself the manifestation of Allah’s might and beauty, while the remembrance of the spirit (Ruh) is through the enlightenment of the divine light generated by Allah’s might and beauty. The remembrance of the level of the secret (Sirr) is trough the ecstasy received from beholding the divine secrets. The remembrance of the hidden level (Khafi) bring one to “The place of truth in the presence of a Sovereign Omnipotent, Sura Qamar, 55”. The remembrance at the final level, called the mot hidden of the hidden (Khafi al akhfa) brings one to a state of annihilation of the self and unification with the truth.”

However the dhikr, which proceeds beyond the level of the individual nafs of the servant and activates the higher levels of his soul is very different in nature from what he has so for practised. The effort from now is left and the dhikr, which is now acted from the level of heart (Qalb), is under the divine command, in some way it simply occurs, it is not produced by the mudhakir, but just perceived by him. This will be even more true at higher level: Ruh, Sirr ect

According to the prophetic tradition (Call upon Me and I will call upon you) the first effect of the invocation is the Divine “answer”, the call back. This is the “extinction” of the human invocation with its limitations and the establishment of the permanent invocation by Allah (JWS) and through Him. The servant from caller one become called one. This is the real Dhirk[9] , which transforms the nature of the mudhakir. This is the passage from the individual sphere to the spiritual world, the first step of the spiritual journey. The Dhikr will enchant the nafs of the mudhakir, transforming it and carrying the servant across the above mentioned levels, until the divine presence, and beyond as explained by Hadrat El Gilani (QS). From the invocation to the Lord the passage is done to the incantation from the Lord.

[1] Emotion is what “emovet”, puts in motion, therefore what quakes the “heart”, which is their target not their source.

[2] Here we will keep the use of Tariqa as single, according what Hadrat Mustapha (SAS) said “Knowledge is one, the man of knowledge made it a thousand”. Also in this dissertation will become clear, we hope, how the different “Systems” of level or dhirk, Latayf, maqam are essential one, just differently described by the Masters of the Path, according the different silsilah.

[3] This consideration clarifies fully the meaning of as the “activator” of the remembrance. The dhikr as calling, which is pursued through the practice of the Tariqa, actives eventually the real remembrance as fully conscience of the Presence of Allah, leading at the realisation of the Haqiqa.

[4] The use of the “Tahlil” is specially sanctioned by the sunna of the Prophet (SAS), and it is itself a “synthesis of 12 operative names of Allah (JWS), as described by several scholars of the Tariqa. Hadrat Abdel Qadir al Gilani (QS) in the Sirr Al Asrar (section on the souls within the body) explains “ The 12 divine names are at the origin of tahlil. Each of them is one of the twelve letters in the sentece.

[5] Here with low voice dhikr is mentioned the mix way, which applies a vocal calling jointly with a imaginative exercise.

[6] In fact the very essence of the Naqshbandy method is the “keep of the breath” thaught in different ways and forms by different teachers during the practice of the dhikr.

[7] These are the four elements of the traditional cosmology, which more correctly are five (Earth, Water, Fire and Air, plus the Ether), they are representations of quality aspect of the physical dimension. The only interest instead of the contemporary science is the quantity aspect of the physical word, that for its nature cannot be fully grasped. The modern approach invests its effort literally to run after “shadows”, in the illusion that temporary technical achievements are evidences of real knowledge.

[8] We have to remind that each created being has its own form of dhikr according the “world” of its manifestation, the so called “Animal” world (which means according to the Latin root the world of the breathing beings) dwells in the breathing aspect of the dhikr. The Mineral and the Vegetal worlds they have they owns.

[9] The doctrine of the Supreme and Secret Name of Allah is strictly connected to this point. The limitation of the present discussion can allow only to mention here the say of the Masters of the Path “any sincere invocation is His Secret Name”. This Name is secret because cannot be uttered by human, it is upon Him its use.


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