The Public Dhikr (Hadra)
© Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1996.
A person coming to the Middle East to learn something about the tariqa is likely, at some point in his visit, to see the brethren in the hadra or “public dhikr” as it has been traditionally practiced by generations of Shadhilis in North Africa under such sheikhs as al-‘Arabi al-Darqawi, Muhammad al-Buzidi, and Ahmad al-‘Alawi before being brought to Damascus from Algeria by Muhammad ibn Yallis and Muhammad al-Hashimi at the beginning of this century.
Upon entering the mosque, one will see circles of men making dhikr (women participants are screened from view upstairs) standing and holding hands, now slightly bowing in unison, now moving up and down with their knees in unison, the rows rising and falling, breathing in unison, while certain of them alternate at pacing around their midst, conducting the tempo of the group’s motion and breathing with their arms and step. Singers near the sheikh, in solo or chorus, deliver mystical odes to the rhythm of the group; high, spiritual poetry from masters like Ibn al-Farid, Sheikh Ahmad al-‘Alawi, ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Himsi, and our own sheikh.
Though a very stirring experience, it is meticulously timed and controlled, and as with all group dhikrs, the main adab or “proper behaviour” is harmony. No one should stand out in any way, but rather all subordinate their movement, breathing, and dhikr to that of the group. The purpose is to forget one’s individuality in the collective sea of spirits making dhikr in unison. Individual motives, thoughts, and preoccupations are momentarily put aside by means of the Sacred Dance, of moving together as one, sublimating and transcending the limitary and personal through the timelessness of rhythm, conjoined with the melody of voices singing spiritual meanings.
It is an experience that joins those travelling towards Allah spiritually, socially, and emotionally. Few forget it, and visitors from the West to whom it is unfamiliar sometimes wonder if it is a bid‘a or “reprehensible innovation,” as it was not done in the time of the earliest Muslims, or whether it is unlawful (haram) or offensive (makruh); and why they see the ulama and righteous attending it in Damascus, Jerusalem, Aden, Cairo, Tripoli, Tunis, Fez, and wherever there are people of the path.
I was one of those who asked our sheikh about the relation of the hadra to the shari‘a or “Sacred Law” which is the guiding light of our tariqa. As Muslims, our submission to the law is total, and there are no thoughts or opinions after legally answering the question “Does the hadra agree with orthodox Islam?”
Because it comprises a number of various elements, such as gathering together for the remembrance of Allah (dhikr), singing, and dancing, we should reflect for a moment on some general considerations about the Islamic shari‘a before discussing each of these separately.
First, the Islamic shari‘a furnishes a comprehensive criterion for all possible human actions, whether done before or never done before. It classifies actions into five categories, the obligatory (wajib), whose performance is rewarded by Allah in the next life and whose nonperformance is punished; the recommended (mandub), whose performance is rewarded but whose nonperformance is not punished; the permissible (mubah), whose performance is not rewarded and whose nonperformance is not punished; the offensive (makruh), whose nonperformance is rewarded but whose performance is not punished; and the unlawful (haram), whose nonperformance is rewarded and whose performance is punished.
Now, Allah in His wisdom has made the vast majority of human actions permissible. He says in surat al-Baqara, “It is He who has created everything on earth for you” (Koran 2:29), which establishes the shari‘a principle that all things are mubah or permissible for us until Allah indicates to us that they are otherwise. Because of this, the fact that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) did not do this or that particular practice does not prove that it is offensive or unlawful, but only that it is not obligatory.
This is the reason that when shari‘a scholars speak of bid‘a, they do not merely mean an “innovation” or something that was never done before, which is the lexical sense of the word, but rather a “blameworthy innovation” or something new that no legal evidence in Sacred Law attests to the validity of, which is the shari‘a sense of the word. The latter is the bid‘a of misguidance mentioned in the hadith “The worst of matters are those that are new, and every
innovation (bid‘a) is misguidance” (Sahih Muslim. 5 vols. Cairo 1376/1956. Reprint. Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1403/1983, 2.592: 867), which, although general in wording, scholars say refers specifically to new matters that entail something offensive or unlawful. Imam Shafi‘i explains:
New matters are of two kinds: something newly begun that contravenes the Koran, sunna, the position of early Muslims, or consensus of scholars (ijma‘): this innovation is misguidance. And something newly inaugurated of the good in which there is no contravention of any of these, and is therefore something which although new (muhdatha), is not blameworthy.As for the practice of Muslims gathering together for group dhikr or the “invocation of Allah,” there is much evidence of its praiseworthiness in the sunna—aside from the many Koranic verses and the hadiths establishing the general merit of dhikr in every state—such as the hadith related by Bukhari:
For when ‘Umar (Allah be well pleased with him) saw the [tarawih] prayer being performed [in a group by Muslims at the mosque] in Ramadan, he said, “What a good innovation (bid‘a) this is,” meaning something newly begun that had not been done before. And although in fact it had, this does not negate the legal considerations just advanced [n: i.e. that it furnishes an example of something that ‘Umar, who was a scholar of the Sahaba, praised as a “good innovation” despite his belief that it had not been done before, because it did not contravene the broad principles of the Koran or sunna] (Dhahabi: Siyar a‘lam al-nubala’. 23 vols. Beirut: Mu’assassa al-Risala, 1401/1981, 10.70).
Truly, Allah has angels going about the ways, looking for people of dhikr, and when they find a group of men invoking Allah, they call to one another, “Come to what you have been looking for!” and they circle around them with their wings up to the sky of this world.
Then their Lord asks them, though He knows better than they, “What do My servants say?” And they reply, “They say, Subhan Allah (“I glorify Allah’s absolute perfection”), Allahu Akbar (“Allah is ever greatest”), and al-Hamdu li Llah (“All praise be to Allah”), and they extoll Your glory.” He says, “Have they seen Me?” And they answer, “No, by Allah, they have not seen You.” And He says, “How would it be, had they seen Me?” And they say, “If they had seen You, they would have worshipped You even more, glorified You more, and said Subhan Allah the more.”
He asks them, “What do they ask of Me?” And one answers, “They ask You paradise.” He says, “Have they seen it?” And they say, “No, by Allah, My Lord, they have not seen it.” And He says, “How would it be, had they seen it?” And they say, “If they had seen it, they would have been more avid for it, sought it more, and been more desirous of it.”
Then He asks them, “From what do they seek refuge?” And they answer, “From hell.” He says, “Have they seen it?” And they say, “No, by Allah, they have not seen it.” And He says, “How would it be, had they seen it?” And they say, “If they had seen it, they would have fled from it even more, and been more fearful of it.”
He says, “I charge all of you to bear witness that I have forgiven them.” Then one of the angels says, “So-and-so is among them, though he is not one of them but only came for something he needed.” And Allah says, “They are companions through whom no one who keeps their company shall meet perdition” (Sahih al-Bukhari. 9 vols. Cairo 1313/1895. Reprint (9 vols. in 3). Beirut: Dar al-Jil, n.d., 8.107–8: 6408).
The last line of the hadith shows the highest approval for gatherings of dhikr in the religion of Allah. Some other accounts transmit the condemnation of Ibn Mas‘ud (Allah be well please with him) for gathering together to say Subhan Allah (perhaps out of fear of ostentation), but even if we were to grant their authenticity, the above hadith of Bukhari, containing the explicit approval of such gatherings by Allah and His messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace)
suffices us from needing the permission of Ibn Mas‘ud or any other human being.
Further, the explicit mention of the various forms of dhikr in the hadith suffice in reply to certain contemporary “re-formers” of Islam, who attempt to reduce “sessions of dhikr” to educational gatherings alone by quoting the words of ‘Ata' (ibn Abi Rabah, Mufti of Mecca, d. 114/732), who reportedly said, Sessions of dhikr are the sessions of [teaching people] the lawful and unlawful, how you buy, sell, pray, fast, wed, divorce, make the pilgrimage, and the like (Nawawi: al-Majmu‘: Sharh al-Muhadhdhab. 20 vols. Cairo n.d. Reprint. Medina: al-Maktaba al-Salafiyya, n.d., 1.21).
Perhaps ‘Ata' intended to inform people that teaching and learning shari‘a are also a form of dhikr, but in any case it is clear from the Prophet’s explicit words (Allah bless him and give him peace) in the above hadith that “sessions of dhikr” cannot be limited to teaching and learning Sacred Law alone, but primarily mean gatherings of Muslims to invoke Allah in dhikr.
As for dancing, Imam Ahmad relates from Anas (Allah be well pleased with him), with a chain of transmission all of whose narrators are those of Bukhari except Hammad ibn Salama, who is one of the narrators of Muslim, that the Ethiopians danced in front of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace); dancing and saying [in their language], “Muhammad is a righteous servant.” The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “What are they saying?” And they said, “‘Muhammad is a righteous servant’” (Musnad al-Imam Ahmad. 6 vols. Cairo 1313/1895. Reprint. Beirut: Dar Sadir, n.d., 3.152).
Other versions of the hadith clarify that this took place in the mosque in Medina, though in any case, the fact that dancing was done before the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) establishes that it is mubah or “permissible” in the shari‘a, for if it had been otherwise, he would have been obliged to condemn it. For this reason, Imam Nawawi says: Dancing is not unlawful, unless it is languid, like the movements of the effeminate. And it is permissible to speak and to sing poetry, unless it satirizes someone, is obscene, or alludes to a particular woman” (Minhaj al-talibin wa ‘umdat al-muttaqin. Cairo 1338/1920. Reprint. Cairo: Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi, n.d., 152).
This is a legal text for the permissibility of both dancing and singing poetry from the Minhaj al-talibin, the central legal work of the entire late Shafi‘i school. Islamic scholars point out that if something which is permissible, such as singing poetry or dancing, is conjoined with something that is recommended, such as dhikr or gatherings to make dhikr, the result of this conjoining will not be offensive (makruh) or unlawful (haram). Imam Jalal al-Din Suyuti was asked for a fatwa or formal legal opinion concerning “a group of Sufis who had gathered for a session of dhikr,” and he replied:
How can one condemn making dhikr while standing, or standing while making dhikr, when Allah Most High says, “. . . those who invoke Allah standing, sitting, and upon their sides” (Koran 3:191).
And ‘A'isha (Allah be well pleased with her) said, “The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) used to invoke Allah at all of his times” [Sahih Muslim, 1.282: 373].
And if dancing is added to this standing, it may not be condemned, as it is of the joy of spiritual vision and ecstasy, and the hadith exists [in many sources, such as Musnad al-Imam Ahmad, 1.108, with a sound (hasan) chain of transmission] that Ja‘far ibn Abi Talib danced in front of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) when the Prophet told him, “You resemble me in looks and in character,” dancing from the happiness he felt from being thus addressed, and the Prophet did not condemn him for doing so, this being a basis for the legal acceptability of the Sufis dancing from the joys of the ecstasies they experience (al-Hawi li al-fatawi. 2 vols. Cairo 1352/1933–34. Reprint. Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1403/1983, 2.234).
Now, Suyuti was a hadith master (hafiz, someone with over 100,000 hadiths by memory) and a recognized mujtahid Imam who authored hundreds of works in the shari‘a sciences, and his formal opinion, together with the previously cited ruling of Imam Nawawi in the Minhaj al-talibin, constitutes an authoritative legal text (nass) in the Shafi‘i school establishing that circles of dhikr which comprise the singing of spiritual poetry and dancing are neither offensive (makruh) nor unlawful (haram)—unless associated with other unlawful factors such as listening to musical instruments or the mixing of men and women—but rather are permissible.
To summarize, the hadra of our tariqa, consisting of circles of invocation of Allah (dhikr) conjoined with the singing of permissible poetry and dancing, is compatible with the Sacred Law of orthodox Islam; and when the latter elements facilitate presence of heart with Allah (as they do with most people who possess hearts), they deserve a reward from Allah by those who intend them as such. And this is the aim and importance of the hadra in the tariqa.