Morning zhikr on retreat
June 11, 2014
My cellphone sings me a gentle song at 4:30 in the morning and I roll out of bed.
Ever since our son was born I have maintained that the 4am hour is the hardest time for me to be awake. When we used to have feedings at all hours, the 4am one was the one I dreaded. Earlier than that, and I could pretend that a night of sleep lay ahead; later than that, and I could tell myself that it was morning. But oh, I used to dread the hour between 4 and 5. Not today.
I find my way up the two flights of stairs to the Muslim prayer space. I join the women sitting in a circle on a spacious tapestry. And one of my new friends from this retreat explains that the leader of her Sufi order, Shaikh Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, settled on this arrangement of divine names and Qur'anic verses to be chanted in the morning at this hour.
Thankfully there are two copies of the little printed booklet which contains the words of the prayers -- one which our prayer-leader uses, and another which is offered to me. (The other Jew in the room has forgotten her glasses, so I don't feel guilty about monopolizing the transliteration and translation!)
Our leader offers the teaching from Bawa that one should seek with every breath to say a prayer asserting that there is nothing else but God. And I think: kol haneshamah tehallel Yah, "let every breath praise You." And I think of the meditation practice which maps the four letters of the Holiest Name onto every breath: before breathing, yud; inhale on heh; hold the breath vav; exhale on heh. And I think: ein od milvado, "there is nothing else but God." I think: our traditions have this in common.
And then the zhikr begins.
Zhikr (sometimes transliterated dhikr) means remembrance, as in remembrance of God. (I suspect the Arabic word shares a root with the Hebrew zecher, which also means remembrance.) It's a Sufi prayer practice. The last time I chanted zhikr was in 2011, at the ALEPH Kallah with Pir Ibrahim Farajajé and Rabba Deb Kolodny. That was in a Jewish setting; this morning I am profoundly aware that I am a guest, a visitor in someone else's prayer space and prayer context.
I remember the first time I had the experience of praying in a group of only women. I was struck by how our voices blended, how the timbre and tone merged together and our voices interwove like strands in a finely-braided cord. That's what this feels like, too.
We sing the fatiha, which is full of familiar words. We sing divine attributes: merciful, compassionate, forgiver. We sing in the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate.
We sing invocations of the angels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and I think: I invoke those angels every night when I bless our son before bed!
We sing blessings upon Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, Muhammad.
We sing verses from the Qur'an.
And then before the very last remembrances, my friend who is leading prayer -- we have connected with great joy around the fact that her teacher Bawa engaged in regular dialogue with my teacher Reb Zalman, and those dialogues (in printed form) are part of what the students of Bawa study even now -- my friend offers a prayer for those in need of healing, beginning with Reb Zalman, and my heart wells over.
I think of the story of Reb Zalman davening zhikr with the Sufis of Hebron, which has long been one of my inspirations; I think of his initiation into Inayati Sufism and eventual founding of the Inayati-Maimuni Tariqat of Sufi-Hasidim; and I know that he would be gladdened to see two of his students humbly learning from and with our Muslim hevre, study-friend-counterparts.
As we have been chanting, the sky outside the windows has changed color. Dawn has come.
When I leave the prayer space and tiptoe quietly downstairs, my heart is still singing.
Deep thanks to the Henry Luce Foundation for their gracious support of this incredible retreat program.