The word thikr ذكر in Arabic encompasses layers of meaning, as do many Quranic words — no single English word can replace it in all instances, thus translations use various English words in different contexts. However, knowing that this is the same word helps in grasping the depth of the Quran.
It basically refers to “remembrance” or “bringing to mind” by means of words, and indeed thikr ذكر means also “to invoke” (powerful words/ names) or “say/ mention.” Thus when we say “ithkur Allah” (“ithkur” being a verb form of thikr), we mean to mention or invoke Allah and thus bring Him to mind. It has been translated “remind/ reminder.” But it also can mean simply “remember” or “bear in mind” or even “memorize,” as indicated by the context of its usage. The Quran itself is referred to as “thikr al-hakeem:” thikr (in this case, a book) which is wise, just, and balanced (hakeem), whose purpose is to bring the deeper truths about Allah and our purpose in life to our understanding.
“Remembrance” in English often implies recalling or commemorating something from the past, whereas thikr implies a “reminder” of something of which one was oblivious; something like a wake-up call from an oblivious state.
The Quran tells us that thikr Allah, both invoking His name(s) and remembering Him, is the greatest form of worship and also the most effective way to stay on the straight path:
Surat Al-ankabut 29:45
اتْلُ مَا أُوحِيَ إِلَيْكَ مِنَ الْكِتَابِ وَأَقِمِ الصَّلَاةَ إِنَّ الصَّلَاةَ تَنْهَىٰ عَنِ الْفَحْشَاءِ وَالْمُنكَرِ وَلَذِكْرُ اللَّهِ أَكْبَرُ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ مَا تَصْنَعُونَ
“Recite what is inspired/ revealed to you of the Book, and maintain the salat (“contact prayer”—the formalized physical worship which has geo-astronomically determined time of day/ direction perimeters to maintain “contact” with Allah), for the salat prevents (or inhibits) immorality and vice; but certainly the remembrance of Allah (thikr Allah) is the greatest. And Allah knows everything you do.”
Why is thikr Allah the most important, even though salat (formal Islamic “prayer”) is one of the most crucial requirements for a Muslim? Is there some greater “power” in Allah’s name or the thought of Him?
Indeed invoking Allah’s name and bringing the thought of Allah to mind are very powerful. But to get a more tangible idea of that power, we need to clarify the difference between the contemporary English-speaking concept of “mind” as well as “reminder” (which notably contains “mind”) or “remembrance” and the Quranic use of this one word thikr and its verb/ grammatical forms. The English distinction between mind and heart does not exist in the same way in the Quran. A person is a “nafs” or “self”, a word that has a connection to “tanaffis” or take one’s breath.
Surat Al-Mudathir 74:38
كُلُّ نَفْسٍ بِمَا كَسَبَتْ رَهِينَةٌ
Every soul (nafs) is held (accountable) for its deeds.
Better translated to say “Every soul/ self will go (in return to Allah) with what it has earned (its deeds).”
The implication is one of being held accountable for one’s deeds but the image presented is of a soul moving on from this life, a leave-taking, unable to carry with it anything but its acts. This presentation and understanding makes more obvious the fact that the material world is insubstantial, a temporary dwelling as it were, and stripped of that, all we have are deeds.
Here the word “nafs” نَفْسٍ is translated “soul” and is the word the Quran uses to refer to the self within and beyond the body. This is an important distinction: that there is a “self” or soul separate from yet alive within the body, but not necessarily confined by it. Indeed, science has shown that the physical component of even the smallest particle such as the atom is composed of far more empty space than matter or particles of any kind. One can think of the nafs as being the vital essence of a person permeating the tenuous frame of its body. Thinking of it this way, one can imagine the power and influence on that nafs of “intangible” things such as words or thoughts or feelings. Such power is greater than one would suppose looking at one’s apparent — apparition of — physical existence. And this only becomes clearer the more one examines the physical realm by reason, which in the Quran is a faculty (usually expressed in active verbs) rather than a thing or place such as the brain. And again what is a “faculty” in English but a power? Even the act of thinking and reasoning is a power, an act.
When the Quran emphasizes our actions, this includes the act of thinking, comprehension, and understanding, as well as the act of having faith and trust in Allah and of depending on Him for guidance. So thikr Allah, invoking and thinking of and thus remembering Allah, is a deed or act as much as is performing the salat prayers or fasting or charity (zakat) or making a pilgrimage (Hajj) to Makkah. Reading and studying the Quran are acts, as is fighting against oppression (jihad) — all this one keeps after death. One’s actions, then, are one’s accomplishments, and they are what the nafs or soul keeps, and on the basis of which one’s ultimate and eternal fate will be determined.
Bad deeds too do not go away after death, except by Allah’s mercy and under certain conditions. After one commits an act, it may seem like an insubstantial thing, not like, say, a car or a cow. But what we think of as substantial, the car or cow, are gone and left behind after death and all that remains of them is any connection they may have had to us in terms of our acts. Did we steal the car or the cow? The act of stealing will remain. Did we give them in compassion to someone who needed them? That act too remains. Did we misuse them or did we take care of them? Did they distract us from thikr Allah, like prophet Sulaiman’s horses distracted him? Did we love the car or cow so much we devoted all our time and energy to it and ignored, for example, salat, or taking care of our children, or helping someone who needed our help?
We live in an interconnected universe; in fact, so highly integrated the mere thought of it, as it approaches accuracy, is staggering. Those interactions are, for each of us, nothing more than our deeds, all we will have left of our lives, and the sole means of evaluating us. Thikr Allah can in itself change the nature and quality of those interactions. In other words, it can redirect us to the path where our acts will be guided by the light, not bumbling in the dark. And in the end, it will help us do deeds of value and worth, and avoid shameful or vile acts. And that’s ultimately all we will have, all that’s left.
The power of thikr Allah is one of focusing for a moment on the Almighty, All-Merciful, one of whose descriptions is being “the light of the heavens and the earth.” When one calls that light to mind, that very act fills us with light. It momentarily takes us out of the shadowy physical realm and into the light-filled realm of Allah our Creator.
We know that there is far more empty space than matter. Dwelling within the body means most of what we think of as our bodies consists of this self or “nafs” filling the empty space. What this nafs does, its acts, likewise fill that space. We are full of our thoughts and visions about ourselves and the world we perceive around us and this in turn makes us act as we do or change our way of acting. When we use our minds or spend our energy in thikr Allah, we fill ourselves with the power of light and guidance and illumination. When we avoid thikr Allah, we allow darkness and the shadow of the insubstantial physical realm to influence our direction in life and hence what we decide and what we do.
Surat Qasas 28:20
وَمَا أُوتِيتُم مِّن شَيْءٍ فَمَتَاعُ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا وَزِينَتُهَا وَمَا عِندَ اللَّهِ خَيْرٌ وَأَبْقَىٰ أَفَلَا تَعْقِلُونَ
The (material) things which ye are given are but the conveniences of this life and the glitter thereof; but that which is with Allah is better and more enduring: will you not then be wise?
And the greatest oppression is to prevent thikr Allah — and by extension, to interfere in one’s freedom of religion. Anyone who does this is the worst kind of person. Certainly not Muslim. Those who attack and bomb mosques and other places of worship such as churches and synagogues/ temples are thereby preventing thikr Allah insofar as they prevent people to remember God, even if those people’s faith does not follow the Quran per se.
Surat Al-Baqara 2:114
وَمَنْ أَظْلَمُ مِمَّن مَّنَعَ مَسَاجِدَ اللَّهِ أَن يُذْكَرَ فِيهَا اسْمُهُ وَسَعَىٰ فِي خَرَابِهَا أُولَٰئِكَ مَا كَانَ لَهُمْ أَن يَدْخُلُوهَا إِلَّا خَائِفِينَ لَهُمْ فِي الدُّنْيَا خِزْيٌ وَلَهُمْ فِي الْآخِرَةِ عَذَابٌ عَظِيمٌ
And who is more unjust than he who forbids that in places for the worship of Allah, Allah’s name should be invoked?-whose zeal is to destroy them? It was not fitting that such should themselves enter them except in fear. For them there is nothing but disgrace in this world, and in the world to come, an exceeding torment.
Thikr Allah is of such importance that preventing it is in effect religious treason, the ultimate betrayal and oppression. Note that it was not the prevention of salat or other forms of worship in itself that was the greatest oppression; it was prevention of thikr Allah, of remembering Him. It is in effect mind control.
And although the word “masjid” is used, a word usually translated “mosque,” the Quran also uses the same word to refer to places of worship used by followers of Aissa (Jesus) or the Bible as well as temples or places of worship used by the “children of Israel” or Jews. The word “masjid” means literally “place of prostration,” which is the ultimate form of surrender/ submission, indicated in salat but also in the Quran used to indicate deference and obedience/ total devotion. As to whether the worshippers are monotheistic or whether their faith is not in compliance with Allah’s commands is not our business as human beings. We must respect any worship that defers to a higher power as long as it is peaceful and does not oppress others. If it does the latter, it is not considered worship and if mosques are used as battlegrounds they are no longer mosques unless under attack by non-worshippers and fighting in self-defense.
Returning to the word thikr, we can think of it as a way of reminding us of Allah’s ever-presence. When we remember this, our nafs or soul is filled with His presence, which replaces the darkness of our nafs being oblivious to Allah’s presence. The material world, being clear to our immediate senses, seems obvious and easy to deal with, even though in truth it is less substantial than our acts and our souls. Thikr Allah helps us overcome the obliviousness that seems to be humankind’s default mode, which simply reacts to immediate desires, what the Quran refers to as “hawa’.” It implies an emptiness, a void not yet filled with light in which we are ignorant and do not think or understand, and are swayed every which way insatiably, never achieving our true purpose.
Surat Al-Araaf 7:205
وَاذْكُر رَّبَّكَ فِي نَفْسِكَ تَضَرُّعًا وَخِيفَةً وَدُونَ الْجَهْرِ مِنَ الْقَوْلِ بِالْغُدُوِّ وَالْآصَالِ وَلَا تَكُن مِّنَ الْغَافِلِينَ
And remember (ithkur, the verb form of thikr) your Lord within yourself, in humility and in reverence; and without loudness in words, during the morning and the evening. And do not be of the careless (oblivious) ones (ghafileen).
The way to achieve our true purpose and potential, to overcome our desires to do destructive acts and to bring out our higher need to do acts of compassion and righteousness, is essentially by mindfulness, awareness of Allah. It makes our hearts open to Allah’s guiding presence both in His message, the Quran, and His signs in His creation. There is only one simple yet profound way to open one’s mind and heart, one’s essence: with thikr Allah, to invoke, think about, and remember, Allah, the Almighty, the All-Merciful, the Most High, the Light of the heavens and the earth.