Salat or salah (both transliterations are used), the Islamic prayer which involves the body language of bowing and prostration and the physical perimeters of time (daily prayer times) and space (direction to pray towards Mecca), is required of all Muslims. Thikr Allah — translated “remembering” or “mentioning” Allah and sometimes transliterated dhikr — is not on the usual list of requirements. So why then do we read in Surat Al-Ankabut 29:45 (below) that thikr Allah is greater than salat?
اتْلُ مَا أُوحِيَ إِلَيْكَ مِنَ الْكِتَابِ وَأَقِمِ الصَّلَاةَ ۖ إِنَّ الصَّلَاةَ تَنْهَىٰ عَنِ الْفَحْشَاءِ وَالْمُنكَرِ ۗ وَلَذِكْرُ اللَّهِ أَكْبَرُ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ مَا تَصْنَعُونَ
Recite, [O Muhammad], what has been revealed to you of the Book and establish salat. Indeed, salat prohibits immorality and wrongdoing, and thikr Allah (the remembrance of Allah) is greater. And Allah knows that which you do.
The word thikr here is translated “remembrance,” often used in English to refer to commemorating something in the past, which we may perceive as static/ in the past, whereas thikr Allah is dynamic and present-tense. It is more accurately described as bringing Allah to mind, but even that is imperfect because it really refers to both the mind and heart, as they are combined in human intelligence, memory, and understanding, as discussed further below. Thikr combines the power of language, in this case invoking Allah by any of His names, with the receptivity of mindfulness, creating memory. This can also be thought of as a dynamic between yang (language-name/ outer manifestation/ initiation) and yin (mindfulness/ inner aspect/ receptivity). Even if one only thinks of Allah, one thinks using a name, which is an act of remembering, followed by the awareness.
And not just any awareness, as a superficial “yeah, there’s a God and He’s up there” or a sort of taking God for granted, but rather it assumes a greater level of receptivity to God as both Almighty, hence to be feared as an unimaginable power, and All-Merciful, and hence to be sought for help, support, and for mercy regarding one’s shortcomings. Salat prayer is indeed an act of give-and-take, a two-way connection, a fact which, when one is truly aware of what this means, is absolutely mind-blowing: imagine the Omnipotent Omniscient Creator of all that exists having a one-on-one relationship with the relatively infinitesimal human you, in which relationship is reciprocity. Thikr Allah is the essence of that give-and-take of salat, from our side both initiating a reaching-out to Allah by invoking His name or title such as Lord, and a receptivity to His presence. It is of such importance that the word thikr, most frequently referring to Allah the Exalted, is mentioned in 256 verses, often multiple times within a single verse, the example below having two mentions of thikr out of six words counting the letter waw as a separate word. The give-and-take reciprocity is put simply here:
فَاذْكُرُونِي أَذْكُرْكُمْ وَاشْكُرُوا لِي وَلَا تَكْفُرُونِ
So remember Me; I will remember you. And be grateful to Me and do not deny Me.Surah Al-Baqara 2:152
The word “remember” translates thikr here (In bold above), which means that Allah the Exalted may also mention your name, since thikr carries both meanings; however, we cannot know or even comprehend what that might actually mean. Except that this verse shows us how thikr Allah literally initiates orison, the connection/ line of communication, with Allah the Exalted. And as such, it is “greater” than salat.
Notice also that gratitude is the all-important attitude one must have, whose opposite here is denial of Allah, “denial” being the word “yakfur” here derived from the root kufr, also frequently translated “disbelief.” If disbelief or rejection of truth is thus the opposite of gratitude, then gratitude towards Allah must be the basis of faith. This is no small or insignificant thing. Recall that the second verse of Al-Fatiha, the premier and essential du’a of salat, begins with praise to God, Alhamdulillah, praise being the highest expression of thanks. And the meaning of the name Al-Fatiha is “opening,” thus confirming that gratitude towards Allah is the door or opening to faith. And the opening or “key” to that door is thikr Allah, expressed in its highest form in the first verse of Al-Fatiha, the Bismallah, In the name of Allah, the Almighty (Al-Rahman), the All-Merciful (Al-Raheem).
Coming back to the verse we quoted at the beginning of this post, Surah Al-Ankabut 29:45, notice that it focuses on the capability of salat to “prohibit immorality and wrongdoing,” that is, to have a positive, practical influence on how people behave, which reflects the choices they make. All the elements of salat, the physical bowing and prostrating, the specific direction to face, the specific times of day, the words of Al-Fatiha, serve to help us focus on Allah the Exalted above all else, removing ourselves for a moment from the world and its temporal concerns, and direct our thoughts to our relationship to our Lord and Creator in the eternal realm. And so it is the invoking of Allah’s name and subsequent awareness of the very existence of Allah the Exalted that is the active principle here. It can literally move us to successfully become better people.
This awareness or mindfulness of Allah is in fact at the heart of salat. This means that merely going through the ritual motions of salat without having Allah in mind, in an oblivious state or distracted by other thoughts, will not activate the thikr, hence the salat prayer itself may not be validated. And this is simply because one is not actually present in salat in one’s heart/mind, therefore not receptive to this give-and-take. One becomes “heedless” or “oblivious” of Allah.
Surah Al-Ma’un 107:4-5
So woe to those who pray salat
الَّذِينَ هُمْ عَن صَلَاتِهِمْ سَاهُونَ
[But] who are heedless of their salat prayer –
This can be interpreted in multiple ways. The Arabic word سَاهُونَ sāhoon, translated here “heedless,” means oblivious, careless, forgetful, or inattentive. Or indeed, unmindful, certainly unaware. Thus, in reference to thikr Allah, this directly implies that it is the absence of the mindfulness of thikr Allah the Exalted that literally is the “heedlessness” these verses refer to. In fact, this entire surah supports this as the primary interpretation here. There are scholarly explanations of this aya which state that this refers to forgetting/ skipping prayers or ignoring certain prayer times. That is also a credible interpretation but certainly not the only one. Forgetting prayers interferes with the establishment of daily prayer, which directly influences the heart. These verses from Surah Al-Ma’un especially emphasize salat prayer’s connection to charity and acts of kindness, associated as explained below with zakat (or zakah — both transliterations are used), the obligatory “purification” charity-payments which is a pillar of Islam.
Three verses precede the above which begin with a question and answer, in English “Have you seen the one who denies the (Day of) Judgment?” (Surah Al-Ma’un 107:1) Since faith in the Hereafter and Judgment Day is central to Islam, denial of Judgment Day/the Hereafter is in essence denial of faith in Allah, which in Arabic is called kufr (denial, disbelief, “covering-up” truth). This is here equated with the attitude of insolence, adopting a pattern of deliberate cruelty and mistreatment of the poor and orphan as shown in the verses that follow.
Surah Al-Ma’Un 107:2-3
(1) For that is the one who (harshly) repulses the orphan
(2) And does not encourage the feeding of the poor.
These two acts showing an aversion to compassion are then equated with denial of Judgment Day, which in the Quran is associated with denial of Allah the Exalted Himself. So important are these acts of kindness and mercy, so central are they to Islam, that to act without mercy, especially towards those deprived of resources or family, makes one a disbeliever, thus incurring Allah’s anger. Note that this does not mean a single act of refusal destroys one’s relationship to Allah, but rather this refers to an attitude of denial of kind or charitable acts. Which is exactly why salat is obligatory: it can prevent that attitude of mercilessness from becoming established. And if one even forgets prayers but then remembers Allah (thikr Allah), this itself could be enough to make one think twice, and if one corrects oneself, all those mistakes, lack of praying, and all that obliviousness can be forgiven! In just one moment. Because the admission of wrongdoing by remembering Allah activates thikr in its full sense, leading to a literal “change of heart.”
وَالَّذِينَ إِذَا فَعَلُوا فَاحِشَةً أَوْ ظَلَمُوا أَنفُسَهُمْ ذَكَرُوا اللَّهَ فَاسْتَغْفَرُوا لِذُنُوبِهِمْ وَمَن يَغْفِرُ الذُّنُوبَ إِلَّا اللَّهُ وَلَمْ يُصِرُّوا عَلَىٰ مَا فَعَلُوا وَهُمْ يَعْلَمُونَ
And those who, when they commit an immorality or wrong themselves [by transgression], remember Allah and seek forgiveness for their sins – and who can forgive sins except Allah? – and [who] do not knowingly persist in what they have done.Surah Al-Imran 3:135
This verse refers to the same “immorality and wrongdoing” mentioned in the verse quoted at the beginning of this post, making a direct connection to “why/ how” thikr Allah is “greater.” The verse that follows this one states the reward for those mentioned above is forgiveness and eternal life in paradise, with its gardens and flowing rivers and eternal delight. So a single moment of “thinking twice,” once of regret for what one did wrong, and the second invoking Allah from the heart (mindfully, sincerely) asking forgiveness, followed by a genuine change in behavior of not reverting back to the previous sin/wrongdoing, brings one into Allah’s acceptance and Paradise. There is simply no greater success. Salat then is the way to help avoid repeating bad behavior, but it is thikr Allah which effects the change of heart. Without it, one could go through the motions of salat to show off to others, while continuing to act cruelly to others, to one’s family, to people under one’s authority, or anyone one dislikes or enjoys lording over, for example. Such a person appears to be praying, but in fact the prayer is just a pretense or show, having no effect on the heart, because thikr Allah hasn’t been activated: it was not coming from the heart nor allowing anything into it, so there was no receptivity.
Following the two verses cursing those who are “heedless” of their prayers (Al-Ma’un 107:3-4) are these ayat:
الَّذِينَ هُمْ يُرَاءُونَSurah Al-Ma’Un 107:6-7
Those who show off [their prayers to Us]
And withhold [simple] assistance/ acts of kindness.
This basically nails the guy in the example above of those who don’t “give a damn” about others or fear Allah the Exalted with mindful reverence while praying. Those who withhold even the simplest of acts to help others reveal by such omissions that their salat prayers were only done for show, so others would be impressed by this or convinced of their faith. What’s worse, they are actually showing off to Allah the Almighty Omniscient as if they think He will accept such prayers. Because if one is truly aware of the Almighty, one will understand that He can’t be fooled and that acts of care and mercy are literally how to prove sincerity to Allah.
Notice throughout the Quran how establishing salat prayer and paying zakat purification (an obligatory charitable payment based on income and to be given to only the poor, orphans, migrants, similarly deprived) are most frequently mentioned together as a pair, as if one validated the other (examples can be found in the Quran 2:43, 83, 110, 177, 277; 4:77, 162; 5:12, 55; 9:5, 11, 18, 71; 19:31, 55; 21:73; 22:41, 78; 23:2~4~9; 24:37, 56; 27:3; 31:4; 33:33; 58:13; 73:20; 98:5).
As you can see in the long list of Quranic references pairing obligatory prayer and charity, one’s very connection to Allah is dependent upon one’s paying at least the required charity. This speaks volumes to the difference between Islam and other religions in terms of compassion. There is a special reward for those whose charitable deeds are not made public, and it is prohibited to insult or put down the recipient(s) of one’s charity privately or publicly, or to ask them for anything in return (except du’a). Islam is intimately and comprehensively based on compassion, given freely of one’s own free will.
And indeed, thikr in Arabic is remembering. By repetition of Allah’s names, one repeatedly brings Allah Himself to mind, and in so doing, invokes His presence, or more more accurately, invokes our awareness of His presence. Because Allah the Exalted is Ever-Present, a fact that is in many ways incomprehensible, requiring us to look beyond the everyday obvious, reach beyond ourselves and our limitations, to begin to comprehend. In fact, the Quran describes His closeness to us as greater than we might imagine:
وَلَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا الْإِنسَانَ وَنَعْلَمُ مَا تُوَسْوِسُ بِهِ نَفْسُهُ ۖ وَنَحْنُ أَقْرَبُ إِلَيْهِ مِنْ حَبْلِ الْوَرِيدِSurah Sawd 50:16
And We have already created man and know what his soul whispers to him, and We are closer to him than [his] jugular vein.
Imagine that the jugular vein is the most vulnerable part of us; if severed, we would surely die. That itself shows us how vital Allah is to the human being. Indeed, if one were cut off from God, or as happens with disbelief or simply ignoring God altogether, if one cut off Allah from one’s life, never thinking about or remembering Him, the result would be a fate worse by far than death: a life of eternal torment and regret. On the other hand, thikr Allah or bringing Allah the Exalted to mind is, for those willing to see the truth, a source of immense comfort and uplift in their lives, and a great reward in the Hereafter.
Surah Al-R’ad 13:28
الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَتَطْمَئِنُّ قُلُوبُهُم بِذِكْرِ اللَّهِ ۗ أَلَا بِذِكْرِ اللَّهِ تَطْمَئِنُّ الْقُلُوبُ
Those who have believed and whose hearts are reassured by thikr Allah (the remembrance of Allah). Unquestionably, by the remembrance of Allah (thikr Allah) hearts are reassured.
Surah Al-R’ad 13:29
الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ طُوبَىٰ لَهُمْ وَحُسْنُ مَآبٍ
Those who have believed and done righteous deeds – a good state is theirs and a good return.
The word “tat’muin” in bold in both the original Arabic and the English translation, showing how it is repeated twice as fin to emphasize the word “reassure.” Notably, reassurance is given to the heart.
Why is it then that thikr Allah “reassures” the heart of the believer? Because human beings are fallible, their faith is also fallible. Therefore, we need ways to renew that faith continuously during this life, where so much can divert us from the straight path. Salat prayer indeed strengthens the heart. But the heart of salat, the activating principle, is thikr Allah, which remembering we are responsible to bring to our prayers, easy for those who seek truth and Allah’s acceptance, but hard for those in denial.
One of the properties of Allah’s names is that they contain reassuring properties to those receptive to hear. First, of course, the great name Allah, which itself forms a heart, in sound, meaning, function, and appearance, as I describe in this post linked from an earlier date, reassures the heart by simply mentioning it. The name Al-Rahman (glory to Him in the highest) is a name interchangeable with the name Allah (Quran 17:110), and invoked 57 times in the Quran, each invocation giving context and depth of meaning to the name. The name All-Merciful reassures us His mercy encompasses all things. In fact, reading the Quran brings the reader a deeper knowledge of Allah’s unimaginably majestic and omnisciently compassionate nature through how Allah the Exalted uses His “most beautiful” names.
And the heart indeed has its own “mind” and is the place where one’s soul dwells, “feeding” its impressions of the world to the heart, and through that to the mind.
In fact, science has shown that the heart has around 40,000 neurons, just like the neurons in the brain, which actually send “more signals to the brain than vice versa.” These signals are initially received by the limbic system which consists of a number of organs including the hippocampus and the amygdala, all of which process memory, and indeed, are more “plastic,” that is malleable or flexible in their processing of information than the cerebral cortex, what we think of as the “brain” proper, where thoughts are developed from the raw data of the heart, processed into memories in the limbic system, ultimately forming one’s worldview. So it is the heart or one could say the heart’s mind which brings the most formative, “plastic” and therefore more malleable or “influential/ subject to influence” elements of memory through the limbic system (producing more influence-prone memories) into one’s mind and it is that elemental stage of forming beliefs and attitude to which the Quran and the names of Allah direct the power of thikr, embedding memory and directly influencing both thought and behavior.
The heart can be either receptive or unresponsive. This is where faith or denial begins, but it is not set in stone. A “change of heart” is indeed possible, but requires that receptivity. Thus thikr Allah is greater! An immediate, fast influx of truth is what it is, that creates an influential memory. Thus it is indeed a remembering!
With all the hazards and catastrophes we find in this world, it is certainly reassuring to know that despite all we see of evil and agony, Allah’s power is also all-encompassing, and will bring all this to a just, beautiful, and fulfilling purpose that is amazingly, for those who worship and are mindful of Him, our very heart’s desire, just out of the reach of our imagination. But as we can imagine, well worth striving for, by mindfulness of both Allah’s Omnipotence and His all-encompassing Mercy, reminded in the sense of “re-minded” by thikr Allah, refreshing our heart/mind to become our better selves, the people we were created to be.