By Daliah Merzaban
January 19, 2019
We all have psychological blind spots, aspects
of our personalities that are hidden from our view. My own tend to boil down to
fears that feel too threatening to acknowledge, and so are easier to tuck away.
This is why I’m deeply grateful for Sufi practices that bring these distortions
into conscious awareness through Zikr, the repetition of Divine Attributes.
I often linger on the line in the Mevlevi
Wird that offers an antidote for approaching my phobias: “Facing all fears,
(say) ‘there is no god, but God.’” These words, La Illaha illa Allah, have been
part of my life since I was a child, yet only since moving away from the
religious understanding has the immensity of their spiritual significance
unfolded for me. In my impression, the six words have been usurped by religious
authorities to divide people based on those who worship one supreme lord, and
are thus bound for “heaven,” and those facing a more sinister fate because they
worship a collection of gods.
This superficial interpretation is
dangerous because it keeps our focus outside, leaving us prone to fixating on
comparing ourselves to and judging the actions of others. What is more
meaningful and ultimately more challenging is to witness our interior world and
all the false “gods”— the contradictions, obsessions and preoccupations — that
consume our attention.
Welcoming La Illaha illa Allah into my days
for a few years has brought to light the crowd of idols within me, and it’s
bigger than I care to admit. From the sometimes debilitating desire to be
acknowledged and validated, to more subtle idols, like the tendency to speak to
myself in a self-deprecating way, the Zikr has opened a gateway to my shadow
My experience is that Zikr works on an
incredibly subtle level and is a gradual unfolding, like a germination process
for the spiritual heart. At first, it didn’t feel like anything was happening;
I had to trust that this seed I was planting in my inner world would eventually
Each time I’d breathe out La Illaha,
letting go of the falsity in me, the seed would get moistened with a few drops
of water and lay its invisible roots.
Warming rays of sunshine would penetrate
the seed with every inhalation of illa Allah, affirming Being within.
Contemplating its meaning at spontaneous
moments during the day might sprinkle a dash of fertilizer on the soil around
As time passed, and after enough
nourishment, the seed cracked open and a tiny shoot emerged. The growing stem
lodged itself in my heart, softening it as it flowered. Meanwhile, the roots
were stirring things around in my subconscious as they embedded themselves
deeper and deeper. By then, I’d spent enough time in stillness to hone my
ability to be present with my breath and receptive to the sensations arising in
my body. And one by one, different fears started rising to conscious awareness,
due to triggers in my interactions with family, friends, colleagues or
It’s been humbling to witness how
suffocated I’ve been by the fear of disappointing my family. Or how my fear of
writing anything that wasn’t “perfect” inhibited my creativity. Scared of
rejection, I’d regularly work into the night to be worthy of praise. I was even
afraid of my curls after decades of internalizing familial and cultural
messaging that straight hair was more attractive.
I could go on, but the point is I’ve spent
a lifetime scared, in a series of compulsive and subtle ways, of embracing
myself. The refined energy of La Illaha illa Allah brings into plain and
painful the bars that are holding me, holding me captive.
And yet the beauty of Zikr is that it
doesn’t leave us stranded as we lay bare our darker sides. As La Illaha shows
me a fear, illa Allah reveals my very own conduit to divinity, that centre of
authenticity and wholeness where each human being is connected to Infinite
Like the way fragrance of a red rose or
lily penetrates every particle of surrounding air, or how the undulating notes
of the reed flute pulsate throughout a room, La Illaha illa Allah transforms
the energy of the inner world, as one of the beloved guides of our tradition,
the late Suleyman Dede, describes:
“When a human being performs Zikr, their
spirit, their heart starts to open. Their intelligence becomes more refined and
more expansive. Their bodies become healthier. A beautiful condition comes
about, similar to the one that is brought about by good music. The whole being
opens up like a flower, and the divine secret—the things you couldn’t
understand or know about before—begin to be revealed to you.”*
With exposure to La Illaha illa Allah over
time, fears naturally loosen their grip. The anxious sensations that often
accompany them may linger—the pang in the chest or the tightness of breath, for
instance. But Zikr helps me witness these reactions with some objective
distance, as though they are weeds I’ve pulled from the earth.
This conscious witnessing is life-altering
because it empowers me with choice. Rather than pretend the fear isn’t there or
berate it for being there, I allow it to guide me to that part of me that’s
scared of expressing sadness, of scarcity, of being imperfect, of speaking her
truth, etcetera. In a sense, La Illaha illa Allah prepares the soil of my
psyche for the garden of Divine Names to bloom.
My teacher says there are times where you
stop doing Zikr — and it starts doing you. Perhaps in my metaphorical interior
garden, that’s when whatever Divine Qualities are needed for my spiritual and
psychological growth spontaneously burst forth from the fertile soil I’ve been
tending; flowers that were always there behind the shadows, waiting to manifest
their many hues.
That fearful part of me may be showered by
the love of the Infinitely Loving One, Ya Wadud. She may bask in Ya Rahman, the
Most Compassionate, or feel the incredible rooting quality Ya Aziz, connecting
her with the most mighty and dear core of her being. As she calms and
integrates little by little into wholeness, the delightful fragrance of the
Quranic promise, “in the remembrance of God, hearts find rest,” fills the air.
The vigilant energy of La Illaha illa Allah
has transformed my experience of working with my shadow, shining a light on the
crevices of my psyche where the Zikr performs its alchemy, melting all our
fears into Love.
Or as Rumi says in a poem honouring the
teachings of his beloved Shams,
The light of
Zikr creates the full moon,
And brings those
who are lost to the path of Reality.
At the times of
the morning and the evening Namaz,
make yourself a
prayer, saying, La Illaha illa Allah.
The Voice of Dede, Threshold Society
* Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi, Quatrain 11