Disclaimer: this is a post about religious topics. I am not a certified scholar on a lot of the concepts, so please take this all with a grain of salt. Also, because of the esoteric nature of this content, there may be some non-empirical observations and trains of thought.
This past month, Muslims around the world celebrated the holy month of Ramadan by fasting during the day, giving to charity, praying, and studying the Quran. One of the prayers that Muslim participate in is Zikr (or Dikr or Zekre because Arabic is weird). Zikr is most commonly translated to "remembrance" which is fairly open ended to what it can contain. By definition, it can apply to almost any form of prayer, including simply reading the Quran. But, when you ask a Muslim what Zikr is, they'll probably say it's along the lines of repeating a word or phrase over and over again. Now, I have to admit, on the surface, that sounds kinda weird. For a non-religious person, it may even sound a little bit cult-y. Although I can't speak for others, it's personally a very overwhelming experience when you're right in the middle of it. There seems to be an underlying power coming from the recitation that is emotionally overpowering, if nothing else. Prayer itself is a very personal experience, so all I can say at this point is: "don't knock it 'til you try it."
I like to think that I'm a fairly curious person; I like to explore how things work, pick them apart and put them back together. So when I'm sitting in a prayer hall, reciting Zikr on the "Night of Power" and my chest feels like it just came off a roller coaster, you better believe I'm going to look into that. Obviously, I don't understand all the ins and outs of spirituality, and according to the scripture, it's impossible to understand the divine at all. So, I'll describe my observations and my hypothesis as much as I can.
When you recite Zikr, it's usually phrases like "Allahu Akbar", "Subhan Allah", "Alhamdulillah", "La Ilaha Il Allah", etc (are you sensing a pattern?). These phrases are either from the Quran or the Hadiths, and are designated special significance when you recite it. While the recitation of the words themself are important, and so are the meanings, there are also esoteric (or interpreted) meanings. There's three parts to each phrase: what's on the surface, the obvious meaning, and the inferred meaning. If you've read my blog before, you probably know what I'm going to talk about next. That's right: deconstructuralism.
If you don't remember, or don't know. There's a theory about what words are made of. According to my main man, Jacque Derrida, words can be broken down into two parts: the sign and the referent. The sign is made up of two parts, also: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is the vocalisation of a word (also the appearance of a word written) and is mostly arbitrary because do you know how many languages there are? The signified is the concept or the idea of a word. For example if I write to word "book", you can read it and you know book. Likewise, if you say the word "book" (go ahead and say it, I won't judge) you still have a general idea of what a book is; maybe pages are involved. The written word and your vocalisation are the signifiers while the thing that pops into your head is the signified. Now if there is a book around, take a look at it; it's very booklike, is it not? That actual, factual book is a referent. It's a real life thing, but when you see it, you know it's a book. Now, that's all well and good for physical referents. Look around you; you can probably name whole sorts of stuff. But what about ideas and concepts, like fun. You know what fun is, right? Can you point to fun? How about pure jiggery-pokery, can you point to that? How about Allahu Akbar? So, when we take these prayers that are used in Zikr, we have an obvious sign, but the referent is some hidden deeper meaning. Recitation (and writing, since we're talking about it) is a physical action: at its base, it's vocal chords vibrating the air. But if the referent isn't physical, these simple phrases already straddle the line between physical and metaphysical. Zikr, in some practices, is a form of meditation. Meditation, in pretty much any form, involves clearing your mind. It's often encouraged to forget the physical world in favour of the metaphysical. But when you're reciting words, either outloud or not, you're still keeping one foot in the physical realm. It seems counter-intuitive, but that's where the repitition comes in.
Pick a word, any word, your name f'rinstance. Say it. Now say it again. Now say it fifty more times in succession. That's okay, I'll wait. It starts to sound weird, doesn't it. The word itself starts to sound like applesauce and you'll never hear your name the same way again. What you've experienced is called Semantic Satiation. Basically, when you repeat a word over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over it starts to lose its meaning, it doesn't even sound like a word anymore, just a bunch of sounds. Simply by repeating the word ad nauseum, you can dissolve the sign of the word. When you say a word, it's a simultaneous experience of the sign and its referent. But when you satiate a word, it's entirely possible that you only understand the referent. Since, in the case of Zikr, the referent is the metaphysical part, so a departure from the sign of a word allows immersion in the metaphysical, entirely (assuming that everything else is in place and you're actually focused on the Zikr itself).