A Tale of Two Adkar
One of the key religious practices in Islam is Remembrance (ذِكْر dhikr or zikr in Arabic; plural: أذكار adhkar/azkar). Muslims are encouraged to keep the omnipresence of the Divine at the forefront of the mind throughout daily life. Historically, this remembrance has been practiced in two ways: an internal Remembrance and an external Remembrance. The first way is commonly called Dhikr Allah and consists of having a Divine-oriented mindset. For people who practice this kind of Remembrance, they see the Divine in everyday life, in all things, beings, and actions. As the Qur’an says:
وَلِلَّهِ الْمَشْرِقُ وَالْمَغْرِبُ ۚ فَأَيْنَمَا تُوَلُّوا فَثَمَّ وَجْهُ اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَاسِعٌ عَلِيمٌ
And to Allah belongs the east and the west. So wherever you [might] turn, there is the Face of Allah . Indeed, Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing.
2:115 - Shahih International Translation
The second way is more practical and it involves physically invoking names of God or his constituents, in order to secure favor or remembrance. This is what the tasbih instruments I wrote about earlier are used for. The name “Tasbih” is also used to describe this act of Remembrance. Tasbih comes from the Arabic root S-B-H, roughly meaning “to praise”; it’s the same root as “Subhan” (as explained later) and “Misbaha” (as explained earlier).
Ismaili scholars write that these two forms of Remembrance overlap in non-human beings. According to the book Tafsir alMuttaqin, Imam Muhammad alBaqir said: “Yes, [a tree] definitely performs the act of prasing the Creator. Have you not heard the sound emanated from the windows when they collide with each other? This is their Tasbih.” Pir Sadruddin writes in his poetry: “Tiny insects, moths, birds, [and] mute creatures, all such creations rise in the morning and remember the Lord. O innocent foolish man! Why are you deep in sleep?” In Pir Sadruddin’s defence, many Muslims believe that humans were granted free will, thus they have the ability to choose whether or not to perform these religious acts. According to many Ismaili scholars, animals and plants don’t have this choice and constantly perform Remembrance in their own ways. Instead, the Quran asks people to:
فَادْعُوهُ بِهَا ۖ وَذَرُوا الَّذِينَ يُلْحِدُونَ فِي أَسْمَائِهِ ۚ سَيُجْزَوْنَ مَا كَانُوا يَعْمَلُونَ…
…so invoke Him by them. And leave [the company of] those who practice deviation concerning His names. They will be recompensed for what they have been doing.
7:180 - Shahih International Translation
[God] is beyond analogy, and similitude, beyond the limits of description, attributes, opinions, and estimations of direction.
alUrjuza alMukhtara - Qadi Numan
This post is going to contain a number of what I’m calling “Bottomless Words”. Like bottomless fries, these words have a literal meaning that is easily consumed, but their superlative meanings cannot be contained by a mere basket. Many names ascribed to the Divine in the Quran are Bottomless words, like “alKhaliq” is “the Creator” but not in the way you and I create. Ismaili scholars often describe the Divine as beyond human comprehension, but I’m going to use fast food metaphors.
What follows is a brief summary of common Tasbihs. If you’d like more detail, check out Majalis and Tasbihat, by Kamaluddin Ali Muhammad and Zarina Kamaluddin.
When the Ismaili Du’a was first introduced, it took a while for people to adjust to the new format and language. Remember that before Ismaili prayers were standardized to Classical Arabic, communities had their own prayers in their local languages that varied in length and form; also, NO ONE speaks Classical Arabic. During this transition period Imam Shah Karim alHusseini allowed older members of the congregation (those who would have difficulty learning this new prayer) to recite certain Tasbihs in its stead. The specific Tasbihs are still recited today in conjunction with the standardized prayers.
In 1870, a group of 42 Ismailis set out from Kachch, India, searching for a better life in Africa. On their way, they stopped to refill supplies in Mumbai. In Mumbai, they visited Jamatkhana, where Imam Hasan Ali Shah was meeting the congregation. When the Imam learned of their journey, he offered four Tasbihs, instructing them to recite them after their first evening prayer. The Tasbihat accompanied the Ismailis to Africa and the practice spread as the congregation grew. In 1905, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah instructed the African Jamat to recite these four Tasbihat after the morning prayer, instead. When the new Du’a was introduced, Imam Shah Karim alHusseini allowed members of the congregation to recite these four tasbihs in the morning, if they weren’t able to learn the new prayers.
Allah is the most common Arabic word used to describe the Divine. Not only is it used in an Islamic context around the world, but it’s also used by other monotheistic religions in Arabic-speaking areas to describe their deity. Allah is a combination of the definite article/prefix “al-” and the word “lah”. Lah comes from the semitic word elah which is used historically to describe a divine being. Lah is also used in other Arabic grammatical structures such as “lillah” (to God) and “wallah” (by God). While the Quran refers to 98 other names, those each describe an attribute of the Divine, and “Allah” doesn’t have any other meanings besides “The God”.
Wahhaab comes from the Arabic root w-h-b meaning “to give” or “to forgive”. Traditionally, O Giver (“ya Wahhab” in Arabic) is translated to “O Giver of Plenty” and is used in the context of the Divine providing knowledge, wisdom, or blessings to Prophets, Imams, and others. Wahhab also comes with the connotation of giving without return: either God has no expectation of return, or what’s Divinely bestowed is so vast that it’s impossible to equate a return. In the Quran, King Solomon refers to God as alWahhab when he says:
قَالَ رَبِّ اغْفِرْ لِي وَهَبْ لِي مُلْكًا لَّا يَنبَغِي لِأَحَدٍ مِّن بَعْدِي ۖ إِنَّكَ أَنتَ الْوَهَّابُ
He said, "My Lord, forgive me and grant me a kingdom such as will not belong to anyone after me. Indeed, You are the Bestower.”
38:35 - Shahih International Translation
Oh Ali/Oh The Most High
This Tasbih has a double-meaning for Shia Muslims: it can refer to alAli, one of the names ascribed to the Divine in the Quran or Ali, the first of the Shia Imams and fourth Caliph of Sunni Islam. In the Pilgrimage Chapter of the Quran, God is referred to as the Most High, using the word alAliyyun (الْعَلِيُّ). There’s also the Chapter of the Most High (alAla, but from the same Arabic root). The idea of the Divine being “high” or out of reach is expressed by Imam Muhammad alBaqir, when he said:
Allah means the Worshipped One whose essence creatures are [too] mystified to percieve and whose modality they are unable to fathom…
according to alFadl ibn alHasan anTabrisi
More commonly in Ismailism, “Ali” refers to Imam Ali ibn Abu Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Many Shia scholars refer to Imam Ali as the spiritual founder of Islam, whose studies shaped many practices during and after the life of the Prophet. Imam Ali is also said to carry the Light of God, and his name is often called for the Light’s personal assistance, including in “Ya Ali Madad” the Ismaili greeting.
God is Independent
In the Chapter of Sincerity (the most summative chapter the Quran has, as far as descriptors of the Divine), God is referred to as Samad or “Absolute and Eternal”. There are hundreds of books written by Muslims about this single word and what it means, but my personal favorite comes from ibn Sina, which I’ve written about here. For Ismaili scholars, God is the dependent factor of all creation, therefore God cannot rely on others. This Tasbih emphasizes this idea. Imam Zayn alAbidin also adds that this independence implies self-sustainance: God doesn’t rely on others, He doesn’t eat or drink or sleep, and survives on Himself.
Oh Ali, Oh Muhammad/Oh Light, Oh Mercy
This Tasbih is recited silently during the Ismaili Dua. While “Ali” can refer both to the Divine and the Imam, when it’s paired up with Muhammad, it’s used to invoke guidance passed down from the Prophets and Imams. Since Muhammad is known as the “Seal” of the Prophets, invoking his name also harkens the teachings of previous Prophets. Muhammad is also referred to in the Quran as “God’s Mercy”:
وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَاكَ إِلَّا رَحْمَةً لِّلْعَالَمِينَ
And We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the worlds.
21:107 - Shahih International Translation
In this way, the Tasbih Ya Ali Ya Muhammad can also invoke the Light of God (as mentioned above) as well as God’s mercy. Within the Prophet’s lifetime, Muhammad made many references to Muslims following both Ali and himself in order to find salvation, so this Tasbih combines the two names.
God, send your mercy to Muhammad and Muhammad’s family
The Salwaat (plural of salaat or “blessing” in Arabic) is one of the most recited Tasbihs in Ismailism. According to traditional sources, the Prophet Muhammad insisted on his followers reciting this Tasbih at the end of their prayers and as a greeting to both the Prophet and his family. Some mystical scholars also believe that this Tasbih was recited by the angel Gabriel upon first meeting Muhammad in the cave on Hira. According to Imam Jafar asSadiq, the “family” referred to in the prayer, known as the People of the House (أهل البيت “ahl alBayt” in Arabic) consists of: Muhammad, his daughter Fatima, his son-in-law Ali, and their two children Hassan and Hussein). The mercy would then also extend to the descendants of Ali and Fatima: the Imams. That’s why Ismailis recite this Tasbih when invoking the Prophet, the Imams, or the Pirs (even though Imam Karim alHusseini clarified in 1960 that the Salwaat should only be applied to Muhammad and the Imams, this is still a common practice).
The Prophet also said that God sends ten times as many blessings on those who recite the salwaat, which may be a reason it’s repeated so often. It’s also recited at funeral ceremonies.
Once upon a time, the Prophet’s daughter asked him for a servant. Muhammad said to Fatima: “I’ll give you something better than a servant” and gave her a Tasbih to recite. This Tasbih was used to make her tasks easier and is used for a similar purpose on Moonnight and other occassions.
God is Great
Allahu Akbar (also known as Takbir) is another example of a Bottomless Word. Akbar, from the Arabic root k-b-r, is a comparitive word meaning “bigger than” or “greater than”. Even though it’s a comparitive word, it would be difficult to compare this greatness to anything within the realm of human understanding. According to Tafsir alMuqqatin, a man once said to Imam Jafar alSadiq: “Allah is greater than everything” when asked to define “Allahu Akbar”. In typical Jafar alSaqid fashion, the Imam replied said: “You have just limited Allah by saying that… Say that Allah is much greater than being described.” Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah describes “Akbar” as the following in Islam: Religion of my Ancestors:
There can be no doubt that [Akbar] likens the character of Allah to a matrix which contains all and gives existence to the infinite, to space, to time, to the Universe, to all active and passive forces imaginable, to life and to the soul.
In Fatima’s prayer, this is recited 33 times. Some sources say Muhammad instructed 34 times, but scholarly consensus is still out.
Glory to God
Subhan (from the Arabic root s-b-h; same as Tasbih) is another example of a Bottomless Word. The surface definition relates to praise or glory (or swimming) but it also has multiple interpretations. The two common interpretations are prescriptive and descriptive. Some scholars invoke shirk (the practice of associating others with the Divine, which is heavily frowned upon) and say that no one should be worshipped, except for Allah. Others, including Sufis, offer that it’s impossible to praise anything except for Allah because everything comes from Allah and thus praising anything indirectly praises Allah. In practice, Ismailis are a bit of a mixed batch, depending on who you talk to.
In Fatima’s Prayer, Subhan Allah is recited 33 times.
Praise to God
alHamdu Lillah (“The Praise to God” from the root h-m-d) falls into a similar category as Glory to God in that some scholars believe that nothing should be praised except the Divine and others believe that nothing canbe praised, except the Divine. The Chapter of Light in the Quran says:
أَلَمْ تَرَ أَنَّ اللَّهَ يُسَبِّحُ لَهُ مَن فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَالطَّيْرُ صَافَّاتٍ ۖ كُلٌّ قَدْ عَلِمَ صَلَاتَهُ وَتَسْبِيحَهُ ۗ وَاللَّهُ عَلِيمٌ بِمَا يَفْعَلُونَ
Do you not see that Allah is exalted by whomever is within the heavens and the earth and [by] the birds with wings spread [in flight]? Each [of them] has known his [means of] prayer and exalting [Him], and Allah is Knowing of what they do.
24:41 - Shahih International Translation
So, either way, the praise of God is meant to be a humbling experience for those who perform it. In Fatima’s prayer, alHamdu Lillah is recited 33 times. The prayer is concluded with the assertion: There is no diety, but there is Allah; Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.
I seek forgiveness from God and turn to Him in repentence
This Tasbih is constructed out of two key words. The first is “astaghfirullah” from the Arabic root gh-f-r, which means “to forgive”. In Islamic belief, forgiveness can only be asked from the Divine. The Quran says:
إِنَّمَا التَّوْبَةُ عَلَى اللَّهِ لِلَّذِينَ يَعْمَلُونَ السُّوءَ بِجَهَالَةٍ ثُمَّ يَتُوبُونَ مِن قَرِيبٍ فَأُولَٰئِكَ يَتُوبُ اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِمْ ۗ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ عَلِيمًا حَكِيمًا
The repentance accepted by Allah is only for those who do wrong in ignorance [or carelessness] and then repent soon after. It is those to whom Allah will turn in forgiveness, and Allah is ever Knowing and Wise.
The second key word is “atubu” from the Arabic root t-w-b, meaning “to return” or “to repent”. This word choice implies not only a movement toward the Divine, but a movement away from whatever actions the person is asking forgiveness from: i.e. implying that the actions won’t repeat. Along with this Tasbih, the person seeking forgiveness shouldn’t return to the actions they performed, and they should also make amends, where possible.
Muslims are encouraged to ask for forgiveness often. The idea is that no human is free from sin, so it’s the responsibility of the individual to earn God’s mercy. So this Tasbih is recited in congregation on a regular basis.
Many (I think most) religions often ask the Divine for guidance, or favors, or an extra bag of chips from the vending machine. But in Islam, it’s equally important to thank God for all the favors already bestowed. There are a few ways Muslims can express this gratitude, one is by treating all of creation with respect, taking care of the environment, not killing people or animals unnecessarily, etc, and another way is to practice a mindful Remembrance and being grateful for what you have. The third way is, of course, by reciting a Tasbih.
Thanks to God and Praise to God
This Tasbih starts with the phrase “Shukran Lillah”. Shukran comes from the Arabic root sh-k-r, meaning “to thank” but in this case, it would be a Bottomless Word with a meaning closer to “all of the thanks”. The second half of the Tasbih is explained above.
Names of God
Oh Kind, Oh Merciful
These are two commonly recited names of God; they’re found in the declaration before (almost) every Quranic chapter. Both words come from the Arabic root r-ḥ-m, meaning “mercy” but apply to different aspects of Divine mercy. According to Imam Jafar alSadiq, Rahman describes the encompassing nature of Divine mercy: how it applies to the entire universe while Rahim describes the perfect quality of that mercy. Some scholars assert that Rahman is only applicable to the Divine because no terrestrial being is capable of being entirely merciful. But Rahim can be applied to people since its magnitude is achievable.
These Tasbihs tread a very difficult line. In Islam, help in times of need is only to be sought from the Divine. The first chapter of the Quran says:
إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وَإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ
You alone we worship and You alone we seek for help.
1:5 - Translation from aWz Kamaluddin et al.
And yet, in many Ismailis prayers, the name of Imam Ali is invoked to offer help in personal matters. This has lead to an intellectual conflict within the Ismaili community as to how prayers are structured. As I explained earlier, the names of the Imams (including Imam Ali) are often used as a pathway toward the Divine. Because the line of Imams is the appointed “middle man” between the Divine and mankind, invoking the names of Imams is similar to invoking the “Bottomless Words” that make up the Names of God.
Oh Ali, come to me. Oh Ali, help me
This Tasbih is based on two key words: adrikni (from the Arabic root d-r-k, meaning “to reach” or “to attain”) and aghithni (from the Arabic root gh-w-th, meaning “to help”). In this Tasbih, the person is asking for Imam Ali’s help. Imam Ali is often viewed as a hero, both through spirituality and through the military. He was known as honest and often solved problems within his own community. By invoking Ali’s name, reciters of this Tasbih are hoping for similar help in their own lives.
Imploring the Imam
Oh Ever-Living, Oh Hight of Greatness, Oh Master of the Time, Oh Living Imam
“Living” and “Eternal” (الحي alHayy and القيوم alQayyum, respectively) are used to describe the Divine in Chapter Cow of the Quran. The two words are combined in this prayer. “Most High” and “Magnificent” (العلي alAli from Chapter High and العظيم alAzeem from Chapter Inevitable, respectively) are also combined in this prayer.
These words have also been used in a limited capacity (not as Bottomless Words) to refer to the continuation of Imamat. In Ismailism, the Imamat is believed to be an eternal continuation, from the beginning of humanity until the end of time. While it’s not the “universal” eternity that the Divine continues through, it’s a considerable amount of time. And “Ali” has the shared meaning between both Allah and the Imam Ali (and his descendants). This also leads into the second half of this prayer. In South Asia, the term “Sahib” (साहिब in Hindi) is a formal address: it’s often appended to the names of government officials, royals, and people of spiritual status. In this prayer, it’s combined with the Arabic word for “era” (زمان “zaman” in Arabic), the same word used to describe the Imam: “Imam az-Zaman” (Leader of the Time). It’s important to note that the word “Sahib” is also used in Arabic as a respectful term for a companion.
Oh family of the Prophet. Oh child of Ali. Oh remover of difficulties. Oh Living Imam
This is one of the newest Tasbihat to be created: it got its start just 10 years ago for Imam Shah Karim alHusseini’s 50th anniversary. It reiterates the Imam’s familial connection to the Prophet Muhammad, which is also the basis of his appointment to the role of Imam. For the people creating this Tasbih, Imam Shah Karim alHusseini played an active role in the betterment of their lives, from building schools and hospitals in rural places to arranging migration for racially targeted members of the congregation (in addition to the spiritual support the Imam provides). Pleading for the removal of difficulties, using this termonology, has found its way into many secondary and tertiary prayers in the South Asian tradition.
There are, of course, hundreds of other tasbihs that are practiced at various ceremonies and with various events. Perhaps with more research, I’ll be able to add onto this list.