On Remembering to Invoke Allah When One Forgets

THE AUTHOR OF Manâzil Al-Sâ’irîn, ʿAbdullâh Al-Anṣârî Al-Harawi [d. 482/1089] said: “Allah Almighty said: Yet remember your Lord, if you forget (Sûrat Al-Kahf, 18:24), “that is, when you forget other than Him, and forget yourself in your remembrance [of Allah], and then forget your remembrance in remembrance of Him, then forget in the Truth’s remembrance of you every other remembrance.”

May Allah sanctify Al-Harawi’s soul. Would that he had not said this! For no, by Allah, this is not what Allah has meant by this verse. Nor is this the implication of the verse, nor its [correct] interpretation in the opinion of any of the predecessors [of Al-Harawi] or their successors. Here is the critical explanation of the verse in the view of the major group of the Quran’s commentators: “Do not say concerning anything that you will do such and such until you say, “If God wills.” And if you forget to say this, do so [say this] when you remember it.” This is the divine escape clause [made] for the one who neglects [to make the exception], and which Ibn ʿAbbâs has considered permissible. That is how he has interpreted the verse, and such is the correct opinion.

Yet, many have misunderstood [Ibn ʿAbbâs’] words. It is [erroneously] reported from him that [he said]: “If a man says to his wife: ‘You are divorced’ thrice. Or he says: ‘All four of my wives are divorced,’ then says after a year ‘except one,’ or ‘except Zaynab,’ then this exception is valid.”

Allah has indeed protected from this [absurdity] even the young students of Ibn ʿAbbâs, let alone the ocean of knowledge that he is, the savant of this Ummah, the one to whom Allah has made available understanding and wisdom of His religion and taught interpretation [according to a famous Prophetic supplication on behalf of Ibn ʿAbbâs, his young cousin]. How often it is that people falsely report opinions of scholars due to deficient understanding! If we took the time to explain this, it would indeed be a long discourse. Yet if Allah assists, we shall devote a book to this.

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What the commentators have agreed upon [concerning this verse] is that the Makkans asked the Prophet ﷺ concerning “al-rû ḥ,” the spirit, concerning the People of the Cave, and concerning Thu’l-Qarnayn, in response to which he ﷺ said: “I shall inform you tomorrow,” but he did not say: “If Allah wills.” The revelation ceased to come for some days, and then this verse was revealed. Ibn ʿAbbâs, Mujâhid, and Al-Ḥasan [Al-Ba ṣri] and others say that it means that when one fails to state the divine exception, one should do so when one remembers his neglect. Ibn ʿAbbâs said that this period of divine exemption is one year. ʿIkrimah, Allah have mercy on him, said: “Remember Allah when you get angry.” Al-™a ḥ ḥâk and al-Suddi said: “This [verse] concerns ṣalâh, that is, when you forget to pray, do so when you remember.”

Explaining the Allusion to the Four Levels of Remembrance

As for the opinion of the author of Manâzil, it arises out of his allusion [to the quoted âyah] rather than on his explication [of this âyah]. He mentions four levels [of meditative consciousness]:

  • First, one forgets all else other than Allah, but not oneself; for when one forgets all other than oneself, this means one’s ‘self’ subsists and is aware of this fact.
  • Second, in forgetting oneself in remembering Allah—as is meant in his statement “you forget yourself in your remembrance”—it means that at this level [of consciousness] your remembrance of Him is not yet forgotten.
  • As to the third level [of consciousness]—“you forgot your remembrance in His remembrance”—this is the stage of [self] annihilation (fanâ’).
  • Regarding the fourth level [of consciousness], he states: “Forget in the Truth’s remembrance of you every other remembrance.” This is annihilation of the remembrance of a servant of his Lord in the Truth’s [i.e., Allah’s] remembrance of His servant.

The first level is the first stage of remembrance, which is to forget all but the one whom you remember except yourself, which is not complete remembrance. Rather, it has two levels [of meditative consciousness] that are above it: (1) Forgetting yourself, which corresponds to the second level [of meditative consciousness], namely, forgetting oneself in His remembrance. That is to say, one’s awareness of one’s own self is lost in the presence of the One who is being remembered; (2) Forgetting your remembrance of Him in your remembrance of Him. Thu Al-Nûn [the spiritual ascetic] was once asked about remembrance [thikr] and said that it is the “absence of the one remembering from remembrance.” Then he recited the couplet:

Not for fear of forgetting you do I remember you

But because by it alone my tongue quickens

This is the third level [of meditative consciousness].

In the first level, all is annihilated, save the One being mentioned and oneself. In the second level, even one’s self is annihilated, but not one’s remembrance. In the third level, one’s self as well as one’s remembrance is annihilated in favor of the One being remembered.

In the fourth level, there is the remembrance of the One by the Truth, Exalted be He, which is all that remains, all else being annihilated in [that remembrance]. For one cannot remember Allah except after [and as a result of] Allah’s remembrance of him or her. Allah’s remembrance of His servant is prior to the servant’s remembrance of Allah. Hence, this is the fourth level, wherein one witnesses the attributes of the One remembered, Exalted be He, and His remembrance of His servant, and thereby annihilated in that witnessing is all that [has originated] from oneself.

This is what [the practitioners of thikr] refer to as the One [who is] being mentioned as “being found” in remembrance as well as the one remembering; for the one being remembered, remembrance, and the one remembering are three distinct entities. The one remembering and his remembrance dissipate and are annihilated, leaving nothing but the One being remembered, alone. He thus becomes the One remembering Himself in Himself, without assimilation (of entities) or unification, but rather, remembrance begins from Him and ends in Him.

The Prior Remembrance of Allah

A servant’s remembrance of his Lord is enveloped by his Lord’s remembrance of him. Thus there is a prior remembrance [namely, Allah’s remembrance of the servant], by which the servant became able to remember Allah, which is a subsequent remembrance. As the Almighty has said: So remember Me, and I shall remember you (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:152). Moreover, Allah said in what His Prophet ﷺ reports from Him [in a Qudsi adîth, a Divine Pronouncement): “Whoever remembers Me to himself, I remember him to Myself. And whoever remembers Me in a gathering, I remember him in a gathering better than it.”

Now, one who finds that his understanding is unable to grasp this point may move to another point, even as it has been said:

If you cannot do a thing, leave it

Yet in favor of what you can

One day, I asked Shaykh al-Islâm Ibn Taymiyyah, Allah have mercy on him: “If the Exalted Lord is pleased with the obedience of a servant, and is pleased with his repentance, displeased with his disobedience, [then] is it permissible to suggest that a created being may effect a change in the Eternal One by way of love, hatred, pleasure, etc.?” He said to me: “The Exalted Lord is the One who has created the causes of contentment, wrath, and pleasure, and these exist only by His will and His creation.”


And Allah knows best.

Originally posted 2015-04-27 03:00:55.

Dr Ovamir Anjum

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim's Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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