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The Intimate Relationship Between Dhikr & Somatic Therapy

by in Culture & Lifestyle on 27th July, 2022

I started looking into somatic therapy when “talk therapy” reached its limits and my mind could only do so much to calm my nervous body. By learning more about how our bodies store traumas and how our nervous system functions, I was able to have a lot more control over my racing thoughts and anxiety attacks. What I did not know was how these practices would also strengthen my faith and help me connect deeper to my own spirituality. The new vocabulary that somatic therapy taught me helped uncover deep meanings hidden within our age-old practices of worship. For example, it became clearer why khushu’ (humble submission) is a mind-body experience, why Qur’anic tajwid can help regulate our nervous system, and why constant dhikr calms our hearts. The verse:

الا بذكر الله تطمئن القلوب  (Truly it is in the remembrance of God that hearts find peace 13:28) took a whole new meaning. 

I remember listening to a poem praising Prophet Mohammad ﷺ, and I suddenly started weeping. The poem was written by the great Sheikh Amadu Bamba (1855–1927), the founder of the Mouride Sufi path in Senegal, and entitled Mawahib al-nafi‘ fi mada’ih al-shafi‘, “Gifts of the Benefactor in Praise of the Intercessor”. My reaction took me off guard because there had been no lump in my throat, no butterflies in my stomach, but the tears that flowed following the reciter’s voice were telling me something important; I was starved for spiritual fulfilment. Interestingly I would come to find it in somatic therapy. 

I first learned of somatic therapy, through the work of Sarah Baldwin. She was soft spoken and smiling, validated my feelings and told her audience that what seemed to be chaos and dysregulation made perfect sense. She directed so much attention to the fact that our bodies have a memory of its own and the state of our physical body in fact dictates the thoughts that cross our mind. When we are in a state of relaxation, we are more creative, we can be excited about future plans and are able to enjoy small happiness, whereas when we feel unsafe, tired and anxious, we suddenly find creative work tiresome, and planning for the future seems fraught with impossibilities. The solution, and it is a sentence she repeats often, is to “show not tell” your body that it is safe, to return it to the state of relaxation and regulation. 

Subsequently, I stumbled upon the work of chaplain Sondos Kholaki whose work with patients in hospice care brings many insights into finding regulation and peace in the midst of pain, while being God-centred, with her famous Masbaha (prayer beads)  in her posts. It suddenly hit me that all the vocabularies in my personal dictionary, which I use to communicate my spiritual experience, had equivalents in somatic language and bringing both together felt like coming full circle.

Nothing is more beautiful than to fall in love again with something you already hold dear to your heart. 

After I combined Spiritual and somatic meanings in one language, it became clear why Allah is ghani (self-sufficient) and we are the fuqara’ (needy); we are in need of these acts of worship and not the other way around. A Cartesian dualistic framework conditioned us into thinking that there is a split between body and mind. While one (mind) is assumed to be superior to the other (body), they both have distinct status and modes of development. This is reflected in the practice of Islam through the widespread belief that acts of worship are secondary to the spiritual feeling and ultimately less important.

The argument is constructed as such: since the mind is superior to the body, then the spiritual feeling is superior to prayer, therefore unless one feels Iman in their heart, one’s prayer is meaningless. 

This logical construction reminds me of the dynamics between action and motivation in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). We can understand acts of worship as action and spiritual feeling as motivation. Dr. Davis Burns in his definitive book on CBT wrote that motivation follows action, and not the other way around. It is only when you start doing the things you need to get done, that the motivation follows.  In psychotherapy as well as the Islamic sense, we can see that there is a dialectic between acts of worship and faith, they feed and strengthen each other and in that sense are dependent upon each other. When we get up to pray even when we do not feel like it, it ultimately brings with it the coveted spiritual feeling. 

Here are three instances where somatic therapy and Dhikr share common features:

  • Tajwīd and Vagus Nerve stimulation

On Tajwīd, I am no expert, but my mother is, and she had a wonderful eureka moment when she said: “the other day I was reciting the Qur’an out loud and the long exhales made me feel a lot less anxious, it’s a bit like that meditation app you’re always listening to.”

I said that she is, in fact, correct, and proceeded to tell her what I learned regarding vagus nerve stimulation. The vagus nerve, or the wandering nerve is the longest nerve in the body and is responsible for the regulation of our nervous system. Meaning, it is responsible for the wave of peace that runs through your body when a ray of sunshine touches your cheek as you drink your favourite cup of coffee (Ventral), the butterflies in your stomach before an interview (fight or flight), and the 50 kilograms you feel on your shoulders when you are having the worst day and cannot get out of bed (freeze). These states, in polyvagal theory, constitute a ladder, in the order mentioned above and if you are in  freeze state, you have to pass by fight or flight to reach the ventral state. And in order to reach that coveted state, the vagus nerve has to be stimulated through many things but most interestingly, through the following: deep belly breathing and humming, singing and gargling. Yes, precisely addressing the lump you feel in your throat.

The link was made so clear with the practice of tajwīd, especially:

(1) the elongation of vowels, mudud

(2) the scheduled stops in the text which necessarily elongated the exhales

(3) the ‘idgham (merging), as you hold the M or N sound for two or more seconds, which mimicked humming. 

Needless to say, I lost my mother’s attention mid-polyvagal ladder but it’s okay, she had a happy childhood without the threat of postmodernity, so she’ll be fine. 

  • Khushu’ and  Presence 

Dr. Abdal Hakim Murad speaks of presence and attentive observation as an act of worship in this wonderful talk hosted at the Cambridge Muslim College. He implores that we hold “presence in every breath,” and we should not spend our time on the surface of things, but rather find the existence of the Almighty in all instances, even while we wait to board the airplane at a busy airport. When we feel we are in the presence of the Almighty, we reach the state of Khushu’. Defined as a state of submission and ceding control to the lord of the worlds, khushu’ aim is to ultimately reach a state of peace and serenity. To reach khushu’ one needs to rid themselves of the chatter which plagues the mind, and direct one’s attention inwards to the heart, the locus of soul.  Interestingly, there is no mention of ‘aql (intellect) as a noun in the Qur’an, only as a verb, a precious insight communicated by Dr Butch Ware. This means that the cartesian mind we conceive of today and point to our brain to find its physical location, has no basis in Qur’anic epistemology. Rather, in the Qur’an, the verb/action of ya’qilun (to reason) is performed in the heart, in using the expression ulu’l-albāb (people of insight), the location of cognization. Descartes is turning in his grave, agonising in French.

  • Dhikr and Mindfulness

I had just said goodbye to someone very dear to me in a busy train station. I was sulking, and the heartbreaking fact that we are individuals not collectives was dawning on me. Suddenly, a hare Krishna monk jumped out of the crowd and interrupted my existential angst, saying ‘I spotted you in the crowd and wanted to talk to you, you look like a spiritual person’. This is one of the nicest compliments I ever received I thought, until I realised it’s probably because I was the only veiled woman in the main train station in Copenhagen, spirituality might as well be tattooed on my forehead. I took the compliment nonetheless. He was soft-spoken, with a kind smile. He explained the benefits of the hare Krishna chants to promote healing and with each argument – entrancing repetition, calming vibration through humming and finally peace – I nodded enthusiastically in agreement.  He was more confused than happy with my reaction; I am sure he expected much more resistance. I told him I always thought that these chants were similar to the dhikr tradition and that it seemed to be a similar path to transcending the noise that envelops daily life. 

When I stumbled upon the meditation app Sabr, where Chaplain Sondos records a meditation on burnout, it filled my soul to be able to practice all the tools I learned through somatic therapy and find grounding for them in my own faith. I had found something that connected two parts of me, and it felt like coming home, like someone is finally speaking my mother tongue after years of being estranged. This feeling had never been more powerful than when I recognized the voice of Isam Bachiri, the lead singer of Outlandish, my favourite Band growing up, as he recited verses from the Qur’an, in the same register and timbre as he sang the songs I knew by heart as a kid.

Suggested Bibliography: 

Al-Karam, Carrie York. Islamically Integrated Psychotherapy: Uniting Faith and Professional Practice. Templeton Press, 2018.

Badrī, Mālik, and Sahl Balkhī Aḥmad ibn. Abū Zayd Al-Balkhī”s Sustenance of the Soul: The Cognitive Behavior Therapy of a Ninth Century Physician. International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2013.

Burns, David D., and Aaron T. Beck. Feeling Good: the New Mood Therapy. Harper Collins, 2009.

Murad, Abdal Hakim. Travelling Home: Essays on Islam in Europe. The Quilliam Press, 2020.

Murad (TJ Winter), Abdal Hakeem. Reason As BalanceCMC Papers 3, 2009.

M.A. S., Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an: English Translation and Parallel Arabic Text. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Rothman, Abdallah. Developing a Model of Islamic Psychology and Psychotherapy: Islamic Theology and Contemporary Understandings of Psychology. Routledge, 2022.

Ware, Rudolph T. Jihad of the Pen: The Sufi Literature of West Africa. The American University in Cairo Press , 2018.

Ware, Rudolph T. The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa. The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Ware, Rudolph T. Decolonizing Academia Workshop., Youtube, 2022

Alaa Badr

Alaa Badr

Lulu is an Egyptian researcher based in Florence, Italy. She is interested in contemporary intellectual history and new modes of knowledge production in the MENA region, as a part of her PhD project at the European University Institute. She holds a BA & an MA from SciencesPo Paris in Political Science. She is fascinated by languages and language games and worries that the curse of babel is getting worse. You can find her on Instagram: @Lulu__Badr