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Can we talk? A Jewish-Muslim conversation on Prayer

Professor Homayra Ziad and Rabbi Or Rose start a dialogue on TOI -- starting with the experience of prayer

Prayer & the Devotional Path

Dear Homayra,

Thank you for joining me in initiating this new blog. As friends and colleagues we have engaged in many meaningful conversations over the years. Among the subjects we have explored together are the various religious observances that help shape our lives as a Jew and as a Muslim. Could you lead off by sharing some thoughts about one ritual practice of importance to you?

Thank you,



Dear Or,

I want to focus my attention in this post on the Sufi practice of dhikr, meditation through recitation. I recently started leading a women’s dhikr circle in New Haven, Connecticut, where I live. There is blessing in communal worship, to be in the company of women who make space in their lives to sit together for the sake of God.

We recite in the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition, a spiritual practice that originated in Central Asia (Bukhara) in the twelfth century and became a trans-regional movement. The recitation is melodious, though it is never called song. Typically, we follow a formulaic recitation with some space for innovation: we recite divine names (such as Hayy, the “Ever-Living”; Haqq, the “Truth”; Rahman, the “Merciful”), key Qur’anic prayers, and blessings on the Prophet and on the teachers of the Naqshbandi spiritual lineage. Other Muslim dhikr traditions may include different prayers and passages of the Qur’an, mystical poetry (such as the poems of Rumi, Yunus Emre, Amir Khusrau) and movements of the body.

Dhikr means “Remembrance.” The ultimate goal of this practice is to remain conscious of the presence of the Divine at every waking moment. The Qur’an speaks of a moment in which every soul that would ever live was gathered before God and came face to face with its ultimate source of being. In my meditation, I seek to remember what every soul once beheld—the face of God before me. To remember is to be humble.
Some people view meditation as a self-indulgence that has no real impact on our ailing world. I understand dhikr as an activist form of faith. Much of Sufi practice is founded on the idea that every act of prayer resonates in the human body: spiritually, psychologically and physically. Words are powerful, and we are dyed in the hue of the words we recite.
In the words of the great Sufi poet and ethicist Jalal al-din Rumi (d. 1273):

You are your thoughts, brother
The rest of you is bones and fiber
If you think of roses, you are a rose garden
If you think of thorns, you’re fuel for the furnace

(Translated by William Chittick, Sufism: A Short Introduction, p. 16)

It is for this reason that dhikr is called “the polish of hearts.” Repetition of a word changes our awareness, and the content of our awareness determines who we are and how we act.

Leading dhikr has also made me more sensitive to the rhythm of meditation. Before this, I was carried by the word; now I must help others in this dynamic process. I am conscious of the energy changing with every new prayer we recite. I try and sense where it is taking us. As we wind our way through our recitation a palpable presence descends upon the gathering – the sakinah (similar to the Hebrew word shekhinah) – the tranquil presence of God. I feel different after a dhikr circle, lighter, stronger, and more connected to the women with whom I have meditated. For that moment, my ego is silenced. The goal is to keep that feeling alive throughout my day, to bring the heightened sense of love and devotion into my interactions with all of God’s creations.

Dear Homayra,

As I read your reflection—particularly your final words—I thought about the phrase from Psalms 16:8, “I have set YHWH before me at all times.” It is common to see a visual representation of these words—known as a Shiviti (“I have set”)—hung on the wall of or affixed to the lectern in a synagogue. It is designed as a stimulus for contemplation of the Divine. The ultimate goal, of course, is to cultivate an awareness of God in all areas of one’s life.

In the Hasidic tradition, many commentators use the term avodah be’gashmiut, “service through corporeality,” to express this devotional aspiration. Knowing that the term avodah is a classical term for prayer (the “service of the heart”), these mystical preachers urge us to seek out the divine presence in nature, when eating or drinking, or while at work.
In this context, I think about the oft-cited words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (d. 1972) upon his return from the Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery (1965). In reflecting on his experience at this historic protest, Heschel wrote in his diary that he felt as if his “legs were praying.” Like his Hasidic forebears, Heschel sought to create an integrated spiritual life, viewing his activist work (avodah) as a vital expression of his service to God—a just and compassionate God who calls on human beings to play a decisive role in the creation of a just and compassionate world.

I am inspired by these teachings from the Hasidic masters and from Dr. Heschel because I seek to live a more holistic life. Your reflection, with its focus on the dynamics of dhikr and its effects on you, is very helpful to me in asking anew what is the relationship between my prayer practice and other facets of my life.

Among the elements of tefilah (prayer) that I find most valuable is the framework it provides for introspection. Sometimes it is the words of the siddur (prayer book) that stimulates this process, while at other times it is the music or the silence between the words and the music. When praying in community, I often find it inspiring being in the presence of others who are also engaging in their own processes of reflection. It reminds me that I have companions on my journey and of my responsibility to these individuals and to the world beyond the synagogue walls.

As Heschel writes: “Prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest, and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy… Prayer clarifies our hopes and intentions. It help us discover our true aspirations… It gives us the opportunity to be honest, to say what we believe, and to stand for what we say” (Man’s Quest for God, quoted in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 343).

Thank you for the gift of conversation.


Rabbi Or Rose is the Director of the Center of Global Judaism at Hebrew College, and Co-Director of CIRCLE, a center for interreligious learning and leadership co-sponsored by HC and Andover Newton Theological School. Rabbi Rose is the author or editor of several books and articles on Jewish spirituality, interreligious engagement, and social responsibility. Most recently, he co-edited Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from Around the Maggid’s Table (Jewish Lights, 2013), and My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation (Orbis, 2012).

Homayra Ziad is Assistant Professor of Islam at Trinity College, and deeply involved in interreligious initiatives and educational outreach on Islam. She is co-chair of the American Academy of Religion’s Interreligious and Interfaith Studies Group and a series co-editor for Palgrave’s Interreligious Studies in Theory and Practice. She is working on two books, the first on the interplay of religious and literary aesthetics in the work of the eighteenth-century Sufi theologian and poet of Delhi Khwajah Mir Dard, and the second on Islam and humor.

About the Author
This blog is a forum for substantive conversation among Jewish and Muslim intellectuals, teachers, and community leaders. The goal is to engage in honest and respectful dialogue about a range of spiritual, ethical, social, and political issues of concern to our contributors and to their communities. It is our hope that these brief conversations will inspire others to join the discussion in the comments section below, and to take up such conversation in other virtual and in-person contexts.