All-Night Prayer Vigil
The khalwa is a special evening of silent prayer done in a group. Khalwas are generally held to commemorate annual holidays or as a part of a longer Sufi gathering. During a week-long Sufi retreat or teaching event, usually one night is set aside for a khalwa. For a khalwa there is a set practice everyone follows from beginning to end. The practice is done individually while at the same time participants are gathered as a group. During a khalwa we all start together, beginning with opening prayers and the setting of intentions, and then everyone proceeds through the stages of the practice at their own pace and will end up finishing up at different times.
A khalwa is anchored by a teacher or group of teachers who are available to answer students questions privately during the time of the khalwa. When Sidi was with us, he would be the anchor holding and containing the sacred space of the khalwa and making time to speak with any student who had questions for him in private. Since his passing, the role of anchor teacher has been filled by a senior teacher or teachers, often they are one or more of our murshids.
The khalwa is a special time for the student to pray, surrender, and connect with Allah using the practice of reciting sacred phrases quietly to ourselves and then remembering the Name Allah to clean the soul. We must let all the pictures go and discharge everything but the Name. This opens a secret door to the soul and your life is changed after a khalwa. As Sidi would say, there are special times, special places, and special people. A khalwa is a special time in a special place for a special person (you!).
The Sufis have always done many of their sacred traditions in the evening after sunset and in the darkest part of the night. Two to three in the morning is when the dunya is the least active. Thus, the unseen world is more unveiled and accessible. Traditionally, we begin most of our khalwas after the maghrib prayer, just after sunset, and continue until the early morning hours.
During a khalwa we repeat the phrases used in the al-wird practice, but we repeat them 500, 1,000, 1,500 or more times each, as decided by the anchors. After you recite each phrase you will do 2 rak’ah of salah. Once all three phrases are complete, stare at the Name with your eyes open for the amount of time determined by the anchors. Then stare at the Name with your eyes closed for the same amount of time (try not to fall asleep).
- Begin the Khalwa by sitting comfortably and setting your intention. You are entering a special place at a special time as the special soul that Allah, Most High created. Only Allah! The teacher who is anchoring the khalwa may offer opening prayers and intentions for the group.
- Begin by reciting the following phrase the number of times determined by the anchors:
Cover me, Allah, You are the All-Mighty
I seek forgiveness in God Almighty and to Him I turn in repentance
This helps us turn away from our distractions and turn to face only Allah.
3. Do two rak’ah of prayer.
4. Repeat the following phrase the number of times determined by the anchors:
Allahumma salli ‘ala sayyidina muhammadan wa alihi wa sahbihi wa sallim
O Allah! Send prayers and peace upon Muhammad and his family and his companions.
This helps us connect with the light of the spirit of the Prophet Muhammad and the light of all the Prophets, sallallahu ‘alayhim wa sallam.
5. Do two rak’ah of prayer.
6. Repeat the following phrase the number of times determined by the anchors:
la ‘ilaha illa-llah
There is no god worthy of worship but Allah
7. Do two rak’ah of prayer.
8. Then we move beyond the world of numbers and into the unity, inshallah, by staring at an image of the Name (Allah) with eyes open while repeating the Name “Allah” quietly to yourself for 30 or 60 minutes. Imagine the Name moving ever more deeply into your heart.
9. Do two rak’ah of prayer.
10. Finally, with eyes closed, see only the Name, while continuing to quietly repeat the Name Allah for 30 or 60 minutes.
This will conclude khalwa, after which you are free to move softly back into your humble existence and enjoy a well-earned good night of sleep.
- Use your beads to keep track of the number of repetitions of each phrase.
- The anchor will probably set the number of recitations for the group. The usual number is 1000 recitations for each phrase and one hour staring at the Name with eyes open and one hour seeing the Name with eyes closed. For beginners this is often shortened to 500 recitations and 30 minutes staring at the Name with eyes open and closed.
- Being in a khalwa is similar to being in zawiya in its intention to step away from our outer lives and connect deeply to the love and refuge of Allah, Most High. The main differences are that zawiya is done alone while a khalwa is done with a group, and a khalwa is set for one evening whereas you could be in zawiyya for a day, a week, a month, or a longer duration of time.
It is our tradition to fast from eating during the khalwa. Water or tea may be taken, but only in an area away from the sacred space of the group.
Because this is a deep and powerful spiritual practice, it is important that anyone who does the khalwa has taken hand (bay‘ah) with either Sidi or one of the spiritual teachers. This places an individual in the spiritual vessel of the guide and guarantees their safety during this deep spiritual practice.
There is also a donation involved, which has deep significance to an individual’s soul. We believe that charitable giving is one of the ways that individuals can purify themselves, and this is especially important for the khalwa. Each person is asked to give a donation of $250, if they can. This donation goes to feed the poor and the needy in the Holy Land of Jerusalem. This donation can be given online at the SSC website or done in person as a part of the registration for the Khalwa if it is not a virtual event. Sidi always asked for $250 and then would say: “Give what you can but not more than what you can for the poor and needy”.