The concept of Sakinah in the Arabic language of the Quran – cognate to Shekinah in the Hebrew language of the Torah – is important in both Islamic and Jewish thought.
In Islamic thought, it refers to the tranquility, serenity and peace of mind that results when a believer becomes totally aware of God’s nearby Presence. Although Sakinah already dwells in the heart of one who is a sensitive and faithful believer, it now comes to him or her directly from a feeling of God’s close Presence and personal interest to confirm and increase that believer’s faith.
As the Quran says: It is God who sent down tranquility into the hearts of the believers, that they would increase in faith along with their (present) faith. [Sûrat Al-Fatḥ, 48:4]
Thus, the experience of Sakinah is both God’s gift of enhanced, confirming faith and the product of one’s own faithfulness. This is clearly stated in the example given in the Quran about Prophet Samuel’s selection of Saul to be the first King of Israel,
Their prophet [Samuel] said to them [the People of Israel], “Indeed, a sign of his [Saul’s] kingship is that the chest [Ark of the Covenant] will come to you in which is Sakinah– assurance (Ghali translates as ‘serenity’) from your Lord, and a remnant of what the family of Moses and the family of Aaron had left [the ten commandments’ stone tablets], carried by the angels. Indeed, in that is a sign for you, if you are believers. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:248]
All faithful Christians, Jews and Muslims, no matter how pious they are, will benefit from enhancing their trust in God due to a Sakinah experience. Even Usayd Ibn Khuḍayr –who according to ʿÂishah, the wife of the Prophet, was one of three men among the Ansar whom no one could excel in virtue– could still benefit from a Sakinah experience he had while reading the Quran.
In a similar way, Jewish tradition asserts that Torah scholars may experience a Shekinah blessing during study. Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradion said:. . .when two sit together and words of Torah pass between them, the Shekinah dwells between them . . . (Mishnah Avot 3.3) and Rabbi Chalafta ben Dosa of Kefar Chanania used to say:…it can be said this applies to even one… (Mishnah Avot 3:7)
Community prayer is also a place where one can experience Shekinah: Whenever ten (or more) are gathered for prayer, there the Shekinah dwells/rests. (Talmud B’rachot 6a)
The Sakinah can also dwell in a sacred object like the Ark of the Covenant or in a lowly bush.
Moses’ blessing on the People of Israel includes this wording in the Torah: “Blessed by the Lord…with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness, and the favor of Him who dwells in the bush.” (Deuteronomy 33:16)
The Sakinah can also dwell on or in a holy person: a saintly person, a sage, or a prophet like Muhammad: Allah sent down His Sakinah [tranquility/calmness] upon His Messenger and upon the believers and imposed upon them the word of righteousness, and they were more deserving of it and worthy of it. [Sûrat Al-Fatḥ, 48:26]
Prophet Musa’s blessing of the twelve tribes of Israel is recorded in the Torah with Shekinah used in a verbal form to indicate the Divine-human interaction. There Moses says: “The beloved of the Lord Yishkon will dwell safely by Him; he encompasses him all day long, and Shakain [consciousness of the Presence of God] dwells between his shoulders [in his mind and heart].” (Deuteronomy 33:12)
I believe the ambiguity of the pronouns in verse 12, ‘he encompasses him,’ is intentional. It is meant to stress the interactive reciprocity of Shekinah–Sakinah between God –both as Lover and as Beloved– and God’s faithful human lovers who also receive God’s love. The poems of Mawlana Jalal Al-Din Al-Rumi likewise have many examples of this.
However, the word/concept Shekinah in Jewish rabbinic thought focuses mostly on the Presence of God that may manifest itself during several types of ordinary religious activities such as the prayer and Torah study already referred to, as well as visiting the sick (Shabbat 12b), practicing hospitality (Shabbat 127a & Sanhedrin 103b), giving charity (Baba Batra 10a), practicing chastity before marriage (Derek Eretz 1), and faithfulness within marriage (Sotah 17a).
It is true that doing all these things frequently will help produce greater faith, confidence, and peace of mind. But the Jewish focus is on the opportunity to personally experience God’s Presence –by living in compliance with God’s will/commandment in his daily activities — more than on an individual’s personal spiritual growth.
This somewhat different emphasis between Sakinah and Shekinah are not opposites. They are simply two different perspectives, like seeing the same lion from the front or from the side. Sakinah and Shekinah thus complement each other; and they proclaim the interactive reciprocities between humans loving God and God loving humans.
From another perspective, the rabbinic Shekinah shifts the view from the community to the individual’s experience, while Sakinah shifts the focus from the energy necessary for Jihad (both military and personal) to one’s own calmness, serenity and peace of mind.
Indeed, the connection between our faithfulness and God’s Shekinah is described in the Torah when God directs the People of Israel to build a sanctuary. But first God says that each person should make a voluntary offering: “The Lord said to Moses “Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive an offering for me, from everyone whose heart prompts them to give.” (Exodus 25:1-2)
Six verses later in the Torah God says: “Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell (verb form: Shekanti) among them.” (Exodus 25:8)
First humans choose to make a heartfelt offering to God; then God chooses to dwell among, and within, faithful humans and their religious communities. When God is well pleased by faithful people, God’s gift of inner peace and reassurance is sent down to them.
Similarly, God says in the Quran: “Certainly, Allah was pleased with the believers when they pledged allegiance to you, [Muhammad], under the tree, and He knew what was in their hearts, so He sent down Sakinah [tranquility] upon them and rewarded them with an imminent conquest. [Sûrat Al-Fatḥ, 48:18]
As the 13th century poet Mawlana Jalal Al-Din Al-Rumi wrote: Lover whisper to my ear, “Better to be prey than hunter. Make yourself My fool. Stop trying to be the sun and become a speck! Dwell at My door and be homeless. Don’t pretend to be a candle, be a moth, so you may taste the savor of Life and know the power hidden in serving.” (Mathnawi V. 411-414)
Or as Prophet Solomon wrote in the Hebrew Bible: “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.” (Song of Songs 6:3)