Folk Islamic Ritual #1: Na’at (Devotional Singing)

This blogpost is the first of a series sharing some of the basic aspects of South Asian folk Muslim rituals. Understanding folk Muslim’s worldview aids in making disciples for Jesus among folk Muslims. Therefore, each reading concludes with tips on how these worldview issues relate to ministry among folk Muslims.

There is great diversity in the belief and practices of folk Muslims in South Asia. Therefore, do not make the mistake that every South Asian Muslim that you meet will do all the practices described in these lessons! Instead, use these lessons as a launching point to explore the worldview and practices of South Asian Muslims that you meet. 

Asaf-ud-dowlah (d. 1797) listening to musicians in his court in what would be present day Uttar Pradesh, India. Used by permission from Wikipedia Commons.

When my wife and I first moved to India, we lived by a mosque where women began singing every morning at 4 am over the mosque loudspeaker. As I began to understand a little Urdu, we were surprised to hear that they were singing songs to Muhammad. This practice is called na’at. Na’at derives from the Barelvi doctrine of hazir-o-nazir that “the Prophet continues to have a spiritual presence of his own manifest as pure light (nur-I muhammadi) and is capable of mediating between Muslims and God.”[1] Many Muslims believe that Muhammad’s spiritual presence, as pure light, is present with Muslims everywhere, much like Christians believe about the Holy Spirit.

The singing of na’at “establish[es] a special relationship to the prophet and invoke[s] his mediatory presence.”[2]At the root of devotional singing is a folk perspective of Allah, Muhammad, and Sufis. Perry Pennington shared a helpful anecdote about how folk Muslims view their devotion to mediators (Urdu vasila). This anecdote was a conversation with his friend, Dervesh.

According to [Dervesh], for every work there is an accompanying vasila (means). For instance, the vasila for reading is eyeglasses; for writing, a pencil, for drinking, a glass. Prayer, he made clear, also requires a vasila. “Which vasila do you use when you pray?” I asked him. Dervesh explained that he prayed in the name (with the vasila of) all the prophets and holy books. Vasilas are required in prayer, Dervesh said, because prayer is talking to God, who is mighty and powerful. He is full of blessing, but his power is so great that direct contact with him is fraught with danger. God, he continued, is like an electricity-generating power plant. It produces such a powerful form of electricity that it is useless for ordinary household items like radios, for its power would destroy them if connected directly to them. Instead, the electricity is taken from the generating plant to an electrical grid… In prayer, Dervesh concluded, God is like the generating station, the prophets like the grid station, and Sufis, like the transformer. They are a conduit for the blessing and power of God that flows from them into their followers in a manageable form.[3]

Some Muslims also sing to Sufi saints. Qawwali is a more popularized and often syncretized form of Islamic musical expression sung by skilled musicians. The Mughal king, Akbar the Great, became a devotee of Kwaja Mu’inuddin Chishti and his dargah in Ajmer after hearing a Qawwali in honor of that Sufi saint.[4] In some contexts, especially related to some Sufi shrines, ecstatic dancing and the use of marijuana[5] to achieve a spiritual state. The goal of devotional singing and dancing is to enter into a deeper relationship with Allah and gain barkat (Urdu for “blessing”).

Proclaiming Jesus as the greatest mediator between God and man is compelling to many folk Muslims (1 Tim 2:5-6). Portraying the mediatorial role of Christ is significant to folk Muslims who are seeking mediators between them and God. The book of Hebrews in particular highlights the mediatorial role of Christ as the new high priest. One particularly powerful verse in evangelism to folk Muslims on this theme is John 14:6, which uses the term vasila in Urdu. “Jesus told him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (Urdu mere vasile ke bagher).’”

If you found this article helpful, click below to read all of my articles on Folk Islamic rituals.

[1], Patrick Eisenlohr, “Na’at: Media Contexts and Transnational Dimensions of a Devotional Practice,” in Islam in South Asia in Practice, ed. by Barbara D. Metcalf. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009, 102.

[2] Ibid., 102.

[3] Perry Pennington, “From Prophethood to the Gospel: Talking to Folk Muslims about Jesus,” IJFM 31.4 (2014): 197.

[4] Catherine B. Asher, “Pilgrimage to the Shrines of Ajmer,” in Islam in South Asia in Practice, ed. by Barbara D. Metcalf (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 77.

[5] Green tea should be imbibed with great caution in South Asia. A missionary colleague in India was once given “green tea” by his Muslim friend. Unaware it was marijuana; he drank two glasses. It was quite potent since it took more than twenty-four hours for my friend to come down from his high. 

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