Folk Islamic Ritual #4: Urs Festivals

Understanding folk Muslim rituals help us to understand the worldview of ordinary Muslims in South Asia. Understanding the worldview of ordinary Muslims helps us more effectively make disciples of folk Muslims. However, not all folk Muslims adhere to the same folk rituals. Therefore, these readings on folk Islamic rituals should act as a guide to explore folk Islam rather than as concrete rules for folk Islam. There are no concrete rules in folk Islam! Previously, we looked at pirs and dargahs. This lesson will build on those by describing Urs festivals.

Urs festivals commemorate the “marriage” of a Sufi with Allah upon the Sufi’s death. One of the goals of Sufi Islam is to seek spiritual union with Allah. Thus, when these individuals die, they entered into a marriage (Persian “Urs”) with Allah. Urs festivals occur annually to respect and seek barkat from prominent Sufis. Depending on the prominence of the pir, a Urs festival may last a day, or it may last a month. Urs festivals are the largest Muslim gatherings that occur in South Asia. Every year, about 400,000 people attend the six-day Urs festival for Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, India. 

It is common in folk Islam for those in need to travel from dargah to dargah seeking spiritual blessing and prayer. Some coming believe that these saints are the way to come close to Allah. However, others come out of desperation for help for a sick or demon-possessed relative. During these pilgrimages, many Muslims are very open to hearing the stories of Jesus, who healed the sick and raised the dead. They are happy to receive prayer in Jesus’ name for their family needs. These individuals can be open doors for the gospel as we minister to them and pray for them and their families.  

Both women and men participate in Urs festivals. These festivals tend to have teaching, dance, and music, as well as rituals for receiving barkat. The ceremonies at some Urs festivals are unique. For example, in Pakpattan, Pakistan, there is a structure near the tomb of Babu Farid called “The Door to Paradise” (Bahishti Darwaza). Walking through this gate is said to assure the individuals of entrance into heaven. During the Urs festivals for Babu Farid, tens of thousands throng to Pakpattan for the opportunity to walk through Bahishti Darwaza. At some Urs festivals, hijra (third-gender women) participate in dancing as conduits of power and blessing. At one Urs festival, I observed horse races, cricket and soccer tournaments, and carnival rides. 

The dargah of Baba Farid in Pakpattan, Pakistan. Used by permission. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fariduddin_Ganjshakar#/media/File:Darbar_Hazrat_Baba_Farid_ud_Deen_Ganj_Shakar_Rahmatullah_Alaih_-_panoramio.jpg

At the core of all of these activities is a belief that these Sufi pirs are mediators for ordinary Muslims to obtain barkat from Allah. Within the folk Muslim mind, these mediators (Urdu vasila) are necessary to have their prayers heard and get spiritual blessing from Allah.

One of the most powerful ways to minister to folk Muslims is through prayer. When I pray for folk Muslims, I explain that I am a disciple of Jesus and that I pray in the manner that He taught. I usually begin my prayers with something like, “Our Father who lives in heaven” and make a personal prayer for the person to whom I am ministering. At the end, I pray through Jesus (Urdu main is dua Hazrat Isa al-Masih ke vasile se manta hun. Amen). Since most folk Muslims are of a lower educational level, it is rare to find folk Muslims who speak English well. It is most effective when we can pray for them in Urdu, or even better, in their heart language. Often, when we pray for folk Muslims, they are surprised to see the kind of relationship with have with God that we can approach Him so simply. Many Muslims in South Asia have come to Christ when Christians have prayed for them and seen God answer.

Excursus on the Orthodox Pole

Until now, we have completed four studies on the worldview of South Asian folk Muslims. The reason that we have focused on the influence of folk Islam in the life of ordinary Muslims is that the folk Islamic pole is the strongest of the three between orthodox, secular, and folk. However, it would be a mistake to believe that the orthodox pole does not also significantly influence the worldview of ordinary Muslims. Another reason that we have focused less on the orthodox pole is that this is the kind of Islam that most in the West understand best about Islam.

There are many ways that orthodox Islam affects ordinary Muslims in South Asia. One of them is the “point system” of Islam. For example, here is one passage from the Qur’an:

The balance that day will be true (to a nicety): those whose scale (of good) will be heavy, will prosper. Those whose scale will be light, will find their souls in perdition. (Qur’an 7:8, Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation).

 Simply put, Islam teaches that scales will be used on the day of judgment to measure the good and bad works of individuals. If someone’s good works outweigh their bad, then they will be permitted into heaven. The Qur’an indicates that two recording angels are appointed to write down the good and evil works of a person. 

But verily over you (are appointed angels) to protect you, kind and honorable, writing down (your deeds). They know all that you do. (Qur’an 82:10-12, Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation)

            The result is that many folk Muslims are also conscious of this “point system.” The point system is also sometimes very complex in orthodox Islam. For example, prayers have differing “point” values.  Praying namaz (Arabic salaat, Muslim ritual prayers) in a mosque is worth more than praying the same outside of a mosque. Namaz is of more value at larger mosques than at smaller mosques. The larger the congregation praying, the more points are received by each. Namaz is of more value during Ramadan (i.e., the month of fasting). Most Muslims become far more devoted to their prayers (and other religious duties) during Ramadan, knowing that they can catch up on their points for a year of prayerlessness during this time. Even within orthodox Islam, there are aspects of Muslim belief that orient towards power. For example, one night of Ramadan is called “the Night of Power” (Laylat al-Qadr), when Muslims remember Muhammad receiving the Qur’an. According to Qur’an 97:3, “The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.” This means that during this one night, Muslims believe that they have more ability to come close to Allah than any other day of the year. Because of this belief, the Night of Power is central to many Muslim’s pursuit of God and his blessings.

Many Muslims approach the five pillars of Islam through this lens of acquiring points for the day of judgment. The five pillars are: 

  • Shahadah – the confession, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.” 
  • Namaz – ritual prayers
  • Hajj – once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina
  • Zakat – almsgiving to the poor
  • Ramadan – the annual month of fasting

One complication created by these issues is a difference in understanding of sin. Often, Muslims perceive themselves in a lifetime of struggle to gain more good points than bad, while also trusting in the mercy of Allah. There is not the same concept in Islam that one sin has such great consequences. The point of this all is that folk Islam heavily influences the average Muslim in South Asia, but orthodox Islam significantly affects them as well. Most Muslims mix these approaches and beliefs. While the folk Muslim worldview requires exploration, those ministering to South Asian Muslims must also gain basic familiarity with orthodox practices and beliefs.

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