The Muslim Triangle: A Tool for Evaluating and Engaging the Diversity of South Asian Islam

We use this diagram in our trainings to help South Asian Christians understand the diversity of Islam in South Asia. Discussing this diagram helps us to have clear conversations about the different types of Muslims they are likely to meet.

South Asia contain the greatest concentration of Muslim lostness on the planet (read here). South Asia also has the greatest diversity of Islam in the world.

The Muslim Triangle is a simple training tool for helping people understand the diversity of South Asian Islam. Those with significant experiences will realize that this diagram is insufficient to capture the complexities of South Asian Islam. However, it is a helpful tool for understanding the broad strokes of diversity among Muslims in South Asia.

The Muslim Triangle has three poles: (1) orthodox, (2) folk, (3) secular. By far, the folk Muslim pole is dominant in South Asia. Here is a brief description of each pole. 

Orthodox Islam is the view that Islamic belief and practice should be derived by reading the Qur’an and Hadith and obeying those texts. Orthodox Muslims focus on proper Islamic theology and practice. Usually, when people think about Islam, orthodox Islam is the picture that comes to their mind. However, in South Asia, orthodox Muslims are in the minority.

Folk Islam is a local variety of Islam that blends Sufism, local traditions, and other elements to develop a practical Islam to address their particular “needs.” The primary focus of folk Islam is to develop a spirituality that can provide practitioners blessing (answered prayers, good crops, high test scores, etc.) and protection (from accidents, evil spirits, etc.). Folk Islam usually looks very different than orthodox Islam. However, sometimes folk Islam looks like orthodox Islam but has a significant amount of folk Islamic belief just below the surface. The easiest way to understand South Asian folk Islam is to study its rituals. Click here to go to the first of a series of articles about folk Islamic rituals in South Asia. For those familiar with the prosperity gospel, folk Islam can be understood as “prosperity Islam.”

Secular Islam is familiar to most Westerners. Secular Muslims blend secular thought and materialism with Islam. Secular Islam has different flavors in South Asia but tends to focus on education, career advancement, and/or politics.

When training on the Muslim triangle, seek to find a local sect or place to use for each of the three poles. For example, in some areas of South Asia, many people understand Deoband, Ajmer, and Aligarh as places for these three poles. However, in other areas of South Asia, these three areas are relatively unknown. Discuss this triangle with a few people and discover the best ways to describe this tool in your area. 

Let me describe these three places that we use to describe the poles of the Muslim Triangle.

  1. Deoband (Orthodox Islam pole). Deoband is a small city in the Saharanpur District of Uttar Pradesh in North India. Deoband is home to Darul Uloom, which many consider to be the second most prominent madrassa in the global Muslim movement (with Al Azhar in Cairo being the most prominent). Darul Uloom was founded in 1866 as part of Islamic reform movements in the subcontinent. Its formation was partially in protest of British rule in India. At present, Darul Uloom has an impressive campus with more than 5,000 students in residence. This seminary has spawned a series of Deobandi madrassas across the subcontinent and the world. Many mosques and madrassas across South Asia are led by graduates of Darul Uloom or one of the many other madrassas that spun off this institute.
  2. Ajmer (Folk Islam pole). Ajmer is a city in Rajasthan in North India. Ajmer is home to the tomb of a Sufi saint who is commonly known as Kwaja Garib Nawaz (meaning “the benefactor of the poor”). Kwaja Garib Nawaz is the first of the four great Sufi mystics who spread Islam across South Asia. The tombs of these four remain important places of pilgrimage for Folk Muslims until today. It is common that Muslims (or others!) will go on pilgrimages to these tombs in search of help. Perhaps a family member is sick, or demon possessed, or there is a financial problem in the family. They believe that these mystical saints can help them from their tombs. The four most prominent mystics in South Asia are:
    • Kwaja Garib Nawaz (d. 1236 AD), buried in Ajmer, Rajasthan, India.
    • Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki (d. 1235 AD), buried in Mehrauli, Delhi, Inda. He was the primary disciple of Kwaja Garib Nawaz.
    • Baba Farid (d. 1266 AD), buried in Pakpattan, Punjab, Pakistan. He was the primary disciple of Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki.
    • Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia (d. 1325 AD), buried in Nizamuddin, Delhi, India. He was the primary disciple of Baba Farid.
  3. Aligarh (Secular Islam pole). Aligarh is a city in Western Uttar Pradesh in India and home to the famous Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). AMU was started in 1875 by Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan (d. 1898). Sir Sayyid believe that Muslims in South Asia had fallen behind in society because of a lack of education. Therefore, he started AMU to develop Muslim doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals. AMU continues to be a prominent university in South Asia for developing Muslim professionals.

The purpose of this training is to help Christians understand folk Islam and to see that these kinds of Muslims should be the focus of our ministry. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • In the middle of the diagram is the Ordinary Muslim. What I mean is that the ordinary Muslim is pulled by all three poles in South Asia, however the common Muslim is closest to the pole of folk Islam. For example, a young Muslim man desires to get a good education so that he can get a good job to have a good life. These goals sound like secular Islam. However, he goes to the dargah to ask the blessing of a saint to help him in his studies and gets an amulet there to help him have the saint’s blessing to achieve his goals. At the same time, he watches the videos of Zakir Naik, an orthodox Muslim, on YouTube. This ordinary Muslim is affected by all three types of Islam.
  • Many ministries seeking to engage Muslims in South Asia focus on reaching orthodox Muslims. They focus on learning the Qur’an and Hadith, learning apologetics, etc. This triangle allows us to celebrate the work of those ministries and show that they are reaching orthodox Muslims, which are a significant group of South Asian Muslims.
  • However, folk Islam is the dominant pole in almost every area of South Asia (you must determine if this is true for your context). Phil Parshall asserted that 70% of Muslims globally are Folk Muslims (Bridges to Islam, 2). In South Asia, my experience is that this is true here as well. However, a major shift is occurring causing more Folk Muslims to become orthodox or secular. Therefore, more laborers need to be trained to engage folk Muslims.
  • Near-culture workers (i.e., Christians in South Asia who are trying to reach South Asian Muslims – click here for more) often struggle to reach orthodox Muslims in South Asia. They are often much more adept at reaching folk Muslims. The reason is that Hindus and folk Muslims share a similar underlying worldview. Reaching folk Muslims requires much less knowledge about Islam and the Qur’an, making the barrier less for equipping near-culture workers.

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