Folk Islamic Ritual #5: Tawiz (Amulets)

This blog post is the fifth in a series on South Asian folk Islam and its rituals. Click here to go to the first of these articles. Understanding the rituals of Folk Islam provides insight into the beliefs and practices of folk Muslims.

Boy wearing a taweez with Allah written on it. Taken from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-manchester-37160729

For some, it is strange to explore the worldview of folk Muslims. Many people think of Muslims as being stoic orthodox people who study and obey the Qur’an similarly to how evangelical Christians study and obey the Bible. Within Islam, there are vast numbers of Muslims who do follow orthodox Islam (click here for a discussion on three poles of South Asian Islam). However, the influence of Islamic folk practices on ordinary Muslims is profound and often overlooked. This lesson continues a look at folk Islamic practices by looking at tawiz (sometimes pronounced tabiz).

Tawiz are amulets that are commonly worn by Muslims in South Asia. Tawiz are black boxes on a black string that contain either written verses of the Qur’an, names of Allah, or prayers (Urdu dua). Similar amulets were used in Judaism, as seen in Matthew 23:5, where Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees of enlarging their phylacteries to be seen by others. As with Muslims, the Pharisees used these as protective amulets that contained verses from Scripture or prayers. Making tawiz is a crucial function of spiritual leaders among folk Muslims.

 A Hadith reports that Muhammad offered short prayers or recited verses from the Qur’an and then breathed on those for whom he recited these prayers. His companions did the same and begin writing these prayers or verses on paper and making tawiz. Now, tawiz exist for almost every purpose. For example, when my friend Muhammad began to follow Jesus, he did not have a job. So, his mother went to a dargah and had a tawiz made by her pir (click here to learn about Pirs and dargahs). Muhammad did not know what to do because he had not told his parents about his decision to follow Jesus. His mother was seeking a meeting with him to tie the tawiz on him, but he knew that he could not do this as a follower of Jesus. For Muhammad’s mother, the tawiz was a practical and powerful expression of her Islamic faith.

It is helpful to see how the tawiz relates to ordinary Muslims’ understanding of how the world works. There is a famous article by Paul Hiebert called “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle.” Hiebert’s premise was that many Westerners have a hard time understanding animistic or folk cultures. Westerners have a low perception of invisible spiritual forces and powers that are at work all around us. South Asian folk Muslims tend to have a heightened focus on spiritual forces and powers that are all around us. Westerners tend to focus on science and scientific answers to issues and problems. Folk Muslims often believe spiritual forces are at work in situations where a Westerner would apply scientific principles. Hiebert said that evangelical Christians often focus on the scientific and the eternal, such as heaven and hell while excluding the present spiritual forces at work in our day to day lives, thus the flaw of the excluded middle.

In The Unseen Face of Islam, Bill Musk applied Hiebert’s principle to folk Islam and developed the following chart.[1]

Cosmology of Popular Islam. Scan from Bill Musk, The Unseen Face of Islam: Sharing the Gospel with Ordinary Muslims at Street Level (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2003), 174. 

Studying this chart helps us understand how folk Muslims perceive the world around them. On the left side are the words “this-worldly realm” and “other-worldly realm.” This-worldly realm means those being and powers that are around us at all times. In contrast, the other-worldly realm is distant and separate from us. On the right side are the terms “empirical phenomena” and “trans-empirical phenomena.” By empirical, Musk means what can and cannot be scientifically measured or observed. Animals, plants, and drugs can be scientifically observed and measured. Magic, curses, and spiritual beings cannot be scientifically observed and measured. For many folk Muslims, those things that are “this-worldly” and “trans-empirical” are the actual controlling forces in the world. These powers and beings exist in what Hiebert calls “the forgotten middle.” 

The use of tawiz in South Asia is one example of a spiritual cure. It is an attempt by “living holy men” called pirs to provide spiritual power to their followers in the form of an object to ward of unseen spiritual forces, such as the evil eye, jinn, or magic. Often when a folk Muslim is sick, has a bad crop, has an accident, or loses their job, the source of their bad fortune is assumed to be unseen spiritual forces rather than scientifically observable causes. 

Therefore, when ministering to folk Muslims, the “excluded middle” cannot be neglected. One of the most practical ways that Christians can minister is to seek for specific prayer requests from Muslim seekers and to pray for those requests. A folk Muslim will rarely refuse prayer from a Christian. As we pray, we demonstrate to Muslims the kind of relationship that we have with God. Often after praying for a Muslim, they are startled and tell me that they can see that I actually know God. As we continue to pray, we hope that God will show His power in the life of folk Muslims and answer these requests as a way of opening their hearts to the gospel.

There is some controversy about how to pray for Muslims. Some argue that we should follow the formulaic bismillah approach in prayer that Muslims often use. These prayers begin with the formulaic “In the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful” that starts almost every Surah of the Qur’an. In contrast, I want to pray for my Muslim friends in the name of Jesus. To do this, I usually inform a Muslim that I am about to pray for that I am a disciple of Jesus. Therefore, I will pray for them in the way that Jesus taught His disciples. Then I begin with something like, “Our Father who lives in heaven” or “Father God.” I generally finish my prayers by saying, “I pray this through (Urdu ke vasile se) Hazrat Isa al-Masih. Amen.”

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[1] See Bill Musk, The Unseen Face of Islam: Sharing the Gospel with Ordinary Muslims at Street Level (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2003), 174.

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