This blog post is the sixth 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.
In the previous lesson, we began to look at the folk Muslim’s perception of the spiritual realm of curses, magic, and spiritual beings. One way that folk Muslims seek to interact with this spiritual realm is through protective amulets called tawiz. Another common practice is called zikr (Arabic dhikr), which often uses the 99 names of Allah.
Zikr is the Urdu word to remember (zikr karna has the same meaning as the Hindi yaad karna). Therefore, zikr is the act of remembering Allah. Almost every Sufi sect has a style of zikr; some of these practices are relatively tame, while others are quite ecstatic. Most Sufis use zikr as a practice to focus their attention entirely on Allah as practice for seeking spiritual union with him. Here is one example of zikr from the writings of a Sufi who came to Christ and became a Methodist bishop in Lucknow, India:
“We enter a dimly-lighted room where a number of men are gathered. As we do so a signal is given by a man who appears to be the leader of the assembly and the doors are shut. There is a hush as twelve men form into two parallel lines in the center of the room. The glimmer of a solitary hurricane lamp falls on the dark faces in which only eyes seem to live. The rest of us fall back to the sides of the room. The dhikr is about to begin. With a startling clap of the hands the leader starts swaying from right to left. Very slowly he begins, and the men fall into the rhythm of his swaying. Every time they sway to the left, they call “Hu!” in chorus. “Hu… Hu… Hu…” So the monotonous chant proceeds with at first hardly and perceptible increase in tempo. But gradually the movement of their bodies becomes more rapid and the sound of “Hu! Hu! Hu!” comes faster and faster with crescendo corresponding with the quicker time. At last the excitement becomes so intense that a man there, and a boy here, slip to their knees, still swaying in unison with the others till finally they fall and collapse on the floor. One man goes forward and looks at the faces of these two and leaves them where they lie. Thus course after course of this chanting and swaying beginning from the slower and proceeding to the wild orgy of motion and shouting, proceeds according to the leader’s direction, who brings the whole course to its end by a loud shout of “Hu!” and a wild jerk to the left. Then dead silence prevails, succeeded by the low undertone of prayer in which all who have not fallen unconscious join.”
Probably the most common form of zikr in South Asia is the use of prayer beads called tasbih. Some use the tasbih to recite simple phrases like, “there is no God but Allah” (Arabic la ilaha illa llah) repeatedly. For example, if someone wanted to say this phrase a thousand times, they use the tasbih beads to count. Others use the tasbih to recite the 99 names of Allah. Muslims sometimes walk at the park, reciting their prayer beads. Older men sit and recite the names of Allah. A tasbih has 33 beads (some have 99 beads); thus, three cycles are necessary to repeat these 99 names of Allah. In folk Islam, zikr of Allah’s 99 names is a form of obtaining blessing and protection. For example, one little booklet that is commonly available in India lists the particular spiritual benefits of reciting different names of Allah in this manner. For example,
Al Maliku (The Soverign). A person will become self-sufficient and independent if he reads it excessively daily after Zawaal [mid-day prayers].
Al Qud-doosu (Free from all Blemishes). If recited excessively, Allah will cure the reciter from all spiritual sicknesses.
As Salaamu (The Giver of Peace…). Allah will protect one from all calamities if the Beautiful Name of Allah is read excessively. If recited 115 times and blown on a sick person, Allah Ta’ala will restore his health_Insha-Allah [Arabic “If Allah wills it”].
Al-Mu’minu (The Giver of Peace). Whoever says this Beautiful Name of Allah 630 times in times of fear, Allah will protect him from all calamities_Insha-Allah. If anyone writes in (on paper or by engraving it on a silver ring) and keeps it on him (as ta’weez), his physical and spiritual safety will remain the responsibility of Allah.
In summary, zikr is a Sufi and folk Islamic practice of remembering Allah. Zikr promotes spiritual union with Allah. As a folk practice, zikr overcomes sickness and gives protection or other blessings. Often, these two goals seem to merge in the lives of Muslims. It is common for Muslims to spend more time in zikr as they increase in age. In South Asia, as people pass into retirement age, this is a time to focus on spirituality. Like tawiz (amulets that contain verses from the Qur’an or names of Allah), zikr is a means for interacting with the spiritual realm that is present around the folk Muslim.
These acts reveal that there is a fear-power orientation to the worldviews of folk Muslims in South Asia. Fear-power orientation means that folk Muslims are afraid of spiritual forces that might affect them negatively and are seeking spiritual power to overcome those spiritual forces. In the face of this fear, Scripture tells followers of Jesus, “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn 4:4). Often, our bold proclamation of the power of Christ who dwells in us by the Holy Spirit is a convincing answer to Muslims’ fear. I have often told my folk Muslim friends that I do not need their amulets and practices because of the power of Jesus that lives inside of me. This declaration often provokes significant spiritual conversation about topics that are meaningful to folk Muslims.
 John Subhan, Sufism: Its Saints and Shrines (Lucknow: Lucknow Publishing House, 1938), 1-2.
 Muhammad Rafeeque, Solve Your Problems through the 99 Beautiful Names of Allah (New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 2001), 9-10.