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.
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. In South Asia, it is common for Muslims to use the Qur’an as a book of mystical power to meet various needs. For example, consider this suggested use of the Qur’an:
“If a person is truly desirous of seeing Rasoolullah [Arabic for “the apostle of Allah,” i.e., Muhammad] in the dream he should do the following: he should bath on the eve of Jumu’ah (i.e., the night between Thursday and Friday). He should don clean clothes and apply itar [“perfume”]. After Esha [“night prayer”], he should offer 2 rak’aat nafl salaah [i.e. pray two rounds of Muslim ritual prayer]. Thereafter, he should read Soorah Kauthar 1,000 times [Surah 108 in the Qur’an], salwaat upon Rasoolullah 100 times [a ritual prayer for Muhammad and his family]. Insha-Allah [Arabic “if Allah wills”] the reader will see him soon.”
Surah Kauthar is very short, but 1,000 recitations would likely take a few hours. This brief ritual also demonstrates how important it is for many Muslims to have a spiritual experience of Muhammad. It is also reminiscent of Matthew 6:7, when Jesus said, “When you pray, don’t babble like the Gentiles, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows the things you need before you ask him.”
Here is another example of a use of the Qur’an in folk Islam:
“It is reported from Rasoolullah that everything has a heart. And the heart of the Holy Qur’an is Yaseen [Surah 36]. The Ulama [council of Muslim religious leaders] say that whoever reads Yaseen in the morning and evening, Allah will have 80 of his needs fulfilled. The least being poverty.
To fulfill a specific need, recite Soorah Yaseen after Jumu’ah Salaah [Friday prayers in mosque], facing the qiblah [direction of prayer towards Mecca] in the following manner:
- After the first mubeen [an Arabic word that occurs seven times in Surah 36], recite Soorah Ikhlas [Surah 112] thrice.
- After the second mubeen, recite Soorah Kauthar [Surah 108] thrice.
- After the third mubeen, recite Soorah Inshiraah [Surah 94] thrice.
- After the fourth mubeen, recite Soorah Faatihah [Surah 1] thrice.
- After the fifth mubeen, recite the following aayah [“verse”] thrice: Allah is kind upon His servants. He grants rizq [“daily wage”] to whomever He wills. And He is the Strong, the Mighty.
- After the sixth mubeen, recite Durood [a prayer for blessing on Muhammad] thrice.
- After the seventh mubeen, recite the following du’aa [“prayer”] thrice: O Allah, expand and increase for me my sustenance to such an extent that I do not become dependent on any of Your creations.
Thereafter complete the Soorah.”
This ritual promises fulfillment of 80 of the needs of the person praying, including solving poverty. Notice that there is no focus on understanding the Qur’an in this ritual. Instead, the Qur’an is a mystical book in which there is blessing and power. This prayer is essentially prosperity Islam. If a Muslim has any specific need, this is a ritual of obtaining that need. This ritual has nothing to do with a relationship with God but is like a magic spell.
Many folk Muslims have a very different understanding of the nature and purpose of Scripture than Christians hold. For example, many Muslims have learned to pronounce the Qur’an in Arabic but do not understand the meaning in Arabic. The purpose of reading the Qur’an in Arabic is two-fold. One goal is to earn good works for the day of judgment. The other is to be able to use the Qur’an as a book of mystical power. Folk Muslims generally believe that the mystical power of the Qur’an does not work in translations. Therefore, many Muslims emphasize reciting the Qur’an in Arabic over understanding it in their language. Therefore, when folk Muslims begin to explore the Bible, it is a strange experience to read a holy book in a language that they can understand.
One of the most common types of devotional images are pictures of the Qur’an where it appears that power is emanating from the book. It is common to see these devotional pictures in Muslim homes and shops throughout South Asia.
At this point, it is helpful to note that different groups of Muslims use the same forms with different meanings. For example, one Muslim understands the Qur’an to be the source of truth from Allah, while another uses the Qur’an most as a magic book to overcome spiritual forces in their life. Many Muslims simultaneously use the Qur’an in both of these ways. In the chart below, Bill Musk compares the meaning of various forms in official versus popular Islam. Musk uses the term official similar to how I use the term orthodox and popular how I use folk.
Studying this chart can provide a significant understanding of the worldview of folk Muslims in South Asia. For example, in orthodox Islam, reciting the confession (i.e., the Shahadah, “there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet”) proves that someone is a Muslim. However, in folk Islam, the Shahadah is recited as a ward against evil spirits and powers.
In the same way, Musk described the orthodox view of the Qur’an as “encoding of God’s self-revelation.” Orthodox Muslims believe that reading and understanding the Qur’an gives an understanding of what Allah chose to reveal to His people. Evangelical Christians approach the Bible in a similar manner. However, for folk Muslims, Musk lists bibliomancy and bibliolatry as the uses of the Qur’an. Bibliomancy is what is described in this lesson, using the Qur’an as a magic book. Bibliolatry is the act of setting up the Qur’an as a sort of idol for veneration. Because of the view that the Qur’an holds so much spiritual power, bibliolatry is common among folk Muslims. Bibliolatry is expressed by the Islamic use of images of the Qur’an.
At this point, one barrier to making disciples of South Asian folk Muslims is apparent. As folk Muslims come to Christ, we have to teach them to approach the Bible in a very different way than they have learned to approach the Qur’an. As many folk Muslims come to Christ, it is a strange experience for them that we expect them to read and understand the Bible for knowledge about God’s will. Many folk Muslims are illiterate or functionally illiterate, so a general lack of education complicates the issue. In the face of these issues, great effort and time is required to help followers of Jesus from folk Muslim backgrounds become biblically literate.
 Moulana Abdullah Darkhasti, Solution through Du’aas, translated by Mohammad Bin Ahmad (New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 2002), 62.
 Ibid., 47-50.
 See Bill Musk, The Unseen Face of Islam: Sharing the Gospel with Ordinary Muslims at Street Level (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2003), 201.