This blog post is the eighth 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. This understanding helps us to make disciples of folk Muslims.
The folk Islamic worldview focuses on spiritual powers that are always present around us. In the view of folk Muslims, some of the most common opposing spiritual forces are jinn, demons, and the evil eye. Jinn and demons are similar but distinct. Demons (usually called Shaytan or Iblis in Urdu) are evil and more powerful than jinn. In contrast, jinn function as troublemakers who cause misfortune and trouble. The English word “genie” derives from the Arabic root jinn. Muslims often attribute tripping or other accidents to jinn. Another spiritual force is the evil eye.
The fear of the evil eye (Urdu nazr lagna) is that an individual can voluntarily or involuntarily harm another person, animal, or property by envying or praising it. The evil eye is a curse that can lead to sickness, misfortune, or any number of issues. Fear of the evil eye motivates several practices. For example, financial gifts at weddings contain an “extra rupee,” i.e., a thousand rupees become a thousand and one rupees. The purpose is to make the present appear less attractive and thus not attract envy. Muslims place Masha Allah (Arabic for “God willed it”) bumper stickers on their cars or signage on their homes to avoid the evil eye. When someone compliments the child of folk Muslims without saying Masha Allah, parents often respond with alarm because of fear of the evil eye. Drivers tie shoes or pieces of black cloth to new trucks or cars to avoid the evil eye. Pregnant mothers and newborn children are considered especially at risk of the evil eye. Fear of the evil eye is why pregnant women generally stay at home in South Asia. Many parents will apply makeup birthmarks to their newborns to avoid envy and, hence the evil eye.
One common practice in North India is the protection of newborns and children through amulets, called tawiz, made by local Muslim leaders (click here to read about tawiz). Tawiz contain Qur’anic verses or prayers used for protection or blessing. Here is an example of an incantation used by a Muslim leader to bless a tawiz to protect newborns from the evil eye:
“Write the following Ta’awwuz on a piece of paper or linen and let the baby wear it:
I seek the protection of Allah’s perfect words against the mischief of every Shaytaan [“evil spirit”] and venomous creature and from the mischief of every evil eye which causes harm.”
As mentioned, another standard protection against the evil eye is the Arabic phrase Masha Allah. It is common to see this phrase on buildings, homes, and other possessions throughout the Muslim world. The expression accompanies praise. For example, if I say to my friend, “You have a beautiful home.” He will often respond, “Masha Allah.” Some do this purely to show reverence to God and acknowledge Him as the giver of their possessions. However, this phrase is often invoked as protection against the evil eye on their home. If the evil eye is attached to their home, all kinds of curses, diseases, and difficulties might come with it.
When I was a college student, I spent a summer in Turkey. Everyone wore at least one turquoise eye medallion called a nazar as a ward against the evil eye in Turkey. These amulets are used in South Asia but seem less common than in the Turkish world. Often, I would find a new Turkish friend looking at me as if searching for something on my body. Then they would ask, “where is your nazar?” I would tell them that I did not have one. Quickly, my new friend would pull out an extra one and offer it to me. I would respond that I did not need this amulet. At this point, my friend would be almost frustrated with me that I did not understand the importance of protection from the evil eye.
From this point, I would begin to explain to them the power of Christ in me because of the gospel. Therefore, I would explain, “I do not need a nazar because Jesus is more powerful than both the nazar and the evil eye.” In ministry to folk Muslims, we can use the empowering presence of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in our lives to explain the gospel. In Scripture, one great verse about this is James 4:7, “Therefore, submit to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” We can depend on Jesus as our rock and protector against any evil spiritual force. Believers from Muslim folk backgrounds need to know that if we submit to God and abide in Him, then the power of Christ in us is enough to resist the devil. Jesus is enough to protect us from any spiritual forces around us.
Another favorite verse that I have on this issue is “the one who is in you is greater than the one who his in the world” (1 John 4:4). The Holy Spirit as God’s presence inside of us is powerful. Because God is with us, we have no need to fear any evil spirit or power or curse. When we stand in this confidence before our folk Muslim friends, we often gain opportunity to proclaim the gospel. If you need help in what to share with your Muslim friend, click here for a training on how to share Jesus with your Muslim friend.