Folk Islamic Rituals #9: Devotional Images

This blog post is the ninth 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.

A devotional imagine in honor of the Sufi mystic Kwaja Gharib Nawaz. In the upper right corner, Kwaja Gharib Nawaz is written. Kwaja Gharib Nawaz is one title of the famous Kwaja Moiunuddin Chishti (d. 1236). He is considered the most famous of the Sufis of South Asia, Many venerate him at his tomb in Ajmer, Rajasthan in India.

I had a wild experience with Islamic devotional images when a Muslim family decided to follow Jesus. Before taking baptism, they asked for help in removing a room full of Islamic idols and devotional images. Most prominent was a miniature dargah. This family had received a sacred object from a dargah (read here about dargahs), brought it home, and built a miniature dargah to house that item. They believed the dargah was a conduit of the barkat of the dargah from which they had brought the sacred object. Now, they were afraid to remove the dargah for fear of the spirits associated with it. Despite their fear, they arranged for the shrine to be demolished and removed. The images and relics were then burned. To these new believers, their continued health demonstrated Jesus’ authority over the shrine’s spirits. 

Devotional images generally represent Sufi saints, Shia leaders, or relics of Muhammad. Pilgrims purchase devotional images during pilgrimages to dargahs or other religious sites. They hope that some of the spiritual power or blessing from the dargah or pir persists in the devotional image. In the mind of many folk Muslims, barkat (Urdu for blessing; baraka in Arabic) exists as a form of impersonal spiritual power that dwells in people and objects. Through their connection with Allah, pirs become conduits of this barkat. Certain holy places, especially dargahs, are places imbued with great barkat. The accumulation of barkat provides many practical blessings. An individual with a significant amount of barkat might have the power to heal the sick or divine the future. Lesser amounts of barkat still provide spiritual protection from demons, jinn, and the evil eye. The more barkat an individual has, the more powerful their prayers. 

Many relics in South Asian Islam are items imbued with great barkat. For example, in various places across South Asia are the hairs of Muhammad. For instance, Jama Masjid in Old Delhi is said to have some of Muhammad’s beard hairs. In Srinagar, India, a dargah called Hazratbal (i.e., “Honored Hair ” houses more hairs of Muhammad. Many folk Muslims understand that these kinds of relics contain barkat. Therefore, they go to these places seeking some of this spiritual power to rub off on them. At Hazratbal, when they bring out the relic containing Muhammad’s hairs, those present often prostrate themselves in honor of the prophet. Those devotees undoubtedly hope to gain some barkat from Muhammad through his beard hairs.

An Islamic leader presenting the hair of Muhammad at the Hazratbal shrine. 3Slingshot1, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Devotional images are more affordable and available than relics. It is common to have a smaller inset image of the Kaaba in Mecca in devotional images. Among both Deobandi and Barelvi Muslims, pictures depicting the Qur’an, the Kaaba, and calligraphy of verses of the Qur’an in Arabic are ordinary. Through devotional images, Sunni and Shia folk Muslims can easily be identified. Shia folk Muslims generally include images of saints riding on white horses, while Sunni images do not have white horses. The variety of devotional images in Islam is a testimony to the range of opinions among South Asian Muslims about who or what is the most significant source of barkat.

One Christian response to the Muslim concept of barkat is to demonstrate what true blessing is from Scripture. One of the most powerful sections of Scripture to do this are the Beatitudes of Matthew 5. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” These verses meet many Muslims at a felt need for blessing and then redirect them from their folk beliefs about barkat to a discussion about finding true blessing in the Lord Jesus.

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