Folk Islamic Ritual #10: 786 and Bismallah

This blog post is the tenth 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.

Abjad is a system, often used by Muslim mystics, to assign numerical values to various Arabic or Persian letters. South Asian Sufis are known to use this system. Here is the assignment of numbers to different Urdu characters.

The Abjad system. From Mehr Afshan Farooqi, “The Secret of Letters: Chronograms in Urdu Literary Culture.” Edebiyat: Journal of Middle Eastern Literatures 13.2 (2002): 158.

Therefore, 786 represents bismillahir rahmanir rahim (“in the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful). See the assignment of the abjad numbers below. The sum of these numbers is 786.

The abjad system applied to the Arabic text of the bismallah.

In South Asia, 786 is one of the most common formulas among Muslims to attain good fortune or avoid difficulties. Some Muslim students will write 786 on their exams, hoping for a good grade. Muslim truck or rickshaw drivers paint 786 on their vehicles, hoping for safety from accidents. Some Muslim truck drivers place a variety of images, Qur’anic verses, and other religious iconography on their trucks for protection and barkat. Some Muslims feel that they will be blessed if they have 786 in their phone number or on the number plate of their car. In Muslim areas in North India, the number 786 is ubiquitous. I have asked numerous Muslims what the meaning of 786 is, and many do not know its meaning. They have simply understood that 786 means good luck and protection.

There has been some debate among South Asian Muslims if it is appropriate to use 786, the Deobandis support the use of this number for bismillah, while Salafis, like Zakir Naik, tend to discourage its usage. The use of 786 in South Asia is a testimony to the Islamic folk use of the phrase bismillah. Many Muslims believe that every act should be accompanied by bismillah. If they take a bite of food, it should be eaten with bismillah. If they drive their car or motorbike, they should begin with bismillah. As they walk down the road, they should say bismillah. The meaning behind saying this phrase depends on the theological belief of the speaker. Some use this phrase from an orthodox perspective to simply remember Allah and to give him honor in whatever they do. Others use this phrase as a means of protection and blessing.

Every Surah of the Qur’an (except Surah 9), begins with bismillah. Bismillah is a customary phrase to begin dua prayers in Islam. When praying for Muslims in South Asia, we need to be aware of the bismillah’s ubiquity. Muslims often expect that we will pray with our hands open, palms upward, and open eyes. For them, prayers begin with bismillah. Instead of praying in the name of Allah, we pray in the name of Hazrat Isa al-Masih. Before praying for Muslims, I always explain to them that I am a follower of Jesus and that I will pray for them in the manner that Jesus taught His disciples. I usually pray with my eyes open and palms upward, but then I simply pray in the way that Jesus taught. There is power in our prayers for Muslims. Muslims are often surprised by our relationship with God as we pray for them. When ministering to folk Muslims, we should take every possible opportunity to pray for them in Jesus’ name.

If you found this article helpful, click below to read all of my articles on Folk Islamic rituals. https://nocousinsleft.com/2022/10/18/folk-islamic-rituals/

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