C. CULTIC TRENDS IN POPULAR ISLAM.
1. The Veneration of Saints and Pirs in Islam.
One of the great phenomena in Islam is the widespread veneration of saints and tomb-worship that for many Muslims is their religion, orthodox Islam having very much a secondary place. Conservative Muslims frown upon the plethora of rites, superstitions and practices that are found in popular Islam but for centuries it has held its own alongside orthodox Islam and is likely to sustain its influence in future.
Within a few centuries of Muhammad's death a deeply mystical worship-form took root within Islam. Persia and India's two great religions, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism, were mystical in essence and converts to Islam found it impossible to conform solely to the rites and outward forms of their new religion. The dry legalism of Arabian Islam soon found itself challenged by a very different form of religious expression and Sufism, Islam's mystical arm, quickly rooted itself within the Islamic realm. In its early days it was strongly ascetic and its adherents were a selection mainly of individual purists seeking to unite themselves spiritually to the Divine Being. In later centuries, however, as Sufism became more attractive to the masses, so it degenerated into a public mass-movement where "saints" (generally called pirs in Indian Islam), both dead and living, were sought out for miracles, powers and various blessings. To this day the Muslims in much of the Islamic world follow not so much Muhammad, the Qur'an and Islam, but the cult-worship of the local saint, being more concerned about obtaining his barakah ("blessing" in the form of power and miracles) than the favour of Allah.
The power of a saint is called baraka, blessing, and this is imagined as almost intangible. By kissing the saint's hand or tomb, this power passes to the worshipper who will be helped by it. (Tritton, Islam, p. 143).
The cult-worship has many forms indicating Sufi origins and inclinations. Each pir has his own order and way of life (tariqah) and his followers, once inducted, must follow this way implicitly. It is only through total obedience to the pir that the murid, the disciple, will be able to obtain the power of the pir and come to the knowledge of God.
Although there are many to this day who endeavour to become genuine Sufis, the masses have simply attached themselves to pir and tomb-worship, seeking not to be admitted to a spiritual way of life, but rather to obtain whatever blessings and assistance they can through superstitions, cultic influences and animistic practices. This has led to faith in amulets and talismans, occultic experiences and other forms contrary to the spirit, not only of legalistic Islam, but also of Sufism itself. It seems appropriate, therefore, to distinguish between Sufism and popular, cultic Islam, and in this section we will consider the latter as a separate movement of the masses.
All over the Muslim world one finds domed shrines and other elaborate structures covering the tomb of a departed saint. In India such a shrine is known as a mazaar. Believing that the saint's powers can still be acquired after his death and that his spirit frequents his tomb, Muslim devotees, both men and women, flock to these shrines and express their petitions in various ways. A Christian missionary speaks of his experiences at one of these tombs:
Some of these shrines are of great antiquity and it is not even known who is buried there. In other cases mazaars rise over the supposed tombs of departed saints and as long as reports of signs and wonders flow in, no one bothers to question further whether the saints are actually buried there or not. A well-known European scholar has given an interesting insight into the creation of the shrine of a supposed saint known as Abu Turab in Egypt:
There can be little doubt that Muhammad would be displeased if he could see what passes for Islam in much of the Muslim world today. In the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal there is a tradition to the effect that he warned against the veneration of his tomb (Wensinck, A Handbook of Early Muhammadan Tradition, p. 168) and in the Qur'an he expresses his distaste for those who take their ahbarahum (religious leaders) and ruhbanahum (monks and ascetics) as their lords apart from Allah (Surah 9.31). The veneration of saints and universal tomb-worship have become a subtle substitute for idolatry in Islam and have accordingly been severely condemned by scholarly Muslims. One says:
Each saint has a festival, known as an Urs, which occurs on his birthday or, if he is deceased, on the anniversary of his death. On this occasion celebrations of various kinds take place and offerings are brought to his tomb. Naturally it is expected that greater blessings will flow to the masses of his devotees at this time:
Usually the saint has an annual festival. In Egypt this is called mawlid, birthday, and is very popular; there may be a procession, prayers in the mosque, and a fair; all tastes are catered for and all enjoy themselves. (Tritton, Islam, p. 144).
In India and Pakistan the Urs of a departed saint is widely advertised and devotees will travel great distances to participate in the festivities.
2. The Supposed MiracuIous Powers of the Saints.
To the ordinary tomb-worshipper, the chief object of his devotion is the miracle-working power of the saint (generally known as a wali, meaning a kinsman or one closely-related, in this case to Allah). Throughout the animistic world there is a fear of the unknown ant a feeling that the departed, who now know it all, can give succour and strength. In Africa this takes the form of the worship of ancestral spirits, in Islam of departed saints.
Accordingly even those who live this side of the grave, if they can show that they have power over the occult, will soon be regarded as saints and their help will be sought in cases where men or women are troubled by evil spirits.
Muslims nevertheless are very careful to distinguish between the miracles of the prophets and those of the saints as pointed out in an earlier chapter. Each prophet performs a mu'jizah and his miracles are known as his ayat, his "signs", whereas the miracles of the saints are known as karamat and the word hujjah is usually used to describe the saint's "proof" of his powers. Indeed in South Africa, whereas the shrines of Indian Muslim saints are known as mazaars (there are three in Durban and one in Cape Town), the shrines of Malay saints, all of which are found in the Cape Peninsula (one is on Robben Island), are known as kramats, signifying the supposed miracle-working power of the man who is buried within the shrine.
There are many other superstitions in the Muslim world relating to miraculous powers and effects. It is believed that the Qur'an itself has talismanic powers and more will be said of this shortly. At present, however, it will be useful to mention one or two ways in which it is believed that its text can be made to work miracles.
The shrine of the saint has arisen in Islam alongside the mosque as a symbol of popular worship. While many of the practices found at these shrines are an abomination to orthodox Islam, one cannot help feeling that the shrines themselves testify to the inability of the legalistic religion of the mosque to satisfy the inner longings and yearnings of the heart.
3. Major Superstitions in the World of Islam.
Talismans, amulets and charms of every description are used throughout the Muslim world and we will only be able to speak of some of the more prominent symbols.
A very common amulet in Islam is the ta'wiz, a black cord or other substance worn on the body which has a Qur'an text usually inscribed on a piece of metal sown completely into it at one point.
It is not unlike the Jewish phylactery worn around the forehead but has a somewhat different significance. The Muslim wears it to ward off evil spirits and as a healing charm against illnesses and diseases. In India a ta'wiz is often given to someone just after a spirit has been exorcised:
A similar talisman, also sometimes sown into a ta'wiz, is the magic square. These squares have a selection of numbers placed within them which generally add up to a figure considered to be of special importance and one possessing occultic powers.
These squares have been widely used in India for centuries and, as usual, are believed to have wonder-working powers and effects.
It is believed that such charms give a person power over others and the ability to ensure that they react in ways planned by the possessor of the square. Many a young man has sought to win the affection of a woman he is infatuated with through this means!
The Khoumsa, the five-fingered hand, is also a common amulet in the Muslim world and is widely known as "Fatima's Hand". It is often hung around the necks of animals to keep them from disease. Chiefly, however, it is used as a form of magical power and, like the square, is believed to possess sinister powers to influence for good or evil. Usually the hand is made of silver though other substances may be used.
Some say that the five fingers represent Muhammad, his daughter Fatima, her husband Ali, and their sons Hassan and Husain. In South Africa this amulet appears during the annual Ta'ziah procession commemorating the martyrdom of Husain and his followers at Karbala. Some of the ta'ziahs, floats of the tombs of the martyrs, have stars and crescents above the domes but others have cardboard symbols of the outstretched hand covered in silver foil. In other parts of the Islamic world this symbol is regularly painted on houses. It serves a multitude of purposes.
Human hair is also believed to possess strange powers in cultic Islam. Many Muslims, after having their hair cut, will be careful to remove all the hairs on the floor, take them home in a packet, and carefully conceal them. They fear that an enemy, if in possession of his hairs, will be able to use them against him in the same way that voodoo dolls are used to injure those they represent.
The reason for these scruples about hairs, which also apply to nail-clippings and the like, is that it is believed that the soul occupies every part of the body and anyone in the possession of such hairs or clippings can therefore influence the soul of the man he despises. These beliefs have, on the other hand, led to a wide pursuit after the hairs of Muhammad himself, a practice said to go back to his own lifetime. Because it is believed that his hairs actually contain part of his soul and therefore guarantee his presence and blessing, they are more sought after than any other relics from his life. I have seen one such hair said to be from Muhammad's own beard on public display in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul.
But the relic which is the object of the most energetic search is the hair of the Prophet's head or beard. The hair was worn as an amulet, and men on their deathbed directed by will that the precious possession should go down with them and mingle with the earth. (Goldziher, "The Cult of Saints in Islam", The Muslim World, Vol. 1, p. 306).
Lastly mention should be made of a common sacrifice known as the Aqiqah which Muslims perform at the birth of a child. This sacrifice is not mentioned in the Qur'an but the Hadith teach that it was practiced during the time of Muhammad and that he allowed the practice without sanctioning it (Muwatta Imam Malik, p. 225). The ceremony is set out as follows in this account:
None of the hairs of the child are cut until the seventh day when the ceremony duly takes place. It appears to have no obvious Islamic significance and is probably derived from the Jewish practice of redeeming the first-born in any Israelite family with a sacrifice (Exodus 13.11-22). One writer has pointed out that in Tirmithi's collection of traditions there is indeed a hadith which specifically links the Muslim Aqiqah to the Jewish ceremony:
It will be useful at this stage to see what cultic influences there were during Muhammad's own life so as to determine whether all these strange practices found their way into Islam from animistic sources or whether some are not in fact actually Islamic in origin.
4. Cultic Influences in the Life of Muhammad.
There is a strange story found in the commentary of Al-Baidawi which tells of an occasion when Muhammad fell under a Jewish spell and the way in which he was delivered from it. The story, very briefly, is as follows:
It is said that on this occasion the angel Gabriel revealed the last two surahs of the Qur'an to Muhammad and told him to recite these short chapters to ward off such evil designs. The Surahs read:
Say: I seek refuge with the Lord and Cherisher of Mankind, the Ring (or Ruler) of Mankind, the Got (or Judge) of Mankind, from the mischief of the Whisperer (of Evil), who withdraws (after his whisper), (The same) who whispers into the hearts of Mankind, among Jinns and among Men. Surah 114.1-5.
In these two surahs we find a connection between the cultic practices in the Muslim world and the practice of Muhammad himself. There is no other passage in the Qur'an quite like these two and they stand alone at the end of the book as a strange appendix. Their very nature, however, has made them very popular among the masses and they are constantly used against magical practices, spells and other evil influences.
Another writer refers to the incident in Muhammad's life in which the Jew Lubaid had cast a spell on him and makes reference to these two surahs which were supposedly revealed at this time:
We find therefore that even during Muhammad's own lifetime there were practices in Islam of cultic origin and it is most significant to find the remedy written into the Qur'an text. The practice of chanting selected passages as a form of refuge from the forces of evil was allegedly resorted to even by Gabriel himself on one occasion when Muhammad fell ill. One of the early Sirat works contains this tradition which was allegedly handed down by Muhammad's wife Ayishah:
Muhammad is said to have recommended another prayer of refuge in cases where people fell seriously ill. It is recorded in this tradition:
Another hadith on the same page states that whenever Muhammad fell ill he would recite the last three surahs of the Qur'an and blow his breath upon himself. These cultic practices perhaps became the precedents for the widespread trust in chantings, amulets and talismans in Islam as forms of protection against the powers of darkness. Certainly they are an encouragement to the Muslim masses to persist with their superstitious heritage, for if Muhammad himself did not disdain to use such means to ward off evil, why should they not do likewise? A Western writer comments on the character of the first of the two final surahs of the Qur'an:
On the contrary another writer says: "There is no convincing evidence that any belief in magical practices was retained in the Qur'an or by Muhammad himself. Islam certainly retained rites that had been magical in origin, but the Qur'an does not show signs of belief in their magical efficacy" (Watt, Muhammad at Medina, p. 312). The last two surahs of the Qur'an do, however, suggest that Muhammad believed strongly in the power of chanting appropriate passages to ward off the effects of magical rites and these surahs have become widely used throughout the Muslim world to this day for this very purpose.
Muhammad was obviously not enslaved to such cultic forms in his own life and he seems to have had little to do with them. He would probably be dismayed to see the extent to which such cultic influences and practices have taken root in the lives of the masses in many Muslim lands today. On the other hand he did not entirely reject such practices as a means of resisting evil forces and in both the Qur'an and the Hadith we find some evidence of occasions when he resorted to them himself.
5. The Qur'an as a Talismanic Source.
Not only are the last two surahs of the Qur'an recited by Muslims as a protection against evil but other passages have become means of keeping the feared, unknown powers of the occult at bay. The thirty-sixth surah, known simply as Ya Sin (to which we have referred earlier in this book) is believed to possess magical powers.
Every missionary knows that the Koran itself has the power of a fetish in popular Islam ... At funerals they always read the chapter "Y.S."; and then, in fear of jinn and spirits, the chapter of the Jinn. One has only to read this last chapter with the commentaries on it to see how large a place the doctrine occupies in popular Islam. (Zwemer, The Influence of Animism on Islam, p. 22).
We have already seen that appropriate Qur'anic verses sealed in a ta'wiz are believed to help the bearer and to protect him from illness and evil influences. Trust in talismans and amulets with verses of the Qur'an inscribed on them is widespread in the Muslim world. The book itself is now a charm allegedly possessing wide cultic powers and for many this serves as its chief purpose in life.
A common cultic practice relating to the Qur'an in the Muslim world is known as istikharah (meaning "asking favours of someone). It is said that Muhammad taught that anyone desiring to know in any particular matter whether it is good or bad before God, or whether what he is about to undertake is good for his faith and life or injurious to it, he should perform two raka'at and recite a prayer for guidance, asking Allah to make the way easy if it is according to his will, or to put it away from the supplicant if it is not. This very simple and commendable injunction has, however, been perverted to superstitious uses" (Hughes, A Dictionary of Islam, p. 221). Today it has become customary to seek such guidance by simply counting through the beads of a rosary or by randomly opening the Qur'an and blindly placing a finger on any given text or passage.
This practice of istikharah, when applied directly to the Qur'an, is known as "cutting the Qur'an" and the enquirer will seek out a-suitable mullah to perform the practice for him. After a few ritual prayers and the repetition of these words from the Qur'an: "With Him are the keys of the Unseen, the treasures that none knoweth but He. He knoweth whatever there is on the earth and in the sea" (Surah 6.59), the mullah will then give a salutation to Muhammad and his household ("Prayer and peace be unto him and his people and his family ) and will thereafter proceed as follows:
Not only are the verses of the Qur'an believed to possess certain powers but the book itself is regarded with awe It is believed to be very dangerous to put it on the ground and it is usually read on small stands and when not in use is placed on the highest shelf in the home properly wrapped up Muslims even believe that it is very unwise to leave a Qur'an lying open by itself without reading it as the devil is then supposed to come along and read it. Far from delivering the masses from superstitious and animistic thinking, the Qur'an itself has in many ways become a victim of their cultic tendencies .
6. The Fear of Demons and the Evil-Eye.
Throughout the Muslim world there is a pervading fear of the occult world and of the power of sorcerers. The existence of demons is universally admitted by Muslims and they are always referred to as the jinn, the Qur'anic name for those strange beings made of fire. According to the Qur'an jinn are very similar to men and can believe or disbelieve God's revelations. A company of jinn is said to have been converted after listening to the Qur'an being recited by Muhammad during his journey to at-Ta'if (Surah 72.1-5). The experience of demon-possession and the widespread influence of the powers of darkness has led the masses today to generally identify the jinn as evil spirits and a fear of demons and their power exists all over the world of Islam.
It is lamentable to witness how powerful an ascendancy superstition sways over the minds of Asiatics generally The very wisest, most learned, most religious, even, are more or less tinctured with this weakness) and, I may add, that I have hardly met with one person entirely free from the opinion that witchcraft and evil agency are in the hands of some, and often permitted to be exercised on their neighbours. (Meer Hassan Ali, Observations on the Mussulmauns of India, Vol. 2, p. 357).
Demon-possession is a common experience where superstitions and cultic practices abound. The Islamic world also has its exorcists and selective rites are conducted by them in each individual case to secure a deliverance.
These devices include the use of magic circles, specific incantations, breathing on flowers which are then thrown at the victim, and in some cases the demoniac himself is severely beaten to drive out the demon. It is common to endeavour to get the demon to reveal and name himself as it is believed that it then becomes easier to communicate with him and so dislodge him. The following experiences make interesting reading:
One cannot help noticing how similar these manifestations are to those found in the Gospel records of exorcisms performed by Jesus Christ. Although Muslims are inclined to identify these spirits with the jinn of the Qur'an, it appears that they are more easily recognisable as demons pure and simple such as we find mentioned in the Bible.
A famous exorcism ceremony in Islam is the zar. The exorcist must be of the same sex as the victim and begins the ceremony with music as it is believed that music has the power to expel demons. A group gathers around the victim and a sacrifice of a fowl or sheep follows while the singing and music continues together with recitations of the Fatihah. The ceremony ends when the victim, seated in the middle of the group, falls to the ground in a trance. Incense is also believed to possess exorcist powers and is burnt in the room where the ceremony takes place.
There is also a general belief in the power of magic-workers and others to cause demon-possession. Particularly feared is Isabatul-'Ain, the "Evil-Bye", a searching, penetrating glance either from one of the jinn or from another human being which is capable of captivating its victim and enslaving him to the power of demons. There is a particular fear of the power of the evil-eye over children.
Muhammad himself is said to have feared a Jewish woman who had the power of the evil-eye and in a few traditions we find him openly acknowledging its influence. One reads:
In another tradition we find Muhammad recommending chanting of appropriate verses as a remedy for the evil-eye. It is one among many in the collection in which it appears dealing with ways of curing this problem and again confirms Muhammad's convictions about the evil-eye:
Another tradition on the same page says that Muhammad saw a small girl in the house of Umm Salama with black stains on her face and told her that it was due to the influence of the evil-eye and that it could only be cured with the help of incantations.
The widespread superstitions in popular Islam, the universal reliance on charms, talismans and amulets, the regular exorcism ceremonies and the like, all testify to the universal influence and power of the forces of the occult over the Muslim masses. The need not only for the preaching of the Gospel among Muslims but also for a ministry of deliverance and healing through the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ is altogether obvious.
Muhammad and The Religion of Islam: Table of Contents
Answering Islam Home Page