The Jinn (spirits)
Before moving to Pakistan, I knew little about Muslims, but one of the first things I saw was pir (saint) places, where women were the best patrons. Felt needs drive them–desire for son, healing for a sick child, or relief from an abusive relationship. Requests are made and a piece of clothing tied near the pir’s tomb. This serves as a link to the saint and sign of their prayer. Most of the world’s Muslims are into such practices even though Wahabbis (ultraconservative puritans, found mostly in Saudi Arabia) strongly oppose them. Below are some reasons why they do what they do and how Christians can help.
In The Unseen Face of Islam, Bill Musk describes a Middle Eastern village where people stayed up late after electric lights were installed through the use of a generator. One night, while Ahmed (operator) was setting up more lights, he suffered a stroke. It was concluded he had been attacked by jinn. In desperation his mother took him to a saint who specializes in treatment of paralysis. After several months he began to recover. Village leaders decided that people should stay inside during evening hours, because the night belongs to the jinn. They got rid of the generator. Across the world Muslims take preventative measures to avoid the jinn. Many refuse to sleep in the dark, avoid whistling (this could call them), or vigorously snuff out their nose in the morning (Muhammad said Satan spends the night in your nose!). The Qur’an has several references to jinn, and oddly enough, some are considered okay. Once when Muhammad was rejected and alone, jinn gathered to hear him preach, and appreciated hearing the Qur’an. They were “good” jinn.
Warding off Evil
Since misfortunes are thought to be caused by hostile forces, ordinary Muslims spend much time, energy and money trying to prevent bad things from happening. Amulets with special Qur’anic verses are written and sewed into leather pouches. They are hung on ankles, arms and necks, or written on walls and vehicles for safety. The Qur’an is recited because Muhammad said, “the devil flees from a house where it is read.” Select names of God are inscribed on trucks and good luck charms hung in taxis. Angels are called upon for help, as are prophets, like Solomon, who had power over jinn (Qur’an 2:102). The hand of Fatima (Muhammad’s daughter) is engraved in necklaces to guard against the evil eye (belief that a look can bewitch or cause harm), or part of a doorknob. Marshes, latrines and garbage dumps (thought to be inhabited by jinn) are avoided. If one has to go to such a place, bismilla (in the name of God) is repeated for protection. Mashallah (whatever God wills) may be written on the foundation of a new house to shield it from the eye of envy. And, Islamic traditions say when a man has sexual relations with his wife, he should ask Allah to protect them from Satan. Otherwise any child born of the union could be a devil (Al Bukhari 1, p. 105, no. 143)
Divination is forbidden in the Qur’an, but many Muslims still do it, for fear of what lies ahead. One way to find out is through the rosary (tasbee) or prayer beads (used to repeat God’s 99 names). In order to decide if a business venture should be undertaken, Muslims call on spiritual “experts.” The rosary is rubbed, breathed on, and the Fatiha (first chapter of the Qur’an) read. After randomly choosing a bead, a saint counts toward the pointer, one bead at a time: “Yes,” “No,” “Maybe.” If the count ends on “yes” one can move forward with confidence. Or, when direction is needed, an expert may open the Qur’an and randomly choose a verse. The verse is read, and hopefully bears some relevance to the question at hand. If not, another is selected. Called Ishtikara (“cutting the Qur’an”) it is one of many ways to seek guidance. Before ultrasound, when a woman wanted to know the sex of her unborn, she consulted a midwife. The midwife would wrap a handkerchief around an egg, slowly tighten the cloth, and repeat, “boy, girl, boy, girl…” Hopefully, the egg would break on “boy”!
Holy Days and Nights
When Gamal Abdel Nasser, President of Egypt, passed away in 1970, newspapers said he died on a “holy night.” Belief that dying on a lucky day helps one gain paradise is not uncommon. Nor is the idea that some days are dangerous because of the jinn. In Morocco, jinn are believed to be busy during mid-afternoon prayers. In Iran, they are active at twilight, Saturday belongs to the jinn, but Muharram (first month of the Islamic calendar) is favorable. (This is when Shi’ites mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.) In Egypt, Thursday is a good day to begin hajj (pilgrimage) and sleep with your wife. In Pakistan, Thursday is the day to beg, and an auspicious day to die. In Algeria (Kabyle), mourners visit tombs on five consecutive Fridays. In Nigeria, Friday is the queen of days, but in the Philippines, it is the day when the King of jinn roams freely. In some places, to wash clothes on Wednesday, is to do so with sadness.
Getting God's Ear
The title of this book by Eleanor Doumato speaks volumes. Its sub-title, Women, Islam and Healing in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, suggests that despite the best efforts of Wahabbis, folk practices exist there as well. As previously mentioned, women visit saints when they cannot bear a son. In Pakistan, it was not unusual to meet a man with the name “Pir Baksh” (given by the saint). When a woman visits a saint, there is water to drink, relics to kiss, and vows taken that something will be given back if and when the request is granted. Doumato wonders about the “placebo effect,” but in any event, saints and sons often go together. A woman we knew in South Asia had a son after visiting a local saint. The saint was a sayyid (descendent of Muhammad)–as many claim–because such a lineage gives power and prestige. A Qur’anic verse was written on a piece of paper and hung around her neck. However, in contrast to blessing, sometimes God’s names are used with evil intent. For example, one of his 99 names, al-Qahar (all-powerful One) has the potential to bring harm and even death to an enemy.
Power of Curses
Some years ago, our close friends in South Asia suffered a terrible tragedy. The husband, a strong, healthy police officer, suddenly got sick and died. His widow informed my wife it was no accident. A disgruntled relative had put a curse on her, but somehow it missed, and struck her husband. Left with ten children the burden was almost more than she could bear. Fear of curses, misfortunes or the evil eye, drives ordinary Muslims to do all in their power to prevent them. They avoid anyone suspected of having the evil eye, use a variety of spiritual prophylactics, and carefully watch the calendar.
I have never forgotten the words of a former student who said the more she learned about Muslims the more her heart was breaking for them. She is now a worker in Central Asia. We cannot all become missionaries to Muslims, but we can understand their struggles and cry out to God for their salvation. Though situations of folk practice vary according to context, their conditions do not. Folk Muslims are trapped, estranged, rejected and have no place to turn but pirs. On their lips is a desperate prayer, and in their hands a piece of cloth to hang on the tomb of a dead saint. As Jesus looked at such people, “He was moved with compassion because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). As Ramez Atallah from Egypt said at Lausanne IV in Cape Town: “We must recognize that the Church’s real battle is … ‘against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age’ (Ephesians 6:12). How we as a Church fight this cosmic battle is a cosmic matter, and the armor of God is our spiritual equipment that moves us forward to victory.” The world is becoming increasingly fearful of ISIS, and other violent groups, but we know that what ordinary Muslims need most is deliverance from satanic bondage and the power of evil spirits. “[God] is not wanting any to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9).