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Islam’s Public and Private Face
The 2016 hajj (pilgrimage) has just ended, and it was a very public event indeed, watched on television by millions of people all over the world. As the last of five pillars, the Qur’an says the religion has now been “perfected” (5:3). This year, approximately two million Muslims–all the way from Morocco in West Africa to Malaysia in S. E. Asia–converged on the black-robed, holy Ka’aba.
They were following in the steps of their prophet Muhammad, who by his own example, led the way on a spiritual journey that spans several days.The highpoint of the Hajj was the second day, when devotees sat in solitude (or stood) on the Plains of Arafat, ten miles outside Mecca. It was an emotional time, and some wept, pleading with the Almighty to forgive their sins, and help them be better persons. A few climbed the rocky hill of Mount of Mercy, where it is believed Muhammad gave his farewell message in 630 AD.
The other four pillars are also quite public: Many pray openly five times a day, fast publicly from sunup to sundown during the month of Ramadan, give alms to the poor, and publicly repeat the shahada (confession of faith): “There is no God but God and Muhammad is the apostle of God.”
What is not public is that most Muslims (perhaps three-quarters) are into folk stuff, mixing so-called orthodox Islam (five pillars and strict monotheistic beliefs) with popular practices. Here, life revolves around charms, amulets, curses, blessings and a whole lot of fear. These are some of the topics in my current online class (The Spirit World of Islam), offered through the Zwemer Center at Columbia International University. Students (often living in Islamic contexts) find it is very important to understand the unseen face of Islam as they try to share the Gospel with their Muslim friends. However, since many folk practices are hidden, they must look more closely at the world view and belief systems of those around them.
Doing Daily Battle
Illness does not just happen, says the ordinary Muslim; it happens because of forces like the evil eye and other menacing realities, so they take preventative measures. To avoid the jinn (demons), they may sleep with the light on, and vigorously blow their nose in the morning (Muhammad said Satan spends the night in the upper part of your nose!). They also refrain from whistling as this could attract unwanted attention from the spirit world. Since calamity is caused by malevolent beings, Muslims spend much time, energy and money trying to ensure safety. New-born babies are particularly vulnerable, so may be kept hidden for forty days, and black soot is painted under their eyes to keep jinn away. Mothers say a beautiful baby is ugly, and a precocious child dumb to confuse harmful spirits. Unmarried girls may also be at risk. The mother of a beautiful daughter worries that the mother of one less attractive might inflict harm through envy. In some contexts, amulets with special Qur’anic verses are sewed into leather pouches and hung on ankles, arms and necks, or written on walls and vehicles.
Angels are also called upon for help in this struggle, as are prophets, like Solomon, who allegedly 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 and may be sketched on door knobs. Marshes, latrines and garbage dumps (thought to be inhabited by jinn) are dangerous, so when visiting such a place, bismilla (in the name of God) is repeated for protection. Mashallah (whatever God wills) is often written on the foundation of a new house to shield it from an envious neighbor. The Traditions (Hadith) say that when a man has sexual relations with his wife, he should ask God for protection from Satan, otherwise any child born of the union could be a devil (Sahih al Bukhari, vol. 1, no. 143).
Seeking to be a Blessing
In their quest for protection and safety from harm and danger, Muslims desire baraka (blessing), but think of it as gaining power or luck. As Christ-followers, we know that the true meaning of blessing is joy and trust, unmarred by fear and care. Since we are God’s children, we can praise him at all times, because he is looking out for us. The fact that Jesus is alive (Muhammad is dead) and always present through the indwelling Spirit will strike a responsive chord in many a Muslim heart. Stressing the work of Christ as mediator between God and humans results in comfort and peace. They need physical, emotional and spiritual healing and the gospel brings true blessing. Christians must make much of Jesus as the only one who has the power to save them from Satan, fear of evil spirits and terror of the grave. And they must take every opportunity to pray in the powerful name of Jesus.
It is little wonder that the favorite verse for many Muslims who took Bible correspondence courses during our long ministry in Pakistan was, “Come unto me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest … I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls …” (Mt. 11:28‑30). Now, Muslims from all over the world are moving into our neighborhoods, joining us in the work force, and studying with us in school. We need to understand where they’re coming from in every sense of the word and reach out to them with the love of Christ.
The greatest charm is the Qur’an. It protects buildings, buses and babies; it is kissed, wrapped in a cloth, recited at birth/death, walked under for protection, used for divining/healing, and must never be questioned or critiqued.