by Merlin W. Inniger
By and large, the religion of Islam has been presented to Western readers in its theologically orthodox aspect. Anyone who has read a fair amount of material on Islam is familiar with the confession, “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammad is his prophet.”
By and large, the religion of Islam has been presented to Western readers in its theologically orthodox aspect. Anyone who has read a fair amount of material on Islam is familiar with the confession, "There is no god but Allah, and Mohammad is his prophet." It is also widely known that the religious practice of Muslims is based on the "five pillars," viz., recitation of the creed, prayers, fasting, alms, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. Or thodox Muslim beliefs about Christ and denials of the Trinity are likewise common knowledge of Christians who have even a superficial interest in Islamic studies.
What is not so well known is that the practice of Islam among the common people differs widely from the "ideal" Islam that is preached in many mosques and explained in books. My own observation and experience is limited largely to Pakistan, where I have served since 1954, but the reality and existence throughout the Muslim world of a "popular Islam" as distinct from the "ideal Islam" was observed and explained more than 40 years ago by Dr. Samuel Zwemer, particularly in his Studies in Popular Islam (1939). Recently, a paper written for the North American Conference on Muslim Evangelization (October, 1978) has also called attention to this phenomenon (Popular Islam: The Hunger of the Heart by Bill Musk).
Missionary outreach that has been dominated by Western personnel and funds has tended to present the Gospel in an intellectual way, more as a set. of propositions which must be rationally accepted rather than as the power and grace of the Person of Christ who meets daily, felt needs. This whole tendency and thrust is evident in literature produced and distributed, correspondence courses offered, and in preaching and teaching as well. Not that the propositions are unimportant, or the teaching of Christian doctrine unnecessary! I am personally committed to such teaching, and to the production and distribution of literature. But the danger is that we minister only to the head, rather than to the heart and the emotions! Unless Christian witnesses and evangelists take heed to the "hunger of the heart" and the deeply felt needs of the masses, only the few who are able to read and understand doctrinal issues will be reached.
SOME FEATURES OF PAKISTANI "POPULAR ISLAM"
Millions of the common people of Pakistan wear somewhere on their bodies a charm or amulet (ta’ wiz) which is supposed to ward off evil and bring good luck. The ta’wiz consists of a Quranic formula, written by someone thought to have spiritual authority, enclosed in a small metal case and suspended by a black thread. In the same way, the Holy Quran itself is believed to have the capacity to bless, to bring happiness, to ward off evil. Not that one needs to read and understand the text, but the very presence of the Holy Book is enough to bring such blessing. The Book, for this reason, is highly reverenced, kept away from "unclean" places or things, and placed above other objects in the room.
Some years ago a village woman in Pakistan asked me for a copy of the Injil (Gospel, New Testament). Knowing she was totally illiterate, I asked her why she wanted it. Her answer was that she would place it under her pillow each night, and thus she and her children would be safe from the "evil eye, " and become prosperous. At that time, I tried to dissuade her from such an idea. But I now see that a better response would have been to give her the book, let her use it for the time being according to her simple faith, then encourage her to have a neighbor read it to her, or learn to read it herself through the adult literacy method.
The pir (spiritual guide or holy man) also occupies a very important place in the common man’s religion throughout Pakistan. There are countless numbers of these "holy men" who receive great reverence as well as gifts in cash or kind from their followers. Many pirs belong to one of the four Sufi (mystic) orders, and thus constitute a hierarchy of sorts. Those who occupy high positions in this hierarchy wield tremendous power and play an influential role in public affairs. Besides these, there are many self-appointed pirs who practice locally without being officially a part of one of the four orders. A pir’s power and authority may pass on to one of his murids (disciples) who may also be a son or near relative.
A pir’s darbar or court, when open, is usually filled with crowds of his followers who have come for his counsel, intercession, or special blessing. A ta’wiz which is written by an influential pir is considered especially effective in warding off evil and bringing blessing. Muslim wives who have not been successful in providing sons for their husbands will be found in abundance in the court of a pir, asking for his intercession and blessing in what is to them the most important thing in life. Many others will be there, seeking favors, or just to absorb the sanctity and charisma resident in one so favored of Allah.
In such a system, so deep-rooted among Muslims of South Asia, there are without doubt many unworthy men who thrive on the primitive faith and devotion of their followers. But there are others as well who possess the kind of authority and charisma which, according to their light and understanding, meets the needs of multitudes of the common people. Although there is no authority for this practice in the Quran, the veneration of pirs in Islamic society throughout Pakistan and India surely reveals a deep spiritual hunger and a residue of primitive faith that predates Islam.
How may a faithful Christian witness be given to Muslims whose lives are so closely bound to and influenced by the pir’s authority? One can readily agree that, at least in the initial stages, literature will not be very effective, and presentation of bare Christian theology will not penetrate this veil of superstition and tradition in the hearts of multitudes.
Should there be "Christian pirs" who can exercise a spiritual ministry among searching souls and needy people, and who can ultimately point such people to the only true Mediator between God and man? (Cf. 1 Timothy 2:5.) We can expect there will be a response if we begin on the level where they are. Recently, in Pakistan, a young soldier whom I met while traveling told me all about his pir. He related to me how this pir had at one time regained his speech after being unable to utter a sound for 15 years, and since then had exercised great power in fulfilling the needs of his followers. After listening to his enthusiastic testimony, I asked, "Would you like to hear about my pir?" I’ve seldom had a more intent listener as I told him of one who invited all who were weary and heavy-laden to come, who healed the sick and blessed little children, and finally laid down his life for his followers, yet arose the third day and lives on. When we finally parted, the soldier assured me he wanted to learn more. We need to talk in idiom people can understand.
The aura and influence of the "holy man" goes on after he is dead and buried. This explains the existence of hundreds of shrines throughout Pakistan where yearly melas (festivals) draw multitudes who seek the fulfillment of needs and, above all, peace of heart.
At Pakpattan, in the Punjab, devotees flock to worship at the shrine of Baba Farid, a well-known 13th century saint, and to seek his intercession. Singers, instrumentalists, and drum beaters heighten the emotion of the scene, and derveshes dance themselves into wajid (ecstasy). Here is found the Bahishti Darwaza (Door to Paradise), and believers wait in long lines to pass through this door, for anyone who does so during the festival is promised a sure entrance to Heaven. Here one meets not only the poor and illiterate, but intellectuals, government officials, and wealthy landlords also. National leaders recognize the great influence of this festival, which is usually inaugurated by some important official.
At Bhit Shah, located 30 miles north of Hyderabad, Sind, the shrine of Shad Abdul Latif, a great poet and philosopher, is similarly venerated by the Sindhi people. In the Punjab’s great cultural center, Lahore, the shrine of that city’s patron saint, Data Ganj Bakhsh, dominates the religious life of more than a million Punjabis.
REACHING OUT FOR REALITY
Many more examples could be cited, but the above should be sufficient to indicate that the Muslims of South Asia reach out for more than orthodox Islam can supply. The journeys to the shrines, the desire for intercession, the offerings given to the pir all reflect personal, felt needs of human beings. There are the physical needs, the request for healing, the desire to have a son-, there are the outstretched hands seeking blessing, charisma, or grace from one close to Allah. But deeper than all of these is the need for peace of heart, that spiritual rest which was once promised by Jesus in a very definite I uncomplicated way.
Do Christians, national Christians and missionaries alike, recognize these needs? To be honest, we have not recognized them as we ought. What are some things that would bring us closer to the masses, and make us more available to them?
1. We need to depend more on prayer, less on material means. Privately and publicly (public prayer is no shame or stumbling block to Muslims), we need to be far more a praying people.
2. We need more illumination of the Spirit. Knowing our Bibles is not enough. We need to demonstrate that we are led by the Spirit, and that we discern needs and reach out to meet them. We need to look to God for more actual demonstration in "signs and wonders."
3. Our preaching needs more spirit and zeal – yes, more emotion, if you will! Zeal "with knowledge," to be sure, but truth and knowledge must be on fire!
4. Finally, is the Western Church which still sends out missionaries willing to pay the price to reach the masses of South Asia with the love of Jesus? Materialism and other values that western Christians have embraced are rejected by many easterners. Faith, hope, and love must have a revival in our churches soon, or the opportunity to reach many for Christ will be lost.
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