Research Evangelism among Folk Muslims: Calling Missionaries to Christian Cultural Anthropology

by Yakup Korkmaz

Learning the animistic or folk Islamic vocabulary of the people you are called to reach is invaluable for the Christian ethnographer.

The Bewitched Butcher
Yashar, a well-built butcher, the oldest of his siblings, is the spiritual and physical head of his household (approximately thirty relatives, including immediate family, sisters, brothers, and any others under the patriarchal line). He befriended a young Christian couple who regularly visited his butcher shop and invited them to dinner to meet the family and gain their friendship. At the first meeting Yashar asked, “Do you want me and my family to be Christians?”

“Of course!” replied the couple. “We want you to have peace, joy, and eternal life, and we would love it if you did!” Their friendship started off with no misconceptions. Taner, Yashar’s 16-year-old son, had been learning that “all Americans aren’t that bad, and maybe there is something to this Jesus as well.” A year later, Yashar and his family (meaning the whole household) came to celebrate Jesus’ birthday at the couple’s home. They heard about Jesus the Messiah and his prophecies, and were serenaded with songs and prayers in honor of his birthday and person. Everything was fine until three weeks later when Taner expressed to his father, “I would like to know more about Christ.” Yashar, now enraged, went to the couple and said, “You have cast spells on my son—now his head is mixed! If you don’t stop casting your spells, and if my son becomes a Christian, I will murder him! By the way, we threw away all of your gifts because they were amulets with curses.”  

Why a sudden change in Yashar? He had visited a Hodja (Muslim shaman) to find out why Taner would want to be a Christian, and why he was confused that maybe Christ was the way. The Hodja said, “This is too big for me! We must go to a more powerful Hodja.” The second Hodja said, “They are using a photo of Taner. In that photo, he is wearing a white shirt and they are casting spells on him. Throw the gifts away because they are cursed. He may get better if this is done.” To scare the couple into stopping the spells, Yashar threatened his son’s life if he turned to Christ. Because they feared the spiritual powers of the missionary couple, both Yashar and Taner began wearing muskas (protective amulets).

The Missionary’s Responsibility
Many missionaries to Muslims go through their missionary stints with little or no knowledge or understanding of the impact that folk Islam has on the host culture. The missionary to the Muslim can, upon arrival, begin to not only learn an important aspect of the culture (namely, folk Islam), but also use the learned information as an immediate and natural bridge to the gospel. This article provides the reader with the tools to begin his or her evangelistic research with folk Muslims in the areas of the evil eye, saint veneration, spell-casting, cursing, demons (especially the bogeyman), power words, objects of power used for protection, and spiritual men or women of power who are commonly found in Muslim countries. Throughout missiological history, ambassadors for God have been amateur cultural anthropologists (Christian ethnologists). They are called for duty to unreached lands and peoples, having the responsibility to declare the good news to people of a different language and culture. Through observation and fieldwork, ambassadors have the responsibility to understand objects, places, and people, as well as the meanings behind them. The purpose of their observation and ethnographic research is to evaluate whether or not the meanings are contrary to the word of God, therefore replacing the forms or changing their meanings to the biblical worldview of the area studied. This may be anything from replacing a wrong view of the nature of God to removing a charm on a necklace or replacing its meaning. Jesus says, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). The truth is only known to the unreached peoples by way of ambassadors who are sent to them. It is the responsibility of the ambassador not only to explain the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also to shed light on every wrong thought and practice by using the word of God in teaching and discipling. 

The Bible says, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but have divine power to destroy strongholds…and to bring every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3-5). If ambassadors to Muslims do not understand: (1) the significance of blue beads, tattoos, jewelry, or leather or metal pouches hung on vehicles and around necks; (2) the areas dedicated to divination; (3) the sites where saints are venerated, (4) certain men of power; and (5) the role of spell-casting and demons, they will never be able to fully do the work they were sent to do. Without studying the world they are surrounded by (and the meanings behind that world), they will fall short of bringing the light of the gospel to real issues that affect the lives of folk Muslims.    

The research (which is not simply gathered from reading articles and coming up with a summary of information) conducted by the missionary will bring new information to those they are interacting with on a subject familiar to them. In fact, the missionary will use the word of God and apply it directly to the area of folk Islam studied, therefore giving this new information (the truth that will set them free) to the Muslim. This is Christian cultural anthropology applied in real time and in real life. The responsibility, therefore, lies with the missionary not only to learn his or her language, but also to learn how the Muslim’s culture is contrary to or perverted from the truth of God’s word, and then apply the truth in confronting these deceptions.

Christian Ethnology

Unlike other cultural anthropologic approaches which have no moral or ethical standard on which to base their observation, conclusions, and (if need be) solutions to the research problem, the Christian ethnologist looks at cultural anthropology from the lens of scripture, which is the standard for faith and practice. The Christian ethnologist analyzes scripture from a cross-cultural perspective to deliver the message of the gospel to the culture studied. This is an integration of anthropological insight with the biblical perspective on the subject researched and observed. In short, the Christian is doing research in the field of cultural anthropology for the purpose of changing the culture of the people group studied, so that not necessarily the forms, but the meanings, will be conformed to the word of God (although the forms may have to change as well). The results of the research are transferred to the people through preaching, teaching, discipleship, and writings on these subjects in the people’s heart language. The Christian ethnologist must employ various methods of study, one being the ethnographic method, an immersion of the Christian into the lives of the people he or she is trying to understand and reach. Through this experience as a participant observer, the Christian is able to attain a level of understanding of the meanings of the various cultural practices. This time of study, observation, and ethnographic method can be referred to as research evangelism.

Research Evangelism Applied to Folk Islam

Folk Islam can be defined as “animism within Islam.” I define animism as any thinking or practice that takes trust and allegiance off the one true God. The folk Muslim believes that he or she must find the correct amulet, have the proper ritual performed by a religious specialist, or say a religious phrase when it comes to defense against (or manipulation of) the Jinn (demons), the evil eye, and spells cast by the malicious, as well as for blessing, health, and prosperity. All of the folk Muslims’ efforts come from themselves, an object, dead saints, rituals, or religious specialists (Muslim shamans). These practices, therefore, take their attention off knowing the one true God and his salvation, protection, and blessing. Instead, they turn it toward trusting human wisdom, the world, and Satan. The Folk Muslim’s worldview is more spiritually-oriented when compared to a westerner’s worldview, which tends to be more scientific in nature. Folk Islam is not a syncretism of formal or proper Islam with Pagan religions. There is overwhelming evidence in the Qur’an, Hadiths, and Sira that points to Muhammad as being a folk Muslim himself.     

Folk Islam, on one level, affects the lives of at least ninety percent of all Muslims in the world. No matter what Muslim country the missionary is called to, the majority of Muslims whom he or she will work with will, to some degree, be folk Muslims. I was introduced to folk Islam the first year on the mission field. At the age of twenty-three and fresh out of college, I came to Turkey with my wife. I was faced with situations, concepts, and vocabulary with which I was not familiar. My wife and I were the young couple mentioned above who shared the truth with and loved Yashar and his family. On the night of the confrontation, he called me and was furious. I tried to write down the words describing what he said we were doing. I remember writing down the words büyü, büyücülük, and hoca. I had no idea why he was angry, and as I looked at the dictionary, I was even more puzzled when I saw the definitions. Unfortunately, during the first year of our missionary stint, we were not adequately equipped with the proper tools, and we were not yet researchers. These tools for evangelistic research came out of five years of ethnographic studies regarding Folk Islam among both Kurds and Turks in villages and cities among all social classes in both Syria and Turkey. They also came from the instruction of my professors of cultural anthropology, folk religion, and folk Islam at Columbia International University.       

Example: How to Use the Problem of Spell-casting to Lead Someone to the Gospel  

As I was writing this article, a young Kurdish man came into our office for tea. I had reached this section and asked him if I could ask him some questions about the Hodjas in his area. This led into a discussion of the evil eye and cursing. He then pulled a muska out of his pocket. Before he had gone to do his mandatory military service, a eyh (Muslim shaman) had given him a special muska for protection. This was to protect him against demons and the enemy. The muska had a bobby pin on it so it could be clipped to his clothing, and it was wrapped in a stylish camouflage cloth. This led me to explain from the scriptures that trusting in objects and people who prepare them takes allegiance off the one true God. I explained that I never have a need to wear a muska or go to a Hodja/eyh for help or protection, because as a child of God I have the privilege of always having protection from harm. I turned to Numbers 23:23 and read to him: “No spell can curse the descendants of Jacob. No magic can harm employing the people of Israel. Now it will be said of Jacob and Israel: ‘See what God has done!’” I had been doing Qur’anic research evangelism (asking questions from Islamic theology and the Qur’an to find bridges to the gospel) with this man and had seen much fruit. He began to study the scriptures and compare the Qur’an with them. He has now renounced the practice of wearing muskas and understands that the Bible is the only true authority. In the summer of 2008, he was baptized and now joins us on mission trips throughout the Kurdish regions of Turkey. He is also active in one of our church plants in an Eastern province, sharing his faith with family and friends. Deuteronomy 18:10-14 and many other passages like it could be used to show God’s view of men and women who make muskas or those who put their trust in them:  

There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer [muska maker], or a medium or a necromancer, or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations, the Lord your God is driving them out before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God.

Example: How to Use the Problem of Divination to Lead Someone to the Gospel
There was a young Pakistani woman with whom I was able to share the truth using research evangelism. I asked questions about places of power and people of power in her home country. When I first met her, she was about thirty-five years old. I had been living in the United States for eight years. She was in transition, and at the time of this interview was expecting her first baby. My older sister came as well, so I would not be alone with her. I told this woman I had been studying saint veneration (ziyaret) in Pakistan and wanted to know if she knew more about the shrines near Murree and other towns. This sent us into an hour-and-a-half discussion of her spiritual journey. She spent years visiting ten of the most famous shrines and meeting with the local Pirs (Muslim shaman), who she said “had great spiritual power and insight.” She would make vows, ask for protective devices, and ask advice about her situations. She said the men would “know” her situation, and they would tell her details about her life. For example, she was having back problems and her spinal cord was curving. She went to a Pir at the shrine, and he made a ritual doll representing her, with the exact problem on her back.

The Pir explained that her boyfriend’s mother, who was envious of her, was doing imitative magic (like poking in the back) to a doll-like representation of her. That was causing the problem. She told story after story of things such as these. This woman said that being in the States had been more frightening because there were no Pirs to go to and no way to get protection or knowledge of the future. She had tried to go to the tarot card readers and psychics, but concluded they were a joke. I then went on to tell her about a person I met when I was eighteen years old who said there was one way I would never have to fear the spirits or the future and that I could have peace. She responded, “That is amazing that you can find someone who has that much power.” I said, “Yes, it is.” I went on to tell her that the person’s name is Jesus the Messiah, and that he said to people like her and me, “Come to me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” I explained that Jesus has all power over the spirits. When we believe in him, his Spirit comes and lives inside us, and gives us peace and assurance. He gives us the power to overcome evil. “He will never leave us nor forsake us,” I said. I shared that the truth she had been searching for was found in Jesus, and that she must read what he says.   

Toolbox for the Christian Ethnologist to the Folk Muslim

Learning the animistic or folk Islamic vocabulary of the people you are called to reach is invaluable for the Christian ethnographer, because these words and concepts will be the basis for all subsequent ethnographies done in the culture. The missionary must be aware of the nine main animistic aspects that he or she will encounter among folk Muslims. During the missionary’s language studies, he or she can use a dictionary. Then, he or she can study with a private tutor to begin to learn the necessary tools. Knowing the vocabulary is only the beginning. Along with each topic, the missionary must study the scriptures and interact with God’s view on these subjects and how knowing Christ can set a person free from the bondage of the above false comforts. First, the biblical view must be presented to the folk Muslim on these subjects. Then, an allegiance challenge (either he or she chooses to continue in his or her unbelief or he or she chooses freedom in Christ) must be given. The vocabulary that must be learned is as follows:

1. The evil eye:
Learn the various objects used to protect someone from the influences of the evil eye. Learn the verses in the Qur’an used to protect someone from the evil eye.     

2. Venerating saints or holy places:
Learn the name of the places visited (e.g., tomb or cemetery) for these events. Learn the name for saint or holy person. Learn what the strings, papers, or other objects put at these tombs are called.  

3. Spells:
Learn what spells, spell-casting, and spell-casters are. Learn the names of the various types of spells used for malevolent or good causes. Learn the names of verbs to counter spells or break spells. Learn what someone under the effect of spells is called.  

4. Curses and blessings:
Learn what a curse is. Learn the different types of curses and their names (e.g., if there is a difference between written curses, verbal curses, etc.). Learn verbal and written blessings and their names.

5. Demons:
Learn equivalents for the bogeyman. (I have found that this type of demon is widespread in the Muslim world and oppresses people at night. In the local language here, it is called the “Black Oppressor.”) Learn their cosmology of good, evil, and neutral demons and what names they call them. Learn the verbs used for what these demons do.

6. Objects of power used for protection or other:
(This will be done more effectively through the missionary’s observation of his or her surroundings and naming the various objects that are observed.) I have identified three categories of power objects/amulets used in folk Islam.

• A muska in Turkish and Kurdish is prepared by a Muslim shaman for protection against various demonic powers, but is looked down upon by the proper religious community.

• A jevshen is very similar to the muska but is sold in front of mosques and in other religious stores. It is used for similar purposes as the muska, yet is sanctioned in Islam. Sometimes, the jevshen is used to attain spiritual insight into a problem.

• The various objects (found in various shapes, sizes, colors, and names) used to protect oneself, family, or property against the evil eye. There are different incenses and even a special rock (called the evil eye rock) that are used. The observer must not let any object or picture escape his or her attention. Sometimes, strings hung from walls or certain vegetables (like garlic or onions) are hung to protect from the evil eye.    

7. Religious specialists:
There are various terms for religious specialists in Islam: Imam, Sheikh, Mullah, Hodja, Mir, Pir, etc. These must be learned and their distinctions known.  Learn what prayers these men use. Learn what “seeking the face of the Pir” is. Learn the terms for the fake, true, good, and bad religious specialists.  

8. Divination:
Learn the terms for divination, fortune telling, having your fortune told, telling your fortune, and fortune teller. Learn the names of the types of fortune telling (whether with cards, tarot cards, coffee, tea, palm, water, etc.).

9. Astrology:
Learn the words for astrology, sign, and the signs. Then, the biblical understanding of what the twelve signs of the Zodiac are must be taught.    

As you study folk Muslims and God’s view on their sin and struggles, may God use your mind, words, and actions as instruments of righteousness for his glory as you do the work of an ambassador for the King. 


Yakup Korkmaz (pseudonym) is a missionary to the Turks and Kurds and director of Gateway Educational Services in the Middle East. Yakup lives with his wife in Istanbul, Turkey.

Copyright  © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 

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