Introduction to Folk Islam


At first sight there seems to be a glorious rising tide of monotheistic faith in Islam, and of a devotion to God – often sublime in its conception of Deity and of duty. This however, is followed by the undertow of reactionary Arabian paganism. That was true even in the case of the Prophet Muhammad himself when he consecrated the Ka’aba-stone and then, for a moment, lapsed to pay honour to Lat and ‘Uzza, of which he said: “They are two high-soaring cranes and verily their intercession may be hoped for” (Surah 53:19). Some Quran chapters that rise, like “The verse of the Throne” (Surah 2:256 ff. ) and “ the verse of Light,” almost to the heights of Job and Isaiah, are followed by puerile passages full of animistic superstitions such as Solomon’s jinn, Alexander’s bellows-blowers, or Jewesses blowing on knots (Surah 113).

There have been puritanical revivals and popular reactions, periods of enlightenment and culture, when Islam held aloft the torch of civilisation; these have been followed by dark centuries of ignorance and superstition. Al-Ghazali’s call to repentance was forgotten for centuries while the mullahs pored over the pages of Al-Buni’s encyclopaedia of magic and the world of Islam became illiterate to an extent hardly credible.

The student of Islam will never understand the common people unless he knows the reason for their curious beliefs and practices. We need accurate knowledge to have sympathy and avoid showing contempt for those caught in the undertow of superstition; nor must we denounce what to them may have real sacramental value. Not only does superstition prevail among the vast majority of Muslims, with literature on magic, the universal sale of amulets, charms, talismans, magic squares and the practice of geomancy, but in the very source-books of Islam, the Quran and the Traditions, where these practices nearly always find their origin or their justification.

In no monotheistic faith are magic and sorcery so firmly established as Islam. This  was one of the chief reasons for the spread of Islam in Central Africa and among the Malays of the Dutch Archipelago. The Quran tells of Harut and Marut, the two angels of Babylon who teach men how to bind or break the marriage vow. Muslim commentators tell how a Jew named Lobeid, with the assistance of his daughters, bewitched Muhammad by tying eleven knots in a cord which they then hid in a well. The Prophet falling ill in consequence, had revealed to him chapter 113 and that following it; the Angel Gabriel acquainted him with the use he was to make of them, and told him where the cord was hidden. Then Ali fetched the cord, and the Prophet repeated over it these two chapters; at every verse a knot was loosed until, on finishing the last words, he was entirely freed from the charm.

The world of Islam has immense undertones of superstition. The factual evidence will be presented in the articles under Popular Islam, facts are stubborn things, and Christian missionaries must face the facts.

 

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