THERE are, it is true, many startling signs of the dawning of a new period in Islam. Reforms, social, intellectual and moral, are now the order of the day. Nationalism has supplanted the Caliphate. The Moslem Press everywhere is broadcasting new ideas and ideals. Compulsory education is advocated for communities where ninety-five per cent. of the masses are still illiterate. The hands of the clock are being moved forward violently at Angora, but are pushed back with equal vigour in other centres of the world of Islam.
Many have written regarding the rising tide of modernism in Moslem lands. This volume deals with the undertow. The sea has its ebb and flow of resistless tides; its constant currents and its sudden storms; its trade winds which are the mariner’s trust, and its tempests which are his terror. The effect of all these is seen on the surface. Along the shores, especially after a rising tide or a heavy gale, there is also the undertow, the reactionary current. The tide is visible and trustworthy, the undertow invisible and treacherous.
The same has been true in the long history of Islam and its relation to Christianity. At first there seemed 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 has been followed by the undertow of reactionary Arabian paganism. That was true even in the case of the Prophet Mohammed 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 Koran 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).
We note the same undertow in the history of Moslem theology and jurisprudence, as Dr. Duncan B. Macdonald has shown in his interesting study of the subject. There have been puritanic revivals and popular reactions, periods of enlightenment and culture, when Islam held aloft the torch of civilization; 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 encyclopædia of magic and the world of Islam became illiterate to an extent hardly credible.
Unless we take account of all this action and reaction our conclusions will be at fault. There is a rising tide, but there is also an undertow. For example, a Chicago newspaper reported some time ago that the daughter of one of the rulers among the Moros in Sulu came to the University of Illinois, received her education, left a full-fledged American girl-graduate, in dress, demeanour and ideas—only to be dragged down on her return home by the undertow, and to become the fourth wife in a prince’s harem. Such cases are not exceptional; they occur even in Cairo and Calcutta.
The student of Islam will never understand the common people unless he knows the reasons 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. After all, superstition is a sign of extra-faith or extra-ordinary faith ( aberglaube; bijgeloof ).
The religion of the common people of today from Tangier to Teheran is still based on hundreds of weird beliefs, many of which have indeed lost their original significance, but all of which still bind and oppress mind and heart with constant fear of the unseen. Witchcraft, sorcery, spells and charms are the background of native Moslem psychology to an extent that is realized only by those who have penetrated most deeply into the life of the people. I have seen a student in Lahore, preparing for an examination in Psychology, take the dust from a Moslem saint’s tomb as a specific for passing a high grade!
Not only does superstition prevail among the vast majority of the Moslems—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 Koran and the Traditions, these practices nearly always find their origin or their justification. It is rather astonishing, therefore, that in the two-volume monumental work of Edward Westermarck on Ritual and Belief in Morocco, so few references are given to the Koran text or to the Traditions of Bukhari and Muslim. Nearly all of the superstitious practices which he catalogues so carefully and explains so interestingly can be traced to early Arabia and to the practice of Mohammed and his companions. Their doctrine of God includes the magical use of His names and attributes. The belief in revelation has degenerated into a bibliomancy and a bibliolatry more crass than that ever found in any other book-religion. In Iran one can purchase bilingual editions of the Koran in which every page has printed at the top its “good,” “bad” or “doubtful” value for telling fortunes.
In no monotheistic faith are magic and sorcery so firmly established as in Islam. This is one of the chief reasons for the spread of Islam in Central Africa and among the Malays of the Dutch Archipelago. The Koran tells of Harut and Marut, the two angels of Babylon who teach men how to bind or break the marriage vow. Moslem commentators tell how a Jew named Lobeid, with the assistance of his daughters, bewitched Mohammed by tying eleven knots in a cord which they then hid in a well. The Prophet falling ill in consequence, chapter cxiii and that following it were revealed; and 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.
One may still see women of the better class in Cairo eagerly awaiting the verdict of an unkempt sand-diviner from Morocco who is tracing their fortune, or misfortune, by clever geomancy at a street corner. Here again we see the results of this heavy undertow of superstition. The husbands of these women formerly hung blue beads on the necks of their donkeys to ward off the evil eye; now they hang them on the radiator-tops of their motor-cars for the same purpose. Facts are stubborn things, and Christian missionaries must face facts.
The papers which compose this slender volume all deal directly or indirectly with Popular Islam, not the Reformed Islam of the intellectual group. The Rosary, for example, borrowed from Buddhism, was at first used for devotion, but afterwards its use developed into magic. The Black Stone at Mecca has become almost a Stone of Stumbling to the Modernists, but is still the Palladium of the common people. In Woking they tell us that Islam was never propagated by the use of the sword, but the Swords of Mohammed and ‘Ali are still sacred in north-west China and north-west Africa. The same is true of the other chapters which deal with superstitions regarding this life and the life to come. The Koran itself is used as a book of magic, and while the Modernists express wonder that an “illiterate” Prophet should produce such a volume, it is a greater wonder that, since Mohammed could doubtless read and write, so large a percentage of the common people are themselves illiterate in the twentieth century.
At the suggestion of friends who desire in permanent form material that was written chiefly for The Moslem World Quarterly during the past twenty-five years, it is here brought together. The chapters have been arranged, and some revised, until together they form a somewhat incongruous, and yet many-sided, monograph on the background of Popular Islam.
We thank the publishers, Messrs. F. H. Revell and Company, New York, and Messrs. Seeley, Service and Company, London, for their permission to use two chapters (originally articles in The Moslem World) from books that are now out of print.
SAMUEL M. ZWEMER.
LONDON, June 22, 1938.
Studies in Popular Islam
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