Vernacular Islam

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The central Islamic tenet of tawhid, the essential oneness and unity of God, contributes to a self-conception and representation of Islam as a universal and singular religious tradition. The idea of singularity is reinforced by the shahada, or witness ("There is no god but God. Muhammad is the Messenger of God"), and shared ritual practice obligatory for all Muslims (˓ibadat) in Arabic, often called the Five Pillars in English. This ideology of singularity is based upon the authority of the Qur˒an and hadith. The fact that one can hear nearly identical Arabic recitation of the Qur˒an in New Delhi, Jakarta, and Detroit, that South Asian, African, Arab, and Indonesian Muslims perform similar ablution rituals before they attend Friday prayers together in London or New Delhi, or that pilgrims from all over the globe gather at Mecca for the hajj are visible manifestations of a tradition shared across geographic and social boundaries of difference.

Muslims, however, live in particular cultures, locales, and geographies that influence their practice and create local knowledge and variation. Knowledge and practice particular to a locality can be identified as vernacular Islam. In linguistics, the vernacular is associated with the language or dialect spoken in a particular geographic location; it is the common everyday language of ordinary people in a given locality. The vernacular may be juxtaposed to a language that is shared across geographic boundaries or locales. A. K. Ramanujan has distinguished, in the Indian context, the vernacular regional language as the mother tongue in contrast to the pan-Indian, literary language of Sanskrit, which he calls the father tongue. For Islam, Arabic is the father tongue that is known, at least for Qur˒anic recitation purposes, across the globe; but Muslims speak numerous languages and dialects in everyday interactions, sermons, and rituals.

Scholars of Islam have distinguished many local practices, confined to specific cultural contexts, from pan-regional (universal) Muslim practice and belief by calling the former elements of "folk Islam" or "popular Islam." If "folk" is used simply to refer to practices that are local or nontextual, the term is an accurate descriptor. However, in both lay and academic usage, the term often connotes a hierarchy of practice and belief in which "folk Islam" is at the low end. Frequently, educated Muslims who have been exposed to Muslim practice in multiple cultural and geographic contexts, and are keenly aware of an ideal of a "universal" Islam that may be seemingly threatened by this diversity, refer to these practices as cultural rather than religious and therefore not "real" Islam. The term "vernacular Islam" is less value-laden than "folk Islam" and more easily inclusive of both textual and nontextual traditions. To understand Islam in practice, scholars need to pay attention to the various levels of interaction between vernacular and universal practices.

The practice of Islam may take regional shape and vernacular expression on multiple levels. For example, in some regions, women are not allowed to pray in the mosque (Pakistan, India, Morocco, for example), while in other countries (the Arab world, Malaysia, the United States, Canada, England), women do pray in the mosque, although each mosque varies in the architectural design for the separation of men and women in prayer. Another tangible regional/cultural, vernacular expression of Islam is found in the levels and style of women's head coverings and the meanings and historical and political motivations for these. Prior to the revolution in 1979, many Iranian women adopted the veil (chador) to protest the rule of the shah; veiling was both a religious and political act. Since the revolution, women have been forced to veil and are under the surveillance of religious police. In the secular state of Turkey, where Muslims are nevertheless a majority, women are forbidden to wear head coverings in government buildings; in the Islamic state of Saudi Arabia, where the Wahhabi tradition that interprets Islamic law very literally is dominant, women are not permitted to go out in public without veiling and all public buildings and work spaces are gender segregated. In other contexts, the practice of female veiling may become more prevalent as the influence of "Islamization" becomes greater, such as in Egypt, where, for example, Bedouin women have begun to adopt a "standard" style of veiling as they become more educated in state-supported schools (Abu-Lughod).

The vernacular expression of Islam also varies according to whether or not the culture is one of immigrants. For example, the diversity of ethnicities represented in many American mosques affects worshipers' experience and practices, which differ significantly from those of Muslims living in more ethnically homogeneous cultures. Muslims living in multiethnic communities often begin to draw distinctions between culture and religion. Those practices limited to specific regional contexts may be labeled as culture, or as religious practice interpreted through and influenced by culture. An example of such practices is the wedding ritual of decorating the bride. While many Indian and Pakistani Muslims may say that the ritual application of turmeric paste on the new bride's skin is a Muslim practice, it is not prescribed in the Qur˒an or hadith and non-Asian Muslims do not practice this ritual. There are other practices, such as the sacrifice of an animal at the Feast of the Sacrifice, which are mandated in the Qur˒an, but whose implementation may be interpreted differently in various cultural contexts. One reason for vernacular expressions of a shared sacrificial practice may be something as "secular" as governmental public health regulations, which in American cities may differ significantly from cities in the Philippines, India, or Indonesia.

Veneration of Saints

References to "folk Islam" are most often associated with specific kinds of vernacular practices—in particular, visitations (ziyarat) to the graves of local holy men or saints and associated performance and healing traditions. In Morocco the cult of saints is called maraboutism. The majority of these saints are Sufi teachers, guides, or masters (pir, shaykh), who may be part of a lineage of authority within specific Sufi orders (tariqa), or they may be independent of an order. These saints are "friends of God" (awliya˒ Allah) who embody particular spiritual powers (barakat) that may result in their ability to perform miracles. Many Muslims believe that even after death, the barakat of the saint is accessible, and miracles may be performed at his grave site; for believers, the saint is still alive and close to God and may serve as an intermediary between worshiper and God. Women may visit the grave to ask for fertility, for the health of a child, or resolution of a marriage negotiation; men may ask for business success or success in an exam. Others visit the grave for general wellbeing, without a specific request, or simply to honor the saint, who may be one's teacher, teacher's teacher, or founder of the Sufi lineage to which one belongs. The presence of these shrines sacralizes the land itself; they are local or regional, vernacular sites of power. In many Muslim cultures, the annual death anniversary of the saint is celebrated in grand fashion at his tomb, with large processions of pilgrims carrying flags, musicians, and new cloth grave coverings that are gifted by the pilgrims. The anniversary is called an ˓urs (literally, wedding), as the saint is not considered to have died, but to have simply left his worldly body and joined God. Dreams are a common idiom through which Sufi saints, both living and dead, communicate to their disciples.

Most Muslims worshipping at a saint's grave site (called dargah in South Asia; Ar. qabr) would draw a clear distinction between honoring a saint and asking for his intervention and performance of miracles, and worshiping the saint, which would be shirk (idolatry or blasphemy through assignation of partners to God). However, because the practice of worship at the tomb of a saint can be so easily misconstrued as worship of the saint (making offerings of flowers, incense, elaborately decorated cloths, etc. at the grave, and taking back some of these offerings as embodiments of the barakat of the saint), many Muslim modernists and fundamentalists label this practice as superstition, a cultural practice adopted from other religious traditions rather than from Islam itself, or outright shirk. Even if the critics of saint veneration accept that the saint is not being worshiped, they may critique the practice as placing an unnecessary intermediary between God and the worshiper.

The controversy over the veneration of saints and worship at their tombs takes different forms and magnitude depending on local religious, cultural, and political circumstances and contexts. For example, according to Katherine Ewing, in Pakistan (where Muslims are a majority, living under a Muslim state) certain movements (Ahl-e Hadith, Ahmadiyya, Jama˓at-e Islami) have attempted to eliminate saint veneration and practices around the institution of the pir; and public discourse is filled with debate about what is the correct practice of Islam. Similarly, John Bowen describes a vigorous debate in Indonesia over what constitutes proper Islamic practice, including whether or not rituals of farming, healing, and casting spells are acceptable. In India, while educated Muslims may denounce veneration of the pir, the level of public debate over these practices is much less vigorous than it appears to be in Muslim states such as Indonesia and Pakistan. Furthermore, many educated Muslims who criticize such "folk" practices as visiting the shrine of a saint to ask for miraculous intervention, may themselves access such practices when their own family members are ill, infertile, or otherwise in distress. These practices are not limited to rural contexts or nonliterate participants.

Religious Healing

Veneration of saints and local pilgrimage to their shrines are often associated with religious healing traditions that address illnesses caused by intervention by spiritual forces (including evil eyes, jinn, spirits of the dead, and ghosts) into the physical human world. Many pirs are both teachers and healers. Their healing practices are based on the assumption that illnesses or troubles caused by spiritual forces must be counteracted by spiritual force. One method of diagnosis of a patient's problem is called, in Urdu, abjad ka phal kholna (literally, opening the mystery of the numbers). According to these Sufi traditions, every Arabic letter is associated with a particular numerical value. The numerical value of the letters in the patient's name is determined by the healer and then that of the patient's mother. These are added, along with the numerical value of the lunar day of the month. The total is divided by three or four (the four directions or the three worlds) until a single digit remains, which determines what kind of force is causing the illness. Other diagnostic rituals may include "reading" the ways in which a lemon shrivels over time, dreaming by the pir, visions obtained through trance, or reflection in a surface of oil and kohl. The most common prescription against spiritual forces that have caused illness is the written word of God; that is, amulets, on which are written the various names of God, his angels, and Qur˒anic verses, are given to patients to wear as protection, to dip in water to drink, to burn, bury, or hang from a doorsill. The physical manifestation of the very word of God is inherently powerful; it may call back a lost child, deflect a neighbor's or spouse's argumentative words, soothe a child's high fever, or serve as a literal shield against the evil eye. Pilgrimages to shrines of saints and given periods of time to be spent there may also be prescribed by the pir.

See alsoArabic Language ; Persian Language and Literature ; Urdu Language, Literature, and Poetry .


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Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger

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Vernacular Islam

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