Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Enchantment! Or, how Dragon Age 2 can teach us something about shirk.

Here are some some uses of the Qur'an and the verses within which I am not completely comfortable with.

1. Jewellery.
'Allah' necklace

Ayat al-Kursi necklace
Arabic script is beautiful. I understand that people find it aesthetically beautiful, and Muslims who encounter Arabic more often than not also appreciate this. I guess I'm uncomfortable with it because it's easy to start thinking that the necklace provides protection, which is dangerously close to shirk, or the sin of believing in the power something else other than God.

The second necklace is more explicit in its claim for protection. I met several young men in Morocco who wore this around their necks. When I asked them what it was for, they said that they were given it by their mothers for protection. Ayat al-Kursi (lit. Throne Verse) is actually verse 2:255 of the Qur'an, and is traditionally taught as a verse that afforded protection -- as a child I was encouraged to memorise it so that I could recite it in places where I was afraid of being possessed or attacked by spirits (like in jungles, for example!) This link details more benefits of memorising and regularly reciting this verse, based on many ahadith.

Verse 2:255 is really beautiful, as it elaborates on God's glory and power:
The One True God, there is no god but God, the Living, the Originator of life, the Self- Subsisting Sustainer of all creation.
Neither slumber, nor sleep overtakes God.
All that exists in the highs and the lows, in the heavens and earth, belongs to Godalone.
Who can intercede in God's Court except by God's Leave, and then, only in accordance with God's laws?
God knows what lies open before humans and what is hidden from them.
God's knowledge transcends time and space.
No one can encompass a trace of God's knowledge but through God's laws.
The Throne of God's Supreme Control extends over the highs and the lows.
No fatigue touches God as God benevolently guards God's Dominion and creation.
God is the Glorious, the Supreme.
I understand that reciting and pondering over the meaning of the verse can help, psychologically. But it's the pondering that helps, not the mere recitation of it. I'm afraid to say that many of us memorise the Arabic words without knowing exactly what it means. And when this is translated into a physical object like a necklace, it's easy to start thinking that the physical Arabic script carries the protective function instead. (Unless you can read the small script to recite it, haha.)

It might also be rather ironic that 2:255 is surrounded by other verses that tell us to not seek out false gods. This tendency to favour 2:255 is extended to various other verses and chapters too.

2. Psychological spells for protection. 

The way people promote recitation (without understanding) makes it seem to me that the Qur'an is full of special phrases to recite for good luck, good fortune, protection, etc. Religious teachers often list out certain verses/chapters to be read at certain periods, for a certain number of times. Recently someone shared on Facebook a list that her religious teacher gave her, which included chapters 32, 36, and 67, amongst others, to be read regularly after prayers. To her credit, someone emphasised that she would read the Arabic along with translations, and reflect, regularly.

Surah 36 has also been the object of much adoration, especially in the Nusantara, or the Malay archipelago. It became quite a tradition until about five years ago (I might be mistaken, but I don't hear much about it now), to recite Yasin on Thursday nights in the mosques or in other prayer congregations.

Another popular habit taught to me as a child was to recite the short chapters 112, 113 and 114 before going to sleep. Optionally, after recitation, you may blow into your hands and wipe your face and body for maximum protective effect of these words, as recounted in a hadith. Check out this site for more examples of using recitations as healing. Definitely takes the verse 10:57 to a whole new level. :)

This second use of the Qur'an may also sometimes be combined with (3).

3. Physical spells for protection. 

These includes writing verses onto pieces of paper, then burning, mixing them with water, or stuffing them into wall cracks; or reciting over water. In other words, ordinary objects are enchanted with the power of God's words, instead of God actually working directly to grant us whatever it is we are asking for.

For example, some friends I have in Morocco were renovating their house and they came across a small leather pouch filled with a piece of paper tightly folded many times. There were verses and spells written in Arabic on it, and had been put into a small between the bricks of the house when it was being built, to protect the house from calamities.

Also, the whole idea of a bomoh, or a healer in archipelago traditions, has pagan roots. But since the spread of Islam to the region, these healers have mixed in some 'Islamic elements' in order to make it more acceptable to the Muslim population. There are still many of these kinds of syncretic healers in Indonesia and Malaysia. I remember one coming to our house when I was very young. Apparently he was trying to cure my sister, but I don't remember much beyond a lot of scented smoke, recitations, and a magical trick he did to make it look like he extracted a piece of flesh or tumour from my sister's body.

Anyway, it's still common to recite zikr (remembrance of God, usually after prayer, and consists of numerous repetitions of a single phrase) in magical sets of 33 or 99 over glasses or bottles of water, and then have someone drink this water to reap its... spiritual benefits. This is of course, encouraged by various ahadith and is sometimes the source of worry for those who wonder about the purpose and legality of this and seek rulings from jurisprudence. The most common reason for saying that this is acceptable is that one hadith narrates that the companions of the Prophet used to do this, therefore it's acceptable.

Those who summarise the various opinions as 'acceptable' emphasise the source of the power, which is God/Prophet/Quran, while those who rule 'unacceptable' sometimes also focus on the same thing. In other words, they say it's not acceptable if one thinks the reciter has the power, and not the words themselves. But very few will actually take the issue of using mere words and recitations as being superstitious in itself. I don't think the Qur'an is a book of incantations either.

I shouldn't discuss these things with video game enthusiasts :) The Dutchman said it reminded him of Sandal, a idiot-savant dwarf in Dragon Age 2 who can enchant a player's weapons and armor with powers. For example, if he enchants a "Rune of Frost" on your sword, you get a "+1 Ice Damage".

So in summary, because I find God to be the ultimate Provider and Sustainer, and God's words to work through the contemplation of our thinking minds and our thinking actions, I find the above uses of the Qur'an worth being wary about to avoid attributing God's power to something else. Shirk is sneaky!

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