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The Influence of Animism On Islam         by Samuel M. Zwemer – Book Review

July 13, 2012
Cover of Pagan Survivals

The Influence of Animism on Islam by Samuel M. Zwemer

Animism—Zwemer’s subject in this 1920 classic—is “the belief that a great part if not all of the inanimate kingdom of nature as well as all animated beings are endowed with reason, intelligence, and volition identical with man” [1] “None but Christianity (even that not completely),” writes Zwemer, “has uprooted the weed growth of superstition.” Animism in Islam is today called folk Islam. “Though it is true that the beautiful opening chapter of the Qur’an describes its lofty theism, the Muslim also repeats the final four chapters, which contain animistic allusion current in Arabia before Islam. There remains little doubt,” writes Zwemer, “that paganism entered Islam by the door of the Qur’an.” [2]

In popular Islam the spirits possess animals and trees. “The Arabian Nights gives us a faithful picture of popular Islam,” writes Zwemer. [3]There is the belief that the souls of men may inhabit animals such as dogs, cats, gazelles, snakes, etc. Westermarck noted that jinn may possess animal bodies: “The zoology of Islam is demonology.” [4] Believers fear the bones of animals, and used them in sacred ceremonies. Iron objects are placed in cradles to defend infants. Sacred stones contain spirits, as do sacred trees.

Reciting the Qur’an brings good luck. In one Tradition (hadith) it reads that “whoever reads the 105th chapter and the 94th chapter of the Qur’an at morning prayers will never suffer pain in his teeth.” [5] The Qur’an is a good luck book, useful for bringing luck at birth, marriage, and death.

Praying the prayer beads also brings good luck.

The soul travels during sleep, and one must gently waken a sleeper, lest the soul be prevented from returning.

The Night of Fate. Muslims believe that on that particular night during the month of Ramadan that Allah determines the fate of mortal during the forthcoming year.

Animism in the Muslim Prayer. Ablutions before prayer have as their goal the washing away of demons because “water drives away demons.” [6] The call to prayer of the muezzin according to Al-Bokhari drives away the demons and Satan.” [7] A Sutra or guard is placed before the one in prayer; it is a stone or stick about one foot ahead of where his head would touch the ground. In the Sunnan of Ibn Maja, Mohammed forbade prayer being made on or near watering places of camels because camels were created by devils.

Qarina, the Familiar Spirit. Zwemer traces the qarina back to ancient Egypt or to animism in Arabia as well as Egypt. Qarina is the companion, a devil no large than a thumb, which attaches itself to everyone at birth. A male has a female qarina and vice versa. The Qur’an itself testifies to their existence. Dreams are said to be the activity of the qarina. On account of the malicious qarina, a man busy in intercourse with his wife should repeat “Bismallah” to prevent any child so conceived from being overcome by its devil and turning into an infidel or rascal.

Pagan Practices on the Pilgrimage. In Mecca pilgrims circle the famous Black Stone, in the imitation of the planets.[8] In fact, the whole pilgrimage is, in the words of Kuenan, “a fragment of heathenism taken up undigested into Islam.” [9]

Magic and Sorcery. Zwemer contends, as he did in Heirs of the Prophet, that Mohammed was a great borrower from the pagan world around him: borrowing, for example, “the ceremonial washings after defilement, paring the nails, the use of the fables current among the heathen Arabs.” [10] There is the magic of holy spit, of blowing in the face, of the evil eye, of knots; there is unbundling bundles to make easier a difficult birth among the Bataks; there is black magic with its intended victims, there is astrology, there are cups or goblets, inscribed with the names of Allah, which heal, there are endless varieties of amulets to wear or to store against mad dogs and evil eyes and I don’t know what all. There are magic squares and magic spells (which Mohammed himself permitted [11].Romans 1:25

Missiology. Islam is “the classic example of the way in which the non-Christian religions do not succeed in conquering Animism.” [12]The God-far-far-away (Allah) seems to require a court of smaller gods to come nearer to the human world. In this way Islam and animism co-exist on separate strata of the metaphysical universe.

The ‘Aqiqa Sacrifice. Zwemer cites this sacrifice as a “point of contact between Christianity and Islam, from which the faithful missionary can launch out into the very heart of the Gospel message.” [13] It is an expiatory rite, observed by “every Muslim household throughout the Muslim lands after the birth of a child.” [14] It is a naming ceremony for boys, but Zwemer said the communities may dispute whether it ought to be performed for girls as well. [15] Zwemer surveys the countries of the Muslim world where ‘Aqiqa is sacrificed: Malaysia and Afghanistan in particular. Zwemer cites Muslim hadith which definitively refer to Jewish practice as the precedent for ‘Aqiqa. [16] We have here, and in the annual sacrifice at Mecca, “a clear testimony to the doctrine of a vicarious atonement and the remission of sin through the shedding of blood. Were St. Paul present at an ‘Aqiqa ceremony or at ‘Arafat on the great day of the feast, would he not preach to the assembled multitudes on the remission of sins through His blood?” (Ephesians 1:7, Colossians 1:14).

Fear of Qarina, the spirit that possesses people. “No one can read of these beliefs without realizing that the belief in the qarina is a terror by night and by day to pious Muslim mothers and their children. For fear of these familiar spirits and demons they are all their lifetime subject to worry, false worship and financial loss. A mother never dares to leave her infant alone in Egypt for fear of the qarina. The growing child must not tramp on the ground heavily for fear he may hurt his qarina. [17] So, we have the hope of deliverance to give to these paralyzed people: since God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and Greater is He who is in you that He who is in the world, etc. Zwemer himself urges us to pray with our Muslim friends the prayer that Jesus taught, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the Evil One,” thus bringing to the Muslim a faith in saving power of the Father.

Fear of Jinn. Zwemer writes that the jinn inspire the poets [18] and dwell in outhouses as well as graveyards. The fear of jinn causes the worker to remember the great deliverance we offer. “The worship of spirits, with the fear underlying it, completely fills the religious life of the Bataks and of all animistic peoples. Their whole daily life in its minutest details is saturated with it.” [19] How relevant, then, is the good news proclaimed at Christ’s coming, “Fear not, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be to all people.”

Zwemer, Samuel Marinus. The Influence of Animism on Islam; an Account of Popular Superstitions. New York,: The Macmillan Company, 1920.


[1] Samuel Marinus Zwemer, The Influence of Animism on Islam; an Account of Popular Superstitions (New York,: The Macmillan Company, 1920). 3

[2]Ibid. 64

[3] Ibid. 15

[4] Ibid. 130

[5] Ibid. 22

[6] Ibid. 45

[7] Ibid. 48

[8]Ibid. 149

[9] Ibid. 150

[10]Ibid. 4

[11]Ibid. 201

[12] Ibid. 6

[13] Ibid. 87

[14]Ibid. 87

[15] Ibid. 90

[16] Ibid. 102ff.

[17]Ibid. 122

[18]Ibid. 127

[19] Ibid. 138

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