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Book Review – Bridges to Islam by Phil Parshall

October 26, 2012

This book is Phil Parshall’s classic introduction to “folk Islam,” that below-the-surface off-the record version of Islam that Muslims don’t talk about with outsiders. “One can be surrounded by certain dynamic situations,” Phil Parshall writes, “and still be quite unaware of what is happening.”[1] What was happening around him, the author now realizes, was “folk Islam,” an unorthodox faith system that most Muslims practice—70%, he says—but never learn in the mosque. “Formal Islam is in tension,”[2] Parshall writes, with the animistic, saint-worshipping, power-seeking, fortune-telling, miracle-working practices of folk Islam.

This classic study of folk Islam offers insight as to how Christian missionaries can relate to Sufi Muslims.

Some words characterizing folk Islam:

Pir, a spiritual guide, a member of the guiding community to which followers attach themselves. “The pir should be worthy of imitation.”[3] In fact, “the pir is to be followed in blind faith.” [4]

Dhikr—from chants to trance, the importance of words which, when repeated rhythmically, lead to emotional crescendo and the silence of unconsciousness. The reading and chanting of the Qur’an may lead to ecstasy in Sufi orders, while music is often forbidden.

Using everyday words (Parshall cites perfume, wine, and Allah) express the mystic’s superior (gnostic?) knowledge.

The person of Mohammed may appear in dreams; such an encounter carries great important to the Sufi.

Steps to Enlightenment

The Sufi is on a journey of seven steps to enlightenment: Service to God; Love of God; Seclusion from the world; Contemplation and knowledge; Ecstasy; Truth; and finally, Union with God. “At the point of so-called union with God, the Sufi no longer is just a man, but is transubstantiated into “God.” He then declares “Ana ‘il-haqq” (“I am the real”), which utterance is blasphemous to the orthodox Muslim and Christians alike. [5] But there is a Christian parallel: “The Christian who also seeks illumination and closeness to God speaks of God dwelling in him and of being possessed of the Holy Spirit, but he does not go on to the excesses of Sufism.” [6]

What about the actual practice in folk Islam?

Animism, that “remnant from the days before Islam,” [7]continues virile in many Muslim areas—Parshall cites his experience in the Muslim region of the Philippines. Curing the sick by calling out the spirits, superstition surrounding graves, blood sacrifice, magical use of the Qur’an in healing.

Miracles are attributed to the Sufi saints, deliverance from jinn as well. Saints have also “willed” the presence of fruit, people, and objects. [8] “No proof of their assertions are ever advanced,” quotes Parshall, “but they give you wonderful illustrations and beautiful stories. Their words come straight from the heart.” [9]
Devotees seek favor from God by visiting the shrines of holy men. Many women visit the shrines for favors in this life, such as the birth of a son, financial success.

Steps to holiness for the Christian worker

Gateshead Bridge

Like England’s Gateshead Bridge, a non-linear approach is a method that should be considered by missionaries in spanning the chasm between Christianity and Islam.

Folk practices may reveal a desire to know God in a more personal way. The desire to know God’s power, God’s presence, and God’s answer to prayers may be a bridge to Christian faith. The church has always held seekers of the deeper life, the “yearning for personal communion with God.” [10] It is the Sufi, Parshall says, who carries the flame of mysticism within the Islamic faith. The Sufi wants that “mystic sweet communion” which many followers of Jesus have found. The mystic also wants deliverance from his fears; “his world is dominated by the evil eye, by sickness, death, sorcery, and curses.”[11] He also seeks fellowship; hence the tie between the pir and his devotees.

Parshall lists seven possible bridges between Sufism and Christianity:

1. The Sufi view of God. Allah is above all and totally in control of His creation. Parshall lists the 99 Muslim names for God[12]and encouraged their contemplation and missionary use.

2. The Sufi stress on personal relationship with God.

3. The de-emphasis of the value of ritual and form.

4. The necessity of a hunger for God.

5. An awareness of the working of God’s grace in the lives of men and women.

6. A community goal of being with God one day, a desire that is unrealizable in formal Islam.

7. A belief in intermediaries between God and man. This is a natural bridge to an effective presentation of Jesus as mediator for estranged mankind. “I never met a Muslim,” writes Parshall, “who could assure me that he knew he was going to heaven when he died.”[13]

The book of Hebrews as a bridge is detailed on page 132. The “mystery of the Gospel,” especially Colossians 1:25-27, 2:2-3 is cited and its use explained. Also, the wisdom passages of I Corinthians 2 and Ephesians 3:8-11.

Parshall encourages the worker to adapt, adapt, adapt; make concessions to allow Islamic customs and traditional forms.

[1] Phil Parshall, Bridges to Islam: A Christian Perspective on Folk Islam (Grand Rapids: Baker Book, 1983). Introduction

[2] Ibid. 15

[3] Ibid. 54

[4] Ibid. 57

[5] Ibid. 62

[6] Ibid. 63

[7] Ibid. 72

[8] Ibid. 84

[9] Ibid. 86

[10] Ibid. 24. Parshall is quoting Arberry.

[11] Ibid.120

[12] Ibid. 123-26

[13] Ibid. 129

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