Role of the ‘Pir’ in Popular Islam

Role of the ‘Pir’ in Popular Islam

(This post comes from the writings of Vivienne Stacey. Vivienne was a pioneer thinker, researcher and writer who spent many years working in Pakistan and was a mentor to many women, and men, who are involved journeying with our Muslim friends. This section of the paper Encounters with Folk Islam 2′ is used in its original form.)

Let us look … at the way the Muslim who is involved in popular religion regards his[/her] pir. … the pir has the function of a worker of miracles, an intercessor, and a teacher in this order of importance. As Christians we have been hesitant to engage in a more public ministry of intercession despite all that the Bible says on this subject. We rarely expect miracles, and so they do not happen very often. We put our stress on teaching Biblical material but we often do this in a very Western way. Our teaching would be sought after and listened to if it could be seen more clearly that God answers our prayers and does miracles through the community of those who follow the Lord Jesus Christ.

In October, a small group of people met for a seminar on Folk Islam, in Karachi. We discussed the role of living pirs to whom people go for guidance, prayer, healing and some sort of blessing. Some times some people come to regard some of the followers of Christ as Christian pirs. Our western background causes us to react against such a concept. We did consider what might be a valid role for a Christian pir. Our western background, with its stress on individuality and democracy, its scepticism (as well as over-fascination) regarding the supernatural, and its dislike of appearing “holier than thou” had greatly influenced us. We all agreed that holiness of life is vitally important, and that we should be both manifesting the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives and using the gifts of the Holy Spirit, where appropriate, far more. To quote from our report: “Our Western background has also influenced most of the Christian Seminary and other theological training on the sub-continent. These seminaries generally include little teaching on practical dealing with folk Islam, power encounters and the supernatural, especially where these matters relate to spiritual warfare. Often evangelism is taught as a logical presentation of a series of facts, and Christ’s method of story-telling, real life examples and power encounters have little place in training the church leaders.”

If Christians living in Islamic communities or in close contact with Muslims were known to be more prayerful, and prayed more for and with Muslims, especially in the exercise of a Christian healing ministry, more of Christ’s power might be seen and recognised.

Let us look at some practical suggestions, taking the three main functions of a pir:


Christians often seem to be slack in prayer. Some friends of mine who live in a Muslim section of Karachi and have only Muslim neighbours find that all through the day people drop in and it is difficult to have family prayers regularly. They are experimenting with a set time, place and form of family prayers in the evening. If a neighbour calls at that time, he or she is invited to join in or wait. A Christian college Principal of my acquaintance who worked in a strongly traditional Muslim city always had his morning devotions in public view on his front lawn, every day. He was greatly respected for this. I would like to suggest that we should develop more forms of private and public worship and intercession. When groups of Christians deliberately pray with or for others for specific matters, and this is known and God answers, He is glorified and people come to make known their needs, problems and fears. If the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is seen as a God who heals, delivers from evil powers, gives peace in crisis, and demonstrates his power in answer to believing prayer, Jesus Christ may be accepted as the greatest of living pirs. The Muslims who so often visit shrines are looking for a visible object of worship (the shrine itself) and a mediator between them and God (the pir), and are seeking compensation for a lack of a personal relationship with God. Christians who show in their own lives the power of the Holy Spirit can convincingly point to the living Christ as the true answer to these needs. As a result of miraculous signs and a clear answer to prayer they will then join in listening to teaching or will request it.


One helpful book on this subject recently published is Blessing in Mosque and Mission by Larry G Lenning. (William Carey Library, 1980). The author examines the concept of “baraka” in Islam and Christianity. He notes the power of blessing that Abraham received from God. Jesus of Nazareth was one on whom rested the blessing of God and who shared it so abundantly with others. As Peter said at Pentecost:“Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonder and signs which God did through Him in your midst as you yourselves know – this Jesus you crucified . . .but God raised Him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it.” (Acts 2 vv 22-24) The Holy Spirit anointed Jesus Christ for his three-fold ministry of preaching/teaching, healing and service. Power and blessing were demonstrated. The church has now received the responsibility – and the anointing – for this ministry. Luke 4 vv 18, 19. In his sixth chapter, Lenning describes ways through which blessing is communicated – through the spoken word i.e. through benedictions, greetings and beatitudes; through sacred acts eg laying on of hands, healing, ordination, imparting the Holy Spirit; ritual meals; anointing. Later Lenning warns that “the church must be careful to distinguish between blessing (Baraka) that has its source in God, and animistic Baraka. This is often difficult because both types carry the connation of power. While this may seem to be an obstacle, it can become an opportunity, because ‘popular’ Muslim’s sensitivity to power may impel him to accept the blessing of God in Jesus Christ and discover new and eternal life” (pages 113,114). One looks in the book for practical help and finds a little at the end: “A strong emphasis on the impact of blessing within the liturgical realm of the church can help it re-integrate and re-interpret the Gospel in ways which will attract Muslims to its message.” (page 125) “The blessing of God can be communicated through greetings, prayers and praises, the ministry of the word and benedictions. Sacramental rituals are also potent forms of communicating blessing. Other rites of blessing also need to be incorporated into the liturgical life of the church; rites that bring the blessing of God to individuals and families at crucial points of transition and crisis.” (page 126) Lenning argues that the Christian church has through worship, ritual and liturgy many opportunities for giving the blessing of God. “Some important occasions are seasonal prayers for the planting and harvesting of crops, prayers for rain, and other specific needs. These prayers and rituals will indicate to Muslims that God, through the Christian Church, is concerned that His people have a life filled with Baraka.” (page 132)



More thought also needs to be given to the type of teaching that should follow clearly answered prayer. What are we going to teach about our prayer-answering God? What passages of Scripture should be used? What would be the outline for a series of lessons for those who enquire because of what they have seen as answers to intercession by the Lord’s people? If somebody is delivered from the bondage of evil powers, what teaching should be given? How can the void be filled? What questions are the amazed witnesses asking? How can the interest aroused through the power encounter be used as the basis for teaching? When someone has been delivered from Satan’s bondage it is necessary that they learn how to stand firm and resist the attacks and counter-attacks of Satan. A series of lessons on the Kingship and authority of the Lord Jesus Christ; studies on the power of his name, his blood and his praises are appropriate. We need to work out, and test material that would seem to be relevant.

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Vivienne Stacey  © 2003

© When Women Speak … August 2019

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