What does Islam have to say about superstitions?

Superstitions have been the bane of nations throughout the ages. They are almost as bad as idolatry as they involve false beliefs in things that have no real power. Although some superstitions seem innocuous, they can also become exceedingly dangerous, especially when put into the minds of ignoramuses who take it as Bible Truth. This is especially so among certain peoples of the East. There superstitious people can do some really terrible things like believing that seeing widows or blind people will bring them bad luck. Some even kill their own offspring if they happen to be born under the ‘wrong star’.

   Islam prohibits all types of superstitious beliefs, because it attributes to people or things that which is rightly God’s. Take for instance astrology which is widespread in many parts of the world and even in the West. It supposes that the stars influence people’s future. In some parts of Asia like India, people believe in auspicious times to embark on a venture. Even politicians take astrology very seriously, especially when elections draw near, doing everything within their means to stay in line with the positions of the planets, with which their personal fortunes are believed to ebb and rise.

   In the days before Islam, the Arabs believed that the flight of a bird portended the future. Thus when people went out for some purpose like business, they would look around for birds. If a bird flew to their right, they would consider it a good omen and would proceed with their business. If a bird flew to their left, they regarded it as a bad omen and would postpone it. In the Far East, people believe that having a statue of a Laughing Buddha, a hideous bald. pot-bellied image of the Buddha with a wide grin will bring them wealth. In other parts of Asia like Sri Lanka, folk believe that wearing rings with some stones will ward off evil and bring them good fortune. Yet others believe that possessing a large seashell known as valampuri will bring them good luck. Even in the West, you have people believing that some trivial object like a horse shoe will bring them good luck or breaking a mirror will bring seven years of bad luck.

   Still worse is the very common belief among them that a particular number -13 – brings bad luck. In some western countries including the US the number 13 is not assigned to a floor in high rise hotels or apartment buildings, so that you will find that after the 12th floor you go up directly to the 14th floor, as if the 13th floor had done a disappearing act. Some have no rooms numbered 13. People even avoid tables where there are 13 people with them. The reason given for the belief is that Judas who betrayed Jesus was the 13th one at the Last Supper. So pervasive is the belief that there is even a special term for the fear of number 13 – triskaidekaphobia. Not only do such people psychologically get disturbed with these silly ideas, but it also affects their personal lives, family lives and even professional lives, not to mention the toll it takes on the economy. This silly fear costs America alone about a billion dollars a year in work absenteeism, travel cancellations and dips in trade on every 13th day of a month.

   The absurdity of these beliefs could be seen from the fact that they differ from culture to culture. Not only that, some things that are considered unlucky in one culture are considered lucky in another. Take the number 13, which was considered a lucky number in ancient Egypt and still holds its ground in modern day Japan. We in this enlightened times also know that many beliefs have evolved over the ages due to reasons that are easily explained. For instance the belief not to ‘Walk under the ladder’ which may well be a throwback to the fear of mediaeval gallows that looked like ladders or simply due to safety concerns. The belief in that breaking a mirror is a sure way to open the door to seven years of bad luck seems to have arisen from a primitive belief that mirrors don’t simply reflect your image, but they also hold bits and pieces of your soul and that these are captured every time you peer into it.

   Indeed, it is very easy for superstition to creep into one’s mind and then seep into one’s family and even take hold of the larger community. Suppose a man hears a gecko clicking when he comes up with a novel idea. He then sets about working on it, but finds it does not go well, but rather meets with misfortune. He then comes to believe that the creature’s click bodes ill for the future and tells this to all those near and dear to him, who in turn disperse the belief far and wide. All those who live in such an atmosphere of infectious superstition inhale its germs and pass it down from one to another, from generation to generation like a contagious disease that knows no space or time. It’s that easy for superstition to take hold of men’s minds and become the mental stock-in-trade of a people.

   But beware, the pitfalls of superstition are many. When one is superstitious, one is always fearful till it finally becomes like a cancer that eats into one’s brain and consume one’s soul. The world becomes a hard place for such people to live in, why because everything they deem unlucky will be a stumbling block for them, preventing them from going out to make a living or gaining knowledge. They become fearful of any and everything. They see a widow early in the morning and think it inauspicious and scuttle their plans for the day. They see a black cat crossing their part and think it unlucky, brooding over it thinking that the entire day will be wretched. Such a mindset naturally leads to a lack of personal responsibility on the part of the person concerned. What’s more, unscrupulous people can easily make use of superstitious folk for their own ends. Witch doctors and others of their ilk thrive on these foolish minds, fleecing them of their earnings and even prodding them to do some mischief to get rid of the evil they think is haunting them.

   Not only does one’s mental and physical health suffer, but also one’s spiritual life. Why, because superstitions can open the door to polytheism. Satan preys on the fear of people who always fear for their future. Why, because man’s knowledge is limited. He does not even know what will happen tomorrow. As we are told in the Qur’an:”No soul knows what it will earn tomorrow” (Luqman:34). So Satan has a field day playing around with superstitious folk, making them fear things which need not be feared and keeping them away from striving for the good things in life, and worst of all preventing them from placing their trust in God and God alone.

   This is why Islam regards belief in superstitions as a sign of disbelief in God. In fact superstition itself arises out of a lack of faith in God. If he were to fear God, will he fear other things? Certainly not! But if a man fears not God, then he will certainly fear other things. That is the nature of man. Superstition also goes against the Islamic view that knowledge of the future is the preserve of God alone. Not a leaf falls from a tree or a raindrop from the sky but He has full knowledge of it. While the eye of the Muslim is ever on the look out for signs of God’s Grace in the realm of Nature, we do not take these signs themselves as our deities or destinies portending good or evil.  As Muslims we hold that whatever befalls us comes from God. That is why we always say Insha Allah (God Willing) when we express a desire for the future. It is God alone who can bring about good or prevent harm, for He Himself tells us:

And if God touches you with harm, none can remove it but Him, and if He touches you with good, then He is able to do all things

(The Cattle:17)

His Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) also denounced the very idea of a bad omen, describing it as a form of polytheism. He very clearly told his followers:

(Believing in) bad omen is (a form of) polytheism.

(Aboo Dawood)

The term he chose to use for this was shirk, which means polytheism or associating others with God – the greatest sin the Sight of God. He did not stop at that but even taught a prayer for those who had unknowingly indulged in it. He once declared: “Whoever lets omens stop him from doing something has committed an act of polytheism”. He was asked: “What is the expiation for that?” and he replied: “Say: O God, there is no good except Your good, no birds except Yours, and there is no god beside You”. You may wonder why he used the words: Wa la tayra illa tayruka ‘No birds except yours’. Well, you see in those days of ignorance the Arabs believed that birds portended good or bad omens, so much so that the Arabic term for omen was derived from the Arabic word for bird – tayr.

    One day a companion of his named Muawiyah ibn Hakam said to him: “I have only recently abandoned ignorant beliefs, and now God has favoured us with Islam. Some of our people visit fortune-tellers” The Prophet said,” “Do not visit them”. The man added, “And some of us associate bad omen with certain things”. The Prophet replied: “That is something which they find in their breasts. Let them not be deterred from their purpose” (Saheeh Muslim).

   One another occasion, the Prophet saw a man holding an amulet. He asked: “What is this?’ The man said: “This is an amulet I hold because I feel some kind of weakness”. Hearing this, the Prophet commanded: “Take it off for it will not increase you but in weakness, and if you die while wearing it, you will never prosper in the Hereafter”. (Ahmad)

  What all this shows is that belief in the One True God as one’s Protector suffers when one begins to believe in superstitions. One’s heart gets corrupted with ridiculous fears just as an old nail gathers rust when left out to the elements. Is this not very different from other forms of polytheism or associating partners with God, believing that along with Allah, other things too can become our protectors? Thus it is imperative that we stop groping around in the darkness of these ignorant ideas and don the armour of faith to fight them in the light of what God has revealed to us.

   Yes, it is the light of Islam that can dispel such darkness. This is why the Prophet prayed: “O God! Fill my heart with light, and my grave with light; place light in front of me, and light behind me, place light on my right and light on my left; place light above me and light below me; place light in my ears and light in my eyes, and light in my hair and my skin and my flesh and my blood and my bones” (Tirmidhi).

   People are such that if they did not have firm faith in God, they would be endlessly taking omens from created things like birds, cats and even unfortunate humans like widows or orphans or the lame or blind, little knowing that they are the ones who are really blind. In the West serious superstitious beliefs usually do not go beyond the belief that the number 13 is unlucky. That’s bad enough, but in countries like India it goes well beyond. They believe that widows are inauspicious and that inviting a widow to a wedding would bring bad luck to the newly married couple. In its rural backwoods child sacrifices take place for reasons varying from inducing rainfall to ensuring a better harvest to helping childless women conceive. Some children have even been kidnapped and murdered in cold blood at the behest of witch doctors to cure people of infertility or nightmares. In Sri Lanka, there is a belief that sacrificing a child could aid one during a treasure hunt.

   However educated people are, they can be superstitious in many ways. Even people who are scientifically inclined can be superstitious. Thus it is not science, but a firm belief in God that can wipe out superstition for good. Islam does it better than any other faith. This is why Sir William Muir observed in his Mohamed and Islam (1895): “There can be no question but that, with its pure monotheism, and a code founded in the main on justice and humanity, Islam succeeds in raising to a higher level races sunk in idolatry and fetishism”.


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