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media and art are emerging as vehicles for evangelization.

Because of constitutional restrictions and Islamic influence, traditional methods of mission in Pakistan have often made little impact. However, media and art are emerging as vehicles for evangelization. Given the low literacy rate in Pakistan (ranking 160 out of 198 countries), indigenous art is a powerful tool for sharing the gospel with Muslims. Pakistan has a colourful range of poetic-musical expressions, with diverse musical forms. Indeed the book of Psalms (Zabor) was translated into Punjabi lyrical poetry in the late nineteenth century, and a Muslim convert and a Hindu musician were hired to compose tunes in the local raga-based music.[1]

Why is the Muslim cup so hard to raise to the lip?

Pakistan ranks number four in the most recent list of the fifty most dangerous countries for Christians in the world.[2] . Muslim and Christian practices of worship, teachings about God, and worldviews are totally different from each other. Islamic da‘wa (invitation) and Christian evangelism both seek to convert the other.

Notwithstanding the optimistic calls to evangelize the Muslim world at various missional conferences, such as Cairo (1906), Edinburgh (1910), Lucknow (2011), and Lausanne (1983, 2010), the mission enterprise is still struggling.

Internal reasons include lack of training, ignorance about the Muslim worldview, misunderstanding about Muslim theology and practices, and failure to deal with the Muslims’ common felt needs.[3]

External reasons for historical hostility include doctrinal disagreement (particularly Christological understanding) and a self-sufficiency and sense of superiority in Muslim thought. Western colonialism and the way it has tainted missional enterprise are also preventing Muslims from accepting the gospel. Another reason is the exclusion of ordinary people from interfaith engagement.

Psalms and Sufis in Pakistan

The Book of Psalms offers one potential approach to such Christian-Muslim engagement.

The Book of Psalms offers one potential approach to such Christian-Muslim engagement. It represents a shared common heritage of divine revelation in Christianity and Islam, as David is revered as a prophet and musician in Islam. Indeed, Muslims accept the Torah, the Zabor and the Injil (Gospel) as divine revelations (Quran. 3:18-20, 64-71; 4:171; 5:77-80).

I myself had a vision of using the Psalms in this way. I decided to use them to engage with Sufi Muslims in Pakistan. I was already engaged with other Muslims (Shia, Sunni, and others), both educators through my part-time job as a music teacher and artists in mainstream media through our work in a recording studio. However, I decided to engage with Sufis specifically for several reasons:

  • Sufism is all inclusive, trans-sectarian, and trans-national.
  • Sufis are more open to artistic expression (poetry, music, and dance).
  • They are seekers of truth.
  • They are also victims of the Salafism/Wahhabism brand of extremist Islam.

Sufism is a ‘parallel religion’ to canonical or doctrinal Islam in Muslim societies. Sufis consider themselves the legitimate heirs and true interpreters of the esoteric teaching of the prophet Muhammad and his cousin and son-in-law Ali in order to connect with God through Sufi practices. Sufis do not belong to specific sects. Sufism is a spiritual movement including Sunnis, Shia, Ahmadi, and even non-Muslims.

In March 2012, I visited the famous Sindhi Sufi shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, the ‘Rumi’[4] of South Asia, and ‘poet-laureate’ of Sindh. His collection of poetry, Shah Jo Risalo, comprises nearly 30 surs, or musical compositions, with hundreds of verses.[5]

I entered the shrine with a music team and was warmly welcomed by the chief spiritual leader. We were the first Christians to visit the shrine for over 250 years. The room was full of devotees. After we shared our thoughts and purpose—promoting religious tolerance, love, and peace—our host invited us for a return visit for the annual Urs (celebration of Shah Latif’s union with God) to present the Psalms at an all-night event, along with Sufi singers.

I presented him with gifts: a picture of Christ on the cross, and a copy of the New Testament and the Psalms in the Sindhi language, as a token of love, peace, and harmony. His love and openness amazed us, removing our fears. Onlookers understood that this was a special event indeed. Our host asked his son to lead us into the shrine to visit the tomb. A procession escorted us to the shrine and opened the inner door for us. I saw this as God opening a door, usually only open for high officials, for us to engage with Sufis.


‘Music is no longer an aim, but a vehicle. Song is no longer an end, but a transportation, a path to the divine.’

Mission and music

As Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi noted, ‘Music is no longer an aim, but a vehicle. Song is no longer an end, but a transportation, a path to the divine.’ Many are unaware that Islam is in fact a liturgical and canonical faith with distinct musical practices.

Regarding whether music is halal (permissible) or haram (prohibited), Islamic scholars are divided[6]:

  • Mainstream Sunni Schools of Islamic Jurisprudence lack agreed rules and opinions about music and art.
  • Sunni conservative/extremists like Taliban and ISIS who are inspired by Wahhabi ideology do not accept music.
  • Other Sunni sects like Barelvi and Deobandi accept music for restricted religious celebrations.
  • Most Sunnis accept singing Na’at-nasheed (in praise of the prophet) without any instrumental accompaniment, but this is changing and many nasheed singers now use Arabic drumbeats.
  • According to the musical adab (rules) in Sufism, the social situation; state of mind and intent of the artist; and purpose and text of a song determine the validity of music in Muslim context.

One of the major reasons for the lack of success of Western missions in the Muslim world is the misunderstanding of Muslim music culture, as all branches of Islam have their own musical traditions. Roberta King, who spearheaded ethnomusicology for missions, lamented that not only did Western missionaries fail to understand music and the related dynamics of cultural events in the mission field, but they also ‘kept the music in periphery to the schematic of the missio Dei’[7].

William Gairdner, one of the leading missionaries in Egypt early in the 20th century, received criticism from his supporters and his mission agency when he used drama and music in the last few years of ministry in Cairo, showing how the church was ignorant of the imaginative and transformative force of music in mission.[8]

Music culture and musicking in Muslim society

Muslim music culture also features in socio-political spheres of life:

  • Saudi women are demanding their equal rights through music video.[9]
  • The Pakistan Army released a musical video to pay tribute to the victims of Peshawar school attack by Taliban in December 2014.[10]
  • The Taliban themselves endorse songs that legitimate their ideology and use poetry and songs to recruit new jihadis.[11]

Ethnomusicologist Allan Merriam encouraged investigators to explore ‘music in culture’ or, as it was later framed, ‘music as culture’, seeking to define the nature of the relationship between the phenomenon and its context. The significance of music culture lies in its constantly changing dynamics, inviting us to understand ways of life that reject homogenization.

Musicologist Christopher Small introduced the theory of ‘musicking’ as a collective action of a whole community. Musicking expresses the idea that music is a collective action and binds participants in any given context . It is an inclusive phenomenon that affects each person who is present at any musical event. An organized event in a Muslim context can bring interfaith singers ,musicians, and artists together to promote religious harmony and peacebuilding. Examples include the Fez festival in Morocco, Psalm festivals and Sufi Urs gatherings

Musicking helps to move beyond sound and text and to enter the social realm surrounding music making and musical performance.

Music culture in Pakistan

Music culture in Pakistan is heterogeneous. The context is an oral culture. Musicking theory suggests that it has great potential for mission. Musicking helps to move beyond sound and text and to enter the social realm surrounding music making and musical performance.

The religious music culture of Pakistan is divided into canonical and non-canonical:

  • Adhan (call to prayer) and Qur’anic qirat (cantillation) fall in the canonical category.
  • The non-canonical religious-spiritual music activities of Pakistan take place outside the mosque in social contexts such as Ramadan nights, the Prophet’s birthday (Mawlid or Milad), birthdays of Sufi imams (urs), weddings, and condolences. They include the Sunni Mawlid, the Shia Majlis-e-Marsya(commemoration of the massacre at the battle of Karbala in 680 AD) and the Sufi Sama’ or zikr (practice of listening or remembrance).

The adhan, qirat, Milad, Majlis-e-Marsya, and Sama’ are the five mainstreams of Muslim music culture in Pakistan.

Since the book of Psalms was translated into Punjabi lyrical poetry and composed as local cultural music a century ago, it has been used for Christian-Muslim combined worship resources. Christian and Muslim artists/singers and musicians work together to produce Psalms, hymns, gospel songs as worship resources for Christian worship concerts, conventions or crusades . Pakistan is unique in that its most famous gospel singers are largely Muslims, due to a dearth until recently of Christian artists. Islamic authorities have no role in this, as these singers and musicians are professional artists and music in Pakistan is a large and influential industry.


Has the Church learned the lesson? She failed in the seventh century; is she going to retrieve the failure in the twentieth?’[12], asked Gairdner. His encounter with Muslim mystical works transformed his missional approach from polemic to a spiritual search and outreach with musical and dramatic expressions. ‘We need a song note in our message to Moslems, not the dry cracked note of disputation, but the song note of joyous witness [and] tender invitation’, he concluded[13].

Nearly a century later, ethnomusicology and missiology help the church to engage with diverse Islamic societies through Muslim music culture. They open up the possibilities of a laity model of mission that releases the force of Christian musicians, singers, and artists to witness to Christ in the Muslim world.

The book of Psalms is the main literary and musical resource for fostering Muslim-Christian engagement around a common divine heritage of song.

The book of Psalms is the main literary and musical resource for fostering Muslim-Christian engagement around a common divine heritage of song. Music culture and musicking are vital tools for peacebuilding as mission. As Roberta King observes, ‘transformative music communication evokes relational bridges for living together peacefully as neighbors as it initiates, nourishes, and replenishes communities amid entangled realities of difference’[14].

Practical pathways

Music and Sufi spirituality are thus potential bridges between hungry hearts and Christ. According to the head of the largest private school chain in Pakistan, almost 80 percent of music teachers in Muslim schools are Christians. A missionary force of young Christian music teachers could be trained and equipped for vibrant mission in their respective schools.

In the broader Islamic world, Sufism has an important role in missional engagement. Engagement with Sufis is a blessed and prophetic work, indispensable to the Missio Dei in an Islamic context. Who knows but that we may bring Sufi seekers of truth to a point where they may be surprised by the Truth, the Way and the Life?

Further reading

Goddard, Hugh. A History of Christian-Muslim Relations. Chicago: A New Amsterdam Books, 2000.

King, Roberta R. (Un) Common Sounds: Songs of Peace and Reconciliation Among Muslims and Christians. Edited by Roberta R. King and Sooi Ling Tan. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014.

Reisacher, Evelyne. Joyful Witness to the Muslim World. Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2016.

Smith, Jane Idleman. Muslims, Christians, and the Challenges of Interfaith Dialogue. Oxford: Oxford University, 2007.


  1. Strictly speaking, in Islamic understanding the word ‘music’ is translated as ghina, which suggests commercial or entertainment music. In a missional context, qirat or tilawat (cantillation) is the referent.
  2. See https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/stories/announcing-2017-world-watch-list/. Accessed on Jan 23,2017
  3. Editor’s Note: See article by Gordon Hickson entitled “‘Ordinary Christians’ Can Reach Muslims Better Than Specialists: The Mahabba Network” in January 2017 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis.
  4. A reference to the famous Persian poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī 
  5. Video available at https://vimeo.com/album/2880961/video/95810655.
  6. Beside hurmat (permissive rules) of food there are only five things that are Haram in the Quran: 1) adultery, 2) injustice, 3) to destroy someone’s life, possession, integrity/honor,4) shirk (any other God) without any logic, and 5) to announce haram and halal by own understanding. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=376w1QPz07w
  7. King, Roberta R. 2004. “Toward a Discipline of Christian Ethnomusicology: A Missiological Paradigm.” Missiology: An International Review, Vol. XXXII, no. 3. 295-304
  8. Editor’s Note: See article by David Emmanuel Singh entitled “Multiple Centres of Islam in India” in March 2013 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis https://lausanne.org/content/lga/2013-03/multiple-centres-of-islam-in-india.
  9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BX6iMj6sccI
  10. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0LE0mk-V38
  11. Taliban has come, song in praise of Taliban in Pakistan https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siUHzt9TIIw
  12. Gairdner 1909, 105; Anastasios 2013,19.
  13. Henry Temple Gairdner, quoted by Tucker 2004, 244.
  14. King 2016.Music, “Peacebuilding, and Interfaith Dialogue: Transformative Bridges in Muslim-Christian Relations.” SAGE, International Bulletin of Mission Research,1-15

Eric Sarwar is a musician, songwriter, author, and church planter, and a founder of the Tehillim School of Church Music & Worship in Pakistan. He has a Th.M in Worship Studies from Calvin Theological Seminary and is pursuing his Ph.D. in Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.