Biblical Psalms in Pakistan
Words: Dr. Yousaf Sadiq, Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology
Biblical Psalms in the Context of Pakistan
Photo by Anwar Masih
As a child, I learned many of the psalms in my native language, Punjabi. Early in the morning, my father would sing them in his rich, melodious voice. The tunes and the beautiful words of these psalms would bring unexplainable peace and comfort to my mind and heart. My house faced the main mosque in the area, separated by less than fifty feet of road from door to door. The Muslim call to prayer would be amplified through the speakers in the minarets at 5:00 a.m., but the words faded into the background of my consciousness as my father continued to sing. Before going to school or work, it was a regular practice for our family in Pakistan to begin our day by listening to the Psalms. The artistry of the Psalms unifies, forms, and builds the faith of Christians throughout Pakistan, bolstering them against division, persecution, hardship, and disease.
Pakistani churches are denominationally diverse. In different parts of the country there is a linguistic and ethnic diversity, as well. The Punjabi Zabur (“Psalms”) were translated and set to Indian melodies in the late 19th century by Rev. Dr. Imam-ud-Din Shahbaz from the United Presbyterian Mission. The Zabur have become a symbol of unity and harmony among different Christian denominations in Pakistan, and they continue to build up a strong bond within the diverse churches.
Psalms are beyond denominational boundaries since they can be heard and sung at any church or denomination. For instance, Psalm 24 is the opening Psalm at a church service, Psalm 72 is normally sung at the end of a church service, Psalms 20 is regularly sung at funerals and at the graveyard to express grief and sorrow, Psalm 45 is used at wedding ceremonies in the church, and Psalm 127 is read and preached from at the birth of a child. As one body of Christ, we take full part in worship through the singing of these Psalms. Likewise, on occasions of joy, celebration, sorrow and grief, the communal singing of the Psalms creates a strong sense of unity and community.
Pakistani Christians use psalms for their spiritual growth and the building up of their faith in both personal and communal expressions of devotion. In writing about the importance of Psalms in the Christian life, Graham Kendrick asserts: “If we want Christians to take responsibility for their personal worship lives, I don’t think that we can do it without equipping them to use the Psalms.” The majority of the older generation has had no formal schooling, so memorizing God’s Word as translated into the Punjabi language is essential to learning about God’s truth.
Moreover, the Psalms bolster Christians in Pakistan, a struggling community that is often looked down upon by the majority. The negative attitude toward the Christians continues to this day as they face discrimination. Many are forced to engage in jobs that are considered menial, and thus they experience rejection and alienation.
Even at the government level, from time to time the sweeper and latrine cleaning jobs are advertised in such a way as to clearly indicate that only Christians can apply for such jobs. It is open discrimination; it indicates that such a sick mentality toward the Christians is deeply rooted in society. It also demonstrates how one community perceives itself to be innately superior and views the other community to be innately filthy and without any dignity. The Christian sewage cleaners throughout the country put their lives to risk in order to keep the sewage lines clean and running. They are not provided with any safety kits. They are often seen publicly going down the pits, gutters, and manholes, drawing the human waste and garbage with buckets in their hands. There have been several incidents in which the sewage cleaners have lost their lives due to inhaling poisonous gases found in gutters and manholes. On one occasion, the doctor refused to touch an unconscious Christian sewage cleaner named Irfan Masih. The doctor believed that touching the dirty body would break his fast. Sadly, Irfan Masih passed away as a result of the doctor’s negligence and refusal to provide medical treatment.
Among the smaller communities especially in rural areas, Christian may not be welcomed to eat at food shops owned by Muslims. Some Muslims believe that eating food with or receiving water from Christians can make them unclean. A few years ago, a Christian ice-cream salesman was beaten near his village when a villager spread the news that he was selling unclean merchandise to Muslim children. One hot summer, a Muslim technician came to fix the electric cable in our home. He appeared thirsty and exhausted, so my mother offered him a glass of water. First, though, she informed him we were Christians so that he wouldn’t regret or get upset if he later discovered he drank water from a Christian home. Seeing this happening as a child, for a moment, I felt that we were inferior to people in the majority community just because we were Christians. However, such experiences do not discourage Christians in Pakistan from engaging with their Muslim neighbors. They reflect on Jesus who lived in similar complexity of cultural and societal tensions and yet intentionally reached out to the Samaritans with love and passion. In the same manner, Christians get the courage to step out of their comfort zone and in boldness testify Christ to others in Pakistan.
The practice of religion in public spheres is so common in Pakistan that the notion to keep one’s faith to oneself does not exist in that context. During long bus or train journeys in Pakistan, often Christians find themselves in situations where they must disclose their Christian identity to other passengers, especially when they have approached the time for lunch or dinner, due to the reluctance to eat with Christians. Consequently, some show no hesitancy to eat with them, while others demonstrate a completely negative behavior for the rest of the journey. Christians make use of these opportunities to share their faith despite the fact that they are likely to be faced with animosity.
Today, Pakistani Christians are still addressed using the old, troubling and insulting terms that, centuries ago, were used for the lower caste groups. Further, Pakistani Christians have been particularly targeted since the 1980s under section 295 of the Pakistan penal code concerning the blasphemy law that is often regarded as the hanging sword on the innocent Christians in Pakistan. This is just one aspect of the difficulties that Pakistan’s Christian population faced on account of their religious belief. For example, Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of four children was faced with death penalty under the blasphemy charges. She spent ten years in solitary confinement and was finally acquitted by the highest court in Pakistan. In a recent interview, she forgave all those who falsely accused her and caused her to be separated from her children for many years. In a similar manner, several Christians who lost their entire families in a twin suicide attack on a church in Pakistan spoke of forgiveness for their attackers. The psalms have played a central role in the theological development of the church in Pakistan, God’s forgiveness as found in the Psalms helps them to forgive others.
The Pakistani Christians find comfort and peace by singing these psalms as they continue to face persecution and discrimination by society. John O’Brien, a Catholic missionary to Pakistan, says that for Punjabi Christians "the choice [of Punjabi Psalms] had much to do with the way they looked at a future full of challenges.” The preference for certain psalms is for their message of protection and help that corresponds to the “helplessness and danger of their precarious minority position.”
At present, many of the well-known Psalms among the Pakistani congregations include the ones that deal with suffering and patience, because the Christians in Pakistan are often the victims of the blasphemy law for which the punishment is the death penalty. Suffering for Christ is something that is deeply rooted in the lives of believers in Pakistan who experience social alienation, hatred, and discrimination for their lower social status as well as for their faith in Christ. Worshipping God through the singing of the Zabur identifies the conditions of these oppressed people. The message of God’s faithfulness brings peace and comfort to their broken hearts as they repeatedly sing the Psalms of hope and trust.
For my wedding, I contacted a traditional Pakistani wedding band to inquire about their availability, and we met outside my church building to discuss details. After discovering that I was a Christian, the band asked if I would like some of the Zabur to be played at my wedding. “We can play Psalm 24 and Psalm 136 or any other Zabur that you may be interested in,” the band leader said. I was very surprised to hear this, knowing that I was talking to a Muslim person. It is a strong belief among many Muslims in Pakistan that Islam supersedes other religions, and therefore Muslims are often discouraged by religious leaders from engaging with the Christian Scriptures. When I asked him how he knew about the Punjabi Zabur and where he learned them, the band leader replied that many of his customers come from the local Christian community, and some requested the band to play the Punjabi Zabur during weddings. I was glad for some of the Punjabi Zabur to be played on my wedding day, along with some traditional Punjabi folk melodies that people enjoy in celebration.
The Psalms are much cherished by the believers in Pakistan. However, they are equally fitting to bridge gaps between Christians and Muslims in the Islamic contexts. There are a number of factors in considering the Psalms as a means of bridging the gap. The intertextuality between the Qur’an and the Psalms, the engagement of medieval Muslim scholars with the Psalms, the common attributes of God in the Qur’an and the Psalms, the love for poetry in the Islamic oral cultures, an abundance of mystic poetic literature in Islamic societies, and mystic practices in the Islamic circles are significant markers for bridge-building.
Christians are regarded as “people of the Book” by the Muslims. Muslims believe that Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospel was given by God. The Qur’an speaks highly of the Psalms, and explicitly mentions the Psalms as divine revelation bestowed upon David (Qur’an 4:163 and 17:54). Moreover, several Qur’anic passages speak of the exceptional blessing bestowed upon David to praise and worship God (Qur’an 21:79, 34:10 & 38:18-19). Like the Qur’an, there are several hadiths that focus on David’s fasting and prayer, and regard his fasting as ideal, best and superior (Sahih Al-Bukhari 3:31:195-201). In the early stages of Islam, the translation of the Psalms into Arabic language was available, the Arab historian Al-Masudi asserts that the total number of Psalms is 150.
The language of the Qur’an is largely of psalmic literature, similar to that being used in Psalms 121 and 145. There is a remarkable parallel between Psalm 104 and Qur’an chapter 16. The way Qur’anic chapters from the early Meccan period are structured shows similarity to the Psalms. There exists a broad resemblance between Qur’an chapter 55 and Psalm 136. According to British-Pakistani Islamic philosopher Shabbir Akhtar, “The Qur’an never quotes from the Bible except for a verse” taken from Psalm 37:29. It is true that several biblical narratives have some parallels in the Qur’an, but the Psalms in particular are viewed by Muslims as being more in line with the Qur’an, and vice versa.
There is an abundance of mystic and folk poetry in Islamic communities that have rich oral traditions. The Psalms as poetry make them very special in cultures where poetry is much loved and appreciated. The acrostic poetic feature in the Psalms may well be observed in Islamic mystic poetry. The Sufi (Islamic mysticism) idea of taste (dhawq) is in line with the psalmist’s invitation to taste God, mentioned in Psalm 34:9. The Psalms focus on the significance of the heart for knowledge (Psalm 37:31), and in the same way the heart is central for spiritual understanding, in Sufism. The Sufi groups in the Islamic world long to have a direct and personal experience with the Almighty, similar to the doctrine of the direct communion with God that the Psalms extensively speak of.
The psalms of lament have a vital place in Islamic societies. These psalms speak of separation from God, and seek intimate connection with the divine despite life’s troubled experiences. The Islamic mystic poetry is full of wailings and lamentations caused by the pang of separation from God. Moreover, there is a plea for God’s grace in the psalms of lament to deal with the inside struggle with sin. Therefore, the Psalms as poetry in Islamic contexts have full potential for playing a vital role in bridge-building.
The psalms of hope and protection are sources of strength and confidence in God for the believers in Pakistan during the age of COVID-19. Some Christians have written the words of Psalm 91 on their doorposts as an expression of their faith and trust in God. In times where there is so much fear and an increased number of deaths being reported from all around the world, the believers in Pakistan contemplate the words from Psalms 91 and 46 they have been singing in the age of COVID-19.
There has been a lot of charity work being done in Pakistan since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country. However, it is heartbreaking to receive the news that Christians in different areas are not given help from the non-governmental organizations. Several Christians mentioned that they were being refused much-needed supplies just because of their faith. Despite such treatment, the believers have been repeatedly singing Psalm 121 and reminding themselves of God’s promises to provide for His people.
The Psalms can unequivocally be regarded as the most accustomed, read, sung, recited, and memorized part of Scripture by the body of Christ in Pakistan. The Christians in Pakistan use the Psalms for their spiritual growth and the building up of their faith in both personal and communal expression of devotion. The artistry of the Psalms brings restoration to weary and burdened souls.
It reminds of my late father, who was very fond of the Punjabi Zabur, and these psalms were very close to his heart. One day I saw my father being very depressed. He was quiet and sitting alone in the porch area that day. I took out the harmonium and started playing one of his favorite Zabur, Psalm 16. It touched him deeply. He came inside the room, and without saying a single word he sat on a chair and closed his eyes. My father was pouring out his heart before the Lord while listening to the Zabur being sung and played on a harmonium. It is amazing to see how the Punjabi Psalms are means of the spiritual uplifting of the believers.
I pray that the believers in Pakistan and around the world may continue to be blessed by the spiritual depth and comfort found in the Psalms. May we continue to express our faith and trust in God by singing the Psalms of hope, protection, deliverance, restoration, and refuge in these rather uncertain times.