Singing the Psalms Creates Christian-Muslim Bonds
God’s Word is alive and active in Pakistan.
God’s Word is alive and active in Pakistan. Eric Sarwar is a firsthand witness to what God’s Word can do through willing Christians. When this young pastor started helping Christians reclaim their heritage of psalm singing, he had no idea that singing psalms would also build bonds with Muslims.
More than a century ago, missionaries found that singing biblical psalms set to indigenous melodies and rhythms ignited mass conversions among persecuted people in the Punjab, the area of India that is now Pakistan. Protestants and Catholics still sing psalms of praise, penitence, and petition but have lost 80 percent of the psalm songs that their ancestors knew. The reason is that roughly two-thirds of Pakistani Christians are illiterate, and, as earlier generations died, psalm tunes faded from their collective memory.
While Eric Sarwar was attending seminary to become a Presbyterian church planter, he came across a complete 1905 Punjabi psalter written in Western notation. He was inspired by how psalm singing bathes people in God’s Word. He resolved to re-introduce the texts in musical styles that would connect with today’s Christians. He was okay with starting small.
“When I started the annual psalm festival 10 years ago, I didn’t have even a penny to rent the sound system and venue,” Sarwar recalls. What he had was a strong sense of calling and readiness to request prayers. He also had Muslim friends involved in education and music, thanks to his master’s degree in Islamic studies and his job teaching music in a Shiite Muslim girl’s school. He used these gifts to launch Tehillim School of Church Music and Worship (TSCM), with volunteer teachers in rented space.
The first four or five Zubor (Psalm) Festivals were organized as competitions for church groups. (The Punjabi word for psalm is also spelled zabor, zaboor, and zabur.) Sarwar wanted to produce a zubor CD, but Pakistan doesn’t have a thriving Christian music industry. He turned to Muslim music professionals who have recorded many psalms in Punjabi. Although Muslims don’t sing psalms in public worship, many love attending concerts and parties with psalms in qawwali, a Muslim praise-song style.
“When we have chance within the studio to speak with Muslim singers and artists and band boys, we are showing them the festival program. They have in mind that the holy book of Quran says that the Book of Psalms is a divine book. But clerics say that Torah and Psalms and Gospels have been changed, corrupted, so they shouldn’t read them.
“Sometimes I read in front of them and say, ‘Did you know? This is Psalm 1. This is Psalm 145.’ And they say, ‘This is same like our faith,’” Sarwar recalls. He began inviting them to play and present at psalm festivals. Their passion for the Psalms brought in more Muslim musicians. “It’s really a blessing to me to be a channel for all this stuff. This festival is turning into a big mission outreach,” he says.
“Muslims want to connect with the divine but feel a great spiritual vacuum. We can fill it with the Word of God. Christians cannot openly convert but can maybe talk freely with people they know well,” he says. Sarwar has noticed that Psalms 42, 46, 116, 139, and 145 resonate with Muslims because they deal with spiritual hunger and seeking God.
In 2010, someone asked him to co-produce an event. “He is a very good friend—a Sindhi person, an educationalist, and a Sufi music promoter in Sindhi language, which is one of Pakistan’s four regional languages,” Sarwar explains. He was interested because “Sindhi are mostly peaceful people and Shiite people.”
He was also cautious. After two years of building relationships and scoping out who was who, the two friends and a TSCM team received an official invitation to Pakistan’s largest Sufi shrine. The shrine honors 17th century Sindhi poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. Scholars compare his work to another Sufi mystic, Rumi, a more-widely translated 13th century Persian poet.
When Sarwar told his team about the trip, some members felt afraid, because extremists have attacked Sufi shrines as well as Christian churches. Nevertheless, they asked people throughout the world to pray, and translated Psalms 139 and 145 from Punjabi to Sindhi.
“God is amazing!”
He marvels at the timing of the invitation. “For more than 200 years, only people from certain families could perform at the shrine. And they could only sing words written 200 years ago. But now more musicians and words are allowed. Not only did they give us permission to perform but also, in history of the shrine, this is first time they heard the Word of God, through psalms,” Sarwar explains.
Universal love, peace, and harmony are the main themes of Bhittai, the shrine’s patron saint. So the TCSM team came with a souvenir plaque of Jesus on the cross, along with the words “love, peace, and harmony visit” and the date. They also brought a Sindhi-language New Testament and Book of Psalms. The shrine’s dean, successor, press club president, and lead singers, as well as the principal of the adjacent Sufi university, had their photos taken with Sarwar and the gifts. The hosts presented the TCSM team with red scarves. The principal explained about Sufi music and singing styles.
University intellectuals and others packed the shrine courtyard to hear the team perform Psalms 139 and 145. Sindhi News TV covered the event. “And now this is the blessing of psalms,” Sarwar says. “After listening, the shrine officials asked, ‘Can we record this for Radio Pakistan?’ Not only that, but the dean of the shrine asked, ‘Can we translate lyrical psalms into Sindhi language?’ And we said, ‘Well, yes! Why not?’”
The shrine invited TCSM for a return performance two months later, when huge crowds would gather for Bhittai’s 331st birth anniversary. Video from that event shows people clapping, dancing, and using cell phones to record psalm singers.
“Now we are planning with Sufi musicians to do a big psalm festival in Sindhi language. God is amazing!” Sarwar says.
Eric Sarwar and Tehillim School of Church Music and Worship (TCSM) use websites, Facebook, and YouTube to help supporters around the world know how to praise and petition God for the gospel’s impact in Pakistan. If you “friend” log onto Facebook, you can check out photos from TCSM’s first and second visits to sing at Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai shrine in Sindh province.
Although Islam has many branches, about 85 percent of Muslims throughout the world—and in Pakistan—are Sunni. Read more about Sindhi Muslims. This fantastic Smithsonian Magazine article explains the hopeful role of Sufism in Pakistan. Just as charismatic Christians may identify as Catholic or Protestant, so Sufi Muslims are found among Sunni and Shia traditions.
Qawal Najmuddin Saifuddin & Brothers performed at Calvin College in November 2012. Qawwali is a type of Sindhi devotional poetry meant to be experienced through music. Qawwali songs focus on praising Allah and Muhammad or yearning for divine union. Eric Sarwar is exploring how church choirs can sing biblical psalms and hymns in qawwali style.
Start A Discussion
Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, worship, youth ministry, or church education meeting. These questions will help people think about reaching out to Muslims.
- Who are the Muslims in your community? What does your congregation have in common with them?
- Singing the psalms helps Pakistani Christians pass on their faith to their children, and connect with Muslims. How might God use psalm singing in your church worship and outreach?
- In what ways does your church music identify with, express, or reach out to Christians in other cultures or unreached people in your community?