A fakir is a Muslim or Hindu mendicant who travels between villages reciting scripture and performing various physical feats. In some regions, fakirs are a topic of controversy, as some people consider them to be mystics with holy powers, while others suggest that they are simply magicians, using a variety of tricks to hoodwink people. Whether fakirs are spiritual messengers or simply magicians, they have quite an air of mystique, and many people have become fascinated by the fakir community.
The term “fakir” is Arabic for “poor man,” and fakirs originally arose in the Muslim Sufi community. These Muslim mystics took a vow of poverty to bring themselves closer to God, studying various Islamic texts and Sufi literature. As part of their ascetic practice, make fakirs also engaged in physical deprivation and other physical tests such as walking on coals or allowing themselves to be buried alive. Some fakirs also danced, sang, and engaged in performances to express their religious devotion.
In India, the term came to be applied to Hindu mystics as well, since they also engage in various physical challenges and recite scripture. As a result, the term has come to be used to refer to practitioners in both the Muslim and Hindu traditions, though these fakirs obviously believe very different things, and their practices are different as a result. Whether Muslim or Hindu, many fakirs are capable of demonstrating incredible physical feats which have made their mendicant lifestyles famous.
There are all sorts of reasons to incorporate physical hardship and challenge into religious practice. Many religions have a tradition of asceticism which is designed to bring people closer to God, for example, while some traditions believe that physical feats are a demonstration of holiness. In these traditions, the feats of a fakir are pointed to as proof that God exists, and that by applying oneself, one can become a holy man, potentially communicating directly with God and being gifted with the ability to do things which would otherwise be extremely painful, impossible, or simply deadly, like lying on a bed of nails.
Critics of the fakir tradition have demonstrated that many of the feats performed by fakirs can be performed by anyone, with a little bit of training. In some parts of India, groups of skeptics actually travel in the countryside in an attempt to debunk fakirs by showing people how they perform their tricks. However, some people prefer not to know the secrets of the fakirs, just as many Westerners suspend their disbelief during magic shows, because physical feats and sleight of hand can simply be enjoyable and amazing to watch.