Sharing Jesus with South Asian Shias

When Islam first spread to South Asia, it spread through Shia Muslims, first to the Sindh and then to the area around Lucknow. The father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a secular Shia.[1] Today, Pakistan and India have significant Shia populations of at least 20 million per country.[2] Despite this large population, there are almost no gospel workers focused on South Asian Shias.

The purpose of this blog post is to help readers understand South Asia Shia Muslims to better share the good news of Jesus with them.

An artistic rendering of the Panchtan Pak. At the center is Allah. Top center is Muhammad then clockwise, the names Ali, Hasan, Husayn, and Fatimah (in Arabic). Symbols like this for the Panchtan Pak are common among Shia Muslims.

The Panchtan Pak[3]: Muhammad, Fatimah, Ali, Hasan, and Husayn

Go to an imambara (a South Asian Shia house of worship). You will see five names written in Arabic script, often in various banners, around the imambara. Those five names are Muhammad, Fatimah, Ali, Hasan, and Husayn. The significance of these five figures cannot be underestimated for Shias. Here are some brief details about each of the five:

  • Muhammad (570-632 AD). The prophet of Islam.
  • Fatimah (d. 632 AD). Daughter of Muhammad, wife of Ali, and mother of Hasan and Husayn. Often considered the ultimate Muslim woman, especially among Shias. Shias view Fatimah with a similar reverence that Catholics have for Mary.
  • Ali (d. 661 AD). Cousin of Muhammad, husband of Fatimah, father of Hasan and Husayn. Served as the fourth rightly guided Caliph from 656-661 AD. Ali is considered the first Imam by Shia Muslims. The teachings and writings of Ali are collected in the Nahjul Balaghah, which is a book of significance for Shia. When Ali became Caliph, a civil work broke out among Muslims, during which Ali was killed. The death of Ali signified a decisive split between Sunnis and Shias in 661 AD. 
    • The first three rightly guided Caliphs were (1) Abu Bakr (632-634 AD), (2) Umar (634-644 AD), and (3) Uthman (644-656 AD). Most Shias believe that Ali should have been the leader of Islam during the period these other men led. 
  • Hasan (d. 670 AD). Grandson of Muhammad, eldest son of Ali and Fatimah. Shias consider Hasan to be the second Imam. Most believe Hasan was poisoned at the direction of Mu’awiya. Mu’awiya became the Caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate, which was formed after the death of Ali. 
  • Husayn (d. 680 AD). Grandson of Muhammad, second son of Ali and Fatimah. Shias consider Husayn to be the third Imam. Husayn was one of 70 men attacked by 4,000 Umayyad troops in the Battle of Karbala. The Umayyads attacked when Husayn refused to submit to Mu’awiya’s authority. Husayn’s death is considered sacrificial by the Shia community and is remembered in the annual Muhurram celebrations. Husayn’s tomb at Karbala is Shias’s most important pilgrimage site today. 

Adoration of the Panchtan Pak is central to Shia thought.[4] For example:

  • Shias believe that the Panchtan Pak were without sin and infallible in their teaching.
  • Many Shias believe that the Panchtan Pak were created before Adam before the foundation of the world. The five are often considered the hand of Allah, through whom Allah made the world. In this view, they existed as mystical lights and later came into the world.
  • For Shias, Muhammad was the last and greatest prophet, and therefore, Muhammad’s life and teaching are central. However, a common phrase among Shias is, “Live like Ali; die like Husayn.” As a result, the lives and teaching of all the Panchtan Pak are of central importance. Shias find great importance in reading the Nahjul Balaghah, which contains the teachings and writings of Ali.
  • Fatimah is considered the ideal Muslim woman who connects the rest of the Panchtan Pak.
  • Husayn’s death is the focus of Muhurram, which is the most important Shia celebration., Husayn’s tomb in Karbala is a focus of worship and pilgrimage among Shias.

The Imamate

Most Shias in South Asia are Twelvers, although the Nazari’s of Pakistan are also a significant community. Twelvers believe in Twelve Imams. The Twelve Imams are:

  1. Ali, son-in-law of Muhammad (d. 661 AD)
  2. Hasan, son of Ali (d. 670 AD)
  3. Husayn, son of Ali (d. 680 AD)
  4. Ali, son of Husayn (d. 712 AD)
  5. Muhammad, son of Ali (d. 732 AD)
  6. Ja’far, son of Muhammad (d. 765 AD)[5]
  7. Musa, son of Ja’far (dd. 799 AD)
  8. Ali, son of Musa (d. 817 AD)
  9. Muhammad, son of Ali (d. 835 AD)
  10. Ali, son of Muhammad (d. 868 AD)
  11. Hasan, son off Ali (d. 874 AD)
  12. Muhammad, son of Hasan (b. 870 AD). Called al-Mahdi by Shias and considered still alive in hiding until the end times, when he will come with Jesus as the deliverer of Shia Islam and bring justice to the world. The al-Mahdi disappeared in 878 AD and has communicated through intermediaries since.

Waiting for the al-Mahdi to come in the last days is central to religious Shia Muslims. Their end-time view of the al-Mahdi coming to bring justice is like the Christian view about the second coming of Jesus. In the Shia view, Jesus will also come in submission to the al-Mahdi.

In remembrance of the Imams, Shias in South Asia gather in imambaras, especially during Muhurram.[6]Imambara derives from a Persian term for “house of the Imams” and is a place to revere the Panchtan and the Twelve Imams. Imambaras generally house replicas of the tomb of Husayn that are called Taziah.[7] In Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, two famous Imambaras are now tourist attractions.

Shia and the Muslim Triangle

Shias can be understood through the Muslim triangle. Three poles affect the average Shia: orthodox Shia Islam, Sufism and folk Islam, and secularism. Click here for more information on the Muslim Triangle.

  • Orthodox Shia Islam. Most Orthodox Shias focus primarily on Muhammad and the Qur’an. Many Christians will not even realize that they are talking to a Shia until later since many beliefs of Shias and Sunnis are similar. Orthodox Shias tend not to want to talk about the Panchtan and other issues until the question of Muhammad and the Qur’an is settled. 
  • Folk Shias and Sufis. Historically, many Sufis in South Asia were Shia. Kwaja Moinuddin Chishti, whose tomb is in Ajmer, Rajasthan, India, was a Shia. The reason is that Shias give great respect to the family lineage of Muhammad. There is a caste of Muslims called the Sayyid in South Asia that claim to descend from the tribe of Muhammad. Most of the original Sufis that preached Islam in South Asia were Sayyid and claimed descent from Muhammad as part of their authority. In Sufi Islam, a silsila that traces a spiritual ancestry from Muhammad through Ali is essential. As a result, folk Islam is strong in Shia Islam in South Asia and has many expressions. Many folk Shia give great respect to the Panchtan.
  • Secularism and Shias. At the same time, many Shias are hard-working and secular-minded. Shias have put a significant emphasis on secular education with the result that many Shias are intelligent and open-minded. Because of their education and open-mindedness, many Shias are happy to read the Injeel (New Testament) and have open conversations about the gospel.

Tips for Evangelism

  • Muhurram as an open door for friendship. Shias love outsiders to come and learn about their faith, especially during Muhurram. If you want to build inroads among Shias, find when Muhurram is and make plans to visit your local Shia community. Go ready to learn and listen, but also to appropriately share about your own faith. Muhurram is an excellent opportunity for building friendships.
  • The martyrdom of Husayn and the death of Jesus. The centrality of Husayn’s martyrdom is mirrored in our faith with the death of Jesus. Do not be surprised if a Shia interjects with this story when you share the gospel. Likewise, suppose your Shia friend shares about the death of Husayn. In that case, it is an appropriate time for you to ask if you can share about the sacrificial death of Jesus and what it means for you. In my experience, our gospel presentation also functions well among Shias. Click here for a blog post on that tool.
  • The Panchtan Pak and the preeminence of Jesus. The Panchtan Pak are a significant barrier to Shias understanding the gospel. Their minds will automatically compare Jesus with these five as you share. The Five Special Things about Jesus are a great tool to use with Shias to demonstrate the uniqueness and greatness of Jesus. The Five Special Things are: (1) His birth, (2) His miracles, (3) His teaching, (4) Hiss death, and (5) His resurrection. These five things are part of our gospel tool (click here).
  • Because Shias are a smaller community, they tend to be non-violent. Shias in South Asia are often the victims of attacks by Sunnis but rarely attack other communities. They want peace with others and are very open to religious discussions.
  •  Last, pray for your Shia friends!

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[1] Jinnah famously converted from Ismaili Shia Islam to being a Twelver Shia to avoid conflict control by the Aga Khan.

[2] Research on the number of Shia per country is weak. After Iran, Pakistan and India may have the second and third largest Shia populations. However, the Shia population in Iraq is similar. Iran has the largest Shia population in the world.

[3] Panjtan Pak is the South Asian name for these five figures and derives from Persian. In Arabic, they are called Ahl al-Kisa.

[4] Note that multiple Shia Islam schools do not agree about their nature. What is written here is from my experiences interacting with South Asian Shias.

[5] Another Shia Muslim sect called Ishmailis holds that Ishmael, son of Ja’far (d. 775 AD), was the seventh and last imam.

[6] Shias build imambaras in South Asia, but most Shias globally do not use them. 

[7] Taziah is also used in reference to plays about the martyrdom of Husayn that are common during Muhurram. 

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