Folk Islamic Ritual #11: The Hand of Fatima

This blog post is the eleventh in a series on South Asian folk Islam and its rituals. Click here to go to the first of these articles. Understanding the rituals of Folk Islam provides insight into the beliefs and practices of folk Muslims. This understanding helps us to make disciples of folk Muslims.

The names of Muhammad, Fatima, Ali, Hasan, and Hussein with the Arabic “Allah” at the center.

In each lesson, we have learned about a different ritual or practice of folk Muslims and discussed how that ritual or tradition reveals their worldview. This exercise aims to gain insight into how to make disciples better among folk Muslims in South Asia. The first ten lessons have focused on folk Islam in Sunni Islam. These last two lessons shift to Shias. India and Pakistan are home to massive Shia populations, with more than twenty million in each country. These are the second and third largest Shia populations globally after Iran (Iraq has a similar population). Pray for the Shias of South Asia, as few have focused on them for gospel ministry.

I want to begin with a story from a visit to the dargah of Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi, Pakistan, a Shia Sufi. This dargah is one of the most beautiful I have ever visited. My first impression was that the complex was massive and elaborate. Thousands and thousands of visitors poured in and out. There were restaurants, games, rides, and even a Ferris Wheel! At the center was the grave of the Sufi. My friends and I went up the staircase to the area that held this tomb and found that hundreds of people were also crowded in that area. A group of men sat down to the side, so I greeted them with asalaamu alykum and asked if I could sit with them. As we talked, it became clear that these men were Sunni. I was surprised that Sunnis would go to the tomb of a Shia, so I asked them about it. One of the men replied, “It does not matter if he was Sunni or Shia; he was Sayyid!”

The Sayyid are those Muslims who descend from Muhammad through Ali and Fatima’s sons, Hussein and Hasan. There are around 7-8 million Sayyid in each India and Pakistan today. They are considered to be of the highest Muslim caste in both countries. Because Shias place great importance on Muhammad’s descendants, many Sayyid are Shia. 

            Throughout the world, Shias give great honor to five individuals – Muhammad, Fatima, Ali, Hussein, and Hasan. These five names are on the wall of Shia imambaras, places of worship that house taziah. Imambaras are unique places of worship to South Asia. The word taziah also has different meanings in South Asia than in Iran. In South Asia, taziah are replicas of the tomb of Hussein in Karbala. In Iran, taziah is a reference to plays that depict the martyrdom of Hussein.

The names of Muhammad, Fatima, Ali, Hasan, and Hussein occur on a symbol throughout the Muslim world called hamsa (or “the hand of Fatima”). Muslims use this symbol as a ward against the evil eye. 

In South Asia, the hamsa represents these five exceptional individuals as the hand of Allah. I was once at Shia dargah Hazrat Abbas in Lucknow with a friend who followed Jesus from a Sunni background. My Sunni friend sought to initiate a spiritual conversation with a young man in the dargah by asking, “Who created the world?” My friend was shocked at this young man’s reply, “Muhammad, Fatima, Ali, Hasan, and Hussein.” The young man replied that Allah is spirit, and thus he created the world through his hand, meaning these five individuals.  

This young Shia man believed that these five were sinless and were with Allah before the world’s creation. His opinion about them was similar to a Christian view about the pre-existence of Christ and His incarnation into the world. South Asian Shias often refer to these five individuals as the panjtan pak (“the five holy people”). In South Asia, the hamsa is often seen as a symbol of the panjtan pak, even though that is not true throughout the Muslim world. Shias see the panjtan pak as holy, sinless, and those closest to Allah. Therefore, they become the ideal mediators for many South Asian folk Muslims.

Thankfully, many Shia Muslims have been open to the gospel. It is less common for Shias to argue that the Injeel (“New Testament”) has been corrupted, making many more Shias open to reading the Bible. For example, once, when I was sharing with the leaders of a Shia madrassah (school for Islamic instruction), they requested copies of the Injeel for each student. I happily complied. As we share the gospel with Shias, we need to know that they are comparing Jesus with Muhammad and Fatima, Ali, Hasan, and Hussein. 

If you found this article helpful, click below to read all of my articles on Folk Islamic rituals.

To learn more about sharing Jesus with Shia Muslims, click here.

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