Iran (MNN) — Tonight marks the end of Ashura – a major holiday observed by millions of Muslims worldwide. It’s also part of Muharram, the first month in a new year on the Islamic calendar.
When describing the importance of this occasion, Mike Ansari of Heart4Iran says, “Ashura is a major Shia Muslim commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, that took place at the battle of Karbala in modern-day Iraq in the year 680 AD.”
Believers trying to reach Shia Muslims for Christ should be familiar with Ashura, he adds.
“Hussein’s martyrdom in Karbala was the final event that led to the split of Islam into two main sects of Shias vs. Sunnis.”
What is Ashura and why does it matter?
As described here, Muharram is one of the four sacred months in the Islamic calendar. Shia and Sunni Muslims observe the 9th and 10th days of this month – Ashura – in differing ways, but all agree it’s an important 24-hour period. More about that here.
In countries where Sunni and Shia Muslims live side-by-side, Ashura can lead to friction. “In Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan, there have been multiple incidents targeting the Shiite population during Ashura services,” Ansari says. This 2013 report from Pew Research Center provides a detailed account of Sunni-Shia tensions in countries like Azerbaijan, Iraq, and Lebanon.
The countries Pew surveyed have a somewhat-balanced divide between their Muslim citizens compared to countries with either majority Sunni or Shia populations – Afghanistan and Iran, for example. Yet balance doesn’t necessarily mean safety. Concern about religious conflict runs high, especially in Lebanon – the most “balanced” of the three.
At the same time, Gospel work is not impossible in countries with either a Sunni or Shia majority. In the Shia heartland known as Iran, Ashura provides Heart4Iran with yet another opportunity to share Christ’s hope through their satellite TV ministry. “Mohabat TV exists to proclaim God’s love through His Son Jesus for all mankind,” Ansari says.
“‘For God so loved the world that He sent His only Son’ is a powerful message that is capturing the heart of many Iranians.”
Knowledge is power
Understanding is a critical first step to reaching any people group for Christ. The same is true of Muslims. “To better understand the people of the Middle East and their socio-religious culture, we as Christians need to educate ourselves on worldviews of the Islamic regions,” Ansari says.
“While in the West we live in an ‘innocence and guilt’ culture, we need to understand that most Muslim societies adhere to [an] ‘honor and shame’ worldview,” he continues. More about ministry in honor and shame cultures here.
“In the case of understanding Ashura, if a Shiite does not engage in intense grief and mourning they have not honored their family, tribe, society and faith. Therefore, [they] have brought shame to their lives.”
Understanding Ashura and the Muslim culture are good but not the end goal, Ansari clarifies.
“As Christians we need to act with integrity and trustworthiness [and] create a bridge with other worldviews so we can introduce the Gospel to them.”
Use this information to talk with Muslim neighbors about Ashura, Ansari suggests. “Create a bond of trust, respect and love – but above all, pray for our Father’s love to consume all their hearts,” he says.
“Pray with Muslims who are genuinely trying to please God, and take the step to introduce Jesus to them.”
Click here to find more ways to pray for Muslims throughout the year.
Header image credit Payam Moein via Wikimedia Commons.