Imamate (Twelver doctrine)

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This is a sub-article to Imamah (Shia doctrine) and is specifically about the Twelver Shi'i conception of the term.

Imāmah (Arabic: اٍمامة‎) means "leadership" and it is a part of the theology of Twelvers. The Twelve Imams are the spiritual and political successors to Muhammad, the Final Prophet of Islam, in the Twelver branch of Shi'i Islam.[1] According to Twelver theology, the successor of Muhammad is an infallible human individual who not only rules over the community with justice, but also is able to keep and interpret sharia and the esoteric interpretation of the Quran. The Prophet and Imams' words and deeds are a guide and model for the community to follow; as a result, they must be free from error and sin, and must be chosen by divine decree, or nass, through the Prophet.[2][3]

The Shia believe that 'Aql, divine wisdom, was the source of the souls of the Prophets and Imams and gave them esoteric knowledge, or hikmah, and that their sufferings were a means of divine grace to their devotees.[1][4][5] The Imam was not the recipient of a divine revelation, but has a close relationship with God, through which God guides him, and the Imam in turn guides the people. The Imamat, or belief in the divine guide, is a fundamental belief in Shi'i Islam and is based on the concept that God would not leave humanity without access to divine guidance.[6]

According to Twelvers, there is always an Imam of the Age, who is the divinely appointed authority on all matters of faith and law in the Muslim community. Ali was the first Imam of this line, and, in the Twelvers’ view, the rightful successor to the Prophet of Islam, followed by male descendants of Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah. Each Imam was the son of the previous Imam, with the exception of Husayn ibn Ali, who was the brother of Hasan ibn Ali.[1] The twelfth and final Imam is Muhammad al-Mahdi, who is believed by the Twelvers to be currently alive, and in hiding.[6]


Muhammad is reported to have said that the Islamic leadership is in Koreish (i.e., his tribe) and that 12 “Imams” shall succeed him.[7] There is a difference of opinion within Sunni and Shiite sects as to whom Muhammad was referring. It is also important to mention that Muhammad stated, and this statement has been authenticated by Sunnis and Shiites alike, that “Whoever does not know the Imam of his Lifetime (Hadith of the Current Imam: i.e., recognizes same) has died the death of Ignorance”. Again, this statement has different interpretations and consequences with different Sunni and Shiite sects (or Schools of thought). The idea of a prophet appointing a successor is also found in the Old Testament where Joshua son of Nun is declared Moses’ successor or manager of his affairs after his death.

Muslims believe that God has appointed certain members of humankind to be the leaders of those who believe in God and practise God’s religion. When God’s prophet has taught the people the religion, he will then appoint a leader, in accordance with God’s orders, to guide believers towards perfection.

  • The Imam is created in the best shape and form.
  • Before conception, the preceding the Imam is sent through an heavenly syrup which he drinks.
  • The Imam is born pure and circumcised. (93:5)
  • The Imam's mother experiences light and noises before the birth of the Imam.
  • The Imam is created from sublime water and his spirit is created from a matter above that.
  • The Imam hands over the books, knowledge and weapons to his successor.
  • The Imam is the treasure of God's knowledge in the heavens and earth. (11:2)
  • The Imam is informed by God what he intends to know. (46:3)
  • He inherited the knowledge of future events. (48:1)
  • He is learned than Moses and al-Khidr, who possessed the knowledge of the past only. (48:1)
  • His knowledge is from three directions: past, present and future. (50:1)
  • He can inform about what is going to happen the next day. (62:7)
  • He is endowed with a secret from the secrets of God, knowledge from the knowledge of God. (102:5)

Shias believe that just as Moses appointed Aaron as his successor (Hadith of position), in accordance with God’s order, Muhammad, the final prophet, appointed Ali ibn Abi Talib to be the leader of the believers.


Shias believe that an imam has several responsibilities. An imam must lead Muslims in all aspects of life. In addition, they believe that because an imam was appointed by God, like prophets and messengers, they are infallible. Shias accept the imams as perfect human beings. Shi'ism teaches that imams must be obeyed. A prophet can also be an imam, but not all prophets are imams. Muhammad is considered by Muslims to be God’s final prophet. Shias do not consider the twelve imams to be prophets. They believe that these twelve imams are greater in status than all of God’s prophets except Muhammad.

The Shi'a scholar Mohamed Baqer Al-Majlisi, widely considered as the greatest and most influential Shiite scholar of the Safawid era, states:


The Shi'a Twelver denomination of Islam consider it to be the highest level of responsibility given by God to a human.


Shi'a believe there are different ranks that people have achieved:

  • Ordinary people
Shi'a believe that people are able to receive revelations/inspiration/guidance (Arabic: Wahy) from God. For a more in-depth understanding of Wahy, pleas refer to the English commentary of the Qur'anic verse 16:68 by Ayat. Pooya Yazdi.[9]
  • Communicating with angels
Some people raise to the rank of communicating with angels. Shi'a honour Fatima Zahra with a nickname implying this, and some honor her with writing a book after conversations with the Angel Gabriel, and the Quran also merits the Marīam with having talked to angels.
  • Prophets
Prophets (Arabic: Nabi) are considered people having the responsibility of sharing the Divine Law (Arabic Shari'a) that was fully revealed to the last Messenger. However, they may also privately receive new laws which they are not responsible for sharing. There are considered to have been exactly 124,000 prophets.
  • Messenger
“Messenger” (Arabic Rasul) are considered people receiving a new set of laws from God, in addition to being a prophet, There are said to have been exactly 313 Messengers from the 124,000 Prophets. Another distinguishing characteristic of Messengers, is they receive Wahi or revealed books.
Classically the Quran mentions 5 scriptures, and the Prophets they are revealed to are Messengers as well. These five are
  • Suhuf-e-Ibrahim (Scrolls of Ibrahim) revealed to Ibrahim
  • Zabur (Psalms of Dawud) revealed to Dawud
  • Tawrat (The Law) revealed to Musa
  • Injeel (The Gospel, not to be confused with the Bible) revealed to Isa
  • Quran (The Recitation) revealed to Muhammad

Shi'as and Sunnis believe there are different status among nabis and rasuls, supported by this Quranic verse:

We have made some of these Messenger (Rasul) to excel the others among them are they to whom Allah spoke, and some of them He exalted by (many degrees of) rank … [2.253]
  • Leader
"Leader" (Arabic: Imam) are considered people having the responsibility of implementing the Divine Law (Arabic Shari'a), by leading a group of people, besides being a Messenger and Prophet.

Shi'a Twelver believe that five Messengers achieved the rank of Leadership:

Shi'as and Sunnis also believe there are different status among these five, Muhammad having the highest.

After Muhammad came Twelve Leaders from Quraish and from his progeny as he promised in innumerably many Sunni and Shia hadiths. They are as follows:


Shi'a believe that Allah perfected the Divine Law through Muhammad (Quran 5:3), hence making it impossible to improve it further. This belief results in the role of the prophets and messengers becoming obsolete, since there are no further sets of laws to be received. However, Shi'a believe that the need for guidance that Leaders give is still present. Hence, they believe that after Muhammad, there have been non-prophet leaders.

The shi'i scholar 'Allamah Kashif al-Ghita said about the Imamah:

Shi'a believe that those are the rightful successors to Muhammad. They are regarded similar to the Caliph in Sunni Islam only with regards to the aspect of political leadership. In fact, the Shi'a Imam has many more characteristics and responsibilities than the Sunni concept of Caliph beyond mere political leadership. Unlike the Sunni Caliph, the Imam must be appointed by no one other than God. For details of the position held by a Shia Imam, see Imamah. The majority Shia belief is that the Imams are God appointed. After the prophet Muhammad, were Ali, and eleven of his descendants from his wife, Fatima Zahra. This belief is what led to the split between the Shi'a and Sunni, as the Shi'a felt that the descendants of Ali are the rightful successors to Muhammad, while the Sunni felt that it was any who could take the role of Caliph by the will of God and protect Islam. For details, see Succession to Muhammad.

Shi'as also believe that imams can perform miracles, intercede, and guide the faithful, including speaking in any language and in any accent, that they know about the past, the present and a limited amount of the future[11] and all this knowledge is given to them by Allah.[11] and present narrations as proof. They also believe that it is disbelief to reject the Imamah-doctrine.[12]

Regarding rejecting the Imamah-doctrine, al-Hilli, a 14th century Shi'a Twelver Islamic scholar, writes:

See also Teleportation in Islam.



In verse 2.124 of the Qur'an, it is described how Abraham was "promoted" from being a Messenger to a Leader. Shi'a Muslims believe this is a clear proof of the distinct status and responsibility of a Leader (Arabic imamate).

Day of Judgement[edit]

In verse 17.71, the Qur'an describes that on the Day of Judgement, every person will be asked whom their imam is, to be judged as nations. Shi'a Muslims conclude therefore that the status of imamate is very important. They conclude that this proves that everyone does have an imam, whether he recognizes it or not.


Some of the Hadith Shi'a base their arguments on include:


Main article: Twelve Imams

According to the majority of Shi'a, namely the Ithna Ashariya or Twelvers, the following is a listing of the rightful successors to Muhammad. Each Imam was the son of the previous Imam, except for Husayn ibn Ali who was the brother of Hasan ibn Ali.

Number Name
Importance Birthplace (present day country) Place of death and burial
1 Ali ibn Abu Talib
علي بن أبي طالب
Abu al-Hassan
أبو الحسن
Amir al-Mu'minin
(Commander of the Faithful)[16]
Birinci Ali[17]
The first Imam and successor of Muhammad of all Shia; however, the Sunnis acknowledge him as the fourth Caliph as well. He holds a high position in almost all Sufi Muslim orders (Turuq); the members of these orders trace their lineage to Muhammad through him.[16] Mecca, Saudi Arabia[16] Assassinated by Abd-al-Rahman ibn Muljam, a Kharijite in Kufa, who slashed him with a poisoned sword.[16][19] Buried at the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, Iraq.
2 Hassan ibn Ali
الحسن بن علي
Abu Muhammad
أبو محمد
İkinci Ali[17]
He was the eldest surviving grandson of Muhammad through Muhammad's daughter, Fatimah Zahra. Hasan succeeded his father as the caliph in Kufa, and on the basis of peace treaty with Muawiya I, he relinquished control of Iraq following a reign of seven months.[22] Medina, Saudi Arabia[20] Poisoned by his wife in Medina, Saudi Arabia on the orders of the Caliph Muawiya.[23] Buried in Jannat al-Baqi.
3 Husayn ibn Ali
الحسین بن علي
Abu Abdillah
أبو عبدالله
Sayed al-Shuhada
Üçüncü Ali[17]
He was a grandson of Muhammad. Husayn opposed the validity of Caliph Yazid I. As a result, he and his family were later killed in the Battle of Karbala by Yazid's forces. After this incident, the commemoration of Husayn ibn Ali has become a central ritual in Shia identity.[24][26] Medina, Saudi Arabia[24] Killed and beheaded at the Battle of Karbala.[24] Buried at the Imam Husayn Shrine in Karbala, Iraq.
4 Ali ibn al-Hussein
علي بن الحسین
Abu Muhammad
أبو محمد
al-Sajjad, Zayn al-‘Ābidīn


Dördüncü Ali[17]
658-9[27] – 712[28]
Author of prayers in Sahifa al-Sajjadiyya, which is known as "The Psalm of the Household of the Prophet." [28] Medina, Saudi Arabia[27] According to most Shia scholars, he was poisoned on the order of Caliph al-Walid I in Medina, Saudi Arabia.[28] Buried in Jannat al-Baqi.
5 Muhammad ibn Ali
محمد بن علي
Abu Ja'far
أبو جعفر
al-Baqir al-Ulum

(splitting open knowledge) [29]

Beşinci Ali[17]
Sunni and Shia sources both describe him as one of the early and most eminent legal scholars, teaching many students during his tenure.[29][30] Medina, Saudi Arabia[29] According to some Shia scholars, he was poisoned by Ibrahim ibn Walid ibn 'Abdallah in Medina, Saudi Arabia on the order of Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik.[28] Buried in Jannat al-Baqi.
6 Ja'far ibn Muhammad
جعفر بن محمد
Abu Abdillah
أبو عبدالله

(the Trustworthy)

Altıncı Ali[17]
83–148 [31]
Established the Ja'fari jurisprudence and developed the Theology of Shia. He instructed many scholars in different fields, including Abu Hanifah and Malik ibn Anas in fiqh, Wasil ibn Ata and Hisham ibn Hakam in Islamic theology, and Jābir ibn Hayyān in science and alchemy.[31][32] Medina, Saudi Arabia[31] According to Shia sources, he was poisoned in Medina, Saudi Arabia on the order of Caliph Al-Mansur.[31] Buried in Jannat al-Baqi.
7 Musa ibn Ja'far
موسی بن جعفر
Abu al-Hassan I
أبو الحسن الاول [33]
Yedinci Ali[17]
Leader of the Shia community during the schism of Ismaili and other branches after the death of the former Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq.[35] He established the network of agents who collected khums in the Shia community of the Middle East and the Greater Khorasan.[36] Medina, Saudi Arabia[34] Imprisoned and poisoned in Baghdad, Iraq on the order of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. Buried in the Kazimayn shrine in Baghdad.[34]
8 Ali ibn Musa
علي بن موسی
Abu al-Hassan II
أبو الحسن الثانی[33]
al-Rida, Reza[37]
Sekizinci Ali[17]
Made crown-prince by Caliph Al-Ma'mun, and famous for his discussions with both Muslim and non-Muslim religious scholars.[37] Medina, Saudi Arabia[37] According to Shia sources, he was poisoned in Mashad, Iran on the order of Caliph Al-Ma'mun. Buried in the Imam Reza shrine in Mashad.[37]
9 Muhammad ibn Ali
محمد بن علي
Abu Ja'far
أبو جعفر
al-Taqi, al-Jawad[38]
Dokuzuncu Ali[17]
Famous for his generosity and piety in the face of persecution by the Abbasid caliphate. Medina, Saudi Arabia[38] Poisoned by his wife, Al-Ma'mun's daughter, in Baghdad, Iraq on the order of Caliph Al-Mu'tasim. Buried in the Kazmain shrine in Baghdad.[38]
10 Ali ibn Muhammad
علي بن محمد
Abu al-Hassan III
أبو الحسن الثالث[39]
al-Hadi, al-Naqi[39]
Onuncu Ali[17]
Strengthened the network of deputies in the Shia community. He sent them instructions, and received in turn financial contributions of the faithful from the khums and religious vows.[39] Surayya, a village near Medina, Saudi Arabia[39] According to Shia sources, he was poisoned in Samarra, Iraq on the order of Caliph Al-Mu'tazz.[40] Buried in the Al Askari Mosque in Samarra.
11 Hassan ibn Ali
الحسن بن علي
Abu Muhammad
أبو محمد
Onbirinci Ali[17]
For most of his life, the Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mu'tamid, placed restrictions on him after the death of his father. Repression of the Shi'ite population was particularly high at the time due to their large size and growing power.[42] Medina, Saudi Arabia[41] According to Shia, he was poisoned on the order of Caliph Al-Mu'tamid in Samarra, Iraq. Buried in Al Askari Mosque in Samarra.[43]
12 Muhammad ibn al-Hassan
محمد بن الحسن
Abu al-Qasim
أبو القاسم
al-Mahdi, Hidden Imam, al-Hujjah [44]
Onikinci Ali[17]
According to Twelver doctrine, he is the current Imam and the promised Mahdi, a messianic figure who will return in end times. He will reestablish the rightful governance of Islam and replete the earth with justice and peace.[46] Samarra, Iraq[45] According to Shia doctrine, he has been living in the Occultation since 872, and will continue as long as God wills it.[45]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Shi'ite". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-06. 
  2. ^ Nasr (1979), p.10
  3. ^ Momen (1985), p.174
  4. ^ Nasr (1979), p.15
  5. ^ Corbin (1993), pp.45-51
  6. ^ a b Gleave, Robert. "Imamate". Encyclopaedia of Islam and the Muslim world; vol.1. MacMillan. ISBN 0-02-865604-0. 
  7. ^ Refer to Sahih Al-Bukari , Sahih Muslim (Books of Hadiths (or sayings of the prophet of Islam) of the Sunnis) etc.
  8. ^ Bihar al-Anwar by Allamah Mohammad Baqer Al-Majlisi vol. 26 pp. 267-318 - 88 narrations
  9. ^ Pooya-Yazdi, H.M.M. The Holy Qur'an : Text, Translation and Commentary. Commentary for 1:7-8, 16:68.
  10. ^ Asl ash-Shi'a wa Usuluha p.58 by Allamah Muhammad Hussayn Kashif al-Ghita (Mu'ssasat al-A'lami, Beirut)
  11. ^ a b Usul al-Kafi by Muhammad Yaqoub Al-Kulayni vol. 1:260
  12. ^ Talkhis ash-Shafi by Abu Jaafar Al-Tusi vol. 4 p. 131 (Dar al-Kutub al-Islamiyyah, Qum, 3rd ed.)
  13. ^ al-Alfayn pp.3 by Ibn Mutahhar al-Hilli (al-Maktabah al-Haydariyyah, Najaf, 3rd ed. 1388)
  14. ^ The Imam's Arabic titles are used by the majority of Twelver Shia who use Arabic as a liturgical language, including the Usooli, Akhbari, Shaykhi, and to a lesser extent Alawi. Turkish titles are generally used by Alevi, a fringe Twelver group, who make up around 10% of the world Shia population. The titles for each Imam literally translate as "First Ali", "Second Ali", and so forth. Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. Gale Group. 2004. ISBN 978-0-02-865769-1. 
  15. ^ The abbreviation CE refers to the Common Era solar calendar, while AH refers to the Islamic Hijri lunar calendar.
  16. ^ a b c d e Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. "Ali". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2007-10-12. 
  17. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. Gale Group. 2004. ISBN 978-0-02-865769-1. 
  18. ^ Tabatabae (1979), pp.190-192
  19. ^ Tabatabae (1979), p.192
  20. ^ a b "Hasan". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2007-11-08. 
  21. ^ Tabatabae (1979), pp.194-195
  22. ^ Madelung, Wilferd. "Hasan ibn Ali". Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved 2008-03-23. 
  23. ^ Tabatabae (1979), p.195
  24. ^ a b c d "al-Husayn". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2007-11-08. 
  25. ^ Tabatabae (1979), pp.196-199
  26. ^ Calmard, Jean. "Husayn ibn Ali". Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved 2008-03-23. 
  27. ^ a b c d Madelung, Wilferd. "'ALÈ B. AL-HUOSAYN". Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved 2007-11-08. 
  28. ^ a b c d e Tabatabae (1979), p.202
  29. ^ a b c d e Madelung, Wilferd. "AL-BAQER, ABU JAFAR MOHAMMAD". Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved 2007-11-08. 
  30. ^ Tabatabae (1979), p.203
  31. ^ a b c d e f Tabatabae (1979), p.203-204
  32. ^ "Wasil ibn Ata". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2007-11-08. 
  33. ^ a b Madelung, Wilferd. "'ALÈ AL-HAÚDÈ". Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved 2007-11-09. 
  34. ^ a b c d e Tabatabae (1979), p.205
  35. ^ Tabatabae (1979) p. 78
  36. ^ Sachedina (1988), pp.53-54
  37. ^ a b c d e f Tabatabae (1979), pp.205-207
  38. ^ a b c d e Tabatabae (1979), p. 207
  39. ^ a b c d e f Madelung, Wilferd. "'ALÈ AL-HAÚDÈ". Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved 2007-11-08. 
  40. ^ Tabatabae (1979), pp.208-209
  41. ^ a b c d Halm, H. "'ASKARÈ". Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved 2007-11-08. 
  42. ^ Tabatabae (1979) pp. 209-210
  43. ^ Tabatabae (1979), pp.209-210
  44. ^ "Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Hujjah". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2007-11-08. 
  45. ^ a b c d Tabatabae (1979), pp.210-211
  46. ^ Tabatabae (1979), pp. 211-214


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