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Imamah (Shia doctrine)

Imamah of Islamic
Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Mahdī -
محمد بن الحسن المهدي for Twelvers
Aṭ-Ṭayyib Abī'l-Qāṣim - الطيب أبو القاس for Ṭāyyibī-Mustā‘lī Ismāʿīlī Muslims
The living Imām for Nizārī Ismā'īlī Muslims
Imāms continuing by the President of Yemen for Zaidis with no divine attributes
First monarch Abu Bakr
Formation June 17, 656

Imāmah (Arabic: إمامة‎) is the Shia Islam doctrine (belief) of religious, spiritual and political leadership of the Ummah. The Shīa believe that the A'immah ("Imāms") are the true Caliphs or rightful successors of Muhammad, and further that Imāms are possessed of divine knowledge and authority (‘Iṣmah) as well as being part of the Ahl al-Bayt, the family of Muhammad.[1] These Imams have the role of providing commentary and interpretation of the Quran[2] as well as guidance to their tariqa followers as is the case of the living Imams of the Nizari Ismaili tariqah.

According to Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, the Imam is a means through which humans receive divine grace, because "He brings men closer to obedience (of Allah) and keeps them away from disobedience." As fulfilling the human being is his wish, it is logical that God appoint Imam to subject man to his wishes. So his existence and his deeds display two forms of grace of God toward man.[3]


The word "Imām" denotes a person who stands or walks "in front". For Sunni Islam, the word is commonly used to mean a person who leads the course of prayer in the mosque. It also means the head of a madhhab ("school of thought"). However, from the Shia point of view this is merely the basic understanding of the word in the Arabic language and, for its proper religious usage, the word "Imam" is applicable only to those members of the house of Muhammad designated as infallible by the preceding Imam.


The Shia further believe only these A'immah have the right to be Caliphs, meaning that all other caliphs, whether elected by consensus (Ijma) or not, are usurpers of the Caliphate.

All Muslims believe that Muhammad had said: "To whomsoever I am Mawla, Ali is his Mawla." This hadith has been narrated in different ways by many different sources in no less than 45 hadith books[citation needed] of both Sunni and Shia collections. This hadith has also been narrated by the collector of hadiths, al-Tirmidhi, 3713;[citation needed] as well as Ibn Maajah, 121;[citation needed] etc. The major point of conflict between the Sunni and the Shia is in the interpretation of the word 'Mawla'. For the Shia the word means 'Lord and Master' and has the same elevated significance as when the term had been used to address Muhammad himself during his lifetime. Thus, when Muhammad actually (by speech) and physically (by way of having his closest companions including Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman [the three future Caliphs who had preceded Ali as Caliph] publicly accept Ali as their Lord and Master by taking Ali's hand in both of theirs as token of their allegiance to Ali) transferred this title and manner of addressing Ali as the Mawla for all Muslims at Ghadiri Khum Oasis just a few months before his death, the people that came to look upon Ali as Muhammad's immediate successor even before Muhamamd's death came to be known as the Shia. However, for the Sunnis the word simply means the 'beloved' or the 'revered' and has no other significance at all.


Within Shia Islam (Shiism), the various sects came into being because they differed over their Imams' successions, just as the Shia - Sunni separation within Islam itself had come into being from the dispute that had arisen over the succession to Muhammad. Each succession dispute brought forth a different tariqah (literal meaning 'path'; extended meaning 'sect') within Shia Islam. Each Shia tariqah followed its own particular Imam's dynasty, thus resulting in different numbers of Imams for each particular Shia tariqah. When the dynastic line of the separating successor Imam ended with no heir to succeed him, then either he (the last Imam) or his unborn successor was believed to have gone into concealment, that is, The Occultation.

The Shia tariqah with a majority of adherents are the Twelvers who are commonly known as the "Shia". After that come the Nizari Ismailis commonly known as the Ismailis; and then come the Mustalian Ismailis commonly known as the "Bohras" with further schisms within their Bohri tariqah. The Druze tariqah (very small in number today) initially were of the Fatimid Ismailis and separated from them (the Fatimid Ismailis) after the death of the Fatimid Imam and Caliph Hakim Bi Amrillah. The Shia Sevener tariqah no longer exists. Another small tariqah is the Zaidi Shias, also known as the Fivers and who do not believe in The Occultation of their last Imam.

Although all these different Shia tariqahs belong to the Shia group (as opposed to the Sunni group) in Islam, there are major doctrinal differences between the main Shia tariqahs. After that there is the complete doctrinal break between all the different Shia tariqahs whose last Imams have gone into Occultation and the Shia Nizari Ismailis who deny the very concept of Occultation. The Shia Nizari Ismailis by definition have to have a present and living Imam until the end of time.[citation needed] Thus if any living Nizari Ismaili Imam fails to leave behind a successor after him then the Nizari Ismailism’s cardinal principle would be broken and it’s very raison d'être would come to an end.

Twelver View

Main articles: Twelver and The Occultation

Shias believe that Imamah is of the Principles of Faith (Usul al-Din).As the verse 4:165 of quran expresses the necessity to the appointment of the prophets; so after the demise of the prophet who will play the role of the prophet; till the people have not any plea against Allah.So the same logic that necessitated the assignment of prophets also is applied for Imamah.That is Allah Must assign someone similar to prophet in his attributes and Ismah as his successor to guide the people without any deviation in religion.[4] They refer to the verse (...This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favor upon you and have approved for you Islam as religion...) 5:3 of Quran which was revealed to the prophet when he appointed Ali as his successor at the day of Ghadir Khumm.[5]

By the verse Quran, 2:124, Shias believe that Imamah is a divine position always Imamah is accompanied by the word guidance, of course a guidance by God's Command.A kind of guidance which brings humanity to the goal. Regarding 17:71, no age can be without an Imam. So, according to the upper verse 1.Imamah is a position which is appointed by God and must be specified by Him 2.Imam is protected by a divine protection and no one exceles him in nobility 3. No age can be without an Imam and finally Imam knows everything which is needed for human being to get to the truth and goal.[6]

Why Only (specific) Members of Muhammad's Family

It is forbidden for the Divine Leader not to be from the family of the Messenger of Allah. According to Ali al-Ridha, since it is obligatory to obey him, there should be a sign to clearly indicate the Divine Leader. That sign is his well-known ties of kinship with Muhammad and his clear appointment so that the people could distinguish him from others, and be clearly guided toward him.[7][8] Otherwise others are nobler than Muhammad's offspring and they are to be followed and obeyed; and the offspring of Muhammad are obedient and subject to the offspring of Muhammad’s enemies such as Abi Jahl or Ibn Abi Ma’eet. However, the Messenger is much nobler than others to be in charge and to be obeyed.[7][8] Moreover once the prophethood of His Messenger is testified they would obey him, no one would hesitate to follow his offspring and this would not be hard for anyone.[7][8] While to follow the offspring of the corrupted families is difficult. And that is maybe why the basic characteristic of Muhammad and other prophets was their nobility. For none of them, it is said, were originated from a disgraced family. It is believed that all Muhammad's ancestors up to Adam were true Muslims. [lower-alpha 1] Jesus was also from a pious family, as it is mentioned in Quran that after his birth, people said to Mary: O sister of Aaron, your father was not a man of evil, nor was your mother unchaste."[lower-alpha 2]

The period of occultation

The period of occultation (ghaybat) is divided into two parts:

  • Ghaybat al-Sughra or Minor Occultation (874–941), consists of the first few decades after the Imam's disappearance when communication with him was maintained through deputies of the Imam.
  • Ghaybat al-Kubra or Major Occultation began 941 and is believed to continue until a time decided by God, when the Mahdi will reappear to bring absolute justice to the world.

During the Minor Occultation (Ghaybat al-Sughrá), it is believed that al-Mahdi maintained contact with his followers via deputies (Arab. an-nuwāb al-arbaʻa or "the Four Leaders"). They represented him and acted as agents between him and his followers. Whenever the believers faced a problem, they would write their concerns and send them to his deputy. The deputy would ascertain his verdict, endorse it with his seal and signature and return it to the relevant parties. The deputies also collected zakat and khums on his behalf.

For the Shia, the idea of consulting a hidden Imam was not something new because the two prior Twelver Imams had, on occasion, met with their followers from behind a curtain. Also, during the oppressive rule of the later Abbasid caliphs, the Shia Imams were heavily persecuted and held prisoners, thus their followers were forced to consult their Imams via messengers or secretly.

Shia Tradition hold that four deputies acted in succession to one another:

  1. Uthman ibn Sa’id al-Asadi
  2. Abu Jafar Muhammad ibn Uthman
  3. Abul Qasim Husayn ibn Ruh al-Nawbakhti
  4. Abul Hasan Ali ibn Muhammad al-Samarri

In 941 (329 AH), the fourth deputy announced an order by al-Mahdi, that the deputy would soon die and that the deputyship would end and the period of the Major Occultation would begin.

The fourth deputy died six days later and the Shia Muslims continue to await the reappearance of the Mahdi. In the same year, many notable Shia scholars such as Ali ibn Babawayh Qummi and Muhammad ibn Ya'qub Kulayni, the learned compiler of Kitab al-Kafi, also died.

Main article: The Occultation

One view is that the Hidden Imam is on earth "among the body of the Shia" but "incognito." "Numerous stories" exist of the Hidden Imam "manifesting himself to prominent members of the ulama."[10]

Ismaili view

The Ismailis differ from Twelvers because they had living imams for centuries after the last Twelver Imam went into concealment. They followed Isma'il ibn Jafar, elder brother of Musa al-Kadhim, as the rightful Imam[11] after his father Ja'far al-Sadiq. The Ismailis believe that whether Imam Ismail did or did not die before Imam Ja'far, he had passed on the mantle of the imamate to his son Muḥammad ibn Ismail as the next imam.[12] Thus, their line of imams is as follows (the years of their individual imamats during the Common Era are given in brackets):

Nizārī Imām Mustā‘lī Imām Ismā'īlī Imām Period
1 Asās/Wāsīh Ali - Mustaali "Foundation" and first Nizārī Imām (632–661)
Pir 1 Hasan ibn Ali : First Mustaali Imām ; Nizārīs consider him a pir, not an Imām (661–669) Mustā‘lī
2 2 Husayn ibn Ali : Second Ismā'īlī Imām (669–680) Mustā‘lī
(661 - 680) Nizārī
3 3 Ali ibn Husayn Zayn al-Abidin : Third Ismā'īlī Imām (680–713)
4 4 Muhammad al-Baqir : Fourth Ismā'īlī Imām (713–733)
5 5 Ja'far al-Sadiq : Fifth Ismā'īlī Imām (733–765)
6 6 Isma'il ibn Jafar : Sixth Ismā'īlī Imām (765 - 775)
7 7 Muhammad ibn Ismail : Seventh Ismā'īlī Imām and first distinctly Ismā'īlī (non-Twelver) Imām (775-813)

The Ismā'īlī ʿAqīdah

According to Ismā‘īlīsm, Allah has sent "seven" great prophets known as “Nātıq” (Spoken) in order to disseminate and improve his Dīn of Islam. All of these great prophets has also one assistant known as “Sāmad (Silent) Imām”. At the end of each seven “Sāmad” silsila, one great “Nātıq” (Spoken) has ben sent in order to reimprove the Dīn of Islam. After Adam and his son Seth, and after six “Nātıq” (Spoken) – “Sāmad” (Silent) silsila[13] (NoahShem), (AbrahamIshmael), (MosesAaron), (JesusSimeon), (Muhammad bin ʿAbd AllāhAli ibn Abu Tālib); the silsila of “Nātıqs and Sāmads have been completed with (Muhammad bin Ismā‘īl as-ṣaghīr (Maymûn’ûl-Qaddāh[14])–ʿAbd Allāh Ibn-i Maymûn[15] and his sons).

Zaidi view

Main article: Zaidiyyah

Zaidiyyah or Zaidi is a Shia madhhab (sect, school) named after the imam Zayd ibn Ali. Followers of the Zaidi fiqh are called Zaidis (or are occasionally called Fivers in the West). However, there is also a group called the Zaidi Wasītīs who are Twelvers.


The name of Imam as it appears in Masjid Nabawi.

Twelver Imams

See also: Twelve Imams

According to the majority of Shī'a, namely the Twelvers (Ithnā'ashariyya), the following is a listing of the rightful successors to Muḥammad. Each Imam was the son of the previous Imam except for Hussayn ibn 'Alī, who was the brother of Hassan ibn 'Alī.The belief in this succession to Muḥammad stems from various Quranic ayaths which include: 75:36, 13:7, 35:24, 2:30, 2:124, 36:26, 7:142, 42:23. They support their discussion by putting facts from Genesis 17:19–20 and sunni hadeeth:Sahih Muslim, Hadith number 4478, English translation by Abdul Hamid Siddiqui.[16]

List of The Twelve Imams

No. Modern (Calligraphic) Depiction Name
Turkish[lower-alpha 3]
Date of
Birth - Death
(CE/AH).[lower-alpha 4]
Place of birth
Importance Reason & place of death
and place of burial [lower-alpha 5]
1 100px Ali ibn Abu Talib [lower-alpha 6][17]

Abu al-Hasan [lower-alpha 7][18]

Amir al-Mu'minin[lower-alpha 8][19]
(The Commander of the Faithful)

Birinci Ali[20]
600–661[19] / 23(before Hijra)–40[21]
Saudi Arabia[19]
The First[22] Imam[17][23] and the rightful Successor of Muhammad[24] of all Shia however, the Sunnis acknowledge him as the fourth Caliph as well.[17] He holds a high position in almost all Sufi Muslim orders (Turuq); the members of these orders trace their lineage to Muhammad through him.[19] Assassinated by Abd-al-Rahman ibn Muljam, a Kharijite in Kufa, who slashed him with a poisoned sword while he was praying.[19][25]
Buried in Najaf,[17] Iraq.
2 100px Hasan ibn Ali [lower-alpha 9][17]

Abu Muhammad [lower-alpha 10][18]

al-Mūjtabā [lower-alpha 11][26]
(The Chosen)

İkinci Ali[20]
625–670[27] / 3–50[17][28]
Saudi Arabia[27]
He was the eldest surviving grandson of Muhammad through Muhammad's daughter, Fatimah az-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.[27] Poisoned by his wife in Medina, Saudi Arabia on the orders of the Caliph Muawiya, according to Twelver Shiite belief.[29]
Buried in Jannat al-Baqi, Medina,[17] Saudi Arabia.[27]
3 100px Husayn ibn Ali [lower-alpha 12][17]

Abu Abdillah [lower-alpha 13][30]

Sayyid ash-Shuhada [lower-alpha 14][31]
(Master of the Martyrs)

Üçüncü Ali[20]
626–680[32] / 4–61[17][33]
Saudi Arabia[34]
He was a grandson of Muhammad and brother of Hasan ibn Ali. 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.[17] After this incident, the commemoration of Husayn ibn Ali has become a central ritual in Shia identity.[34] Killed and beheaded at the Battle of Karbala.[34]
Buried at the Imam Husayn Shrine in Karbala,[17][32] Iraq.[34]
4 100px Ali ibn Husayn [lower-alpha 15][35]

Abu Muhammad [lower-alpha 16][30][36]

al-Sajjad [lower-alpha 17][35]

Zayn al-'Abidin [lower-alpha 18][35][37]
(One who constantly Prostrates the Ornament of the Worshippers)

Dördüncü Ali[20]
658/9[37] – 712[38] / 38[35][37]–95[35][38]
Saudi Arabia[37]
Author of prayers in Sahifa al-Sajjadiyya,[35] which is known as "The Psalm of the Household of the Prophet."[38] According to most Shia scholars, he was poisoned on the order of Caliph al-Walid I in Medina, Saudi Arabia.[38]
Buried in Jannat al-Baqi, Medina, Saudi Arabia[35]
5 100px Muhammad ibn Ali [lower-alpha 19][35]

Abu Ja'far [lower-alpha 20][30][39]

Baqir al-Ulum [lower-alpha 21][40]
(The Revealer of Knowledge)

Beşinci Ali[20]
677–732[40] / 57–114[35][40]
Saudi Arabia[40]
Sunni and Shia sources both describe him as one of the early and most eminent legal scholars, teaching many students during his tenure.[35][40][41] 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.[38]
Buried in Jannat al-Baqi, Medina,[35] Saudi Arabia.
6 100px Ja'far ibn Muhammad [lower-alpha 22][35]

Abu Abdillah [lower-alpha 23][30][35]

as-Sadiq [lower-alpha 24][42]
(The Honest)

Altıncı Ali[20]
702–765[35][42] / 83–148[35][42]
Saudi Arabia[42]
Established the Ja'fari jurisprudence and developed the theology of Twelvers.[35] He instructed many scholars in different fields, including Abu Hanifah[35] and Malik ibn Anas in fiqh, Wasil ibn Ata and Hisham ibn Hakam in Islamic theology, and Geber in science and alchemy.[42] According to Shia sources, he was poisoned in Medina, Saudi Arabia on the order of Caliph Al-Mansur.[42]
Buried in Jannat al-Baqi, Medina, Saudi Arabia.[35]
7 100px Musa ibn Ja'far[lower-alpha 25][35]

Abu al-Hasan I [lower-alpha 26][30][43]

al-Kazim [lower-alpha 27][44]

(The Calm One)

Yedinci Ali[20]
744–799[35][44] / 128–183[35][44]
Saudi Arabia[44]
Leader of the Shia community during the schism of Ismaili and other branches after the death of the former Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq.[45] He established the network of agents who collected khums in the Shia community of the Middle East and the Greater Khorasan. He holds a high position in Mahdavia; the members of these orders trace their lineage to Muhammad through him.[46] Imprisoned and poisoned in Baghdad, Iraq on the order of Caliph Harun al-Rashid, according to Shiite belief.[47]
Buried in the Kazimayn shrine in Baghdad, Iraq.[35][44]
8 100px Ali ibn Musa[lower-alpha 28][35]

Abu al-Hasan II [lower-alpha 29][30]

ar-Rida [lower-alpha 30][48]
(The Pleasing One)

Sekizinci Ali[20]
765–817[35][48] / 148–203[35][48]
Saudi Arabia[48]
Made crown-prince by Caliph Al-Ma'mun,[49] and famous for his discussions with both Muslim and non-Muslim religious scholars.[48] According to Shia sources, he was poisoned in Mashad, Iran on the order of Caliph Al-Ma'mun.[49]
Buried in the Imam Reza shrine in Mashad, Iran.[48][49]
9 100px Muhammad ibn Ali[lower-alpha 31][49]

Abu Ja'far [lower-alpha 32][30]

al-Taqi [lower-alpha 33][49]

(The God-Fearing)

al-Jawad [lower-alpha 34][50]
(The Generous)

Dokuzuncu Ali[20]
809[49] or 810 –835[49][50] / 195–220[50]
Saudi Arabia[50]
Famous for his generosity and piety in the face of persecution by the Abbasid caliphate.[51] Poisoned by his wife, Al-Ma'mun's daughter, in Baghdad, Iraq on the order of Caliph Al-Mu'tasim, according to Shiite sources.[52]
Buried in the Kazmain shrine in Baghdad, Iraq.[49][50]
10 100px Ali ibn Muhammad[lower-alpha 35][49]

Abu al-Hasan III [lower-alpha 36][30]

al-Hadi [lower-alpha 37][54]

(The Guide)

al-Naqi [lower-alpha 38][49]

(The Pure)

Onuncu Ali[20]
827–868[49][53] / 212–254[53]
Surayya, a village near Medina,
Saudi Arabia[53]
He taught religious sciences until 243/857.[49] 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.[53] According to Shia sources, he was poisoned in Samarra, Iraq on the order of Caliph Al-Mu'tazz.[55]
Buried in the Al Askari Mosque in Samarra, Iraq.[49]
11 100px Hasan ibn Ali[lower-alpha 39][49]

Abu Muhammad [lower-alpha 40][56][57]

al-Askari [lower-alpha 41][49][58]
(The Citizen of a Garrison Town)

Onbirinci Ali[20]
846–874[58] / 232–260[49][58]
Saudi Arabia[58]
For most of his life, the Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mu'tamid, placed restrictions on him after the death of his father.[59] Repression of the Shiite population was particularly high at the time due to their large size and growing power.[60] According to Shia, he was poisoned on the order of Caliph Al-Mu'tamid in Samarra,[59] Iraq.
Buried in Al Askari Mosque in Samarra, Iraq.[49][59][60]
12 100px Muhammad ibn al-Hasan[lower-alpha 42][49]

Abu al-Qasim [lower-alpha 43][31]

Mahdi [lower-alpha 44][49][61]

(The Guided One or The Guide),

Hidden Imam [lower-alpha 45][62]

al-Hujjah [lower-alpha 46][31][63]

(The Proof)

sahib al-Zaman [lower-alpha 47][56] (The Lord of Our Times)

Sahibu'l-Amr [lower-alpha 48][56]

(The one vested with Divine authority)

al-Qa'im [lower-alpha 49][31]

(The one who will rise and fill the universe with the Justice)

Baqiyyat Allah [lower-alpha 50][31]

(God's Remainder)

Onikinci Ali[20]
868–Now[64][64] / 255 or 256[49] –Now[64]
Samarra, Iraq
According to Twelver Shiite doctrine, he is an actual historical personality and is the current Imam and the promised Mahdi, a messianic figure who will return with Christ. He will reestablish the rightful governance of Islam and replete the earth with justice and peace.[65] According to Shia doctrine, he has been living in the Occultation since 872, and will continue as long as God wills it.[64]

Ismaili Imams

Main article: List of Ismaili imams

The Ismaili line of imams for both sects (the Nizari and the Mustali) continues undivided until Mustansir Billah (d. 1094). After his death the line of the imamat separates into the Nizari and Mustali dynasties.

The line of imams of the Mustali Ismaili Shia Muslims (also known as the Bohras/Dawoodi Bohra) continued up to Aamir ibn Mustali. After his death, they believe their 21st Imam Taiyab abi al-Qasim went into a Dawr-e-Satr (period of concealment) that continues to this day. In the absence of an imam they are led by a Dai-al-Mutlaq (absolute missionary) who manages the affairs of the Imam-in-Concealment until re-emergence of the Imam from concealment. Dawoodi Bohra's present 53rd Da'i al-Mutlaq is His Holiness Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin (TUS) who succeeded his predessor the 52nd Da'i al-Mutlaq His Holiness Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (RA). Furthermore there has been a split in the Dawoodi Bohra sect which has led to the formation of Qutbi Bohra sect which was formed and led by Khuzaima Qutbuddin.

The line of imams of the Nizari Ismaili Shia Muslims (also known as the Agha-khani Ismailis in South and Central Asia) continues to their present living 49th hereditary imam, Aga Khan IV (son of Prince Aly Khan). They are the only Shia Muslim community today led by a present and living (Hazir wa Mawjud) imam.[66]

See also: Mustali, Hafizi and Nizari
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