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Shiism: Ithnā ʿAsharīyah


The Twelver Shīʿah, known also by their Arabic name, Ithna ʿAshariyah (and also Imaniyah), constitute the largest group within Shī ʿī Islam, and their moderate juridical and theological doctrine has always placed them at the center of the entire Shī ʿī spectrum, to the extent that they are often identified with Shiism as such.

Centrality of the Imam

For all the Shīʿah, the being of the imam is necessary for the continuation of the world and of human history; according to a famous Shīʿī adīth, "The earth shall never be destitute of the proof (ujjah ) of God," namely the imam. In the words of Jaʿfar al-ādiq, the sixth imam in the line of ʿAlī ibn Abī ālib, the imams are God's witnesses on earth, his "signs" (ʿalāmāt ), and those who are "firm in knowledge" (al-rāsikhūn fīʾlʿilm ) according to the Qurʾanic dictum. They are the gates (abwāb ) toward God and his vicegerents (khulafāʾ Allāh ) on earth. They possess perfect knowledge not only of the Qurʾān but of all revealed books in both their outward (āhir ) and inward (bāin ) aspects. They also possess knowledge of God's supreme name (al-ism al-aʿam ) as well as the "books" containing all esoteric knowledge, including the science of the symbolic meaning of the letters of the Arabic alphabet (al-jafr ). On the Night of Power (laylat al-qadr ), commemorating when the Qurʾān was first revealed, God revealed to them knowledge of all events of the year to come. The imam is chosen by God and the Prophet or by the previous imam through clear designation (na jalī ) and possesses "initiatory" power (walāyah/wilāyah ), while the Prophet possesses the powers of both prophecy (nubūwah ) and "initiation" (walayāh ).

The twelve imams

The various branches among the Shīʿah separated from each other on the question of the number of imams that they accepted; the Ithnā ʿAsharīyah are so called because for them the twelfth imam is that last in the chain that goes back to ʿAlī and Fāimah. (For the general evolution of the different Shīʿī subdivisions, see the overview article, above.)

The twelve imams of the Ithnā ʿAsharīyah are as follows:

  1. ʿAl ibn Abī Tālib (d. ah 40/661 ce)
  2. al-asan ibn ʿAlī (d. ah 49/669 ce)
  3. al-usayn ibn ʿAlī (d. ah 60/680 ce)
  4. ʿAlī ibn al-usayn, Zayn al-ʿAbidīn (d. ah 95/714 ce)
  5. Muammad al-Bāqir (d. ah 115/733 ce)
  6. Jaʿfar al-ādiq (d. ah 148/765 ce)
  7. Mūsa al-Kāim (d. ah 183/799 ce)
  8. ʿAlī al-Riā (d. ah 203/818 ce)
  9. Muammad Jawād al-Taqi (d. ah 220/835 ce)
  10. ʿAlī al-Naqī (d. ah 254/868 ce)
  11. al-Hasan al-ʿAskari (d. ah 260/874 ce)
  12. Muammad al-Mahdi, al-Qaʾim al-Hujjah (entered major occultation in ah 329/941 ce)

The Shīʿī emphasis upon the imam is to be seen not only in the central role accorded to esoteric hermeneutics (taʾwīl ) in relation to the power of walāyah possessed by the imam, but also in the central function of the imam in daily religious life and his eschatological significance. Shīʿī Muslims must know their imams in order to be saved, and the imams, as well as the Prophet, of course, can and do intercede for believers before God at the hour of judgment. The imam continues to be a living presence in religious life, a link between believer and God, the source of grace and the fountain of knowledge. Endowed with a transhistorical reality, he is not experienced simply as a figure belonging to religious history.

The Hidden Imam

The ever-present reality of the imam is felt especially in the case of the twelfth imam or the Mahdi who is, according to the Twelvers, in occultation (ghaybah ). The imam went into minor occultation (al-ghaybah al-ughrā ) in 872, during which time he had direct representatives (bāb ) among his followers; beginning in 941 he went into the major occultation (al-ghaybah al-kubrā ), which has lasted until today and during which the institutionalized channels to him are no longer accessible. The major occultation is not simply a state of being hidden. Rather, it signifies the miraculous mode of life of the imam, who, while being alive and participating in the worldly experience, also resides in the higher planes of existence. He is real the ruler of the word and the Lord of the Hour (̄aib al-zamān ). He is the pole upon which religion stands (qāʾim ) and the guarantee for the preservation and perpetuation of the tradition. He is also the guide to the spiritual world and appears in person to those possessing the necessary spiritual qualifications to see him. Devout Twelvers pray continuously for a vision of him, and sites where such visions have taken place have often become sanctuaries and sacred precincts to which the faithful make pilgrimage in the same way that they visit the tombs of the other imams.

The twelfth imam is also the Mahdi who will come out of occultation at the time when oppression and inequity in the world reach their peak. He will destroy evil, establish the rule of justice according to the divine law, and reveal the inner unity of religions. He will prepare the second coming of Christ with which the history of present-day humanity will come to an end. All Twelvers pray for his coming, and as a result of this belief, there exists a strong messianic view in Shiism, a current which has manifested itself in many political and nonpolitical forms over the centuries. While most Sunnīs also believe in the coming of the Mahdi, such a belief is not a necessity for Sunnī Islam, while among the Twelvers the identity of the Mahdi is known, and the expectation of his coming colors the whole ethos of the religion and influences all its manifestations from the theological to the political.

Historical Development

The historical development of Twelver Shiism can be envisaged both from the viewpoint of its involvement in sociopolitical events of history and from that of the development of Shīʿī thought. The two are certainly interrelated but not identical. In either case, however, the period during which the imams were alive and functioning as living leaders of the community provides the model which different forces and groups among the Twelvers have sought to emulate in one way or another in all later ages.

Twelver Shiism in Islamic History

The participation of the imams in Islamic history was certainly not uniform, nor was it based on a single pattern. The imams all acted on the basis of the same principles but, in accordance with the circumstances and situations confronting them, sometimes followed the path of quietism and other times that of activism.


Two events in the formative period, however, stand out as crucial to the later history of the Twelvers and in fact all of Islam: the Battle of iffīn at the end of the caliphate of ʿAlī (661) and the uprising of Imam usayn against the Umayyad caliph Yazīd (680). The nearly five and a half years of ʿAlī's rule remain of course an ideal to which the Shīʿah have referred over the centuries, for these years constitute the only period during which a Shīʿī imam actually held political power. The Battle of iffīn, which marked the first open breech in the Muslim community (ummah ), was fought between ʿAlī and Muʿāwiyah, the governor of Syria who had refused to pay allegiance to ʿAlī as caliph on the pretext that the death of the third caliph, ʿUthmān, had not been avenged. That ʿAlī was murdered by the Khārijīs after the battle, that Muʿāwiyah survived to found the Umayyad caliphate with its capital in Damascus, and that henceforth the followers of ʿAlī were persecuted all helped to consolidate the Shīʿah and cement them together as a distinct group within the Muslim community.

It was the death of ʿAlī's son, Imam usayn, that made this cleavage definite and final and helped to crystallize the distinctive ethos of Shiism. Imam usayn had refused to pay allegiance to Muʿāwiyah's son Yazīd and, rather than suffer humiliation, decided to move from Medina to Kufa, where he had been promised help to confront the mighty Umayyad military power against overwhelming odds. Surrounded in the desert of southern Iraq, he and his familyall the nearest descendants of the Prophetwere killed after a valiant fight, while the female members, along with Imam usayn's son, the fourth imam, Zayn al-ʿbidin, who was then ill, were taken prisoner and brought to Damascus. The severed head of usayn was sent to Yazīd in Damascus where usayn's sister, Zaynab, protested violently before the general public and spread the news of the tragedy that had befallen the Prophet's favorite grandson. The event shook the conscience of the community at large, but it was especially effective in consolidating the Shīʿah, and it resulted in many proto-Shīʿī political movements that finally brought about the downfall of the Umayyads and made possible the coming of their political successors, the Abbasids. Yazid himself had been aware of the danger that Zaynab posed for the Umayads and exiled her to Cairo where she buried the head of her brother in a site known to this day as Raʾs al-usayn (the Head of usayn). The whole city of Cairo grew around this holy site. From the purely religious point of view, the event at Karbala was all-important in providing the element of suffering and "redemption" through participation in the tragedy of the imams so characteristic of Shīʿī piety.

Political quietism

Imam Zayn al-ʿ bidin, witness to the indescribable tragedy that befell his father and other members of his family, withdrew from active life to devote himself to the dissemination of inner knowledge as had his uncle asan, the second imam. The events of Karbala had a special effect upon Imam Zayn al-ʿbidin in that they brought out an exceptional poetic eloquence in his words and sayings; his aīfah, a collection of prayers and litanies in exquisite Arabic, is called the "psalm of the Family of the Prophet."

With the weakening of Umayyad power, the Shīʿī imams received a greater degree of freedom to dissemminate their teachings; thus, the great majority of Shīʿī traditions come from the fifth, sixth, and seventh imams. The fifth imam, Muammad al-Bāqir, was in fact called Bāqir al-ʿUlūm, "garden of knowledge," and his sayings are a major source of both the law and the esoteric sciences, while the sixth imam, Jaʿfar al-ādiq, played such an important role in the formulation of Shīʿī law that as a school of law it is known as the Jaʿfarī school. He influenced Sunnī jurisprudence as well, and the great Sunnī jurist Abū Hanīfah is said to have studied with him. Imam Jaʿfar was not only a master of the Islamic esoteric sciences and the author of the first extant esoteric commentary upon the Qurʾān, but also knowledgeable in the natural and occult sciences. Many treatises in these fields, especially in alchemy, are attributed to him. Imam Jaʿfar trained a vast number of students and is the father of formal Shīʿī religious education and of the Sharīʿah, the Shīʿī school of law being known to this day as Jaʿfarī. In fact he must be considered as the founder of the first "circle of learning" (awzah-yi ʿilmīyah ), which was to develop later into the well-known medieval universities.

Imam Riā, the one imam who was close to the Abbasid court, was especially important as a source of ūfī teachings in both Shīʿī and Sunnī Islam but also had a particularly royal aspect to him. To this day he is referred to as the Shah of Khorasan, and throughout history the Persian rulers have been custodians of the vast endowments which manage the architectural complex of his mausoleum in Mashhad.

After the death of Imam Riā, the Abbasids resumed a close watch on the activities of his successors, who mostly remained imprisoned or under heavy surveillance until the disappearance of the twelfth imam, Muammad al-Mahdī. During his minor occulation he continued to discourse with the Shīʿī community through his "gates" (abwāb, sg., bāb ), four revered men who were highly respected by the community, but with the death of the last bāb the major occultation began and Twelver Shiism entered into a new phase.

During the next six centuries Shiism remained a quietist movement from the political point of view, but its influence and numbers continued to grow in Persia and India, and it waxed and waned in Syria. During the later tenth century, with most of Persia and Syria ruled by the Twelver Shīʿī Buyids and Egypt and North Africa controlled by the Ismāʿilī Fatimids, Sunnī Islam seemed to be fighting a defensive battle. It was only with the help of Sunnī Turks, supported by the weakened Abbasid caliphate, and with the defeat of the Fatimids by the Crusaders that the political power of Shiism began to wane.

Although the Shīʿī Buyids were Persian, the Sunnī Ghaznavids and Seljuks were Turks, and the Abbasids were Arabs, it is wrong to conclude simply that the Persians were Shīʿī and the Arabs and Turks Sunnī. The situation is much more complex. While it is true that most of the great Twelver Shīʿī scholars have been Persian and that with the Safavids Persia became mostly Shīʿī, it is also a fact of Islamic history that during the tenth and eleventh centuries the intellectual defense of Sunnī Islam also came from the Persian province of Khorasan with such figures as al-Juwaynī and al-Ghazalī. Moreover, while the Turks of Sunnī persuasion helped to prevent the spread of Shiism in the eleventh century, five centuries later Shīʿī Turkish tribes brought Shah Ismāʿīl to power in Persia and helped make Twelver Shiism the state religion of Safavid Persia.

In any case, with the destruction of both Seljuk and Abbasid power by the Mongols, Shiism began to gain ground once again. The period following the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century marks a rapid spread of Twelver Shiism thanks to both the appearance of such outstanding Shīʿī statesmen and scholars as Nair al-Dīn ūsī and ʿAllāmah illī and the spread of certain ūfī orders such as the Nūrbakhshī, which prepared the ground for the consolidation of Safavid power in Persia through the spread of their Twelver tendencies.

The Safavid state

With the advent of the Safavids in the sixteenth century, Twelver Shiism identified itself for the first time with a distinct political power, as the Ismaʿiliyah had done centuries before with the establishment of the Fatimid caliphate in Cairo and the Zaydiyah with their own imamate in Yemen. (On a lesser scale the same event was taking place in India with the establishment of small Twelver kingdoms in the South.) Paradoxically enough, the Twelvers, who were the most numerous among the Shīʿah, were the last to enter the political arena.

Ruling with the help of Twelver Shiism, the Safavids in turn helped it spread within Persia while supporting Shīʿī communities outside their borders. An alliance was created between the Persian monarchy and the Twelver ʿulamāʾ (sg., ʿālim: "scholar"). While the central authority of the kings remained strong, an equilibrium was maintained between the state and the Twelver establishment, and in fact, certain religious offices, such as those of the adr (chief religious authority) and imām jumʿah (Friday prayer leader) were filled by the monarch. However, as the power of the state began to wane, the class of Shīʿī ʿulamāy, led by such figures as Mullā Muammad Bāqir Majlisī (d. 1700), sought to assert greater power and authority as representatives of the Hidden Imam, to whom all real authority, political as well as religious, belonged. Still, when the Safavid state was destroyed as a result of the Afghan invasion in 1722, far from taking power into their hands and fighting for the preservation of a Shīʿī state, nearly all of the outstanding Twelver ʿulamaʾ chose the path of quietism, with many retiring to Najaf in Iraq and devoting themselves to purely religious concerns.

Renewed activism

For several decades from the rule of Nadir Shāh (r. 17361747) and Karim Khān Zand (r. 17501779) to the establishment of the Qajars in 1779, Twelver Shiism remained politically quiet and somewhat peripheral. It was only during the long reign of Fat ʿAlī Shāh in the beginning of the nineteenth century that the power of the Twelver ʿulamāʾ began to rise again. The king favored and even encouraged religious courts and ceased to appoint judges as had been done in the Safavid period. The religious scholars came to be favored directly while the privileged position of the descendants of the Prophet (the sādāt ) so emphasized by the Safavids weakened.

This new period of ascendancy of Twelver political power resulted in the participation of the ʿulamāʾ in many major political events, culminating in the Tobacco Rebellion of 18911892 and finally the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, in which the role of the ʿulamāʾ was central. Despite the direct participation of the Twelver establishment in political power, however, at no time during the Qajar or, for that matter, the Safavid, period does one see a widely accepted Twelver doctrine of the illegitimacy of the government or the state. Occasionally one does see a figure such as Mullā Amad Narāqi, who in his ʿAwāʾid al-ayyām (Benefits of the Times) argues for the strengthening of the juridical power of the jurisprudent (faqīh ), a view that some scholars have interpreted as the historical antecedent of Ayatollah Khomeini's thesis of the "rule of the jurisprudent" (vilāyat-i faqīh ). But even if such a doubtful interpretation is accepted, such views remained rare and indeed anomalous. The almost unanimously held position was that of perhaps the most celebrated Twelver juridical scholar of the age, Shaykh Murtaā Anāri, who continued to the end of his life to remain piously opposed to all activity in the political order, even to the administering of justice according to the sharīʿah.

During the Constitutional Revolution the Twelver ʿulamāʾ were leaders on both sides of the debate about a parliamentary system and constitutional monarchy. While those who opposed such a system rallied behind Shaykh Fal Allāh Nūrī, the leading Twelver ʿālim of the day, the pro-Constitution forces, although often partly secularized and imbued with Western, liberal ideas, also rallied behind and were supported by leading figures among the class of ʿulamāʾ, such as Sayyid Muammad abāabāʾī and Sayyid ʿAbd Allāh Bihbahānī. As a result of this participation, with the final victory of the pro-Constitution forces the power of the "liberal wing" of the ʿulamāʾ grew even more than before, and they remained, despite the modernization which was to follow during the next seven decades, the most politically powerful body of ʿulamāʾ in the whole of the Islamic world.

Pahlavi rule

From the time of the Constitutional Revolution through the Pahlavi period, the power of the ʿulamāʾ decreased in relation to what had existed in the Qajar era but nevertheless remained considerable. As the state became more powerful during the reign of Ria Shāh Pahlavi (19251941), juridical power was taken out of the hands of the ʿulamāʾ and bestowed on the government once again. Education was taken out of their hands as well, but the traditional educational institutions were allowed to survive and Qom was made a major center for Shīʿī studies. Shīʿī centers of learning were in fact strengthened during the rule of Muammad Ria Shāh (19411979), who had a more lenient attitude toward the ʿulamāʾ than had his father.

During this period the erosion of the power of the ʿulamāʾ did not, however, come so much from direct government action (although such measures as land reform did affect the ʿulamāʾ adversely) as from the general process of modernization. But because the government did not oppose religious activity in any way, religious reaction to secularization and modernization also thrived. It manifested itself first and foremost in a veritable revival of Shīʿī learning and religious thought and finally by sociopolitical action seeking to oppose the process of modernization. In this domain not all the voices of Twelver Shiism were by any means in accord nor were all the voices of dissent of a religious character. The majority of Twelver authorities continued to preach the traditional doctrine of abstention from direct involvement in politics, while those who spearheaded political opposition in the beginning were often forces of the secular left, although they used images, symbols, and slogans of a Shīʿī coloring. In the end, however, the minority Shīʿī voice that preached direct political control and rule of society won the day, destroying its secular partners and silencing at least for now and at least within Iran those Twelver voices which preached the traditional political doctrine of quietism and withdrawal from worldly activity.

Islamic Revolution

Twelver Shiism thus entered another new phase of its history with the Revolution of 19781979 in Iran. While the nature, direction, and outcome of that history cannot as yet be judged or evaluated from a religious point of view (whatever one might be able to say of its immediate political, economic, and social consequences), the one fact that is certain is that this event will have a deep effect not only upon the future role of Twelver Shiism within Iran but also upon the destiny of Shiism in those countries with Shīʿī majorities (such as Iraq) or minorities. It will also bear upon the question of the preservation of unity or the possibility of further segmentation within Shiism itself.

The development of Shīʿī thought

Although intertwined with the development of Islamic thought in general, Twelver Shīʿī thought possesses a distinct historical development of its own. For the sake of convenience in this analysis it is possible to divide that development into five periods.

First period: the era of the imams

The first period, which is unique in that it contains at once the root and inner content of all later Twelver thought, spans the life of the Prophet and the imams to the occultation of the twelfth imam. This seminal period of three centuries saw not only the sayings of the Prophet and the imams (aādīth ), which, along with the Qurʾān, serve as the source for all Shīʿī thought from law to theology and philosophy, collected and assembled, but also the earliest distinct schools of Shīʿī thought became crystallized, especially around the fifth and sixth imams. By the ninth century Jaʿfarī law was already formulated, theological and theosophical thought received their earliest formulations, and other intellectual and occult sciences began to be cultivated within the Twelver worldview.

Second period: ninth to eleventh centuries

This period, which coincides with the rise of the Buyids in Persia and Iraq, produced the first group of important Twelver scholars who codified the teachings of the imams and brought Shīʿī learning to its first golden age. Especially noteworthy is Muammad al-Kulaynī (d. 941), the author of Kitāb al-kāfī (The sufficient book), perhaps the most influential of the four canonical collections of Shīʿī adīth. Al-Kulaynī, born and educated near Qom, taught in Baghdad, where he lies buried. The Kitāb al-kāfī consists of three major parts: the uūl, dealing with theology, prophetology, theodicy, and similar subjects; the furūʿ, dealing with jurisprudence; and the miscellaneous articles at the end.

Al-Kulaynī was followed successively by the other two major Shīʿī scholars of tradition, Ibn Bābūyah (or Ibn Bābawayhal, known also as adūq, d. 991/2) and Muammad al-Tūsī (d. 1067/8), who was also the founder of the Twelver university at Najaf, which survives to this day as the most important and ancient Shīʿī center of learning. Another eminent Twelver scholar of the period was Sayyid Sharīf al-Raī (d. 1016), who assembled the sayings of ʿAlī in the Nahj al-balāghah (The path of eloquence), which many Western scholars, in contrast to traditional and contemporary Twelver views, believe to have been written by Sayyid Sharīf al-Raī himself.

A student of Ibn Bābūyah and Sayyid Sharīf, Shaykh al-Mufīd, marks the beginning of rational Twelver theology. Although the Nawbakhti family had begun employing certain Muʿtazili theses in ninth-century Twelver thought, it remained for Shaykh Muammad al-Mufīd (d. 1022) to inaugurate the full employment of rational arguments in religious debates.

Third period: eleventh to thirteenth centuries

The third period of Twelver thought stretches from the fall of the Buyids and the temporary eclipse of Shiism to the Mongol invasion. By and large the Seljuk opposition to Shiism had the direct effect of diminishing the intense Twelver intellectual activity of the two previous centuries. Nonetheless, there were some notable figures in this period, including Abū Jaʿfar al-ūsī (d. 1068), the author of the famous Kitāb al-istibār (Book of examination) and Tahdhib al-akām (Purification of principles), and Abū ʿAlī abarsī (d. 1153/4), well known for his Qurʾān commentary, Majmaʿ al-bayān (Compendium of discourse).

Fourth period: thirteenth to sixteenth centuries

The Mongol invasion, despite its ravaging effects, also marked the beginning of a new phase of widespread Islamic intellectual activity. This fourth period of Twelver thought begins with the towering figure of Naīr al-Dīn ūsī (d. 1274), who not only revived Avicennian philosophy in the matrix of Twelver thought but also wrote the Kitāb al-tajrīd (The book of catharsis), which is considered as the first systematic work of Twelver theology and which is without doubt the most widely read work on the subject. Naīr al-Dīn was also responsible for the revival of Twelver learning, the consequences of which stretched over the centuries into the Safavid and even later periods. His contemporary Najm al-Dīn Muaqqiq al-illī (d. 1277) was an expert on the principles of Twelver jurisprudence (uūl), for which he wrote the authoritative work, Kitāb al-maʿārij (Book of scales), while also developing the science of the application of these principles (furūʿ ) in his equally famous Sharāʿiʾ al-islām (Laws of Islam).

ūsī's successor and student, Jamāl al- Dīn ʿAllāmah al- illī (d. 1325), was one of the most prolific and many-faceted intellectual figures of Twelver Shiism, at once a theologian, jurisprudent, philosopher, and political thinker. He also acted directly upon the political scene by being instrumental in the conversion of the Il-khanid ruler Öljeitu to Twelver Shiism and participated in religious polemics by answering Sunnī criticisms against Shiism and attacking Sunnīsm himself. His polemical Minhāj al-kirāmah (Ways of munificence) was in turn refuted by Ibn Taymīyah. Al- illī is also especially known in the annals of Twelver thought for his Kashf al-murād (Discovery of the desired end), a commentary upon ūsī's Tajrīd and the first of a long list of commentaries and glosses written upon this work over the next seven centuries.

This period is also marked by the continuation of Islamic philosophy in a specifically Twelver climate in the hands of such figures as aʾin al- Dīn ibn Turkah I-fahānī (d. 1427), the Dashtakī family, and Jalāl al-Dīn Dawānī (d. 1502/3), the theologian and philosopher who began as a Sunnī Muslim but was later converted to Shiism. Most of these philosophers were at once followers of the Peripatetic school of Ibn Sīnā as revived by ūsī and Qutb al-Dīn Shīrazī (d. 1310/11 or 1316/7) and the Illuminationist or Ishrāqī school of Suhrawardī (d. 1191).

The gnostic teachings of the Andalusian ūfī Muyi al- Dīn ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240), who was himself a Sunnī, also began to penetrate Twelver circles and to become integrated with Shīʿī gnosis (ʿirfān-i Shīʿī ) during this period. Such Twelver gnostics as Sayyid aydar mulī (fourteenth century), author of Jāmiʿ al-asrār (Sum of secrets), one of the summa s of Shīʿī gnosis, and Ibn Abī Jumhūr al-Asaʾi, author of Kitāb al-mujlī (The book of that which makes manifest) (d. after 1496), were disciples of both the school of Ibn ʿArabī and the gnosis that issued from the teachings of the Twelver imams. Other figures of Twelver Sufism during this period include Ibn āʾūs (fifteenth century), Sayyid Muammad Nūrbakhsh (d. 1464), and Musin Kāshifī (d. 1500/1 or 1504/5), all of whom were of considerable importance for the subsequent conversion of Persia to Twelver Shiism. In this process the Kubrawīyah order played an important role, but more significant still was that of the afavīyah. This ūfī order, founded by Safi al-Dīn Ardibīlī, which was to become specifically Shīʿī, was to inaugurate a new phase in the history of Shiism with the conquest of Persia by Shah Ismāʿīl afavī in 1499.

Fifth period: sixteenth to twentieth centuries

The fifth and final phase of the history of Twelver thought begins with the Safavid declaration of Twelver Shiism as the state religion of Persia and lasts to this day. The state support of Shiism naturally caused a major revival of Twelver thought in nearly every field. Jurisprudence and theology began to thrive with such scholars as ʿAlī ibn usayn Karakī, who was already well known before the advent of the Safavids. Other jurisprudents and theologians were brought by the rulers to Isfahan and other major Persian cities from Jabal ʿmil, Bahrayn, and illah in Iraq.

Among the most colorful of these figures was Shaykh Bahāʾ al-Dīn ʿmilī, the religious leader (shaykh al-islām ) of Isfahan, who was at once jurisprudent, theologian, ūfī, mathematician, architect, and poet. He helped popularize Twelver jurisprudence by writing the Jāmiʿ-i ʿabbāsi (The ʿAbbāsī summa) on jurisprudence in Persian while composing several ūfī poems in simple Persian that could be understood by people in the streets and bazaars. His friend and contemporary, Mīr Dāmād (d. 1630) was the founder of the new school of Islamic philosophy that has come to be known as the "School of Isfahan"; he wrote numerous works in Arabic and Persian, of which the Qabasāt (Sparks of fire) is perhaps the most important. His student adr al-Dīn Shīrāzī (Mullā adrā, 1640) is certainly the greatest of the later Islamic philosophers; he wielded immense influence not only upon Persia but also in India, where his monumental Al-asfār al-arbaʿah (Four journeys), which summarizes his theosophical teachings, was translated into Urdu only during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although his most famous immediate students, Mullā Musin Fay Kāshānī (d. 1680) and ʿAbd al-Razzāq Lahījī (d. 1661/2), turned mostly to the religious sciences, kalām, and Sufism, the "transcendent theosophy" (al-ikmah al-mutaʿāliyah ) of Mullā adrā began to gather followers from near and far and soon became the central intellectual school of Twelver Shiism.

Toward the end of the Safavid period the onset of an antiphilosophical and anti-ūfī trend caused Sufism to go underground and partially eclipsed the school of Mullā adrā. This was the age of Muammad Bāqir Majlisī, the author of the monumental Twelver encyclopedia Biar al-anwār (Seas of light) and many other juridical and theological works. This period was also witness to treatises on popular piety.

After an interim period of uncertainty and chaos marked by the Afghan invasion, the conquest of Persia by Nādir Shāh, and the rule of Karīm Khān Zand, the establishment of the Qajars in 1779 marked once again a revival of Twelver thought. The nineteenth century was witness not only to the major jurisprudents and theologians already mentioned, but also to several notable philosophers such as Mullā ʿAlī Nūrī (d. 1831), MullāʿAlī Zunūzī (d. 1889), qā Muammad Riā Qumshaʾī (d. 1888), and the most famous of the Qajar philosophers, ājjī Mullā Hādī Sabziwārī (d. 1871), whose Shar al-manūmah (Commentary on the bean) remains a favorite philosophical text to this date. These men revived the teachings of Mullā adrā as well as those of Ibn ʿArabī in its Twelver form. Their disciples were in turn the direct teachers of the outstanding Twelver philosophers of the late Qajar and Pahlavi periods such as Sayyid Abū al-asan Rafīʿī Qazwinī, Sayyid Muammad Kāim ʿAar, and ʿAllāmah Sayyid Muammad usayn Tabāabāʾi, all of whom died in the second half of the twentieth century. This period marks in fact a most active and fecund era during which the Twelver intellectual tradition encountered the challenges of the modern West for the first time, traditional Twelver thought was revived, and Islamic modernism began to penetrate into certain strands of Twelver Shiism. The last few decades have been marked by as strong interest and renewal of this tradition.

Twelver ShĪʿĪ Doctrines in Relation to Sunnism

Twelver Shiism shares with Sunnī Islam the acceptance of the unity of God, the text of the Qurʾān, and the prophetic function of the Prophet, including the finality of his prophetic function and belief in eschatological events described in the Qurʾān and the adīth. It differs from Sunnīsm in its emphases upon the quality of justice (ʿadl) as innate and intrinsic to the divine nature and upon the significance of the imam with all the consequences this doctrine entails as far as esoteric knowledge, the role of ʿaql or intellect, and attitude toward intellectual sciences are concerned. Also in contrast to Sunnīsm, for which adīth means the sayings of the Prophet, Shiism also includes in its adīth collections the sayings of the imams, although it does distinguish clearly between prophetic traditions (al-adīth al-nabawī) and the traditions of the imams (al-adīth al-walawī). As far as the prophetic traditions are concerned, the lines of transmission are usually different for Sunnī and Shīʿī Muslims, but the content of most of the sayings are the same.

Twelver Shiism possesses the same sacred law (sharīʿah ) as Sunnī Islam, with small differences in the ritual aspects which are practically no greater than differences between the four Sunnī schools themselves. Injunctions concerning transactions are also similar in most instances, the most important exceptions being the Shīʿī acceptance of temporary marriage (mutʿah ), certain aspects of the laws of inheritance, and also a religious tax (khums ) in addition to the general religious tax (zakāh ) accepted by Sunnīs. Altogether, despite many polemics with Sunnīsm, over the ages, Shiism represents an essential aspect of Islamic orthodoxy and has its roots in the Qurʾanic revelation and the soul of the Prophet as does Sunnīsm.

The doctrines of the Twelvers are summarized in the "principles of religion" (uūl al-dīn ) as stated in the sayings of the imams. These principles include tawīd (attesting to God's unity); ʿadl (accepting that God is just by nature); nubūwwah (prophecy or accepting the prophetic function of all the prophets beginning with Adam and ending with the prophet of Islam); imāmah (accepting the twelve imams from ʿAlī to the Mahdī); and maʿād (accepting the immortality of the soul, the responsibility of human beings for their actions, divine judgment and the paradisal, purgatorial, or infernal states that humans experience in accordance with the fruits of their actions and divine mercy).

The Twelvers understand these principles, as well as the whole Qurʾān and adīth, according to not only their outward meaning but also their inner sense and reality. Thus taʾwīl, this process of going from the outward to the inward, is emphasized in every aspect of Twelver Shiism, whether it be the Qurʾanic sciences or the interpretation of religious rites. Through the Twelver understanding of the meaning of the imam and the power of walāyah/wilāyah, there exists an esoteric character even within the exoteric aspects of the religion. It might in fact be said that whereas in Sunnī Islam the exoteric and the esoteric are clearly separated (and the latter identified with Sufism), among the Twelvers, in addition to the presence of Sufism in its Shīʿī form, esoterism flows into the exoteric domain and bestows a mystical aspect on the whole manifestation of Shiism, including popular piety.


Twelver Shiism, like Sunnī Islam, emphasizes the importance of the divine law (sharīʿah ) and the necessity of following its injunctions, most of which are in fact like those of Sunnī Islam. Twelver jurisprudence, or fiqh, although related to the Sunnī schools of fiqh in accepting the Qurʾān and adīth as the two basic sources of law, also differs from them in certain important ways. Most of the four Sunnī schools of law accept with different degrees of emphasis the use of ijmāʿ (consensus of the community) and qiyās (analogy) as sources for drawing legal injunctions where the Qurʾān and adīth and sunnah do not provide direct guidance.

Divine injunction

For the Twelvers, however, every event that occurs in the world comes as a result of divine injunction (ukm ), which includes for them the sayings and actions of the imams. Basing themselves on the famous saying of the Prophet (the adīth al-thaqalayn ) according to which the Prophet mentioned to his companions that after his death he would leave Muslims the Qurʾān and his family, the Twelvers base their fiqh completely on the Qurʾān injunctions issued by the Prophet and the imams and consider both ijmāʿ and qiyās to be inadmissible for juridical decision-making. For them there are but two sources for juridical injunctions: the Qurʾān and the adīth and sunnah understood in their Shīʿī sense. adīth, in fact, is also seen by the Twelvers as being nothing but commentaries upon the Qurʾān and the extension of Qurʾanic teachings by the Prophet and the imams so that the Qurʾān becomes ultimately the sole source of the sharīʿah.

Juridical authority belongs exclusively to the Prophet and the imams, and ultimately to God. According to the Furūʿ al-kāfī of al-Kulaynī, this authority was transferred by Imam Jaʿfar al-ādiq to the jurisprudents (fuqahāʾ ), who, in the absence of the imams, receive their authority from the Hidden Imam, or the Mahdī. Judges, in fact, should be chosen by the imam and according to Twelver belief, one should not accept judges chosen by political authorities unless it is necessary and under conditions that necessitate taqīyah "dissimulation."


The Twelver concept of ijtihād (use of legal reasoning) implies, therefore, not drawing conclusions from and on the basis of the Qurʾān, adīth, ijmāʿ, and qiyās, but seeking answers to problems facing the community or the individual from the Qurʾān and adīth (including the sayings of the imams) alone, and relying completely on the emulation of the Prophet and the imams and their understanding of the teachings of the Qurʾān. In this sense the range of ijtihād among the Twelvers is more limited than among the Sunnīs, but from the point of view of the actual practice of ijtihād, it can be said that it occupies a more central and living role in Twelver Shiism. In Sunnī Islam the gates of ijtihād are said to have been closed since the establishment of the widely accepted schools of law a thousand years ago, whereas for the Twelvers, the gate of ijtihād has always remained open. In fact, a Twelver is supposed to imitate and follow a living mujtahid, the person who has the qualifications to practice ijtihād. Each person who reaches the degree of ijtihād must derive the injunctions of the law afresh from the traditional sources, and the mujtahid s have always exercised greater power and influence in Twelver Shiism than multīs in Sunnī Islam, especially since the late Safavid period.

Another unique feature of Twelver jurisprudence is the institution of the "source of imitation" or marjaʿi taqlīd. In the middle of the nineteenth century, as the power of the mujtahid s grew, there came into being the office of the supreme mujtahid whom all Twelvers were to imitate. This transformation was brought about by Shaykh Murtaa Anārī (d. 1864), who formulated the doctrine in his Farāʾi al-uūl (Precious Pearls of Uūl). The institution continued for more than a century until 1962, the year of the death of Ayatollah Burūjirdī, who was the last mujtahid to be universally accepted as the supreme head of the Twelver hierarchy and who was imitated by all Twelvers.

The importance of ijtihād as used currently by Twelvers has not, however, been always the same for all segments of the community. During the Safavid period there existed a fierce struggle between the Akhbārīyah, who relied solely upon the sayings (akhbār ) of the Prophet and the imams as incorporated in the four canonical collections of Shīʿī adīth, and the Uūlīyah, who relied upon the use of reason in the understanding of the principles (uūl) of jurisprudence and their application on the basis of the Qurʾān and adīth. The founder of the Akhbārī school was Muammad Amīn Astrābādī (d. 1623/4), who, in his al-Fawāʾid al-madanīyah (Civil Benefits), attacked the mujtahid s strongly and accused them of destroying Islam. During the early Qajar period, when the Russians were fighting against Persia, an Akhbārī religious leader named Mīrzā Muammad Akhbārī of Bahrein promised the ruler Fat ʿAlī Shāh the head of the Russian general if he were to ban the Uūlīyah. When Mīrzā Muammad kept his promise and brought the head, Fat ʿAlī Shāh, fearing his power, exiled him to Iraq. Henceforth Akhbārī influence, which had been paramount in the Zand period, began to wane, and soon they were totally eclipsed as a result of the works of the Uūlī Muammad Bāqir Waīd Bihbahānī (d. 1792). The nineteenth century became, as a result, the golden period for the science of principles of jurisprudence, uūl al-fiqh, and the period when the mujtahid s rose to power.

The Akhbārī-Uūlī debate that has characterized much of Twelver thought during the past few centuries resembles in many ways the earlier Muʿtazilī-Ashʿarī debate in Sunnī Islam, but of course in the context of elements and factors that are typical of Twelver Shiism. The Uūlīyah emphasize the competence of reason in interpreting the Qurʾān and adīth and the necessity of ijtihād. They do not accept uncritically the four canonical codices of Shīʿī adīth and rely heavily upon the ever-renewed and living interpretation of these sources of law to the extent of forbidding the imitation of a decreased mujtahid. The Akhbārīyah oppose the Uūlīyah on all these counts, criticizing them especially on the role they allot to reason in the interpretation of the injunctions of the divine law.

Philosophy and theosophy

The Twelver attitude toward the so-called intellectual sciences (al-ʿulūm al-ʿaqlīyah ) was from the beginning more positive than that of the school of theology (kalām ) that came to dominate Sunnī Islam from the fourth century ah (tenth century ce). This more open attitude can be found in some of the sayings of the sixth and eighth imams, not to speak of the metaphysical discourses of ʿAlī contained in the Nahj al-balāghah. As a result, philosophy or theosophy (al-ikmah al-ilāhīyah ) also constitutes an important aspect of Twelver religious thought and is far from being only Greek philosophy in Arabic or Persian dress.


While many of the early Islamic philosophers, such as al-Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), were either Twelvers or had Twelver tendencies, from the Mongol invasion and the advent of Naīr al-Dīn ūsī onward, Islamic philosophy took refuge for the most part in the Shīʿī world (although it also had a long life among some Sunnīs), and some of the greatest of the later Islamic philosophers following ūsī, such as Ibn Turkah Ifahāni, Mīr Dāmād, and Mullā ādra, were also Twelver thinkers.

Later Islamic philosophy following Suhrawardi and ūsī also drew directly from specifically Twelver sources, especially the Nahj al-balāghah and the Uūl al-kāfī of al-Kulaynī. One cannot study a work such as the Asfār of Mullā ādra without becoming aware of the central significance of the teachings of the Qurʾān as interpreted by the Prophet and the imams and the Shīʿī adīth corpus in the development of later Islamic philosophy. Some of the most significant pages of Shīʿī theological and religious thought as ordinarily understood are to be found in such late works.

Religious sciences and theology (kalām)

From the beginning Shiism emphasized the importance of religious knowledge. While cut off from worldly power, the early Shīʿah, including of course the imams, devoted most of their energy to the dissemination of religious knowledge as transmitted by the Prophet through the chain of the imams. This knowledge included Qurʾānic commentary, adīth, and law as well as the esoteric sciences. Gradually there developed a sizable body of specifically Twelver religious works in nearly every field. After the Nahj al-balāghah and the aīfah al-sājjadīyah (Scroll of Sajjād) of Imam Zayn al-ʿAbidīn, the most important specifically Shīʿī religious works are the four codices of the sayings of the Prophet and the imams assembled in the tenth and eleventh centuries: the Kitāb al-kafī of al-Kulaynī, Manā yauruhu al-faqīh (Everyone his own jurist) of Ibn Bābūyah, and Kitāb al-tahdhīb (The book of refinement) and Kitāb al-istibār (The book of scrutinization) of Muammad al- ūsī. Henceforth all Twelver religious thought from the philosophical and theological to the juridical and political drew from these four canonical collections or al-kutub al-arbaʿah.

Kalām, as the discipline dealing with the rational defense of the tenets of the faith, developed much later in Twelver Shiism than it did in either Sunnī Islam or Ismaʿīlī Shiism. The Twelvers began to develop kalām in a systematic sense with Nasir al-Din ūsī, whose Kitāb al-tajrīd is the first and most important Twelver kalām work, commented upon by generations of theologians starting with the author's own celebrated student ʿAllāmah al-illī. Shīʿī kalām was rejuvenated during the Safavid period when such figures as ʿAbd al-Razzāq Lāhījī wrote major works devoted to this discipline. During this period, however, the philosophers (ukamā-yi ilāhī in Persian) strongly opposed the whole discipline of kalām and claimed that the "science of God" or theology in its universal sense was the subject of their discipline rather than the science of the mutakallimūn, those who followed the field of study known technically as kalām.

Political and social thought

During most of its history Twelver Shiism has followed the example of Imam asan and most other Imams in remaining aloof from the everyday world and its political entanglements, shunning even the ministering of justice and turning temporal defeat into spiritual victory by placing before itself a political ideal identified with the rule of the Hidden Imam and the parousia he will bring about. The imams themselves shied away from direct political activity even when the opportunity arose, as in the case of Imam Jaʿfar al-ādiq who was offered the caliphate by Abū Muslim, or else they were prevented from doing so, as in the case of Imam Riā who was poisoned after being chosen successor of the Abbasid caliph al-Maʾmūn.

Relation to power

Nonetheless, the case of Imam usayn, who arose against the Umayyad caliph Yazīd, presents the other strand in Shiism, which is that of political protest against iniquity and injustice. After the occultation of the twelfth imam, practically all the major Twelver jurists and scholars reiterated the political theory according to which the Sunnī caliphate was illegitimate, the real ruler of the world was the Hidden Imam, and in his absence the ruler or sultan who was just and who supported or at least permitted the practice of Shiism should be conditionally supported, although there were also occasional Shīʿī revolts against established authority. With the Safavids' establishment of a Shīʿī Twelver kingdom of Persia, or on a smaller scale with the establishment of Twelver states in Bijapur and other states in the Deccan in India, this agreement between the Shīʿī authorities and the state in a sense became formalized and served as the basis of a pact between religion and the state upon which the sociopolitical order functioned. In Qajar Persia this theory was on one or two occasions repudiated in favor of the theory of direct rule of the jurisprudents as in the case of Mullā Amad Narāqī (d. 1828/9) as he has been interpreted by certain later figures, while others such as Sayyid Muammad Bāqir Shaftī (d. 1844) took the administration of justice into their hands. But it was not until the declaration of the rule of the jurisprudent (vilāyat-i faqīh ) by Ayatollah Khomeini that the classical Shīʿī theory was rejected in Iran in the name of the direct rule of the jurisprudent and the latter view was put into practice. This view has, however, been contested by many Shīʿī authorities even within Iran as can be seen in Mahd ī Hāʿirī Yazdī's Hikmat wa ukūmat.

Socioeconomic issues

As far as social thought is concerned, Twelver ideas are not very different from those of the Sunnīs, with the emphasis upon the family as the most important social unit. Twelver Shiism permits temporary marriage (mutʿah ), which, although definitely practiced at the time of the Prophet, was banned in Sunnī Islam under the caliphate of ʿUmar. It also emphasizes inheritance for the female members of the family and the children rather than brothers and sisters more than do Sunnī schools of law.

As far as the economic order is concerned, although the craft guilds and orders of chivalry have existed throughout the Islamic world, because these orders traced their origin to ʿAlī, they were easily integrated into the Twelver religious world and its piety and possessed a more open and organic link with the formal, exoteric aspects of the religion than was the case among the Sunnīs. In fact, even in the Sunnī world the religious ambience of the orders of guilds (anāf) and those of chivalry (futūwāt ) have resembled that of Shiism, since these organizations have been linked to the ūfī orders, most of which trace their chains of transmission (silsilah s) back to ʿAlī. (Even in Shiism, however, where these organizations have been linked to the formal and exoteric dimension of the religion, there have been important ūfī orders such as the Khāksār that have linked the guilds and the chivalric associations to the general religious framework.)

Religious practices

The Twelvers share with the Sunnīs the belief in the performance of the obligatory rites of canonical prayer (alāh or namāz ), fasting (awm ), and pilgrimage (ājj), although in each case there are small differences with the four schools of Sunnī law. In the case of the prayers, for example, the postures, numbers, and times are the same, but the Twelvers add two formulas to the call to prayers (adhān ) and usually group together the noon and afternoon prayers, as well as the evening and night prayers, rather than waiting for an hour or two between them. Again, the fast is usually begun a few minutes earlier and terminated a few minutes later than in Sunnī practice, and there are likewise minor differences in the ājj ceremonies, the most important of which is an extra circumambulation of the Kaʿbah performed by the Shīʿah.

Special rites

What is more distinctive of Twelver religious practices, however, is the performance of certain rites in addition to the obligatory ones. In the case of prayer, the Twelvers invoke many long litanies and chant many prayers derived totally from the sayings of the imams, a practice that occurs in the Sunnī world only in the climate of Sufism. Among the most famous of these prayers are the Duʿaʾ (Supplication) of Kumayl and the Duʿāʾ of aba by ʿAlī, the Scroll of Sajjād by Imam Zayn al-ʿ bidīn, and the Jawshan-i kabīr (Great Armor), attributed to the Prophet and usually recited during the nights of Ramaān. There are also numerous other prayers by the imams that are recorded in al-Ku-laynī's Uūl al-kāfī and Majlisī's Biār al-anwār and form part of Twelver devotional life; these range from the most contemplative and metaphysical statements on the doctrine of the divine nature to intimate yearnings of the soul for the love of God. Twentieth-century compilations such as the Mafātī al-jinān (Keys of paradise) of ʿAbbās Qummī assemble prayers that, woven around the cardinal rites of canonical prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage, punctuate the whole calendar of the life of the Twelver community.


The tombs of all the imams are considered extensions of the supreme centers of Mecca and Medina, and thus, pilgrimage to these sites, not to speak of the authentic imām-zādah s, or tombs of the imams' descendants, are strongly encouraged by the jurists and the official religious hierarchy and play a very important role in Shīʿī religious life. The most important of these holy places are Najaf, where ʿAlī is buried (although Mazār-i Sharīf in Afghanistan is claimed by some to be his tomb); Karbalāʾ, where Imam usayn and his family are interred; Kāimayn, the tombs of the fifth and ninth imams; Mashhad, the mausoleum of Imam ʿAlī al-Riā; and Samarrāʾ, where the tenth and eleventh imams are buried and where the twelfth imam went into occultation.

Some of these major sites, such as Mashhad, feature distinguished monuments of Islamic art; others, including Najaf and Qom, have become important university centers over the centuries, and pilgrimages there have also involved the dissemination of religious knowledge through both oral transmission and written works.

In addition to the major sites, other important Shīʿī pilgrimage centers include the tomb of Sayyidah Zaynab, the sister of Imam usayn, outside of Damascus (she is also honored with a maqām, or "station," in Cairo, which many consider to be her tomb), and that of Haz̤rat-i Maʿūmah, the sister of the eighth imam, in Qom. A unique pilgrimage site sacred to both Shīʿī and Sunnī Muslims is the Raʾs al-usayn in Cairo, where the head of Imam usayn lies buried; the mausoleum remains to this day the spiritual pole of the city of Cairo.

Popular practices

Among the many popular Shīʿī observances, the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam usayn at Karbalāʾ on the tenth day of the month of Muarram marks the peak of the religious calendar in terms of emotional intensity and commitment. Outside of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, there is no more impressive religious ceremony in the Islamic world than the vast ʿshūrāʾ processions in Persia and the Indian subcontinent. From the fifteenth century on, there developed the practice of rawz̤ah-khvānī, the chanting of the story of Karbalāʾ, and soon after, the taʿziyah, or passion play in which the same tragedy is acted out. There are many other Shīʿī observances, ranging from such religiously commendable acts as sacrificing animals to ward off evil, paying a sum of money (adaqah ) to the poor for the same reason, or serving a religious meal (sufrah ), the remains of which are given to the poor, to different forms of magic and popularized occult sciences that are given a religious garb and have become part of popular religious tradition despite official religious opposition to them.

See Also

ʿAlī Ibn Abī ālib; ʿĀshūrāʾ; Domestic Observances, article on Muslim Practices; Falsafah; Folk Religion, article on Folk Islam; Ghaybah; adīth; usayn ibn ʿAlī; Imamate; Ishrāqīyah; Ijtihād; Islamic Law; Jaʿfar al-ādiq; Kalām; Rāwz̤ah-Khvānī; Taqīyah; Taʿziyah; Walāyah; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Muslim Worship.


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