Shi?a: Imami (Twelver)

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The term Ithna ˓Ashari ("Twelver") or Imami refers to the denomination of Shi˓ism to which the majority of Shi˓as worldwide adhere. Characteristic of Twelver Shi˓ism is recognition of the authority of twelve successive imams (spiritual leaders) who were members or descendants of ahl al-bayt (the prophet Muhammad's immediate family). Their authority is said to have been transmitted over time via the lineage of Muhammad's daughter Fatima and her husband, ˓Ali. Also characteristic of Twelver Shi˓ism is an emotional attachment to ahl al-bayt that manifests itself in annual rituals commemorating the battlefield death of the imam Husayn, grandson of Muhammad.

Twelver Shi˓ism identifies the first imam as Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, ˓Ali b. Abi Talib. According to Shi˓a tradition, the Prophet, shortly before his own death, publicly announced the selection of ˓Ali as his successor. But ˓Ali was blocked repeatedly from power. He did not contest the election of the first three caliphs, apparently out of a desire to avoid civil war. Finally, ˓Ali did obtain the caliphate and ruled for five years, only to be murdered in 661 c.e.

In Twelver Shi˓ism the term imam indicates those members of ahl al-bayt who are the true spiritual leaders of the Muslim community regardless of any political recognition or lack thereof extended by the Islamic world at large. After ˓Ali, the imamate passed to his sons, Hasan and Husayn successively.

The martyrdom of the third imam, Husayn, during the second civil war in 680 is the most decisive event in Shi˓ite history. At Karbala, near the Euphrates River, he was intercepted and surrounded by forces loyal to the Umayyad caliph, Yazid. During the initial days of the month of Muharram the imam Husayn and his followers withstood siege by Yazid's army, which hoped to force the small band to surrender. Husayn chose death instead. On ˓Ashura, the tenth of Muharram, Husayn was killed, his household taken captive. The train of captives, including Husayn's sister Zaynab and his son ˓Ali Zayn al-˓Abidin, was marched through the desert to Damascus.

Husayn's death at Karbala marks the beginning of the transformation of Shi˓ism from a political movement to a distinctive religious tradition within Islam. His death is viewed by devout Shi˓as as a sacrifice that benefits believers. In exchange for the suffering voluntarily undergone by Husayn and the other Karbala martyrs, God has granted them shafa˓a (the power of intercession). Intercession is granted especially to those believers who earn savab (religious merit) by mourning Husayn during Muharram.

The centuries following Husayn's death saw the gradual emergence of distinctive Shi˓ite communities, not only in southern Iraq, the site of the imam's martyrdom, but also in Lebanon, Syria, and parts of South Asia. To this day various localities in India and Pakistan commemorate Husayn's death with an annual "Horse of Karbala" procession. Mourners parade a riderless stallion caparisoned to represent Zuljenah, the horse ridden by Husayn at Karbala. The horse's appearance acts as a stimulus to rituals of lamentation, the performance of which earns participants savab.

Twelver Shi˓as recognize as the fifth imam Muhammad al-Baqir (d. c. 735), the son of the fourth imam, ˓Ali Zayn al-˓Abidin. Like his father, al-Baqir avoided confrontation with the reigning caliphate. He promulgated the doctrine of nass ("designation"): guided by God, each imam designates the person who is to be his successor as spiritual leader of the Muslim community. Thus the imamate is not a matter of human choice or self-assertion. This doctrine countered the activities of al-Baqir's half-brother Zayd b. ˓Ali, who attracted the support of militants impatient with al-Baqir's political passivity. Zayd led an uprising against the reigning Umayyad government in Kufa and was killed there in the fighting in 740.

The political engagement characteristic of Zaydi Shi˓ism was countered by Ja˓far al-Sadiq (d. 765), the sixth imam in the Twelver tradition. Like his father al-Baqir, he espoused an accommodationist attitude toward the caliphal authorities. Also like his father, he advocated the doctrine of nass, thereby delegitimizing rival claimants to leadership of the Shi˓ite community. Some Muslim scholars trace to his imamate the doctrine of taqiyya ("dissimulation"), which permits Shi˓as threatened with persecution to conceal their denominational identity as followers of the imams. These teachings fostered in the Imami community a political quietism that furthered their survival as a religious minority under the Sunni caliphs.

Ja˓far al-Sadiq was also renowned as a scholar of law (for this reason the body of legal lore in Twelver Shi˓ism is referred to as the Ja˓fari tradition). Additionally, he is credited with having further defined the qualifications for the imamate in terms of the concept of ˓ilm (knowledge). The imams are said to be the most knowledgeable of all humankind in matters pertaining to religious law, the principles governing conduct in this life and rewards and punishments in the next, and the realm of the unseen. In particular the imams' knowledge extends to scripture. They understand both the zahir (the external or literal meaning) and the batin (the hidden significance) of the Qur˒an. The batin is accessed via ta˒wil, an interpretive process that applies allegory and symbolism to the scriptural text.

A turning point came in Shi˓ite history with the death of Hasan al-˓Askari, the eleventh imam (d. 874). Skeptics in the Muslim community claimed that Hasan had died without leaving behind a son as leader of the Shi˓as. But Imami doctrine asserts that Hasan did in fact have a son, named Abu al-Qasim Muhammad, and it explains the circumstance that Muhammad was unknown to his contemporaries by invoking the ancient concept of ghayba (occultation). To protect the twelfth imam from his persecutors, God concealed the young man from the world at large. The period from 874 to 941 is known as the Lesser Occultation. From concealment this "Hidden Imam" provided guidance to his community through a series of agents, who met with him and conveyed his directives to the world.

The period from 941 to the present day is known as the Greater Occultation. No longer are there agents who confer with the Hidden Imam directly or transmit his instructions to the faithful. Nevertheless he is alive and will return to earth one day as the Mahdi, "the rightly guided by God," when he will purge the earth of all the injustice that has stained it since the time when ˓Ali, Husayn, and the other members of ahl albayt were first denied the political recognition to which they were entitled. For this reason the twelfth imam is called al-Muntazar ("the Awaited One"), for Imami Shi˓ite belief looks hopefully to the Mahdi's return as the inauguration of the Day of Judgment.

Imami folklore includes tales that indicate that the twelfth imam dwells among us, invisibly present but capable of manifesting himself to individuals in moments of need. Iraqi Shi˓as in the 1990s who had returned from the pilgrimage to Mecca recounted to this author stories of hajj-sightings. Elderly people who had been knocked to the ground and nearly trampled in the pilgrim-crowds told of how they had been rescued by "a tall youthful man of radiant appearance" who subsequently vanished. Surely, they argued, this had been the Hidden Imam.

The net effect of Twelver belief concerning the Mahdi was to strengthen the accommodationist attitude already prevalent among the Imami Shi˓as. Desires for social justice, for radical changes in the worldly order, and for the restoration of the caliphal throne to ahl al-bayt were linked to the concept of intizar: "expectation," the passive awaiting of the Mahdi's return at the end of time.

Twelver theology underwent further elaboration with the creation of the Safavid dynasty in Iran beginning in 1501 under Shah Isma˓il. This monarch established Imami Shi˓ism as Iran's state religion. The Safavids clashed frequently with the neighboring empire of the Ottoman Turks, whose sultans arrogated to themselves the title of caliph, with its implications of universal Islamic sovereignty. The settlement of the caliphate in Istanbul from the sixteenth century sharpened Sunni-Shi˓a tensions as a religious expression of international political rivalries.

Theological developments during the Safavid era (sixteenth-eighteenth centuries) reflected the Iranian clergy's desire to heighten adherence to Shi˓ite communal identity in lands under the shah's dominion. This is reflected in the writings of the celebrated ˓alim (religious scholar) Muhammad Baqir Majlisi (d. 1698). In a work called Bihar al-anwar (The oceans of lights) he assembled numerous Shi˓ite hadiths so as to justify the linkage of popular ritual practices with a distinctively Imami soteriology. For example, in a chapter of the Bihar entitled "The Ways in Which God Informed His Prophets of the Forthcoming Martyrdom of Husayn," Majlisi emphasized the predestinarian quality of the seventh-century events at Karbala.

Majlisi linked Husayn's martyrdom at Karbala with the imam's power to grant intercession in paradise to those who honor Husayn through acts of ritual commemoration. Majlisi also promoted popular veneration of Husayn and the other imams by collecting in the Bihar various traditions describing the twelve imams as ma˓sum (sinless, infallible, and protected from error). In Shi˓ite devotion today, the imams, together with the prophet Muhammad and his daughter Fatima, are known collectively as the "fourteen Infallibles." Their sinlessness guarantees their closeness to God in heaven as well as their ability to intercede for those on earth who remember Husayn through acts of lamentation.

Twelver Shi˓ism spread in Syria during the rule of the Hamdanid dynasty in the tenth century. Aleppo became an important center of medieval Shi˓ism. Another center of Shi˓ite learning in the region emerged in Mamluk and Ottoman times in Jabal ˓Amil in present-day Lebanon. A number of Shi˓ite scholars emigrated to Iran after the establishment of the Safavid empire, but the Shi˓ite community continued its life in the region and constitutes over one-third of the population of Lebanon at present.

Public rituals lamenting the Karbala martyrs are attested as early as the tenth century in Baghdad. The Safavid era, however, witnessed the elaboration of a soteriology that joined ritual mourning with Shi˓ite communal identity. This is attested in a work that became increasingly popular during the reign of the Safavids, Rawdat al-shuhada˒ (The garden of the martyrs), which was written by Husayn Wa˓iz al-Kashifi (d. 1504). "Paradise is awarded to anyone," argues Kashifi, "who weeps for Husayn for the following reason, that every year, when the month of Muharram comes, a multitude of the lovers of the family of the Prophet renews and makes fresh the tragedy of the martyrs."

"Lovers of the family of the Prophet": Here Kashifi defines the community of believers not in terms of doctrine but in terms of emotional disposition and ritual activity. His description suggests an important aspect of Imami Shi˓ite identity. At the popular level, from the premodern era through the twenty-first century, Twelver Shi˓as tend to define themselves as those Muslims who excel beyond all others in their love for the Prophet's family and for the Prophet's descendants, the imams. This affection is expressed annually in the action of matam (displays of grief for the Karbala martyrs).

Safavid-era ulema such as Majlisi developed a predestinarian theology of voluntary suffering, ritual commemoration, and intercession as a reward for mourners. They also campaigned vehemently and sometimes violently against Sufi shaykhs and the tariqat (mystical associations) that were under the direction of the Sufi masters. Twelver ulema condemned Sufism as heterodox out of a recognition that popular devotion to the shaykhs and visits to the tombs of Sufi saints threatened to compete with the forms of piety administered by the clerical hierarchy, namely, devotion to the twelve imams and pilgrimage to shrines associated with the imams.

Persecution of Sufis, however, did not preclude Sufi influence on Imami Shi˓ism. Such influence can be seen in the later Safavid era with the flourishing of the "School of Isfahan," which is associated with Mulla Sadra (d. 1640). The school of Isfahan pursued the study of Hekmat-e elahi ("divine wisdom"), a discipline that combined formal training in Qur anic studies and related Islamic sciences with rational philosophic inquiry and the cultivation of the direct and unmediated personal experience of divine reality. Hekmat-e elahi traces its origin to Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi (d. 1191), who in works such as Hikmat al-ishraq (The wisdom of illuminationist dawning) envisioned intellectual studies as the propaedeutic to mystical ascension and encounters with the sacred. In the Twelver tradition this intellectual-mystical approach to learning is linked to the term ˓irfan ("gnosis": the seeking after of experiential and participatory knowledge of the patterns governing the cosmos). The term carries political implications. With the decline of centralized governmental authority in the later Safavid and Qajar eras (eighteenth-nineteenth centuries), the ulema acquired ever more temporal power. A spiritual elitism evolved in which at least some clerics were willing to accord the highest rank to the scholar-cum-mystic: the perfected Gnostic, the theosopher-king. This illuminationist strand in Imami theology culminated in the twentieth century with the founding of Iran's Islamic Republic under Ruhollah Khomeini.

The declining power of the Safavid shahs was accompanied by the increasing importance in the public realm of the Usuli form of Shi˓ite jurisprudence. One way to understand Usulism is as a refutation of traditional Imami Shi˓ite attitudes toward governance. Imami theology argued that since the only legitimate government is that administered by the perfect and sinless imam, during the imam's occultation all forms of earthly government are necessarily imperfect and sinful. Many traditionalist Shi˓as therefore avoided engagement with worldly politics, preferring to await the Hidden Imam's return as the Mahdi. Usuli jurisprudence, however, granted to qualified ulema the latitude to apply ijtihad (scripturally based independent reasoning) to every aspect of life, not only religious, but also social and political. Those scholars whose studies qualified them to exercise ijtihad were known as mujtahids.

But while elevating the exercise of rational skills among jurisprudents, Usulism restricted religious and intellectual independence among the masses. Usuli clerics insisted that the Shi˓ite laity must select a living mujtahid as a marja˓ altaqlid ("reference point for imitation"), a guide that one follows in legal, moral, and ritual issues. The centralizing and authoritarian tendencies implicit in Usulism were resisted by the more conservative Akhbari school of jurisprudence, which argued that Muslims should direct their taqlid ("imitation" or devout and unquestioning obedience) only to the imam and not to any earthly mujtahid. But by the late eighteenth century Usulism was clearly ascendant. Since the nineteenth century certain of the most prominent Usuli maraji˓ (plural of marja˓ al-taqlid) have received the title na˒ib al-imam ("the Hidden Imam's deputy"), implying the jurisprudent's right to govern as the lieutenant of the twelfth imam. In recent times na'ib al-imam was applied most famously to the Ayatollah Khomeini after the success of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. Khomeini rationalized the imamic deputy's role in society through his doctrine of velayet-e faqih ("the rule of the jurisconsult"): In the imam's absence, government should be in the hands of those Muslims who are most versed in Islamic law.

Preparation for the 1979 revolution involved a reinterpretation of many components of the Imami tradition. In the prerevolutionary Iran of Reza Shah Pahlevi's reign, the imam Husayn was typically regarded as a model of patient suffering, whom one lamented during Muharram and to whom one turned for shafa˓a (intercession) and personal salvation. Such an image reflected the hierarchic and stratified social relations characteristic of Iran and other traditional Islamic societies. New interpretations in the 1960s and 1970s, however, replaced the image of Husayn-as-savior with Husayn-as-revolutionary exemplar. Such thinking is evident in the writings of ˓Ali Shari˓ati (d. 1977), a Sorbonne-educated intellectual who advocated the transformation of "Black Shi˓ism" (associated with mourning for Husayn and the passive expectation of salvation) into "Red Shi˓ism" (whereby Shari˓ati invoked the color of blood to call for confrontation, revolution, and self-sacrifice in the service of society).

Not only the imam Husayn but also the revered women of ahl al-bayt have been subjected to reinterpretation in recent years. An example is Zaynab bt. ˓Ali, Husayn's sister. Present at Karbala, she was taken prisoner by Yazid's soldiers and presented to the triumphant caliph in his Damascus court. Despite her powerlessness, she spoke out defiantly and denounced Yazid as a tyrant. Supporters of Khomeini during his struggle against the Pahlevi regime described Zeinab as a model of political activism worthy of imitation by contemporary Shi˓ite women. Writing shortly after the 1979 revolution, Farah Azari, one of the founding members of the Iranian Women's Solidarity Group, stated, "[I]t was Zeinab who came to the forefront to symbolize the ideal of the modern revolutionary Muslim woman in Iran. Those enigmatic young women clad in a black chador bearing machine guns, aspire to follow Zeinab. It is not inappropriate that they have been sometimes referred to as 'the commandos of her holiness Zeinab'" (Azari 1983, p. 26).

Since Khomeini's death in 1989 contemporary Shi˓ite thought in Iran has been characterized by increasing diversity and the emergence of a movement for the reformation of Shi˓ism. Among recent theological developments in Imami Shi˓ism is the advocacy of taqrib ("rapprochement"), the easing of religious clashes between Shi˓as and Sunnis. In 1990 Khomeini's successor, Ayatollah Sayyed ˓Ali Khamene˒i, founded the Majma˓ al-taqrib ("the rapprochement association"), with the idea of establishing an international league of Sunnis and Shi˓as who would be united as Muslims in the face of perceived opposition from the non-Muslim world at large.

With this goal in mind, Khamene˒i has taken steps to reform a Shi˓ite practice frequently denounced by Sunnis: the ritual of zanjiri-matam, in which mourners employ knives, razors, and chains in acts of self-flagellation to honor Husayn and the Karbala martyrs. In the 1994 Muharram season Khamene˒i issued a fatwa forbidding acts of matam performed in public involving the use of weapons to shed one's own blood. Such attempts to curb "bloody" matam have met at most with very limited success. Even before Khamene˒i's fatwa, in the 1980s an attempt to forbid Muharram self-flagellation had been made by Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, "spiritual mentor" of the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah. But Hezbollah Shi˓as in Beirut disregarded Fadlallah's prohibition. And in various localities in India and Pakistan, Shi˓a matami (lamentation) associations continue to sponsor public matam-performances in which many members engage in self-flagellation. When interviewed, these mourners explained their reasons for persisting in this ritual: the wish to honor Husayn and earn religious merit, as well as the desire to assert Shi˓ite communal identity in the presence of neighboring faith communities, whether Hindu, Buddhist, or Sunni Muslim. The Iranian government's program of imposing uniformity worldwide in Shi˓ite ritual practice is by no means complete.

One of the most progressive Imami thinkers of the present day is ˓Abd al-Karim Sorush (b. 1945). He offers a postpositivist assessment of modernity's challenge to revealed religion. While religion itself is divine in origin, Sorush argues, all human knowledge of religion is limited, indeterminate, and necessarily subject to change. No interpretation of Qur˒anic scripture can ever be definitive. According to Sorush, every scriptural interpretation, no matter how authoritative the source, is fallible and can offer only an approximation of divine truth. Such indeterminacy should not be viewed with alarm. Rather, this condition is intended by God so as to encourage humans to engage in the ongoing process of ijtihad, whereby they exercise the divine gifts of intellect and independent judgment. Because of the challenge to traditional clerical authority implied by such arguments, Sorush has aroused considerable hostility among members of the governing hierarchy in Iran's Islamic Republic.

See alsoTaqiyya ; Usuliyya .


Arjomand, Said Amir. The Shadow of God and the HiddenImam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Azari, Farah, ed. Women of Iran: The Conflict with Fundamentalist Islam. London: Ithaca Press, 1983.

Halm, Heinz. Shi˓a Islam: From Religion to Revolution. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1997.

Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shi˓i Islam. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.

Pinault, David. Horse of Karbala: Muslim Devotional Life inIndia. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

David Pinault