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Imāmah (Arabic: إمامة‎) is the Shī‘ah doctrine of religious, spiritual and political leadership of the Ummah. The Shī‘ah believe that the A'immah ("Imams") are the true Caliphs or rightful successors of Muḥammad, and Twelver and Ismā‘īlī Shī‘ah further that Imams are possessed of supernatural knowledge, authority, and infallibility (‘Iṣmah) as well as being part of the Ahl al-Bayt, the family of Muḥammad.[1] Both beliefs distinguish the Shī‘ah from Sunnis.


The word imam denotes the one who stands or walks in front. He is the guide. It is commonly used to mean the person who 'guides' the course of prayer in the mosque; in many cases it means the head of a school. From the Shi'i point of view, this is merely a metaphorical usage of the word. Properly and strictly speaking, the term is applicable only to those members of the House of the Prophet (ahl al-bayt) designated as the infallible.


Islam holds that Muḥammad was the last Prophet of God. The Shī‘ah believe that humanity is in need of sustained spiritual guidance, provided by the "Imām of the Time", who is the Guardian and guide of all Muslims politically and spiritually. They hold that Muḥammad explicitly designated his cousin and son-in-law ‘Alī as his Khalīfah "Successor". Thus the Shī‘ah believe Muḥammad designated ‘Alī and his direct descendants to serve as the Imāms (leaders) of the Muslim community. This assertion implies that, while the cycle of Nubuwwah (Prophethood) ended with Muḥammad, the cycle of Imāmah began with ‘Alī and continues amongst his direct descendants. For Shī‘ah Muslims, an Imām is a leader whose guidance extends to spiritual and temporal matters. In other words, an Imām can sanction new laws because he has direct contact with God. This direct contact makes an Imām infallible and invests in him the prerogative of interpreting the Qur'an, thereby gradually revealing its esoteric meaning. Sunnis reject this doctrine of infallibility.

The Shī‘ah 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.

As evidence of ‘Alī's Imamate, Muḥammad declared (as is verified by both Sunni and Shī‘ah sources) at Ghadir Khumm,

To whomsoever I am Mawla, ‘Alī is his Mawla"

Following the same principle is the Shī‘ah practice that asserts that ‘Alī is the first Imām to teach the correct interpretation of Islam, the successor of Muḥammad. The definition of Mawla in the context of the above narration is disputed among Sunnis and the Shī‘ah.


Within Shi'ism, there are various sects that differ over the number of Imams, and the path of their succession; the majority sect among these are the Twelvers, then the Ismailis, and then the smallest Zaidi sect. There are major doctrinal differences between the Twelvers, and the Ismailis. After the claimed occultation of the twelfth Imam, for the twelvers there was a long period of waiting for new authority until the Mahdi arrives, and in his absence was left a vacuum of leadership, dealt with by traditional twelvers with Quietism. However an alternative theory developed to fill the need, called Wilayat al-Faqih or the absolute guardianship of the jurists, popularised by Ayatollah Khomeini. According to it, those most knowledgeable about Islamic law (Shari'ah) should assume a political role in society, governing the Wilayah in which the Shī‘ah live. This led to the 1979 Iranian Revolution.


Twelver view

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 verse 17,19–20 and sunni hadeeth:Sahih Muslim, Hadith number 4478, English translation by Abdul Hamid Siddiqui.[2]

Number Name
Importance Birthplace (present day country) Place of death and burial
1 ‘Alī ibn Abu Talib
علي بن أبي طالب
Abu al-Hassan
أبو الحسن
Amir al-Mu'minin
(Commander of the Faithful)[5]
Birinci Ali[6]
The first Imam and the rightful successor of the Prophet of all Shia; however, the Sunnis acknowledge him as the fourth Caliph as well. He holds a high position in almost all Sufi Muslim orders (Turuq); the members of these orders trace their lineage to Muḥammad through him.[5] Mecca, Saudi Arabia[5] Assassinated by Abd-al-Rahman ibn Muljam, a Kharijite in Kufa, who slashed him with a poisoned sword.[5][8] Buried at the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, Iraq.
2 Hassan ibn ‘Alī
الحسن بن علي
Abu Muḥammad
أبو محمد
İkinci Ali[6]
He was the eldest surviving grandson of Muḥammad through Muḥammad's daughter, Fatimah Zahra. Hasan succeeded his father as the caliph in Kufa, and on the basis of peace treaty with Muawiya I, he relinquished control of Iraq following a reign of seven months.[11] Medina, Saudi Arabia[9] Poisoned by his wife in Medina, Saudi Arabia on the orders of the Caliph Muawiya.[12] Buried in Jannat al-Baqi.
3 Husayn ibn ‘Alī
الحسین بن علي
Abu Abdillah
أبو عبد الله
Sayed al-Shuhada
Ūçüncü Ali[6]
He was a grandson of Muḥammad. Husayn opposed the validity of Caliph Yazid I. As a result, he and his family were later killed in the Battle of Karbala by Yazid's forces. After this incident, the commemoration of Husayn ibn Ali has become a central ritual in Shia identity.[13][15] Medina, Saudi Arabia[13] Killed and beheaded at the Battle of Karbala.[13] Buried at the Imam Husayn Shrine in Karbala, Iraq.
4 ‘Alī ibn al-Hussein
علي بن الحسین
Abu Muḥammad
أبو محمد
al-Sajjad, Zain al-Abedin


Dördüncü Ali[6]
658-9[16] – 712[17]
Author of prayers in Sahifa al-Sajjadiyya, which is known as "The Psalm of the Household of the Prophet." [17] Medina, Saudi Arabia[16] He was poisoned on the order of Caliph al-Walid I in Medina, Saudi Arabia.[17] Buried in Jannat al-Baqi.
5 Muḥammad ibn ‘Alī
محمد بن علي
Abu Ja'far
أبو جعفر
al-Baqir al-Ulum

(splitting open knowledge) [18]

Beşinci Ali[6]
Sunni and Shia sources both describe him as one of the early and most eminent legal scholars, teaching many students during his tenure.[18][19] Medina, Saudi Arabia[18] He was poisoned by Ibrahim ibn Walid ibn 'Abdallah in Medina, Saudi Arabia on the order of Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik.[17] Buried in Jannat al-Baqi.
6 Ja'far ibn Muḥammad
جعفر بن محمد
Abu Abdillah
أبو عبد الله

(the Trustworthy)

Altıncı Ali[6]
83–148 [20]
Established the Ja'fari jurisprudence and developed the Theology of Shia. He instructed many scholars in different fields, including Abu Hanifah and Malik ibn Anas in fiqh, Wasil ibn Ata and Hisham ibn Hakam in Islamic theology, and Geber in science and alchemy.[20][21][22] Medina, Saudi Arabia[20] He was poisoned in Medina, Saudi Arabia on the order of Caliph Al-Mansur.[20] Buried in Jannat al-Baqi.
7 Musa ibn Ja'far
موسی بن جعفر
Abu al-Hassan I
أبو الحسن الأول [23]
Yedinci Ali[6]
Leader of the Shia community during the schism of Ismaili and other branches after the death of the former Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq.[25] He established the network of agents who collected khums in the Shia community of the Middle East and the Greater Khorasan.[26] Medina, Saudi Arabia[24] Imprisoned and poisoned in Baghdad, Iraq on the order of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. Buried in the Kazimayn shrine in Baghdad.[24]
8 ‘Alī ibn Musa
علي بن موسی
Abu al-Hassan II<brأبو الحسن الثاني[23]
al-Rida, Reza[27]
Sekizinci Ali[6]
Made crown-prince by Caliph Al-Ma'mun, and famous for his discussions with both Muslim and non-Muslim religious scholars.[27] Medina, Saudi Arabia[27] He was poisoned near Sanabad village near Tous town (in modern Mashhad-al-Reza city of Iran which was established because of his burial there). His poisoning was on the order of Caliph Al-Ma'mun. He was buried in the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad.[27]
9 Muḥammad ibn ‘Alī
محمد بن علي
Abu Ja'far
أبو جعفر
al-Taqi, al-Jawad[28]
Dokuzuncu Ali[6]
Famous for his generosity and piety in the face of persecution by the Abbasid caliphate. Medina, Saudi Arabia[28] Poisoned by his wife, Al-Ma'mun's daughter, in Baghdad, Iraq on the order of Caliph Al-Mu'tasim. Buried in the Kazmain shrine in Baghdad.[28]
10 ‘Alī ibn Muḥammad
علي بن محمد
Abu al-Hassan III
أبو الحسن الثالث[29]
al-Hadi, al-Naqi[29]
Onuncu Ali[6]
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.[29] Surayya, a village near Medina, Saudi Arabia[29] He was poisoned in Samarra, Iraq on the order of Caliph Al-Mu'tazz.[30] Buried in the Al Askari Mosque in Samarra.
11 Hassan ibn ‘Alī
الحسن بن علي
Abu Muḥammad
أبو محمد
Onbirinci Ali[6]
For most of his life, the Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mu'tamid, placed restrictions on him after the death of his father. Repression of the Shi'ite population was particularly high at the time due to their large size and growing power.[32] Medina, Saudi Arabia[31] He was poisoned on the order of Caliph Al-Mu'tamid in Samarra, Iraq. Buried in Al Askari Mosque in Samarra.[33]
12 Muḥammad ibn al-Hassan
محمد بن الحسن
Abu al-Qasim
أبو القاسم
al-Mahdi, Hidden Imam, al-Hujjah [34]
Onikinci Ali[6]
He is the current Imam and the promised Mahdi, a messianic figure who will return with Jesus. He will reestablish the rightful governance of Islam and replete the earth with justice and peace.[36] Samarra, Iraq[35] He has been living in the Occultation since 872, and will continue as long as God wills it.[35]

Ismaili view

The Ismailis differ from the Twelvers in that, they accept Ismail bin Jafar, elder brother of Musa al-Kazim, as the rightful Imam [37] after his father Jafar al-Sadiq. He died, however, before his father. They therefore accept Muḥammad bin Ismail bin Jafar as their 7th Imam. Thus their line of Imams is as follows (note: figures in brackets indicate the years during which they were Imams):

  1. Ali ibn Abi Talib (632–661)
  2. Husayn ibn Ali (669–680)
  3. Ali ibn Husayn (Zayn al-Abidin) (680–713)
  4. Muhammad al-Baqir (713–733)
  5. Jafar al-Sadiq (733–765)
  6. Ismail bin Jafar
  7. Muhammad ibn Ismail (765-?)

The Ismaili line of Imams continues undivided till Mustansir Billah (d. 1094), after which it divides into the Nizari and Mustali sects.

The Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam of the Nizari Ismaili Muslims - which remains the only Shia community today led by a present and living (hadir wa mawjud) Imam.

Zaidī view

See Zaidiyyah, Zaidiyya, Zaidism or Zaydism (Arabic: الزيدية az-zaydiyya, adjective form Zaidi or Zaydi) is a Shī‘ah maðhab (sect, school) named after the Imām Zayd ibn ˤAlī. 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.


  1. Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza (2006), The Shia revival : how conflicts within Islam will shape the future (1st ed.), New York: Norton, p. 38, ISBN 0393062112 
  2. Imam Muslim (translated by Aftab Shahryar) (2004). Sahih Muslim Abridged. Islamic Book Service. ISBN 81-7231-592-9. 
  3. The Imam's Arabic titles are used by the majority of Twelver Shī‘ah who use Arabic as a liturgical language, including the Usooli, Akhbari, Shaykhi, and to a lesser extent Alawi. Turkish titles are generally used by Alevi, a fringe Twelver group, who make up around 10% of the world Shī‘ah population. The titles for each Imam literally translate as "First ‘Alī", "Second ‘Alī", and so forth. Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. Gale Group. 2004. ISBN 9780028657691. 
  4. The abbreviation CE refers to the Common Era solar calendar, while AH refers to the Islamic Hijri lunar calendar.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. "Ali". Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2007-10-12. 
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. Gale Group. 2004. ISBN 9780028657691. 
  7. Tabatabae (1979), pp.190-192
  8. Tabatabae (1979), p.192
  9. 9.0 9.1 "Hasan". Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2007-11-08. 
  10. Tabatabae (1979), pp.194-195
  11. Madelung, Wilferd. "Hasan ibn Ali". Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved 2008-03-23. 
  12. Tabatabae (1979), p.195
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 "al-Husayn". Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2007-11-08. 
  14. Tabatabae (1979), pp.196-199
  15. Calmard, Jean. "Husayn ibn Ali". Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved 2008-03-23. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 Madelung, Wilferd. "'ALÈ B. AL-HUOSAYN". Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved 2007-11-08. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 Tabatabae (1979), p.202
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 18.4 Madelung, Wilferd. "AL-BAQER, ABU JAFAR MOHAMMAD". Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved 2007-11-08. 
  19. Tabatabae (1979), p.203
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 20.4 20.5 Tabatabae (1979), p.203-204
  21. Reseach Committee of Strasburg University, Imam Jafar Ibn Muhammad As-Sadiq A.S. The Great Muslim Scientist and Philosopher, translated by Kaukab Ali Mirza, 2000. Willowdale Ont. ISBN 0969949014.
  22. "Wasil ibn Ata". Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2007-11-08. 
  23. 23.0 23.1 Madelung, Wilferd. "'ALÈ AL-HAÚDÈ". Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved 2007-11-09. 
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 24.3 24.4 Tabatabae (1979), p.205
  25. Tabatabae (1979) p. 78
  26. Sachedina (1988), pp.53-54
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 27.3 27.4 27.5 Tabatabae (1979), pp.205-207
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 28.3 28.4 Tabatabae (1979), p. 207
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 29.4 29.5 Madelung, Wilferd. "'ALÈ AL-HAÚDÈ". Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved 2007-11-08. 
  30. Tabatabae (1979), pp.208-209
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 31.3 Halm, H. "'ASKARÈ". Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved 2007-11-08. 
  32. Tabatabae (1979) pp. 209-210
  33. Tabatabae (1979), pp.209-210
  34. "Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Hujjah". Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2007-11-08. 
  35. 35.0 35.1 35.2 35.3 Tabatabae (1979), pp.210-211
  36. Tabatabae (1979), pp. 211-214
  37. Rise of The Fatimids, by W.Ivanow. Page 81, 275

See also


  • Corbin, Henry (1993). History of Islamic Philosophy, translated by Liadain Sherrard and Philip Sherrard. Kegan Paul International in association with Islamic Publications for The Institute of Ismaili Studies. ISBN 0710304161. 
  • Tabatabaei, Sayyid Mohammad Hosayn; Seyyed Hossein Nasr (translator) (1979). Shi'ite Islam. Suny press. ISBN 0-87395-272-3. 
  • Motahhari, Morteza (1980). Master and Mastership. Islamic Seminary Publications. ISBN B0006E4J0C. 

Further reading

  • Rizvi, Sa'id Akhtar (1956). Imamate: The Vicegerency of the Prophet. 


  • Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.. 
  • Encyclopædia Iranica. Center for Iranian Studies, Columbia University. ISBN 1568590504. 
  • Martin, Richard C.. Encyclopaedia of Islam and the Muslim world; vol.1. MacMillan. ISBN 0028656040. 
  • Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. Gale Group. 2004. ISBN 9780028657691. 
  • Corbin, Henry (1993 (original French 1964)). History of Islamic Philosophy, Translated by Liadain Sherrard, Philip Sherrard. London; Kegan Paul International in association with Islamic Publications for The Institute of Ismaili Studies. ISBN 0710304161. 
  • Momen, Moojan (1985). TAn Introduction to Shi`i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelve. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300035314. 
  • Sachedina, Abdulaziz Abdulhussein (1988). The Just Ruler (al-sultān Al-ʻādil) in Shīʻite Islam: The Comprehensive Authority of the Jurist in Imamite Jurisprudence. Oxford University Press US. ISBN 0195119150. 
  • Tabatabae, Sayyid Mohammad Hosayn; Seyyed Hossein Nasr (translator) (1979). Shi'ite Islam. SUNY press. ISBN 0-87395-272-3. 

External links