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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 (Isma'h) as well as being part of the Ahl al-Bayt, the family of Muḥammad. 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 Shiite point of view, however, 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 'flawless'.


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 amongs 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 Caliph.

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.

Number Name
Importance Birthplace (present day country) Place of death and burial
1 ‘Alī
علي بن أبي طالب
Abu al-Hassan
أبو الحسن
Amir al-Mu'minin
(Commander of the Faithful)
Birinci Ali
600–661 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. Buried at the Imam in Najaf, Iraq.
2 Hassan ibn 'Alī
الحسن بن علي
Abu Muḥammad
أبو محمد
İkinci Ali----3–50
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. Medina, Saudi Arabia Buried in Jannat al-Baqi.
3 Hussayn ibn 'Alī
الحسین بن علي
Abu Abdillah
أبو عبد الله
Sayed al-Shuhada
Ūçüncü Ali----4–61
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. Medina, Saudi Arabia----Dördüncü Ali----

38---- Beşinci Ali

Medina, Saudi Arabia
(the Trustworthy)----

Altıncı Ali

Medina, Saudi Arabia al-Kazim----

Yedinci Ali He established the network of agents who collected khums in the Shia community of the Middle East and the Greater Khorasan.

Medina, Saudi Arabia----Sekizinci Ali----

Dokuzuncu Ali---- Onuncu Ali Buried in the Al Askari Mosque in Samarra.

11 Hassan ibn ‘Alī
الحسن بن علي
Abu Muḥammad
أبو محمد

Onbirinci Ali

Medina, Saudi Arabia
12 Muḥammad ibn al-Hassan
محمد بن الحسن
Abu al-Qasim
أبو القاسم
al-Mahdi, Hidden Imam, al-Hujjah----Onikinci Ali----


Samarra, Iraq 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. ‘Alī (632–661)
  2. Hussayn ibn 'Alī (669–680)
  3. ‘Alī (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.


See also

  • Imam
  • Ismah
  • Succession to Muhammad


Further reading


External links