Shia Islam: Twelve Imams /21

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Shīʿa Islam: History and Doctrines / Ayatullāh Jaʿfar Subḥānī

Twelve Imams
Adherents of Twelver Shi’ism, the largest branch of Shi’ism, are commonly referred to as Twelvers, derived from their belief in twelve divinely-ordained leaders, known as the Twelve Imams. There are traditions narrated from the Prophet about them. Some of these are as follows:
Bukhārī narrates from Jābir b. Samra: ‘I heard the Prophet say that there will be twelve leaders (amīr). Then he said something I could not hear. I asked my father and he said all of them are from Quraysh.’
Muslim has quoted Jābir as saying: ‘I went to see the Prophet with my father. I heard him saying that this matter will until there pass twelve caliphs amongst them. Then I could not hear some words. I asked my father and he said: they are all from Quraysh.’
Muslim also quotes him saying: ‘I heard the Prophet say that the affair of the people will continue so long as twelve men will rule them. Then the Prophet said something which I could not hear. I asked my father who quoted the Prophet as saying that all are from Quraysh.’
Muslim says: ‘I heard the Prophet say the affair of Islam will remain strong until twelve caliphs have ruled… I didn’t hear what he said. I asked my father and he said all will be from Quraysh.’
Muslim says: ‘I went with my father to hear the Prophet speak. He said this religion will remain mighty and strong until twelve caliphs have ruled… and then he said something I could not hear above the people’s clamour. I asked my father and he said all will be from Quraysh.’
Muslim says: one Friday someone was stoned to death, the Prophet said: ‘This religion will be in force until the Judgment Day. Twelve caliphs will rule and all of them will be from Quraysh.’
All these aḥādīth have won the approval of Sunnī scholars. Now we refer to traditions from other books:
Abū Dāwūd narrates from Jābir b. Samra that the Prophet said: ‘I heard the Messenger of God say that this religion will be mighty as long as twelve caliphs rule. Then, people shouted God is great. Then the Prophet said something which I could not hear. I asked my father to tell me what he said. My father said all of them are from Banū Hāshim.
Tirmidhī narrates from Jābir: ‘The Messenger of God said twelve leaders will come after him. Then he said something which I could not hear. I asked someone close to me and he said all of them are from Quraysh.’
Tirmidhī says this ḥadīth, quoted from Jābir, is authentic.
Aḥmad records in his Musnad: ‘The tradition: “I heard the Prophet saying that twelve caliphs will rule this community.” is narrated in thirty-four different variants.’
Hakīm has also recounted the tradition in his Mustadrak from ʿAwn b. Juḥayfa from his father. He says he was in the company of his uncle when they heard the Prophet say: ‘My community will remain righteous until as twelve caliphs rule.’ Then the Prophet said something He could not hear. He asked his uncle what the Prophet said and he said: ‘They are all from Quraysh.’
He also narrates from Jābir b. Samra: ‘I heard the Prophet say: @My community will be victorious as long as twelve caliphs rule.” Then he said something he could not hear. I asked my father what the Prophet had said. He told me: “All of them will be from the Quraysh.”’
Ibn Ḥajar narrates in Sawāʿiq from Jābir b. Samara that the Prophet said: ‘I will be succeeded by twelve leaders who will all be from Quraysh.’
Aḥmad narrates from Masrūq that he was with ʿAbd Allāh b. Masʿūd, who was teaching him the Qur’an. Someone asked him: ‘Did you ask the Prophet how many caliphs will rule this community?’ ʿAbd Allāh b. Masʿūd replied: ‘Since I arrived in Iraq, nobody has asked me this question. Of course I asked him! (The prophet) said: ‘Twelve caliphs like the chieftains of Israel.’
The same tradition is narrated by Khaṭīb Baghdādī in his Tarīkh al-Baghdād.
Hindī, Ṭabarānī and Hakīm have quoted the same ḥadīth in Kanz al-ʿUmmāl, Muʿjam al-Kabīr and Mustadrak respectively.
In Tārīkh al-Khulafāʾ, Suyūṭī quotes Ibn Masʿūd as saying that the Prophet had said that twelve successors ‘like the Chieftans of Israel’ will rule the community.
They were all examples of quotes about the rule of the Twelve Imams. Now, the point is to explore the attributes of the twelve caliphs whose rule has been promised in different aḥādīth quoting the Prophet.
Specifications of the caliphs could be summarized in the following eight points:
Dignity of Islam
Dignity of the religion
Survival of the religion
Righteousness of the community
Victory of the community
These honours are tied to the rule of twelve leaders from Quraysh.
These signs are tied to the sovereignty of twelve caliphs from Quraysh
They are the same number as the Chieftains of the Israelites.
These signs and advantages are among the miracles of the Prophet particularly when other authentic traditions are considered alongside them. For example:
The tradition of Thaqalayn (A famous tradition narrated by more than 20 companions. It has been recorded in Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, Mustadrak al-Ḥākim and Musnad Aḥmad).
The tradition of Saqīfa (narrated in Mustadrak al-Ḥākim)
A tradition which names the Prophet’s Household as the source of security and guidance. (Mustadrak al-Ḥākim)
The Twelve Imams, well-known amongst Muslims, are credited with these attributes. They are the Shīʿī Imams beginning with Imam ʿAlī and ending with the Awaited Imam Mahdī. Anyone familiar with the social and political life of these the Imams will recognise them as infallible individuals with the highest degree of piety. God has preserved His religion under the care of these Imams.
If we consider these Twelve Imams as the ones referred to by these traditions we will find no contradiction. There are no other twelve caliphs beside them who have dignified Islam who this tradition could possibly refer to.
Unacceptable interpretations
One group says the twelve caliphs are the Umayyad Caliphs beginning with Yazīd b. Muʿāwiya and ending with Marwān III. This group has omitted three Caliphs from the era – Muʿāwiya, ʿAbd Allāh b. Zubayr and Marwān b. Ḥakam – in a bid to list twelve caliphs: Yazīd b. Muʿāwiya, Muʿāwiya II, ʿAbd Allāh b. Marwān, Walīd b. ʿAbd al-Malik, Sulaymān b. ʿAbd al-Malik, ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, Yazīd b. ʿAbd al-Malik, Hishām b. ʿAbd al-Malik, Walīd b. Yazīd, Yazīd b. Walīd, Ibrāhīm b. Walīd and Marwān b. Muḥammad. (Fatḥ ul-Bārī)
The individuals whose names are mentioned here have a dark background of corruption, murder and plunder. However, some scholars have claimed that they enjoyed public support. It is surprising to see Ibn Ḥajar, this great scholar, confirm such interpretationswithout any research.
How does he say that they were popular without having been pure? The tradition says all twelve caliphs must have been at the peak of piety so that Islam will be glorified in the shadow of their spiritual perfections. Therefore, the yardstick is their intellectual, scientific and religious greatness and not public support for them.
If the criterion is public support how is Yazīd, who ruled only for three years, is among them? In the first year, he killed Imam Ḥusayn. In the second year of is rule, people in Mecca and Medina rose up against him. Yazīd quashed the uprising with bloodshed. In the last year in power, he bombarded the Kaʿba in a bid to defeat ʿAbd Allāh b. Zubayr.
Another group says that the twelve caliphs who are source of dignity for Islam will rule after the advent of the Mahdī. (Fatḥ al-Bārī) This interpretation is unacceptable because the Prophet has always spoken about what would happen after his own death.
Still another group says this refers to those caliphs whom the people accepted: Abū Bakr, ʿUmar, ʿUthmān, ʿAlī, Muʿāwiya, Yazīd b. Muʿāwiya, Walīd, Sulaymān, Yazīd II, Hishām and Walīd b. Yazīd b. ʿAbd al-Malik. It is not clear why ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz is not listed between Sulaymān and Yazīd.
In this interpretation, Yazīd b. Muʿāwiya is considered a source of dignity for Islam and his crimes are simply ignored. Walīd b. Yazdi was an enemy of Qur’an. The point is that the twelve caliphs who were competent to succeed the Prophet are nobody else but the Twelve Imams. Others lack the required qualifications. Muḥammad Taqī al-Hakīm has an interesting view on this issue:
The number of these leaders and caliphs should not exceed twelve and they are all from Quraysh.
If a parallel drawn between the twelve caliphs and the twelve Chieftains of Israel is that Moses chose his delegates himself, and so did the Prophet with regards to his successors; ‘And Allāh had already taken a covenant from the Children of Israel, and We delegated from among them twelve leaders.’ (Q5:12)
These narrations openly link the survival and dignity of Islam to the twelve caliphs until Judgment Day. Succession to the Prophet will continue until only two people will be remaining on Earth.
Therefore, the signs promised for the twelve caliphs only match the Twelve Imams. Moreover, the tradition of Thaqalayn confirms this. The important point is that the Imamate and Caliphate has been granted to these twelve persons due to their qualifications; it is not political power that has been seized by force. A true caliph is a divinely-appointed leader and such only people chosen by God are worthy of such an appointment; popularity does not have any impact on their position. An infallible Imam is always to be accepted, regardless of people’s view.
Another important point is that the traditions are narrated by those who lived at a time the era of these Twelve Caliphs had not yet ended. Now, we will h1ave a brief introduction to the Shīʿa Imams:
Imam ʿAlī and his battles against three groups of opponents
ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib is the first infallible successor to the Prophet, who appointed him to lead Muslims on the Day of Ghadīr. After the Prophet passed away, Imam ʿAlī was to become the leader of Muslims.
Imam ʿAlī’s life can be divided into five periods:
From birth to the beginning of the Prophet’s mission
From the beginning of the Prophet’s mission to the Emigration to Medina
From the Emigration to the Prophet’s passing away
From the Prophet’s passing away to Imam ʿAlī‘s caliphate
From Imam ʿAlī‘s caliphate to his martyrdom
Now we will briefly review the five periods.
Imam ʿAlī was born in the Kaʿba, thirty years after the Year of Elephant (the failed invasion of the Mecca) and ten years before the Prophet’s mission began. ʿAlī was five when the Prophet started taking care of him (Sīra Ibn Hishām). ʿAlī spent his childhood with the Prophet and was always in his company. (Nahj al-Balāgha)
ʿAlī was the first person who announced his belief in Islam (Tārīkh Ṭabarī) and wrote down the revelations of the Prophet in Mecca for thirteen years.
The night the Prophet emigrated to Medina, ʿAlī slept in his bed as a decoy.
During this ten-year period, he participated in all the Prophet’s battles, except for Tābūk, and played an instrumental role in the victory of the Muslims over the polytheists.
The period after the Prophet but before he became Caliph lasted twenty-five years. He protested to the ruling regime as he believed that he was entitled to be the Caliph. He never shied away from protecting the teachings of Islam and looking after the needs of the Muslims.
After the murder of ʿUthmān, ʿAlī was named Caliph on consensus. Initially, he refused to accept the post, but he finally agreed upon insistence from the Emigrants and the Helpers.
During his caliphate, Imam ʿAlī fought for justice and revival of the Prophet’s tradition. Opposition to Imam ʿAlī led to three uprisings against his rule, which he would refer to as the ‘Those who broke their pledges’ (nākithīn), ‘the wrongdoers’ (qāṣiṭīn) and ‘the disobedient’ (māriqīn).
‘Those who broke their pledges’
‘Those who broke their pledges’ refers to those who broke their pledge of allegiance. This battle, known as the Battle of the Camel, broke out after Ṭalḥa and Zubayr, who had pledged allegiance to Imam ʿAlī, demanded to be named governors of Basra and Kufa but Imam ʿAlī turned down their request. In response, Ṭalḥa and Zubayr left Medina secretly for Mecca, where they established an army paid for by Umayyad wealth and went on to seize Basra. ʿAlī left Medina in order to liberate the city. Near Basra, a bloody battle broke out between the two sides, with ʿAlī ultimately claiming victory.
‘The wrongdoers’
Before Imam ʿAlī was named Caliph, Muʿāwiya had made the preparations to continue his rule in Syria. When Imam ʿAlī became Caliph, he immediately dismissed Muʿāwiya. In response, the latter assembled an army to meet ʿAlī at the Battle of Ṣiffīn. Imam ʿAlī’s forces were close to victory but Muʿāwiya appealed for arbitration. Upon insistence of his followers, Imam ʿAlī agreed to take the case to arbitration between Abū Mūsā al-Ashʿarī and ʿAmr b. al-ʿĀs – representing ʿAlī and Muʿāwiya, respectively. Imam ʿAlī had no option but to agree to arbitration because otherwise the Muslims would have faced a serious crisis. On the day the arbitrators were expected to express themselves, ʿAmr tricked Abū Mūsā into nullifying ʿAlī’s claim to the caliphate, and a group of the latter’s supporters rose up against him.
‘The disobedient’
‘The disobedient’ are those who forced Imam ʿAlī to submit to arbitration. They later regretted their actions and wanted the Imam to reject its results. However, ʿAlī was not a man to break his agreement and so they rose up against him, culminating in the Battle of Nahrawān in which ʿAlī scored a decisive victory. However, some of the survivors of this battle harboured a grudge against ʿAlī and one of them by the name of ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Muljam, assassinated him on a Ramaḍān night.
Imam ʿAlī enjoyed a high status throughout his life. The second Caliph, ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb, said: ‘Women no longer gave birth to a man like ʿAlī.’ Lebanese scholar Shabīl Shāmil describes Imam ʿAlī as: ‘The greatest of the great and a living copy of the Prophet. Neither East or West has ever seen someone like ʿAlī since.’ (Sawt al-Nahḍat al-Insāniyya) Lebanese writer George Jordac says: ‘What if the nature mobilized its power and forces to deliver someone as brave, strong, wise and knowledgeable as ʿAlī to human society in every period of time?’ (Ibid)

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