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3. The Twelvers

The Twelver Shī‘a, or Ithna-‘asharīya, are numerically the largest of the Shī‘ī sects, and exhibit most of the doctrines which became classical with the Shī‘a.

Theologically, they are Mu‘tazilī rationalists, believing that the Qur’ān is created, and that since God is essentially good, He cannot do evil. He has created man with free will in order to know Him, and desires man's welfare. It follows that He would not leave man without guidance; thus the books of the prophets have been sent down. Even so, as the sects of Islam attest, confusion arises, so it follows that God has given man in addition to the Prophet an infallible guide in religious matters. This guide is the Imām. It is also clear then that the selection of the Imāms is a matter which could not be left to human error; they were Divinely appointed from birth. The true Imāms are the direct line of ‘Alī through al-Ḥusayn. A younger brother of the Zayd ibn ‘Alī claimed by the Zaydīs is their fifth Imām, since Zayd was a concubine's son.

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In common with earlier, now extinct Shī‘ī sects, they believe in the doctrines of occultation (ghayba) and return (raj‘a). The twelfth of the line of Imāms did not die, as his enemies assert, but like the Qur’ānic Jesus, he was taken by God from human sight, and is in occultation. He will return to earth as the Mahdī, the awaited messianic figure who (according to certain ḥadīths questioned by many Sunnī scholars) will bring the triumph of religion and herald the last judgment.

They hold that ‘Alī was announced by Muhammad as his successor and plenipotentiary (waṡī), but that Abū Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthmān deliberately deprived him of his rights. Repeatedly sinful men defrauded the Imāms of the "holy family," who foresaw and accepted their glorious but tragic destiny as the repositories of truth despised.

In law, the Twelvers do not accept ḥadīths transmitted by enemies of the Imāms such as ‘A’isha, and make use also of the saying of the Imāms. In addition to the Shī‘ī regulations for the prayer call and ablutions, they admit the doctrine of taqīya or katmān, the propriety or even necessity of hiding one's true beliefs among non-Shī‘īs--a legacy from times when they were a persecuted minority--and they retain the peculiar institution of legal temporary marriage between a free man and woman for mut‘a (pleasure).

Historically, they have been hostile on the whole to Ṡūfism, but they believe in the intercession of the members of the "holy family" and make pilgrimages to their tombs, especially those of the Imāms.

The Twelvers were encouraged in Persia under the Mongols, since they had no objection to the destruction of the Sunnī Caliphate, and in A.D. 1502 Twelverism was

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made the state religion of Persia under the Ṡafavī Shahs. It has become an element in Persian nationalism. Outside Persia, there are large Shī‘ī communities among the Arabs of Iraq and Southern Lebanon and in India.

The following selection is from a creed of Ḥasan ibn Yūsuf, ‘Allāma al-Ḥillī (died A.H. 726/A.D. 1326), an eminent Twelver theologian who flourished under the Mongols in Iraq.


1. Our doctors all agree in considering (obligatory) knowledge of God . . . and what is proper for Him and impossible for Him and Prophecy and the Imāmate and the Return.

72. The Most High is a Speaker (mutakallim) by the agreement of all. By speech (kalām) is intended letters and sounds which are audible and orderly. The meaning of his being a Speaker is that He brings Speech into existence in some sort of body (jism). And the explanation of the Ash‘arīya is contrary to reason.

76. . . . The Ash‘arīya say that God's speech inheres in the (Divine) essence. Those who say that it is letters and sounds have differed among themselves. The Ḥanbalīs and Karrāmīya say it inheres in His essence. . . . The Mu‘tazila and the Imāmīya say (and this is reality) that it is inherent in something else, not in his essence (like the burning bush of Moses). The meaning of His being a Speaker is that He makes Speech, not that He is one in whom Speech inheres. . . .

79. . . . As to the priority or origin of His Speech, the Ash'arīya have said the idea was prior, and the Ḥanbalīs said that the letters were prior. The Mu‘tazila said that Speech was an originated thing, and that is the reality, for several reasons. . . .

81. . . . The Most High is veracious, for a lie is necessarily evil, and God is far removed from evil, because it is impossible for Him to have any imperfections.

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100. Ocular vision of the Most High is impossible, because everything which can be seen possesses direction. Then He would be a body, and that is impossible. And there is the word of the Most High to Moses: "Thou shalt never see Me" (7:139) . . . Yet on the Day of Resurrection perfect knowledge will become necessary (though without ocular vision).

118. We are free agents (bi-al-ikhtiyār), and reason requires this . . . otherwise our responsibility for a thing would be impossible, and then there would be no sin; and because of the evil in His creating an act in us and punishing us for it, and because of tradition.

123. (Evil is impossible for Him) because He has what deters Him from it; knowledge of evil; and He has no motive, for the motive would be either the need (or the wisdom) of evil, both of which are excluded.

125. . . . The will to do evil is impossible for Him, for that will is evil.

144. Kindness (luṭf) is incumbent on the Most High. . . . Luṭf is that which brings the creature near to obedience and keeps him far from disobedience. . . . For whenever He who wills an act of another (as when God wills that man perform the Law) knows that he cannot do it without the aid of an act which the Willer can perform without any trouble, then if He does not perform it He would contradict His own aim (for God has an aim, contrary to the Ash‘arīya), and reason pronounces that evil. And God is far above that.

176. . . . Men have disagreed on whether the Imāmate is incumbent or not . . . the Imāmīya (Shī‘a) say it is incumbent on God by reason; the proof is that it is kindness, and all kindness is incumbent on God. . . . That is the major premise; the minor premise is that it brings men to obedience. Whoever has known dark experiences and examined political principles knows that whenever men have a chief and a guide whom they obey, who restrains the oppressor from his oppression . . . and leads men to rational principles and religious duties and restrains them from corruption . . . then they will,

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because of this, draw near to soundness and depart from corruptness . . . this idea is realized by the Imāmate. . . . 6


These selections on the imāmate are from the creed of Ibn Babūya al-Sadūq, one of the greatest early Twelver doctors, who collected traditions and elaborated the doctrine in the Buwayhī period. He died in A.D. 381/A.H. 991.


35. Our belief concerning the number of the prophets is that there have been one hundred and twenty-four thousand prophets and a like number of plenipotentiaries (awṡīyā’). Each prophet had a plenipotentiary to whom he gave instructions by the command of God. And concerning them we believe that they brought the truth from God and their word is the word of God, their command God's command, and obedience to them obedience to God. . . .

The leaders of the prophets are five (on whom all depends): Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Muhammad is their leader . . . he confirmed the (other) apostles.

It is necessary to believe that God did not create anything more excellent than Muhammad and the Imāms. . . . After His prophet, the proofs of God for the people are the Twelve Imāms. . . .

We believe that the Proof of Allah in His earth and His viceregent (khalīfa) among His slaves in this age of ours is the Upholder (al-Qā’im) (of the laws of God), the Expected One, Muhammad ibn al-Ḥasan al-‘Askarī (i.e., the Twelfth Imām). He it is concerning whose name and descent the Prophet was informed by God, and he it is who WILL FILL THE EARTH WITH JUSTICE AND EQUITY JUST AS IT IS NOW FULL OF OPPRESSION AND WRONG. He it is whom God will make victorious over the whole world until from every place the call to prayer is heard and religion will belong entirely to God, exalted be He. He is the rightly guided Mahdī about whom the prophet gave information that when he appears,

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[paragraph continues] Jesus, son of Mary, will descend upon the earth and pray behind him. We believe there can be no other Qā’im than him; he may live in the state of occultation (ghayba) (as long as he likes); were it the space of the existence of this world, there would be no Qā’im other than him.

36. Our belief concerning prophets, apostles, Imāms [in the special Shī‘ī sense] and angels is that they are infallible (ma‘ṡūm); . . . and do not commit any sin, minor or major . . . he who denies infallibility to them in any matter . . . is a kāfir, an infidel.

37. Our belief concerning those who exceed the bounds of belief, the ghūlat [such as those who ascribe divinity to ‘Alī or the other imāms.--ED.] and those who believe in delegation [mufawwiḍa: the belief that after creating Muhammad and ‘Alī, God rested and delegated all the administration of His creation to their hands.--ED.], is that they are kuffār, deniers of God. They are more wicked than the Jews, the Christians, the Fire Worshippers . . . or any heretics; none have belittled God more. . . .

Our belief concerning the Prophet is that he was poisoned (by Jews) during the expedition to Khaybar. The poison continued to be noxious and (shortening his life) until he died of its effects.

I. Imām: And the Prince of Believers (‘Alī), on whom be peace, was murdered by . . . Ibn Muljam al-Murādī, may God curse him, and was buried in Ghārī.

II. Imām: Ḥasan ibn ‘Alī, on whom be peace, was poisoned by his wife Ja‘da bint Ash’ath of Kinda, may God curse (her and her father).

III. Imām: Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī was slain at Karbala. His murderer was Sinān ibn-Anas al-Nakhā‘ī, may God curse him and his father.

IV. Imām: ‘Alī ibn Ḥusayn, the Sayyid Zayn al-‘Abidīn, was poisoned by al-Walīd ibn ‘Abd al-Mālik, God curse him.

V. Imām: Muhammad Bāqir ibn ‘Alī was poisoned by Ibrahīm ibn al-Walīd, God curse him.

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VI. Imām: Ja‘far al-Sāḍiq was poisoned by Abū Ja‘far al-Manṡūr al-Dawanīqī, may God curse him.

VII. Imām: Mūsa al-Kāzim ibn Ja‘far was poisoned by Harūn al-Rashīd, may God curse him.

VIII. Imām: ‘Alī al-Riḍā ibn Mūsa was poisoned by Ma’mūn ibn Harūn al-Rashīd, may God curse him.

IX. Imām: Abū Ja‘far Muhammad al-Tāqī ibn ‘Alī was poisoned by al-Mu‘tasim, may God curse him.

X. Imām: ‘Alī al-Naqī ibn Muhammad was poisoned by Mutawakkil, may God curse him.

XI. Imām: Ḥasan al-‘Askarī was poisoned by al-Mu‘tamid, may God curse him. . . . And verily the Prophets and Imāms, on whom be peace, had informed (people) that they would be murdered. He who says that they were not has given them the lie and has imputed falsehood to God the Mighty and Glorious.

39. Our belief concerning taqīya (permissible dissimulation of one's true beliefs) is that it is obligatory, and he who forsakes it is in the same position as he who forsakes prayer. . . . Now until the time when the Imām al-Qā’im appears, taqīya is obligatory and it is not permissible to dispense with it. He who does . . . has verily gone out of the religion of God. And God has described the showing of friendship to unbelievers as being (possible only) in the state of taqīya.

And the Imām Ja‘far said, "Mix with enemies openly but oppose them inwardly, so long as the authority is a matter of question." He also said, "Diplomacy (al-ri’ā’) with a true believer is a form of polytheism, but with a (hypocrite) in his own house, it is worship." And he said "He who prays with hypocrites (i.e., Sunnīs), standing in the first row, it is as though he prayed with the Prophet standing in the first row." And he said, "Visit their sick and attend their funerals and pray in their mosques."

40. Our belief concerning the (ancestors of the Prophet, contrary to the Sunnīs) is that they were Muslims from Adam down to ‘Abdallah, father of the Prophet. . . .

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41. Our belief concerning the ‘Alawīya (descendants of ‘Alī) is that they are the progeny of the Messenger of God and devotion to them is obligatory (in) requital of his apostleship. . . 7


231:6 Al-Bābu-l-Hādī ‘Ashar, trans. by W. E. Miller (London, 1958).

231:7 A. A. A. Fyzec, ed. and trans., A Shi‘ite Creed (London, 1942).

Next: 4. The Seveners