Shia (Shiite) Imam, Religious Leaders and Sects

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The distinctive dogma and institution of Shia Islam is the Imamate, which includes the idea that the successor of Muhammad be more than merely a political leader. The Imam must also be a spiritual leader, which means that he must have the ability to interpret the inner mysteries of the Quran and the shariat. In Sunni Islam an imam is the leader of congregational prayer. Among the Shia of Iran the term imam traditionally has been used only for Ali and his eleven descendants. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Whereas Sunni Muslims view the caliph as a temporal leader only and consider an imam to be a prayer leader, Shia Muslims hold a hereditary view of Muslim leadership. They believe the Prophet Muhammad designated Ali to be his successor as Imam (when uppercase, Imam refers to the Shia descendant of the House of Ali), exercising both spiritual and temporal leadership. Such an Imam must have knowledge, both in a general and a religious sense, and spiritual guidance or walayat, the ability to interpret the inner mysteries of the Quran and the sharia. Only those who have walayat (spiritual guidance) are free from error and sin and have been chosen by God through the Prophet. Each Imam in turn designated his successor — through twelve Imams — each holding the same powers. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Persian Gulf States: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

The Shia doctrine of the Imamate was not fully elaborated until the tenth century. The Imamate began with Ali, who is also accepted by Sunni Muslims as the fourth of the "rightly guided caliphs" to succeed the Prophet. Shia revere Ali as the First Imam, and his descendants, beginning with his sons Hasan and Husayn (also seen as Hosein), continue the line of the Imams. *

Shia believe that their imam are infallible leaders like a pope who disclosed the true meaning of the Qur’an and provided in guidance for daily life. Various groups of Shia recognize different numbers of “imams” . The largest sect acknowledges 12 and they are known as the Ithnasharo ("Twelver") sect. They believe the 12 imans are descendants of the Prophet and perfect teachers, who were inspired by God to provide authoritative guidance and guide the faithful from paradise.

Some say the first five imam were 1) Muhammad, 2) Ali, 3) Hussein (Husayn), 4) Hussein’s oldest son Ali Zayn al-Abidin (died 714), a mystic and poet, and 5) Muhammad al-Baqir, who developed an escoteric method of reading of the Qur’an with hidden meanings. Soem have also described a Shia trinity of Allah, Muhammad and Ali. Beginning with Ali all the Shia imam are believed to have been murdered.

Many Shias say this is not true. Muhammad is not an imam. He serves as a prophet in both Shia and Sunni ideology. The first three Imams were: 1) Hazrat Ali; 2) Hazrat Hassan, eldest son on Hazrat Ali; and 3) Hazrat Hussein, second son of Hazrat Ali Hazrat Mohammad was not an Imam, he was the Prophet . There is no trinity in Shia Islam, as there is in Christianity. There is no idea of trinity in Islam. We as muslim believe that God is one and Mohammad is his messenger. (source- Noble Quran- surah 112. Hazrat Mohammad and Hazrat Ali are not different facets of God. They are His Most Revered beings on Earth.

Websites on Shia Muslims (Shiites) Divisions in Islam ; Shi’a History and Identity ; What is Shi'a Islam? ; History of Shi'ism: From the Advent of Islam up to the End of Minor Occultation ; Shafaqna: International Shia News Agency ;, a Shia Website ; The Shiapedia, an online Shia encyclopedia ; Imam Al-Khoei Foundation (Twelver) ; Official Website of Nizari Ismaili (Ismaili) ; Official Website of Alavi Bohra (Ismaili) ; The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Ismaili) ; Four Sunni Schools of Thought

Different Shia Imam

Iman Reza shrine in Mashhad, Iran

The imamate began with Ali, who is also accepted by Sunni Muslims as the fourth of the "rightly guided caliphs" to succeed the Prophet. Shia revere Ali as the First Imam, and his descendants, beginning with his sons Hasan and Husayn, continue the line of the Imams until the twelfth. Shia point to the close lifetime association of the Prophet with Ali. When Ali was six years old, he was invited by the Prophet to live with him, and Shia believe Ali was the first person to make the declaration of faith in Islam. Ali also slept in the Prophet's bed on the night of the hijra, when it was feared that the house would be attacked by unbelievers and the Prophet stabbed to death. He fought in all the battles the Prophet did, except one, and the Prophet chose him to be the husband of one of his favorite daughters, Fatima. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Among Shia, the term imam traditionally has been used only for Ali and his eleven descendants. None of the twelve Imams, with the exception of Ali, ever ruled an Islamic government. During their lifetimes, their followers hoped that they would assume the rulership of the Islamic community, a rule that was believed to have been wrongfully usurped. Because Sunni caliphs were cognizant of this hope, Imams generally were persecuted under the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. Therefore, the Imams tried to be as unobtrusive as possible and to live as far as was reasonable from the successive capitals of the Islamic empire.*

During the eighth century, Caliph Al Mamun, son and successor to Harun ar Rashid, was favorably disposed toward the descendants of Ali and their followers. He invited Imam Reza, the Eighth Imam (765-816), to come from Medina to his court at Marv (Mary in present-day Turkmenistan). While Reza was residing at Marv, Al Mamun designated him as his successor in an apparent effort to avoid conflict among Muslims. Reza's sister, Fatima, journeyed from Medina to be with her brother but took ill and died at Qom, in present-day Iran. A major shrine developed around her tomb, and over the centuries Qom has become a major Shia pilgrimage site and theological center.*

Al Mamun took Reza on his military campaign to retake Baghdad from political rivals. On this trip, Reza died unexpectedly in Khorasan. Reza was the only Imam to reside in, or die in, what is now Iran. A major shrine, and eventually the city of Mashhad, grew up around his tomb, which is the major pilgrimage center in Iran. Several theological schools are located in Mashhad, associated with the shrine of the Eighth Imam.*

Reza's sudden death was a shock to his followers, many of whom believed that Al Mamun, out of jealousy for Reza's increasing popularity, had the Imam poisoned. Al Mamun's suspected treachery against Imam Reza and his family tended to reinforce a feeling already prevalent among his followers that Sunni rulers were untrustworthy.*

Twelfth and Last Imam, the Shia Messiah

Shia believe that the 12th and last Imam, Imam-e-Zaman (Imam al-Mahdi), a son of Hasan al-Askari, who was never seen, mysteriously disappeared in 878. After that he maintained contacts with representatives until 941 and then went silent. Shia believe he is still alive and will one day appear and usher Shia to the Judgement Day. They say he will reappear on earth at the “end of time” to rid the world of corruption, establish justice, pass judgement on wicked and raise the faithful in way not unlike Jesus and his second coming.

The Twelfth Imam is believed to have been only five years old when he became Imam in 874 on the death of his father. Because his followers feared he might be assassinated, the Twelfth Imam was hidden from public view and was seen only by a few of his closest deputies. Sunnis claim that he never existed, or that he died while still a child. Shia believe that the Twelfth Imam never died, but disappeared in about 939. Since then, the greater occultation of the Twelfth Imam has been in force, which will last until God commands the Twelfth Imam to manifest himself on earth again as the mahdi or messiah. Shia believe that during the occultation of the Twelfth Imam, he is spiritually present — some believe that he is materially present as well — and he is besought to reappear in various invocations and prayers. His name is mentioned in wedding invitations, and his birthday is one of the most jubilant of all Shia religious observances. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The Shia doctrine of the imamate was not fully elaborated until the tenth century. Other dogmas developed still later. A characteristic of Shia Islam is the continual exposition and reinterpretation of doctrine.*

Many Iranian Shia believe that when the 12th imam returns he will appear at Jamkaram Mosque near Qom, Iran. In recent years this mosque has become a center of messianic fever as the faithful come by the car and bus load to not only to seek miracles but to be on hand when Imam al-Mahdi reappears. The come in the greatest numbers on Tuesday, the day associated most with the imam’s blessings. Sometimes the government stirs up fervor, especially when they are under threat and need some distraction. When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke before the United Nations General Assembly in 2005 he prayed for the Mahdi’s returns: “O mightly lord, I pray to hasten the emergence of thee...the promise done...the one who will fill this world with justice and peace.”

As is true with beliefs about the second coming of Jesus certain signs are viewed as fulfillment of a prophesies that al-Mahdi is coming soon. Among the signs was the destruction of the important Shia shrine in Samarra in 2006. Some have argued that American troops were placed in Saudi Arabia and Iraq to kill the Mahdi and make Jesus the Shia messiah.

Shia Clerics

20120510-Shiraziye 25.jpg The structure of the Shia clergy is much more hierarchical and centralized than the Sunni clergy, which since the abolishment of the caliphate in 1924 has had a serious void of central leadership.

Shia are under the leadership of the religious leaders call “Mujtahids” until the 12th Imam, the Mahdi, returns. Under their guidance Shia theology, first formulated into standard works around A.D. 1000, has developed independent of the Sunni community. Shia doctrine was given a final form with the establishment of Shia Islam as the state religion of Iran in 1500 and the development of Shia madrassahs in Iran and Iraq.

Shia mullahs wield considerable power. Unlike Sunni clerics, who act primarily in an advisory role, Shia clerics are mandated to interpret the God’s word and the more senior a cleric is the more authoritative his views are. Shia Islam requires followers to choose a senior cleric, known as a “marjah-e-taqlid” (“source of emulation”) to guide them through life as a good Muslim.

Ayatollahs (literally meaning “mirrors of Islam”) are the highest ranking clerics in Shia Islam. They are regarded as sources of wisdom and guidance and have been the authoritative leaders since the last of the Imam disappeared. Their power is regarded as sanctioned by God. As the power of the clergy has grown in Iraq, some rivalry has begun to develop between the religion leaders in Iraq and Iran. Since the Iranian revolution in 1979 the Ayatollahs of Iran have acted as if they were the central authority of Shia Islam.

The power of the Iranian ayatollahs is enshrined in the Iranian constitution where their authority has served as the basis for the governance of Iran since 1979. The mandate for rule is based on a theory called “wilayat al-faqih” elaborated on by Ayatollah Khomeini in a series of lectures in 1970 in which he argued that ayatollahs are the inheritors of God’s authority from Ali and the 12 imam. In Iraq, by contrast, there is no legal basis for the power of the ayatollahs. Their influence comes from tradition and respect. Iraq’s ayatollah have tended to sit quietly on the sidelines of politics, above the fray, entering the realm only when the well being of country is at stake, a role played by monarchs in countries like Spain and Thailand.

Shia clerics are often more elaborately dressed than their Sunni counterparts. They often wear white, black or green headgear, Sunni clergy usually wear white headgear. Anthony Shahod wrote in the Washington Post, that Shia tend make points less directly “through whispers and hints, through allegories and metaphor.”

Shia Sects

Shia have repeatedly broken up into smaller sects with the “Twlevers,” being the largest sect. By some counts there are 72 Shia sects. Most Iranians and Iraqis follow the Ja’fari Twelver school of Shia Islam. The recognize twelve imam and in the old days folded their turbans 12 times, one for each imam. (see Above). The Ismaelis are sometimes called the "Seveners." They recognize seven imam.

The Alawites are a Shia sect in Syria. The Syrian president and his father Hafez al-Assad are members. The Druze are sometimes regarded as a Shia sect. Kharijism is a puritanical form of Shia Islam that developed over disagreements over the succession of the caliph.

The Zayids are a Shia sect in Yemen founded the Zayd ibn Ali, a direct descendant of Muhammad and Ali. They recognize only four imans and believe that only the worthiest members of the Prophet’s family should be named imam. The do not recognize Muhammad al-Baqir (d. 731) as the fifth imam, as most Shia do, but rather recognize his brother Zayd instead, hence the Zayid’s name.

Twelver Shia

Of the several Shia sects, the Twelve Imam or Twelver (ithna- ashari), is dominant in Iran; most Shia in Bahrain, Iraq, and Lebanon also follow this sect. All the Shia sects originated among early Muslim dissenters in the first three centuries following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in A.D. 632. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

The principal belief of Twelvers, but not of other Shia, is that the spiritual and temporal leadership of the Muslim community passed from Muhammad to Ali and then sequentially to eleven of Ali's direct male descendants, a tenet rejected by Sunnis. Over the centuries various other theological differences have developed between Twelver Shia and Sunnis.

Twelver Shia Muslims believe in five basic principles of faith: there is one God, who is a unitary divine being in contrast to the trinitarian being of Christians; the Prophet Muhammad is the last of a line of prophets beginning with Abraham and including Moses and Jesus, and he was chosen by God to present His message to mankind; there is a resurrection of the body and soul on the last or judgment day; divine justice will reward or punish believers based on actions undertaken through their own free will; and Twelve Imams were successors to Muhammad. The first three of these beliefs are also shared by non- Twelver Shia and Sunni Muslims. [Source: Library of Congress]

Twelver Shia Imams

The Twelver Shia believe that the Twelve Imams who succeeded the Prophet were sinless and free from error and had been chosen by God through Muhammad. The Twelfth Imam is believed to have ascended into a supernatural state to return to earth on judgment day. [Source: Library of Congress *]

None of the Twelve Imams, with the exception of Ali, ever ruled an Islamic government. During their lifetimes, their followers hoped that they would assume the rulership of the Islamic community, a rule that was believed to have been wrongfully usurped. Because the Sunni caliphs were cognizant of this hope, the Imams generally were persecuted during the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. Therefore, the Imams tried to be as unobtrusive as possible and to live as far as was reasonable from the successive capitals of the Islamic empire.*

The sixth imam Jafar as-Sadiq (d. 769) urged Shia to withdraw from politics. The seventh imam is his second son Musa al-Kazim, The eight Imam Al-Rida was named to be Caliph but died in 818, possibly from murder before he could take the position. The 10th imam, Ali al-Hadi was imprisoned in 848 in Samarra, Iraq and died in 868. His son, Hasan al-Askari, the 11th Imam, lived and died in the same prison after his death. He is known as the Hidden Imam.


Ismaili Islam is a sect within the minority Shia Sect of Islam that broke from Sunni majority in the A.D. 9th century. Most Ismaili's live in the Indian subcontinent and East Africa. The Ismailis are a Shia sect also named the "Seveners" There are around 16 million Ismailis worldwide, mostly in pockets in 25 countries in East Africa, Western and Central Asia, North America, Western Europe, and the Middle East. Most regard the Aga Khan as their leader. The present Aga Khan is regarded as the 49th iman.

The Ismaili sect began in the 9th century as a secret society in east Iraq and west Iran. Its followers believed that Ismail, the eldest son of Jafar al-Sadiq, the sixth Shia imam, was the seventh imam and that his son Muhammad became an imam after him and would one day return as a messiah-like prophet.

Ismailism rose at one point to become the largest branch of Shī‘ism, climaxing as a political power with the Fatimid Caliphate in the tenth through twelfth centuries. Ismailis believe in the oneness of God, as well as the closing of divine revelation with Muhammad, whom they see as "the final Prophet and Messenger of God to all humanity". The Ismāʿīlī and the Twelvers both accept the same initial Imams. After the death of Muhammad ibn Isma'il in the 8th century CE, the teachings of Ismailism further transformed into the belief system as it is known today, with an explicit concentration on the deeper, esoteric meaning (batin) of the Islamic religion. [Source: Wikipedia]

Dispute Over Shia Imams and The Creation of Ismailis

Like Sunni Islam, Shia Islam has developed several sects. The most important of these is the Twelver, or Ithna-Ashari, sect, which predominates in the Shia world generally. Not all Shia became Twelvers, however. In the eighth century, a dispute arose over who should lead the Shia community after the death of the Sixth Imam, Jaafar ibn Muhammad (also known as Jaafar as Sadiq). [Source: Library of Congress *]

The group that eventually became the Twelvers followed the teaching of Musa al Kazim; another group followed the teachings of Musa's brother, Ismail, and were called Ismailis. Ismailis are also referred to as Seveners because they broke off from the Shia community over a disagreement concerning the Seventh Imam. Ismailis do not believe that any of their Imams have disappeared from the world in order to return later. Rather, they have followed a continuous line of leaders represented in early 1993 by Karim al Husayni Agha Khan IV, an active figure in international humanitarian efforts. The Twelver Shia and the Ismailis also have their own legal schools.*

The Ismailis split into Egyptian, Syrian and Persian branches. The original Assassins, the brilliant Fatimids (who ruled in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries in Egypt), the Druze and followers of Aga Khan have all been Ismailis.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art,, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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