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Who are the ‘Twelve Imams’?
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A set of hadiths narrated by our Sunni brothers about twelve successors of the Prophet will be presented in this article. There are different versions of these hadiths; sometimes the term amir, or ruler/leader is used for the twelve Imams and sometimes the term caliph, or successor, is used. It is interesting to note that in these sets of hadiths, the number twelve is always used.
In a hadith in Bukhari, the narrator quotes the Prophet (S):

‘There will be twelve leaders after me.’ The narrator then remarks that the Prophet said something that he could not hear. And he asked his father, who was present, to tell him what the Prophet said. His father replied, ‘The Prophet said that all these twelve leaders (ithna ‘ashar-a amir- an) will be from Quraysh.’1

In another version of the hadith, Muslim in his Sahih narrates that the narrator went to his father who claimed the Prophet Muhammad (S) said,

“This religion will not perish until there will have been twelve successors.”2

The continuation of the hadith is similar to the first version in that the narrator asked his father to restate the hadith. His father then repeated the Prophet’s words: “All the successors are from Quraysh.” In this hadith, instead of amir, the term ‘successor’ is used. Muslim says that this person heard from his father that the Prophet said that the religion of Islam will not perish and it must be accomplished. Thus, it is assured that before this world ends, there must be twelve successors.
In another hadith, Muslim reports that the Prophet said, “The people’s affairs will be properly conducted as long as twelve men lead them.”3 Again, we have the number twelve, but the sentence is different: it refers to everything turning out well so long as these twelve people lead the people, and that the people follow their leadership.
In yet another tradition, the Prophet is quoted as saying, “This religion will be exalted as long as there are twelve successors.”4 So Islam will have a very high position if these twelve people are leading.

It should be noted that one of the implications of these hadiths is that you cannot find any period in which none of these twelve exist. For example, the Prophet said, “This religion will remain as long as there exist twelve successors from Quraysh.” The previous hadith indicated that there must always be one of these twelve people living on earth. This means that one cannot find any period in which none of these twelve exist.

It should be noted that one of the implications of these hadiths is that you cannot find any period in which none of these twelve exist. For example, the Prophet said, “This religion will remain as long as there exist twelve successors from Quraysh.”5 The previous hadith indicated that there must always be one of these twelve people living on earth. This means that one cannot find any period in which none of these twelve exist.
In another set of hadiths located in Sunni sources it has been narrated, “Even if two people live in the earth, one of them must be from Quraysh.” They narrate from the Prophet that “So long as there remains two people on earth, there will be one from Quraysh to lead them.”6 So there must be always one Imam, or leader, from Quraysh on earth.
When we collect the hadiths narrated by Sunni scholars in their most prominent and authentic books,7 several questions arise. Who are these twelve people? Who are the successors of the Prophet, as the Prophet said that there will be twelve successors. How is it possible that the lifespans of twelve people extend to the end of the time? They are twelve people, but they cover the history of mankind after the Prophet. How lengthy is their life or how long must the life of some of them be?

Who are these twelve people? Who are the successors of the Prophet, as the Prophet said that there will be twelve successors. How is it possible that the lifespans of twelve people extend to the end of the time? They are twelve people, but they cover the history of mankind after the Prophet. How lengthy is their life or how long must the life of some of them be?

Another question arises: How are these people sources of pride and honor for Islam, given that the Prophet said, “This religion will be exalted as long as there are twelve successors”?8Who are these twelve in the history of Islam who all are from Quraysh and exaltation of Islam depends on them?
Our Sunni brothers have done their best to identify these twelve. But unfortunately, they could not find any set of twelve to fit in with this set of hadiths. For example, they managed to start with the immediate caliphs, that is, 1) Abu Bakr, 2) Umar, 3) ‘Uthman, 4) Ali, 5) Hasan and 6) Mu’awiya; however, when they reach Yazid, they cannot accept him as one of these twelve. Thus, they were required to choose good caliphs. They may not be twelve successive caliphs, but they can be chosen from the Umayyads and Abbasids. But the problem is that it means that there must be some gap. But the above mentioned hadiths indicate that there must be a kind of continuity among these twelve.
Another issue that arises is that our Sunni brothers themselves have narrated from the Prophet that caliphate ended by the arrival of the Umayyads. According to a hadith, the Prophet Muhammad (S) said, “In my nation there will be caliphate for thirty years. And then there will be a kingdom.”9 Thirty years after the demise of the Prophet (S) marks end of the Caliphate of Imam Ali (as). Therefore, Mu‘awiya was not a caliph; he acted as a king.
In Tirmidhi there is some continuation for this hadith. The narrator, Safinah, said that the caliphate of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, and Ali lasted thirty years. This is in addition to ten years because the Prophet died after ten years after immigration, equaling forty years. One of those present asked the narrator, “What about the Umayyads? They were also caliphs.” Safinah replied that the Umayyads were “liars and kings of the worst type: they were not caliphs, nor were they successors of the Prophet.” They came after the Prophet and some believe that whoever came after the Prophet is to be considered as a successor, but ‘successor’ actually refers to someone who legitimately ruled after the Prophet.
Thus, this hadith stopped our Sunni brothers from referring to the caliphs of Umayyads and Abbasids as a few of those twelve. This resulted in not having solid solution, and they consequently disagreed about these twelve.

The Shi‘a believe that it is very clear that these must be twelve Imams of the Ahlul Bayt (as), out of whom the last one will have such a long life that would allow him to be alive till end of this world. So life of these twelve will be equal to the life of Islam after the Prophet. So as long as Islam is alive, that is, until end of the time, one of these twelve must be there.

The Shi‘a believe that it is very clear that these must be twelve Imams of the Ahlul Bayt (as), out of whom the last one will have such a long life that would allow him to be alive till end of this world. So life of these twelve will be equal to the life of Islam after the Prophet. So as long as Islam is alive, that is, until end of the time, one of these twelve must be there. Especially if you also bear in mind the set of hadiths which says that even if there are two people on the earth, there is one from Quraysh to lead them. This set of hadiths is enough if someone wants to know who the Imam will be, who the successor will be, and who will be qualified to lead the Islamic society to maintain the honor and dignity the Prophet gave to it.

We have about twelve hadiths in addition to hadiths in which all the names of the twelve Imams are mentioned. For example, we have a hadith from the Prophet Muhammad (S) addressing Jabir ibn ‘Abdullah al-Ansari, who was a companion of the Prophet and also a companion of all the Imams up until Imam Baqir (as). So the Prophet mentioned the name of all the Imams, and when he reached the name of Imam Baqir, he told Jabir to convey his salam to him. And this is exactly what he did.

We have about twelve hadiths in addition to hadiths in which all the names of the twelve Imams are mentioned. For example, we have a hadith from the Prophet Muhammad (S) addressing Jabir ibn ‘Abdullah al-Ansari, who was a companion of the Prophet and also a companion of all the Imams up until Imam Baqir (as). So the Prophet mentioned the name of all the Imams, and when he reached the name of Imam Baqir, he told Jabir to convey his salam to him. And this is exactly what he did.10 More interestingly, similar hadith are cited in Sunni sources.11

• 1. The actual term here was amir, or leader. The Prophet said there will be twelve leaders after me and all are from Quraysh, the same tribe of the Prophet (S). This is in Sahih of Bukhari, Kitab al-Ahkam according to Sakhr serial no. 6682. The same hadith is narrated by Tirmidhi in Sunan, Kitab al-Fitan no. 2149 and Musnad of Ahmad no. 19920. This is in Sahih of Muslim, Kitab al- Imarah, (Leadership), no. 3393.
• 2. Sahih of Muslim, no. 3393
• 3. Sahih of Muslim, the following hadith, no. 3394.
• 4. Sahih of Muslim no. 3395-7. Sunan of Abu Dawood, another major Sihah fi kitabil Mahdi no. 3732. Musnad of Ahmad, no. 19936, 20019, and 20032.
• 5. Sunan of Abu Dawood, no. 3731 and Musnad of Ahmad, no. 19875 and 19901.
• 6. In Bukhari, Kitabul Ahkam in Sakhr, no. 3240, 6607. Sahih of Muslim, no. 3392. Musnad of Ahmad: 4600, 5419, 5847.
• 7. Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, and al-Sihah
• 8. Sahih of Muslim no. 3395-7. Sunan of Abu Dawood, another major Sihah fi kitabil Mahdi no. 3732. Musnad of Ahmad, no. 19936, 20019, and 20032.
• 9. Sunan of Tirmidhi, no. 2152. Musnad of Ahmad, no. 20910.
• 10. Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 46, pp. 223 & 224.
• 11. For example, Jabir is quoted as saying that the Prophet (s) referring to Husayn ibn Ali said:
[Majma‘ al-Zawa’id, vol. 10. p. 22; Mu‘jam al-Awsat, vol. 6, p. 304; Tirikh-u Dimashq, vol. 57, p. 215; Al-Wafi bi’l-Wafayat, vol. 4, p. 103.]
أنه يولد لابني هذا ابن يقال له علي بن الحسين، وهو سيد العابدين، إذا كان يوم القيامة ينادى مناد: ليقم سيد العابدين فيقوم علي بن الحسين، وهو يولد لعلي بن الحسين ابن يقال له: محمد، إذا رأيته يا جابر فأقرئه مني السلام، ياجابر، اعلم ان المهدي من ولده، واعلم ياجابر ان بقاءك بعده قليل

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