Islamic political thought/Twelvers

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Twelver Shi’ism

Required Reading: The Isma'ilis: Their history and doctrines Farhad Daftary Cambridge University Press, Great Britain 1990

Goals: Read pages 57- 85, 126-190 to gain context for and history of the Twelvers. Also, read all of 252 through 253 and discuss the evolution of Twelver law. Discuss the important modern aspects of Twelver politics, particularly where they dominate, in Iran and Iraq.

Important Definitions: hujja- proof or testimony, argument. Shi'a: 'proof' of god's presence of will, including a person who is evidence of mankind, god's will.

Modern Implications:

Iranian Shi'ism is an integral portion composing the image of Twelvers. Ahmadinejad has expressed intentions for a "powerful, developed and model Islamic society. Today, we should define our economic, cultural and political policies based on the policy of Imam Mahdi’s return. We should avoid copying the West’s policies and systems."

The Twelfth Imam, according to the Shi’ites in general, comes to ease the chaos, but Islam exists prior to the Imam’s return, and thus any justification Ahmadinejad has made of his behavior in terms of the Imam rings familiar to a Hojjatieh belief. The Hojjatieh of Iran believe that creating chaos in the world, which could involve unjust acts or acts that disturb the peace can speed the return of the Twelfth Imam.

The government must not only allow for conditions which are suitable to the arrival of the next Imam, such as uniting Islamic people by way of their religious beliefs, it must create the conditions commonly viewed as necessary to the arrival of the Twelfth Imam—a chaotic element or a profound spiritual tragedy within the world as we know it. Ahmadinejad has publicly proclaimed his belief in the Twelfth Imam—the individual Westerners would describe this, through translation style comprehension of the religion, as the messianic aspect of Iran’s Islamic culture. It must also be noted that Shi’ite Muslims, who prescribe to the belief in the return of the Twelfth Imam, comprise the majority in not only in Iran, but also in neighboring Iraq.

Generally held true that human believers cannot actually instigate the arrival of the Twelfth Imam in any way, the chaos that invites the Imam’s arrival is a necessary condition leaders can instigate (their main element of control), as it is a worldly aspect of the dilemma. This belief held by the Iranian group, called the Hojjatieh, can become integral to messianic action as regards Islamic countries.

An additional point of concern that may be held by Ahmadinejad if he is indeed in pursuit of the “utopia of the ideally just Islamic commonwealth” (Skocpol, 280) that could be reigned in by the Twelfth Imam, is in the deputy that some Shi’ite Muslims believe will assist the returned twelfth Imam here on earth. This deputy will be a conduit through which the Imam Mahdi will rule.

The population of Iran can be characterized as a cultural and religious people, swayed by a “popular messianic yearning for the return of the Twelfth Imam”. (Skocpol, 277)

...because it is Shi’a Islam that led to and was the necessary condition for the Iranian Revolution. It is “radical-fundamentalist Shi’a clerics” that led, under Khomeini, the formation of the Islamic Republic Party. (Skocpol, 277)

The return of the Twelfth Imam means a return to a world aligned with God, no longer experiencing the spiritual strife of the divisions currently experienced on a day-to-day basis in the world as we know it.

“legitimate authority in the Shi’a community has long been shared between political and religious leaders, neither of whom can unambiguously claim to represent fully the will of the “Hidden Imam,” a supreme leader who went into transhistorical occultation in the ninth century.”

Important Points:

- Twelver Shi'ism is the "crystallized" version of the moderate trend representing the majority body of the Shi'a (Daftari, 58) -It is associated with non-Zaydi Shi'is in that they "had come to acknowledge chiefly the Husaynid Fatimids".

-The Imam Mahdi, according to the text, is "still awaiting the parousia of the twelfth imam." -Incorporates the importance of the ideal that the "second Islamic century would be a turning point in the realization of the Shi'i messianic expectations" -Makes provisions for Abu Hashim as Mahdi. There is also a possibility for the descendents of Ibn al-Hanafiyya or Ibn al-Hanafiyya himself when at the point at which his last descendent died. (Daftari, 61)

-The Twelvers are historically connected to the Ghulat (minority Muslim groups who sometimes ascribe extraordinary levels of divinity to their rulers) (Daftari, 64)

-The adoption of taqiyya by Twelvers is integral to their historical formation of politics (Daftari, 71)

-Ja'far al-Sadiq's imamate provides the basis for Twelvers as well as Isma'ilis. Refer to 85 for specific principles Ja’far contributed (Daftari, 83)

-"On the basis of certain allusions found in the early Isma'ili sources, it seems that the central leaders of the sect, before 'Ubayd Allah's reform, assumed the rank of hujja for themselves. It was mainly through the hujja that one could establish contact with the exalted 'ayn, namely the imam; and the imam referred to the hidden Mahdi. In other words, the leaders of the movement at first apparently acted as the hujjas of the hidden Muhammad b. Isma'il and summoned people to obey him. By his reform, 'Ubayd Allah had in effect openly elevated himself and his predecessors from the hujjas of the expected Qa'im to actual imams. This, of course, also implied the denial of the Mahdiship of Muhammad b. Isma'il." (Daftari, 126)

-"It was in this sense that the application of the term was systematized by the Twelver Shi'is to designate the category of prophets and imams and, after the Prophet Muhammad, more particularly of the imams without whom the world could never exist." (Daftari, 126-7)

- Succesors of Buwayhid Mu'izz al-Dawla led to the thought and practices that allowed for the development for twelvers. (Daftari, 186)

-Usuli school adherents are authorized to be agents of the hidden twelfth imam. (Daftari, 252-3)


1. Discuss the evolution of Twelver Shi’a Law as well as the important figures involved.

2. Discuss the nature of the Twelver beliefs in relation to/versus other branches of Islam previously discussed or with further research.

3. Distinguish the Shi’a beliefs, from the Mahdist or Twelver perspective, about Imams and the Imam Mahdi. In other words, why do Twelvers believe what they believe, and practice in the way they practice?

4. Describe a principle you find most applicable to Twelver thought that stemmed from Ja’far al-Sadiq’s ideas.

Recommended Readings:

Ludwig, Paul “"Iranian Nation" and Iranian-Islamic Revolutionary Ideology.” Die Welt des Islams 39 (1999). Journal on-line. Available from 600432539. Accessed 1 March 2007.

Sells, Michael “Expectation of the Millennium: Shi’ism in History Review by Nasr, Seyyed Hossein; Dabashi, Hamid; Nasr Seyyed Vali Reza.” The Journal of Religion 71 (1991). Journal on-line. Available at Accessed 1 March 2007.

Skocpol, Theda “Rentier State and Shi’a Islam in the Iranian Revolution.” Theory and Society 11 (1982). Journal on-line. Available from Accessed 1 March 2007.