Shi'a

The Imamate


   From the abdication of 'Ali onwards, authority was divided in the Islamic world. The Umayyads continued to pass the Caliphate down through the ages among their family; but their now existed in Iraq a separate Islamic community that did not recognize the authority of the Umayyad Caliphs. Rather they recognized only the successors to 'Ali as authorities, and they gave these successors the title Imam. A grand total of eleven Imams succeeded 'Ali (ten in non-Shi'ite histories), passing the Imamate down to their sons in hereditary succession. However, the eleventh Imam (the tenth Imam to succeed 'Ali), Hasan al-Askari, died without a son, and the Shi'ites were thrown into disarray. Shi'a Islam divided into several different sects, the most important of which was the Qat'iyya ("those who are certain"). The Qat'iyya believed that Hasan al-Askari did indeed have a son, Muhammed al-Mahdi; one of the Qat'iyya sects believed that Muhammed al-Mahdi, the twelfth Imam, had hidden himself and remained in hiding. This sect was called Ithna-'Ashari (Twelver) or Imami (Imam) Shi'a, and was the form of Shi'a that eventually came to exclusively represent Shi'ism. When you say Shi'a, you really mean Twelver Shi'a.

   The Imamate is the central aspect of Shi'ite Islam and what principally distinguishes it from orthodox or Sunni Islam. In all other respects, Shi'a Islam is virtually identical with Sunni practice. In the Shi'a concept of the Imam, a central belief is that at no time in human history has the world been bereft of an Imam. The Imam is a gift by God to humanity; he serves as both a guide (Hadi ) to humans, a Proof of God (Hujjat Allah ) and a Sign of God (Ayyat Allah ). The Imams span history from Adam, the first Imam, to the present day; Muhammad himself was an Imam. The Imams, according to Shi'ites, were a light created before the creation—this light was the instrument of creation and is embodied in each Imam. The Imam has secret knowledge of God and creation; the most important of these secrets is "The Greatest Name of God." The Imams are designated or appointed (mansus ) by God and they are free from all sin or fault (ma'shum ); therfore, they are the most perfect of humans (afdal an-nas ). But above all, the Imam is the one who teaches human beings the mystical truths of the universe. The Shi'ites believe that the Imam that the esoteric, mystical aspects of God are transmitted to human beings.

   The son of Hasan al-Askari, however, hid himself away from men in order to preserve his life. This last Imam, the twelfth Imam, has been "hidden" or "occulted" and still is alive today on earth. "The Guided One," as he is called, is awaiting the time when he will return, guide the world, and restore Shi'a to its proper place as the universal religion of God.

   

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-27-97