Understanding Imamate in the Early Shia Society


Understanding Imamate in the Early Shia Society

The following article takes an in-depth look at aspects of Imamate in light of the understanding displayed by early Shia society. The time period that is placed under the microscope is the pre-Ghaybah era in which early Shias flocked in search of their Imams. The article aims to debunk myths about Imamate and to display to readers the sort of confusion that early Shias found themselves when it came to identifying the Imams.

We will only be using authentic narrations from Shia sources in this article.

  • The Number of Imams
  • Timing of Appointments
  • Ignorance of the Top Companions of the Imams
  • Appointment of a Single Successor
  • The Secrecy of the Imamate
  • Alternative Methods of Determining Imamate
  • What about Narrations that Name all Twelve Imams?
  • Conclusion

The Number of Imams

The first misconception that we will find many Shias falling into is the assumption that Shias were known as Twelvers early on. Though, those that are familiar with the splits among the Shia communities of old, will be aware that this was not the case at all.

The early Shias were known as Al-Qat’eeyah. They are those that affirmed that Musa Al-Kathim passed away, unlike many other Shias that disagreed and believed that he was still alive. The name Al-Qat’eeyah was recorded in the books of Sa’ad bin Abdullah Al-Asha’ri and Al-Nawbakhti (p. 86) and was also recorded by Sunnis historians like Al-Malti (Al-Tanbeeh p. 26), Abu Hasan Al-Ash’ari (Maqalaat p. 34), and Al-Shihristani (Al-Milal p. 111).

The name Al-Qat’eeyah came into being after the passing of Musa Al-Kathim in the year 183 AH.  This suggests that the name: Itha Ashariyya, is a very late name. It is not possible to suggest that they were known as Twelvers before Musa Al-Kathim, since if that was the case, there wouldn’t be a reason for a name change in the first place.

By returning to specific narrations, we find that the Qat’eeyah themselves clearly did not know how many Imams there would be. Abu Jareer Al-Qummi asks Al-Redha if his father Al-Kathim went into Ghaibah, suggesting that he did not believe that the Imams were twelve, but they could have been seven. (Al-Kulayni 1/237)

In another narration, Ayoub bin Nuh, one of the close companions of Al-Redha, after seeing that people have all pledged their allegiance to Al-Redha, came to the assumption that he was the Mahdi. (Al-Kulayni 1/210)

Again, the very suggestion that the Mahdi is the seventh or eighth Imam shows that early Shias were not familiar with the belief that the Imams had to be twelve.

Another aspect that should be taken into consideration is that according to early Shia narrations, the Mahdi should have come much earlier, way before the time of the twelfth Imam.

Al-Baqir said, “Allah had deemed the year 70 as the time, but when Al-Hussain was killed He was so angered that He delayed it until the year 140. When we told you of this, you spread it the secret, and so Allah kept the time away from us.” (Al-Kulayni 1/229)

Ja’afar Al-Sadiq said, “The time was going to come in the year 140, but we spoke of this to you, and you have spread this, so Allah delayed it.” (Al-Nu’mani p. 303)

The previous two narrations are clear that the “time” was going to come way before the appointment of all twelve of the Imams. So it makes no sense that the Shias would be referred to as Twelvers in the first place.

Timing of Appointments

It goes without saying that if the number of the Imams weren’t known, it is only natural to believe that their identities weren’t known either. There are several cases in which we find some of the top companions of the Imams being completely unaware of who the next Imam was. This is clear evidence that the full list of who the Imams were was not known to anyone. According to a lengthy narration, the Prophet – peace be upon him – made it known who some of Ahlulbayt were (i.e. Ali, Fatima, Al-Hasan, and Al-Hussain), but did not list all the Imams. (Al-Kafi 1/172)

The first and most straightforward evidence that affirms this is that whole list of Imams was not available to the Imams themselves was that Ja’afar Al-Sadiq, in two separate narrations, says that the Imam does not pass away until Allah tells him who the next Imam will be. (Al-Kulayni 1/166) The narration is clear that this information was not privy to him from the start of the Imamate, but rather, it becomes known to him towards the end of his life.

This is even clearer in the narration of Al-Faydh bin Al-Mukhtar, in which Ja’afar Al-Sadiq tells him to accept Musa Al-Kathim as his next Imam, and that Ja’afar was ordered by Allah to not tell anyone before Al-Faydh bin Al-Mukhtar. (Al-Kulayni 1/188)

We also find that Ali Al-Hadi when asked about who the next Imam was, he told his student, Isma’eel bin Mihran, to not fear for his safety. Years later, when asked again, he said, “Now you may fear for my safety, the matter (of Imamate) is to my son Ali.” (Al-Kulayni 1/198)

Ignorance of the Top Companions of the Imams

Another fact that needs to be taken into consideration is that some of the top students of the Imams were not aware of the whole list of Imams. Not only that but some of them were not aware of who the Imam of their time was.

Zurarah bin A’ayan, the top Shia scholar during the time of Ja’afar Al-Sadiq, according to Al-Najashi (p. 175), did not know the identity of the next Imam. When Ja’afar died, his son Abdullah sat in his position and started to teach the Shias. Zurarah then sent his son Ubaid in order to find out who the Imam was. Zurarah passed away before accepting Musa bin Ja’afar as the Imam. (See Al-Kashshi p. 117)

A similar scenario is that of Al-Hasan bin Ali bin Fadhal, who died in the year 224 AH. According to a narration, he accepted Al-Kathim while upon his deathbed. When asked about his allegiance to Abdullah bin Ja’afar, who Ibn Fadhal previous assumed was the Imam, he said, “We looked in the books and found nothing about Abdullah.” (Rijal Al-Kashshi p. 400) It is important to note that Ibn Fadhal, who was considered to be one of the most pious Shias of his time, spent his whole life following a false Imam without evidence, nor was he aware of the appointment of Al-Kathim.

When Salim bin Abi Hafsa, a Zaidi, asked Abu Ubaida Al-Hatha’ who his Imam was, Abu Ubaida answered, “My Imams are the Aal of Mohammad.” Salim responded, “I see that you do not know your Imam.” (See Al-Kashshi p. 172)

In an even stranger narration, Hanan bin Sadeer asked Al-Baqir if Mohammad bin Al-Hanafiyyah was an Imam. (Ali bin Babawaih p. 193) This narration suggests that even followers of the Imams were not necessarily aware of the identities of the previous Imams.

Even though it is common knowledge that the Imamate is inherited through direct descendants, during the 3rd century, we find that Mohammad bin Isma’eel bin Bazee’ asked Al-Redha as to whether the successor of the Imam can be an uncle or a brother, which means that he wasn’t even aware that Imamate was exclusive to sons. (Ali bin Babawayh p. 191)

It is very important to be aware that the Twelver community of the fourth century was aware of the ignorance of the early Shias, which caused some of them to completely reject the notion that there are clear textual evidences for the appointment. (Al-Khazzaz p. 61)

Appointment of a Single Successor

It is very important to keep in mind that the Imams did not share the full list of Imams. When asked, they would either not provide them with the name of their successor, or they would only mention the name of the very next Imam.

For example, Ja’afar Al-Sadiq gives instructions to Abdula’ala bin A’yan, the brother of Zurarah, of the procedures to identifying the Imam when the previous Imam passes away. Al-Sadiq, instead of providing him with a list of names of the Imams, provides him with the procedures. (Al-Kulayni 1/236) The same occurs with Mohammad bin Muslim Al-Thaqafi, one of Ja’afar’s closest companions. (Ali bin Babawayh p. 225)

Also, as explained in another article, the Imams often provided their followers with signs, instead of a list of whom the successive Imams were going to be.

Another example is when Ja’afar Al-Sadiq was asked by Nasr bin Qaboos about who the next Imam was, he said that it would be Musa Al-Kathim. Then, when Musa was asked, Nasr asked him, and he said it would be Al-Redha. (Al-Kashshi p.322) Neither Al-Sadiq nor Al-Kathim provided Nasr with a list of Imams.

It should also be known that those that accepted the Imams of their times do not show any knowledge of who the next succeeding Imams are going to be.

Amr bin Huraith for instance, meets up with Ja’afar Al-Sadiq, and lists out his beliefs. He then mentions his acceptance of the six Imams. Ja’afar does not fill him in on the rest of the Imams, but rather, confirms his statements. (Al-Kashshi p. 299)

The same occurs with Mansoor bin Hazim (Al-Kashishi p. 301), Khalid Al-Bajali (Al-Kashshi p. 302), and Al-Hasan bin Ziyad (Al-Kashshi p. 303).

The Secrecy of the Imamate

Another matter that led to the confusion surrounding the Imamate of the Imams was that their lives were enshrouded in secrecy. The Imams was very secretive in nature. There are even cases in which the Imams would tell their students not to teach of their Imamate. This led to the ignorance of their students in regards to the identities of the Imams and the appointment of their successors.

When asked about his Imamate, Ja’afar Al-Sadiq completely denies that he is an Imam when approached by two Zaidi men. They then tell him that they heard this from some of pious followers in Al-Kufa. Al-Sadiq continued to deny it. (Al-Kulayni 1/138  / Al-Kashshi p. 305)

In one report, Hisham bin Salim met a man from Bani Makhzoom in Madinah. They discussed the topic of Imamate, so the man asked, “Who is the Imam today?” He replied, “Ja’afar bin Mohammad alaihi al-salam.” He said, “By Allah, I will tell him!” Hisham reported that he was filled with fear upon hearing this and was afraid that the Imam would rebuke him or cast him away. (Al-Kashshi p. 200)

The secrecy involved in the Shiasm of the Imams was so deep, that the Imams would intentionally teach their own Shia followers from Iraq conflicting knowledge. (Al-Kulayni 1/39)

At times, the secrecy was so great that the Imams would not share knowledge with their followers in front of their very own children. This occurred between Ja’afar Al-Sadiq and his son Abdullah when Abu Al-Baseer asked him questions. (Ali bin Babawayh p. 210)

The secrecy was so severe that even the children of the Imams were genuinely not aware of these appointments ever being made.

Mohammad bin Al-Hanafiyyah, the son of Ali bin Abi Talib, said to his nephew, “Your father did not appoint an Imam.” (Al-Kulayni 1/215)

In a clearer narration, Zaid bin Ali, in a conversation with Abu Ja’afar Al-Ahwal about Imamate, claimed that he never heard such a thing from his father Zain Al-Abideen. He refuted Abu Ja’afar Al-Ahwal by saying, “My father used to make the hot food warm out of pity for me, are you suggesting that he didn’t have any pity over me going to hell?!” (Al-Kulayni 1/100)

The secrecy that surrounded the Imams prevented the message of Imamate to spread. At one point, in Makkah, only four people accepted the message of Imamate during the time of Al-Baqir. (Al-Kashshi p. 179)  

Alternative Methods of Determining Imamate

In a previous article, we have listed the methods as to how one would determine who the next Imam would be. However, upon investigation, we found that these methods were not always used.

Hisham bin Salim, instead of seeking evidence for an appointment, resorted to testing Abdullah bin Ja’afar as the Imam by questioning him in basic arithmetic. Upon failing the test, he rejected Abdullah’s claim to Imamate. (Ali bin Babawayh p. 209) The very fact that Hisham had to resort to this makes it clear that he and his companions never heard of an appointment from Ja’afar for his son Musa.

Also, as we have previously mentioned above, Ibn Fadhal accepted Abdullah as an Imam without hearing of an appointment.

In one strange case, Al-Husain bin Omar, tells Al-Redha that he will accept him as an Imam simply because Al-Redha made that claim. He affirms that he did not hear of Al-Kathim making an appointment. He states that he will complain to Allah on the Day of Judgment if Al-Redha turned out to be a false Imam the same way his father will complain to Allah about Musa Al-Kathim, since he was initially a follower of Abdullah the brother of Musa. (Al-Kashshi p. 305)

One of the methods of finding out who the appointed Imam was is through the “weapon”, for the Imam is the one that inherits the weapon of the Prophet – peace be upon him – according to some narrations.

The sons of Abi Al-Sammal respond to Al-Kathim by saying, “Who knows the weapon anyhow?!” (Al-Kashshi p. 338)

Indeed, the point they brought up is a fair one, for it was not possible for one to arrive at a conclusion as to whether an artifact was owned by the Prophet – peace be upon him – simply by looking at it.

What about Narrations that Name all Twelve Imams?

From the above, we have established that early Imamis did not believe that the Imams were twelve, nor were they aware of their identities. At best, they were only notified during the time of the current Imam. This opposes the commonly held view that the companions of the Imams had full lists of who the Imams were going to be.

However, even with the overwhelming authentic evidence that we have provided, some stubborn Shias may still insist that the identity of the Twelve Imams were always known.

Generally, they will provide two arguments for this.

  • They will usually quote the hadith of Jabir bin Samura, which is found in the Saheehain, which suggests that the caliphs are twelve.
  • There are other narrations that contain the number of the Imams, while other include the full list of the Imams. These narrations clearly contradict the narrations that are provided in this article.


Our response is as follows:

The existence of this Sunni narration did not faze any other early Shia sect that disagreed over the number of the Imams. Not only is Jabir bin Samura not reliable according to Shias, but Shiasm does not rely upon Sunni hadiths to establish its own views. Moreover, as we have proved earlier, the Twelvers themselves did not identify themselves with that name, but were known as Al-Qat’eeya.

Note: For a complete refutation of the Hadith of the Twelve Caliphs, please refer to this article.

In response to the second point, firstly, for the sake of clarity, we shall refer to narrations that affirm the Imamate of the Twelve by name or number as (Set B), while referring to the narrations that have been quoted in our article above as (Set A). It is not reasonable for any person that respects their own intellect to prefer Set B over Set A for the following reasons:

For starters, it is historically accurate that Shias often differed in the numbers of the Imams. This is an irrefutable fact that is attested to by early historians. If Set B was accurate, then these sects wouldn’t have existed in the first place. Furthermore, as we have pointed out, Twelvers would have been known as Twelvers, and not Al-Qat’eeya.

Even the most famous narration that suggests that all the Imams were known – the narration of Abu Hashim Al-Ja’afar – was doubted by Mohammad bin Yahya Al-Attar, the teacher of Al-Kulayni. He commented, “I wish this narration came from the path of someone other than Ahmad bin Abi Abdullah, suggesting that it contradicts what is commonly known about the ambiguity of the Imamate. (Al-Kulayni 1/337)

In some cases, a narration from Set A, would be transformed into a Set B narration. For example, a narration in Al-Kafi 3/211 contains a supplication taught by Musa Al-Kathim which refers to the Imams without mentioning their names. However, the same exact narration can be found in Al-Saduq’s Man La Yahtharhu Al-Faqeeh p. 158 with an addition of the explicit naming of all twelve Imams.

Below we have included some of our favorite examples of fabrications in order to open the eyes of the doubting Shias:


Fabrication that Omar, Uthman, and A’isha Narrated Hadiths of Twelve Imams

Al-Khazzaz Al-Qummi narrates in his Kifayat Al-Athar (p. 167) that Omar said: The Prophet – peace be upon him and his household – said: “…my household are from the children of Ali, Fatima, Al-Hasan, Al-Hussain, and nine grand Imams from the children of Al-Hussain, they are my itra from my flesh and blood.”

Al-Khazzaz Al-Qummi narrates in his Kifayat Al-Athar (p. 169) that Uthman said: I heard the Prophet – peace be upon him and his household – say: “The Imams after me are twelve, nine of them are from the progeny of Al-Hussain…”

Al-Khazzaz Al-Qummi narrates in Kifayat Al-Athar (p. 289) that A’isha said, that the Prophet – peace be upon him and his household – heard Jibreel list out the names of each of the Imams, one by one.

It is needless to say that none of these narrations are authentic in Sunni nor Shia standards. However, it just shows the lengths taken by these fabricators. Al-Khazzaz Al-Qummi goes on to narrate such narrations from over twenty companions. However, we have hand-picked the above since they are seen by Shias as enemies of Ali. This shows that the fabrications are even more unbelievable since these “enemies” would never narrate such a thing since it would be used against them and their rule.


Fabrication attributed to the Leader of Jaroodiyya Zaidism

Another example that is worth mentioning is what Al-Kulayni has narrated in Al-Kafi 1/342 from the path of Abu Al-Jarood from Al-Baqir from Jabir bin Abdullah Al-Ansari, that he saw Fatima with the whole list of the names of the twelve Imams.

However, this goes against the teachings of Abu Al-Jarood himself. Abu Al-Jarood is Ziyad bin Al-Munthir, to whom the Jaroodiyya Zaidi sect ascribes to. Al-Nawbakhti, when describing the teachings of the sect in his Firaq Al-Shia p. 31-32 affirms that the sect does not believe in the appointment of any of the Imams except for the first three. It also doesn’t specify the number of Imams and believes that there can be more than one Imam at one time. It should be noted that Abu Jarood never believed in Al-Baqir or Al-Sadiq as Imams.


Fabrication attributed to the Main Scholars of the Waqifi Sect

The Waqifi sect believed in seven Imams, with Musa Al-Kathim being the last of the Imams. However, that didn’t stop Twelvers from attributing narrations to them that affirmed all twelve.

Some fascinating examples of Waqifi scholars that have fallen victim to such attributions include the creator of the sect, like Ali bin Abi Hamza. (Al-Ghaybah by Al-Tusi p. 63-64) Not only does the fabrications affirm the name and the number “twelve”, but also includes that whoever rejects any of them is an unbeliever. (Al-Khazzaz p. 235-238) Not surprisingly, if one were to return to Ali bin Ahmad Al-Musawi’s “Fi Nusrat Al-Waqifa” (via Al-Tusi’s Al-Ghaybah p. 55, 56, 60), one would find that Ali bin Abi Hamza actually taught that the Musa Al-Kathim is the final Imam and that he never died.

Other examples of this include Al-Hasan bin Ali bin Abi Hamza (Al-Khazzaz p. 235-238) Hanan bin Sadeer (Al-Khazzaz p. 329), Mohammad bin Al-Hasan bin Shammoun and Sama’a bin Mihran (Al-Kafi 1/343), who are all established figures in the sect.


In conclusion, we are left with two scenarios in regards to the two sets of narrations, A and B. If Set B is authentic, then we must believe that the Imams hid away the names of the Imams from their closest companions and family members, while sharing this knowledge with their enemies who usurped the caliphate and created new sects.

There shouldn’t be a shred of doubt left that Set A is the orthodox Shia stance, since it is clearly not as ideologically loaded as the narrations of Set B.

Even though we have presented powerful authentic evidences from Shia sources themselves, we know that it is up to the readers to choose to open their hearts. Selective retention and a forced skimming through the text, instead of an open-minded study of the text, could cause one to shrug off even the strongest of arguments.

The evidences for the lack of clarity and the chaos of everything Imamate in the first centuries cannot be denied. However, as the centuries passed the chaos subsided, which led to generation after generation of Shias that did not question what they were upon, nor to look into the chaos from which they came.  

May Allah guide the truth-seekers among the Shia to His true path.  

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.