The Twelve Imams

The Twelve Imams (ٱلَأَئِمَّة ٱلْٱثْنَا عَشَر‎, al-ʾAʾimmah al-ʾIthnā ʿAšar; دوازده امام‎, Davâzdah Emâm) are the spiritual and political successors to the Islamic prophet Muhammad in the Twelver branch of Shia Islam, including that of the Alawite and Alevi sects.

According to the theology of Twelvers, the Twelve Imams are exemplary human individuals who not only rule over the community with justice, but also are able to keep and interpret sharia and the esoteric meaning of the Quran. Muhammad and Imams’ words and deeds are a guide and model for the community to follow; as a result, they must be free from error and sin (known as ismah, or infallibility) and must be chosen by divine decree through the Prophet.

Calligraphic representation of the Twelve Imams along with that of the Prophet Muhammad.

Calligraphic representation of the Twelve Imams along with that of the Prophet Muhammad.

The belief of Imam

It is believed in Twelver Shia Islam that Muhammad and his Ahl al-Bayt are infallible possess Hikmah. Their oppression and suffering served greater purposes and were a means of divine grace to their devotees. The Imams are also guided by preserved texts in their possession, such as al-Jafr, al-Jamia, and unaltered past books the Torah and Injeel. Imamat, or belief in the divine guide, is a fundamental belief in the Twelver Shia doctrine and is based on the concept that God would not leave humanity without access to divine guidance.

According to Twelvers, there is at all times an Imam of the era who is the divinely appointed authority on all matters of faith and law in the Muslim community. Ali was the first of the Twelve Imams, and, in the Twelvers view, the rightful successor to Muhammad, followed by male descendants of Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah. Each Imam was the son of the previous Imam, with the exception of Husayn ibn Ali, who was the brother of Hasan ibn Ali. The twelfth and final Imam is Muhammad al-Mahdi, who is believed by the Twelvers to be currently alive, and hidden in the Major Occultation until he returns to bring justice to the world. It is believed by Twelver Shia and Alevi Muslims that the Twelve Imams have been foretold in the Hadith of the 12 accomplishers. All of the Imams met unnatural deaths, with the exception of the last Imam who, according to Twelver and Alevi belief, is living in occultation.

Some of the Imams also have a leading role within some Sufi orders and are seen as the spiritual heads of Islam, because most of the Silsila (spiritual chain) of Sufi orders leads back to the Prophet through one of the Twelve Imams.

List of Imams

# Name


Kunya

Arabic title


Turkish title

Lived (CE)


Lived (AH)


Place of birth

Importance Reason
Place of death


Place of burial

1 Ali ibn Abi Talib
ٱلْإِمَام عَلِيّ ٱبْن أَبِي طَالِب عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام


Abu al-Hasan
أَبُو ٱلْحَسَن

  • ʾAmīr al-Muʾminīn
    (أَمِير ٱلْمُؤْمِنِين)
    (Commander of the Faithful)
  • al-Murtaḍā
    (ٱلْمُرْتَضَىٰ)
    (The Beloved)
  • al-Waṣīy
    (ٱلْوَصِيّ)
    (The Successor)
  • al-Walīy
    (ٱلْوَلِيّ)
    (The Wali)
600–661


23 (before Hijra)–40


Makkah, Hijaz

Cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad. According to Twelver Shia belief he was the only person to have been born in the Ka’bah, the holiest site in Islam, and the first male to openly accept Islam. Considered by Shia Islam as the rightful Successor of Muhammad. Sunnis also acknowledge him as the fourth Caliph. He holds a high position in almost all Sufi Muslim orders (Turuq); the members of these orders trace their lineage to Muhammad through him. Assassinated by Abd al-Rahman ibn Muljam, a Kharijite, in Kufa, who struck his head with a poisoned sword while he was in prostration praying on the Night of Qadr in the month of Ramadan.


Buried at the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, Iraq, according to Twelver Shia beliefs.

2 Hasan ibn Ali
ٱلْإِمَام ٱلْحَسَن ٱبْن عَلِيّ عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام


Abu Muhammad
أَبُو مُحَمَّد

  • al-Mujtabā
    (ٱلْمُجْتَبَىٰ)
    (The Chosen)
  • Sibṭ an-Nabīy
    (سِبْط ٱلنَّبِيّ)
    (Tribe of the Prophet)
625–670


3–50


Madinah, Hijaz

He was the eldest surviving grandson of Muhammad through Muhammad’s daughter, Fatimah az-Zahra. Hasan succeeded his father as the caliph in Kufa, and on the basis of a peace treaty with Muawiyah, he relinquished control of Iraq following a Caliphate of seven months. Poisoned by his wife in Madinah on the orders of the Caliph Muawiyah.


Buried in Jannat al-Baqi, Medina, Saudi Arabia.

3 Husayn ibn Ali
ٱلْإِمَام ٱلْحُسَيْن ٱبْن عَلِيّ عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام


Abu Abdillah
أَبُو عَبْد ٱللَّٰه

  • Sayyid ash-Shuhadāʾ
    (سَيِّد ٱلشُّهَدَاء)
    (Master of the Martyrs)
  • al-Maẓlūm
    (ٱلْمَظْلُوم)
    (The Tyrannized)
  • Sibṭ an-Nabīy
    (سِبْط ٱلنَّبِيّ)
    (Tribe of the Prophet)
626–680


4–61


Madinah, Hijaz

He was a grandson of Muhammad and brother of Hasan ibn Ali. Husayn opposed the validity of Yazid ibn Muawiyah. As a result, he, his family and his companions were later killed in the Battle of Karbala by Yazid’s forces. After this incident, the commemoration of Husayn ibn Ali has become central to Shia identity. Killed and beheaded at the Battle of Karbala.


Buried at the Imam Husayn Mosque in Karbala, Iraq.

4 Ali ibn Husayn
ٱلْإِمَام عَلِيّ ٱبْن ٱلْحُسَيْن ٱلسَّجَّاد عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام


Abu Muhammad
أَبُو مُحَمَّد

  • as-Sajjād
    (ٱلسَّجَّاد)
    (The Consistently Prostrating)
  • Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn
    (زَيْن ٱلْعَابِدِين)
    (Ornament of the Worshippers)
658/9 – 712


38–95


Madinah, Hijaz

Author of prayers in Sahifa al-Sajjadiyya, which is known as “The Psalm of the Household of the Prophet.” He survived the Battle of Karbala because he was told not to participate due to a debilitating illness. He was poisoned on the order of Caliph al-Walid I in Madinah.


Buried in Jannat al-Baqi, Medina, Saudi Arabia.

5 Muhammad ibn Ali
ٱلْإِمَام مُحَمَّد ٱبْن عَلِيّ ٱلْبَاقِر عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام


Abu Ja’far
أَبُو جَعْفَر

  • Bāqir al-ʿUlūm
    (بَاقِر ٱلْعُلُوم)
    (The Opener of Knowledge)
677–732


57–114


Madinah, Hijaz

Sunni and Shia sources both describe him as one of the early and most eminent legal scholars, teaching many students during his tenure. He was poisoned by Ibrahim ibn Walid ibn ‘Abdallah in Madinah on the order of Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik.


Buried in Jannat al-Baqi, Medina, Saudi Arabia.

6 Ja’far ibn Muhammad
ٱلْإِمَام جَعْفَر ٱبْن مُحَمَّد ٱلصَّادِق عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام


Abu Abdillah
أَبُو عَبْد ٱللَّٰه

  • aṣ-Ṣādiq
    (ٱلصَّادِق)
    (The Honest)
702–765


83–148


Madinah, Hijaz

Established the Ja’fari jurisprudence and developed the theology of Twelvers. He instructed many scholars in different fields, including Imams Abu Hanifah and Malik ibn Anas in fiqh, Wasil ibn Ata and Hisham ibn Hakam in Islamic theology, and Jabir ibn Hayyan in science and alchemy. He was poisoned in Madinah on the order of Caliph Al-Mansur.


Buried in Jannat al-Baqi, Medina, Saudi Arabia.

7 Musa ibn Ja’far
ٱلْإِمَام مُوسَىٰ ٱبْن جَعْفَر ٱلْكَاظِم عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام


Abu al-Hasan I
أَبُو ٱلْحَسَن ٱلْأَوَّل

  • al-Kāẓim
    (ٱلْكَاظِم)
    (The Confined)
744–799


128–183


Al-Abwa’, Hijaz

Leader of the Shia community during the schism of Ismailis, and other branches such as Waqifis, after the death of the former Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq. He established the network of agents who collected khums in the Shia community of the Middle East and the Greater Khorasan. He holds a high position with the Mahdavia; the members of these orders trace their lineage to Muhammad the Prophet if Islam through him. Imprisoned and poisoned in Baghdad, Iraq on the order of Caliph Harun al-Rashid, according to Shia belief.


Buried in the Al-Kazimiyah Mosque in Baghdad, Iraq.

8 Ali ibn Musa
ٱلْإِمَام عَلِيّ ٱبْن مُوسَىٰ ٱلرِّضَا عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام


Abu al-Hasan II
أَبُو ٱلْحَسَن ٱلثَّانِي

  • ar-Riḍā
    (ٱلرِّضَا)
    (The Pleasing)
765–817


148–203


Madinah, Hijaz

Made crown-prince by Caliph Al-Ma’mun, and famous for his discussions with both Muslim and non-Muslim religious scholars. According to Shia sources, he was poisoned in Mashad, Iran on the order of Caliph Al-Ma’mun.


Buried in the Imam Rida Mosque in Mashad, Iran.

9 Muhammad ibn Ali
ٱلْإِمَام مُحَمَّد ٱبْن عَلِيّ ٱلْجَوَّاد عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام


Abu Ja’far
أَبُو جَعْفَر

  • al-Jawwād
    (ٱلْجَوَّاد)
    (The Generous)
  • at-Taqīy
    (ٱلتَّقِيّ)
    (The God-Fearing)
810–835


195–220


Madinah, Hijaz

Famous for his generosity and piety in the face of persecution by the Abbasid caliphate. Poisoned by his wife, Al-Ma’mun’s daughter, in Baghdad, Iraq on the order of Caliph Al-Mu’tasim.


Buried in the Al-Kazimiyah Mosque in Baghdad, Iraq.

10 Ali ibn Muhammad
ٱلْإِمَام عَلِيّ ٱبْن مُحَمَّد ٱلْهَادِي عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام


Abu al-Hasan III
أَبُو ٱلْحَسَن ٱلثَّالِث

  • al-Hādī
    (ٱلْهَادِي)
    (The Guide)
  • an-Naqīy
    (ٱلنَّقِيّ)
    (The Pure)
827–868


212–254


Surayya, a village near Madinah, Hijaz

Strengthened the network of deputies in the Shia community. He sent them instructions, and received in turn financial contributions of the faithful from the khums and religious vows. He was poisoned in Samarra, Iraq on the order of Caliph Al-Mu’tazz.


Buried in the Al Askari Mosque in Samarra, Iraq.

11 Hasan ibn Ali
ٱلْإِمَام ٱلْحَسَن ٱبْن عَلِيّ ٱلْعَسْكَرِيّ عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام


Abu al-Mahdi
أَبُو ٱلْمَهْدِيّ

  • al-ʿAskarīy
    (ٱلْعَسْكَرِيّ)
    (The Garrison Town One)
846–874


232–260


Madinah, Hijaz

For most of his life, the Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mu’tamid, placed restrictions on him after the death of his father. Repression of the Shia population was particularly high at the time due to their large size and growing power. He was poisoned on the order of Caliph Al-Mu’tamid in Samarra, Iraq.


Buried in Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, Iraq.

12 Hujjat Allah ibn al-Hasan
ٱلْإِمَام حُجَّة ٱللَّٰه ٱبْن ٱلْحَسَن ٱلْمَهْدِيّ عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام


Abu al-Qasim
أَبُو ٱلْقَاسِم

  • al-Mahdīy
    (ٱلْمَهْدِيّ)
    (The Guided)
  • al-Qāʾim
    (ٱلْقَائِم)
    (The Riser)
  • al-Ghāʾib
    (ٱلْغَائِب)
    (The Hidden)
  • al-Ḥujjah ʾĀl Muḥammad
    (ٱلْحُجَّة آل مُحَمَّد)
    (The Proof of the House of Muhammad)
869–present


255–present


Samarra, Iraq

According to Twelver Shia doctrine, he is the current Imam and the promised Mahdi, a messianic figure who will return with the prophet Isa (Jesus). He will reestablish the rightful governance of Islam and establish justice and peace in the whole earth. According to Twelver Shia doctrine, he has been living in the Occultation since 874, and will continue as long as God wills.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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