Who are the twelve Imams in Shia
The 12 Imams along with Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) and his daughter Fatimah al-Zahra (a.s) make up the 14 Infallibles who are Divinely guided leaders and the holiest people in Islam.
They are known as the Ahlulbayt (People of the Household) and the first 5 are especially significant.
They are Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w), Imam Ali (a.s), Fatima al-Zahra (a.s), Imam Hasan (a.s) and Imam Husayn (a.s).
They not only helped the Prophet, but guided the Muslim community after the Prophet’s death.
The remaining 9 Imams continued this divine guidance, particularly through scholarship. All Muslims respect them because of their knowledge and piety and divinely ordained rank and position in Islam.
They are the leaders and supreme personalities in Islam.
The full list is:
1. Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) [570 – 632AD]
2. Lady Fatimah al-Zahra (a.s) [614 – 632AD]
3. Imam Ali (a.s) [600 – 661AD]
4. Imam Hasan (a.s) [625 – 669AD/3-50AH]
5. Imam Muhammad Al-Baqir (a.s) [676-733 AD]
6. Imam Husayn (a.s) [626 – 680AD/4-61AH]
7. Imam Ali Zayn al-Abidin (a.s) (also al-Sajjad) [659 – 712AD/38-95AH]
8. Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (a.s) [676 – 743AD/57-114AH]
9. Imam Jafar al-Sadiq (a.s) [702 – 765AD/83-148AH]
10. Imam Musa al-Kadhim (a.s) [745 – 799AD/128-183AH]
11. Imam Ali al-Ridha [765 – 818AD/148-203AH]
12. Imam Muhammad al-Jawad (a.s) (also al-Taqi) [811 – 835AD/195-220AH]
13. Imam Ali al-Hadi (a.s) (also al-Naqi) [828 – 868AD/212-254AH]
14. Imam Hasan al-Askari (a.s) [846 – 874AD/232-260AH]
15. Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi (a.s), who is currently living, but concealed by the will of God. [869 AD– present/255AH- present]
AH denotes ‘After Hijra’
They are known as ‘Masum’ meaning Infallible/‘sinless’ because they did not commit any sins during their lives. Muslims, particularly the Shi’a, regard each Infallible as the legitimate Imam to follow as each Imam was appointed by the preceding Imam.
Whilst respecting the Infallibles, some Muslims, believe other sons of the Imams were more befitting in taking on the mantle of leadership and guidance, contrary to the instructions of the previous Imam. As such, from time of the 6th Imam onwards, different Muslim sects emerge.
Shi’a Muslims revere the first 5 Infallibles who they regard as the ‘Ahlulbayt’, meaning ‘People of the Household.’
These 5 were particularly close to Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) and were involved in some of the key events in Muslim history such as Ghadir Khumm and the tragedy of Karbala, where Husayn was brutally martyred by Yazid, son of Muawiyah, for defending the principles of Islam.
The status of these 5 Infallibles is emphasised in the 'Narration of the Cloak' (Hadith al-Kisa), a narration which Shi’a Muslims recite on happy occasions and the event of Mubahala to name just two.
The 12 Infallibles regarded as Imams were also leaders, scholars and social reformers. Shi’a Muslims believe each Imam, though not receiving revelation directly from Allah, received inspiration from Allah and that is why they possessed profound knowledge and morality.
For example the 6th Infallible, Jafar al-Sadiq, taught thousands of students in subjects ranging from law and theology to mathematics and science. Jabir, son of Hayyan (known as Geber in the Western science) is one of the Imam's many famous students who pioneered mathematics and chemistry.
Abu Hanifa, the founder of the Hanafi Sunni school of thought and Malik, son of Anas and founder of the Maliki Sunni school of thought, were also his students. Shi’a Muslims believe the 12 Imams are an unbreakable link to Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) as the divinely inspired inheritors and disseminators of true knowledge and correct Islamic morals. Part of their mission was to teach the correct interpretation of the Qur'an and ensure that the authentic message of Islam would remain intact.
The place of the 12 Imams and the 14 Infallibles in Islam
Overall, the 14 Infallibles hold a special place in Islam because of their intellectual and spiritual contribution to their society and in the advancement of Islamic sciences. Their actions and work still need to be further researched especially in light of their notable texts like Zayn al Abidin’s ‘Al-Sahifa al-Sajjadiyyah’ (The book of Sajjad) and Imam Ali's (a.s) ‘Nahj al-Balagha’ (The Peak of Eloquence), to mention just two.