one of the questions that has been the subject of much discussion between Shi'i and Sunni scholars is the Imamate of the Most Excellent. The Sunni position is that if someone can be found to exist in the ranks of the ummah who is unequalled with respect to virtue, knowledge, and piety, someone less excellent than he may still legitimately become leader of the community and exercise the functions of successor to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him and his family.
In order to prove their point, they cite the caliphate of Abu Bakr and 'Umar, and they maintain that although 'Ali b. Abi Talib, peace be upon him, was present at the time and his worthiness and perfection were far more apparent than those of anyone else, the Companions nonetheless selected Abu Bakr as successor to the Prophet.
The Shi'ah believe that the Imamate constitutes an extension of prophethood in its spiritual dimension. The one who after the death of the Prophet is to serve as an authority for the Muslims in their learning the ordinances and principles of religion, who is to settle newly occurring problems for which no precedent can be found in the Qur'an and the Sunnah, whose words are to be a decisive criterion such a one must indubitably be more excellent than all others in his virtues and perfections. When God s e l e c ts someone as the teacher of humanity and the guide of the ummah, to expound His laws, to interpret the complexities of the Qur'an, and to defend the truth and develop the personality of the ummah, He entrusts this position to an exceptional and inerrant person who is utterly unique in his spiritual qualities, his outer and inner attributes, his communication with the world of the unseen. Such a person perceives the inner truth of things with his inner eye and is always oriented to the truth in such a way that his faith is never corrupted and his deeds never deviate from the right path.
The Imam is therefore the most excellent being of his time, the foremost of all his contemporaries. Imam al-Rida, peace be upon him, says the following concerning the distinctive qualities of the Imam:
The Imam is utterly free of sin and pure of all fault. He is celebrated for his knowledge and his forbearance. His existence is a source of pride to the Muslims, of anger to the hypocrites, of perdition to the unbelievers. The Imam is unique in his age, in the sense that no one can attain his rank. No scholar can come within range of his knowledge, and he is unequalled in all his qualities. He possesses all virtues and worthy attributes without any striving on his part, and he is adorned with all lofty characteristics. This is a great gift bestowed on him by God in His generosity.
The First Imam, 'Ali (b. A.D. 600, d. A.H. 40/A.D. 661)
He was the son of the Prophet's paternal uncle, Abu Talib, who had raised the Prophet like his own son and protected him after he declared his mission. According to the Shi'ites, 'Ali was the first to accept the new religion at the hands of the Prophet, at the age of ten. He was the greatest warrior of early Islam, and according to his partisans was appointed by the Prophet as his successor at a place known as ''Ghadir al-Khumm. He became the fourth Sunni caliph, the last of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, after the death of 'Uthman. He was finally assassinated by followers of the Khawarij (an early schismatic sect), after five years as caliph. He is buried in Najaf in Iraq.
II. The Second Imam, al-Hasan (3/62 -50/670)
He was the elder son of 'Ali by the Prophet's daughter Fatimah. He laid claim to the caliphate for some six months after the death of his father, but was finally forced to surrender it to Mu'awiyah. For the rest of his life, he lived in Medina in seclusion. He is buried in the Baq'i cemetery in Medina.
III. The Third Imam, al-Husayn (4/62 -6I/680)
The younger son of 'Ali by Fatimah, like his brother he lived most of his life quietly in Medina under the watchful eyes of the caliph's officials and spies. When Mu'awiyah's son Yazid became caliph, he demanded allegiance from al-Husayn, who refused to give it. Finally al-Husayn felt it necessary to go into battle against Yazid to protest against the injustices which were being carried out in the name of Islam. He and a small group of followers including most of his immediate family were cruelly massacred at Karbala the day of his martyrdom ('Ashura) has become the most solemn day of the Shi'ite calendar, marked by processions and universal mourning. Its celebration symbolizes the whole ethos of Shi'ism. He is buried in Karbala in Iraq.
IV. The Fourth Imam, 'Ali, known as Zayn al-'Abidin and al-Sajjad (38/65895/7I2)
The son of Imam al-Husayn by the daughter of Yazdigird, the last Sassanid king of Iran, he was not able to carry arms at Karbala because of illness, and thus he was saved the fate of his three brothers. For most of his life he lived in seclusion in Medina, having contact with only a few s e l e c t followers. His piety-which is reflected in his collected prayers, al-Sahifat al-sajjadiyyah-is proverbial. He is buried in the Baqi' cemetery in Medina.
V. The Fifth Imam, Muhammad, known as al-Baqir (57/675II4/732)
The son of the fourth Imam, he was present at Karbala at a young age. Because of changing political and religious conditions, among them the general revulsion following the events at Karbala, many people came to Medina to learn the religious and spiritual sciences from him. He trained numerous well-known men of religion, and mainly for this reason is the first Imam after 'Ali from whom large numbers of traditions are recorded. He is buried in the Baqi' cemetery in Medina.
VI. The Sixth Imam, Ja'far, known as al-Sadiq (83/702-148/765)
The son of the fifth Imam, he lived in an increasingly favorable climate and was able to teach openly in Medina. Large numbers of scholars gathered around him to learn, including such famous Sunni figures as Abu Hanifah, the founder of one of the four Sunni schools of law. Towards the end of Imam Ja'far's life severe restrictions were placed upon his activities, as a result of growing Shi'ite unrest. More traditions are recorded from him than from all the other Imams together. He is so important for Twelve-Imam Shi'ite law that it is named the Ja'fari School after him. He is buried in the Baqi' cemetery in Medina.
VII. The Seventh Imam, Musa, entitled al-Kazim (128/744-183/799)
The son of the sixth Imam, he was contemporary with such Abbasid caliphs as al-Mansur and Harun al-Rashid. He lived most of his life in Medina with severe restrictions placed upon him and finally died in prison in Baghdad. After him, the Imams were often not able to live in their traditional home of Medina, but were forced to remain near the caliph in Baghdad or Samarra. He is buried in Kazimayn in Iraq.
VIII. The Eighth Imam, 'Ali, known as al-Rida (148/765-203/817)
The son of the seventh Imam, he lived in a period when the Abbasids were faced with increasing difficulties because of Shi'ite revolts. Finally, the caliph al-Ma'mun thought he would solve the problem by naming the Imam as his own successor, hoping thus to ensnare him in worldly affairs and turn the devotion of his followers away from him. After finally being able to persuade al-Rida to accept, al-Ma'mun realized his mistake, for Shi'ism began to spread even more rapidly. Finally he is said to have had the Imam poisoned. Al-Rida is buried in Mashhad in Iran.
IX. The Ninth Imam, Muhammad, known as al-Taqi (195/809-220/835)
The son of the eighth Imam, he was given the daughter of the caliph al-Ma'mun in marriage and for a time was kept by the caliph in Baghdad. But he was able to return to Medina until the end of al-Ma'mun's reign. The new caliph, al-Mu'tasim, summoned him back to Baghdad where he died. He is buried in Kazimayn in Iraq.
X. The Tenth Imam, 'Ali, known as al-Naqi (212/827-254/868)
The son of the ninth Imam, he remained in Medina teaching the religious sciences until 243/857, when he was summoned to Samarra by the caliph al-Mutawakkil. There he was treated harshly by the caliph and his successors until he died. He is buried in Samarra.
XI. The Eleventh Imam, al-Hasan, called al-'Askari (232/845-260/872)
The son of the tenth Imam, he lived in close confinement in Samarra under the watchful eye of the caliph, especially since it was known that the Shi'ites were awaiting his son, the twelfth Imam, who was to be the promised Mahdi or guided one, destined to remove injustice from the world. The eleventh Imam married the daughter of the Byzantine emperor, Nargis Khatun, who, following instructions given her in a dream, had sold herself into slavery to become his wife. He is buried in Samarra.
XII. The Twelfth Imam, Muhammad, known as al-Mahdi (b. 256/868)
The twelfth Imam lived in hiding under the protection and tutelage of his father until the latter's death. Then he went into occultation. In other words, he became hidden from the eyes of ordinary men and appeared only to his Deputies (see p. 92.)
In the year 329/939 his greater occultation began. It will continue as long as God wills, but when he does appear once again, he will erase evil and injustice from the world.