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Twelver Shī‘ism and the Problem of the Hidden Imām

The disappearance of the twelfth Imām in 874 plunged the Twelvers (then Imāmīs) into a prolonged state of crisis.

It took generations for the community to arrive at a consensus regarding the number of Imāms and the eschatological implications of occultation. This chapter examines the subsequent development of Twelver Shī‘ism, which culminated in the adoption of a modified Mu‘tazilī theological edifice, the development of a rationalist legal system, and the growth of the authority of scholars. Specifically, it documents three seminal transformations in Twelver Shī‘ism: (i) the rise of Mu‘tazilī theology and systematic legal reasoning in the aftermath of the Imām’s occultation, (ii) the far-reaching impact of Safavid patronage of Twelver Shī‘ism in Iran beginning in the sixteenth century, and (iii) the victory of rationalist (uṣūlī) over traditionist (akhbārī) legal discourse late in the eighteenth century. Although the chapter is organized chronologically, there are places where thematic concerns require a return to the preoccultation period.

Before 874, the forebears of the Twelver Shī‘a had a visible and (mostly) accessible Imām who provided guidance on uncertain or ambiguous issues. As detailed in Chapters 1 and 2, the Twelvers viewed the Imāmate as a necessary consequence of the end of prophethood. The Imām’s interpretations were considered authoritative, and they guaranteed that the Muslim community remained on the proper path. This section examines the devolution of authority in the postoccultation period from an Imām to a class of religious scholars who relied primarily on rational discourse.

About the Author

Najam Haider, a Professor in the Department of Religion, completed his PhD at Princeton University (2007), M.Phil. at Oxford University (2000), and BA at Dartmouth College (1997). His courses bridge the gap between the classical and modern Muslim worlds with a particular emphasis on the impact of colonization and modernity on Islamic political and religious discourse. Prof. Haider’s research interests include early Islamic history, the methodology and development of Islamic law, and Shi‘ism.

Bibliographic Information

Title: Twelver Shī‘ism and the Problem of the Hidden Imām

Author(s): Najam Haider

Published in: Shīʻī Islam: An Introduction

 Language: English

Length: 11 page

Shi’i Islam an Introduction by Najam Haider

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