Arabic: ‘ithnā ‘asharīya
1. Creed and Rituals
Shrine of Imam Ali. Kufa, Iraq.
Entrance to the shrine of Imam Musa al-Kazim. Baghdad, Iraq.
Burial procession staging a walk between Shi’i shrines, from that of Husayn and his half-brother Hazrat Abbas. Karbala, Iraq.
Women putting on the right garment before walking over the the shrine of Imam Musa al-Kazim. Baghdad, Iraq.
Tomb of Imam Ali ar-Rida. Mashhad, Iran.
Branch of Shi’iIslam, distinguished by their adherence to 12 succeeding imams, ending with Muhammad al Mahdi in the 10th century.
Twelvers are by far the largest group of Shi’is, making up around 80% of the total Shi’is. Twelvers represent the majority of Muslims in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain. They also make up large communities in Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia. The alleged Shi’is of Turkey, are not Muslims, but Alevis.
Twelver Shi’i often is referred to as just ‘Shi’i Islam’, omitting that many Shi’is are not Twelvers. This error is done in much the same manner as how ‘Islam’ often is used for only the Sunni branch. These bad simplifications are linked with classifications set down by earlier generations of Islam researchers.
As with other Shi’i branches, the line of imams is central to the definition of their group. The actual understanding of what qualifies an imam, does not differ much between the Shi’i branches.
The Twelver Shi’is have one single law school, madhhab, the Jafari school. The integration of law and theology has made Jafari Shi’ism an far from uncommon term for their orientation.
Creed and Rituals
Twelver Shi’is have built up an elaborate cult with the different imams. They are remembered with lavish tombs and mosques, to which pilgrims arrive all through the year. The imams fulfill the same functions as lesser deities in polytheistic religions. The imams are not defined as gods, but divinely guided humans. Their acts and their qualities are no less than with many gods, but they are never defined as being capable to act independently from God or even working against him nor the other imams. All are understood as aligned according to the same power, the same will.
The distinct qualities of the imams are connected to their esoteric, unique understanding of law and theology.
Pilgrimage to the tombs of the imams is in Shi’ism considered a legitimate substitute for the hajj to Mecca.
The Twelvers have their own hadith-tradition in where traditions were collected for a few centuries longer than with Sunni Islam.
Among the differences between Sunni and Shi’i law are the focus on taqiyya, the permit to lie when life and health is in danger, and mut’a, temporary marriage.
Among the foremost rituals with the Twelver is the celebration of Muharram and Ashura, which commemorates the incidents of 680, from when Shi’ism broke with the Islam of the Caliph.
Historically Twelvers have been much divided, and there was in the early periods up to 11 branches, with extremely differing opinions about the line of imams. Most of these did not adhere to the line of the 12 imams, but they all belonged to the same orientations from which the Twelvers would emerge.
In more modern times, is Twelver Shi’ism the continuation of one of 3 Shi’i orientations, the Usuli school. The two other orientations, now extict, were the Akhbari and Shaykhi schools.
The Akhbari school was rather close to the thought of Sunnism, attempting at making Twelver Shi’ism’s law system, the Jafari, the 5th school of Sunni Sharia. It was however crushed in the late 18th century.
The Shaykhi school emerged about the same time as the Akhbari was crushed. It was closer to Usuli, but allowed intuitive uncovering of knowledge. It was therefore called Kashfi by some. Shaykhi school underwent a slow change, in which each new Shaykhi leader altered the original ideas in ways that slowly moved their school closer to the Usuli. This process was completed in 1950, when their leader Falsafi wrote 25 questions to the Usuli leader, and received an answer so close to his stance that he claimed there was no longer the need of a separate school within Twelver Shi’ism.
An orientation within Twelver Shi’ism that would survive, and even establish its own religious community were the Baha’i in the middle of the 19th century.
9th century: The twelfth imam disappears from the historical accounts, and from this the Twelver line of imam ends. By this, Twelver Shi’ism enters a new stage in which their community is defined as not having its legitimate leadership.
1501: Twelver Shi’ism becomes the state religion of Iran, under the Safavid Dynasty.
1979: With the Iranian Revolution, Twelver Shi’ism becomes the state form of Iran.