Imāmate of the Twelve Imāms (a) (Arabic: إمامة الأئمة الاثني عشر) refers to divine guardianship and special wilaya of the twelve successors of the Seal of the Prophets (s). According to Twelver Shi’a teachings, twelve infallible ones among the Ahl al-Bayt (a) of the Prophet (s) have guardianship and imamate over others and they are appointed to this position by God. Thus, the Twelver Shi’a are also called Ithna ‘Ashari Shi’a.
The names of the Twelve Imams, in order of their imamate, are: Ali (a), al-Hasan (a), al-Husayn (a), Ali (a), Muhammad (a), Ja’far (a), Musa (a), Ali (a), Muhammad (a), Ali (a), al-Hasan (a), and Muhammad (a).
Proofs for Imamate can be categorized into two groups: hadiths, and Imams’ (a) qualities.
One of the proofs for the imamate of the twelve Imams (a) is the hadiths in which the number of the Prophet’s (s) caliphs are restricted to twelve people, all of whom are from Quraysh. In addition to Shi’a references, these hadiths are also mentioned in Sunni references such as Sahih Muslim, Sahih Ibn Hibban, Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, Sunan Ibn Dawud, Sunan Ibn Maja, Musnad Ibn Hanbal, Musnad Ibn Ja’d, Musnad Abu Ya’la, Kanz al-‘ummal.
In some of these hadiths, the Prophet (s) mentioned these twelve persons as “Ithna ‘Ashar Khalifa” [the Twelve caliphs] such as the hadith, “After me, there will be twelve caliphs who are from Quraysh”; or saying “this religion will be powerful and invincible as long as twelve caliphs rule it.” And “Islam will be standing until twelve caliphs rule, who are all from Quraysh” and other such hadiths.
In some hadiths, the Prophet (s) called imams after him as “Ithna ‘Ashar Amiran” [the Twelve Emirs].
In some other hadiths, the number of the Prophet’s (s) caliphs are considered the same as the Chieftains of Banu Israel after Moses (a), such as in, “the number of caliphs after me is the same as the number of the chiefs of Banu Isra’il” and that “the caliphs after me are twelve the same as the number of the chiefs of Banu Isra’il.”
Some Sunni researchers have said that twelve people from the Ahl al-Bayt (a) are meant by the twelve people mentioned in hadiths because the people in these hadiths cannot be matched with other people, neither with the caliphs after the Prophet (s), since they are less than twelve people, nor with Umayyad rulers, since they were more than twelve. Moreover, Umayyad rulers were very tyranting and they were not Hashemite.
The twelve people mentioned in hadiths cannot be matched with Abbasid caliphs either since they were more than twelve.
Therefore, inevitably, these hadiths from the Prophet (s) would only match the twelve Imams (a) from the Ahl al-Bayt (a) of the Prophet (s), because they were superior to others in knowledge, dignity, God-wariness, and lineage. Hadith al-Thaqalayn and similar hadiths are proofs for the fact that by the twelve imams, the Prophet (s) actually meant twelve people of his Ahl al-Bayt (a).
The second type of hadiths are those in which, the Prophet (s) has mentioned the number of his caliphs as twelve, has introduced them and also said that they are from his Ahl al-Bayt (a). These hadiths are in some groups:
1. In the first group of such hadiths, Imam ‘Ali (a) is mentioned as the first Imam and Imam al-Mahdi (a) as the last Imam, such as in, “The Imams after me are twelve; first one of whom is ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (a) and the last one is the Upriser (al-Qa’im). Obeying them is obeying me and disobeying them is disobeying me. Anyone who denies them has denied me.”
Elsewhere, he (s) said, “The Imams after me are twelve; first one of whom is ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (a) and their last one is the Upriser (a) (al-Qa’im). They are my successors and caliphs, and friends and divine proofs over my people after me. Those who acknowledge their imamate is a believer and those who deny them are disbelievers.”
2. The second group of hadiths are those in which, the Prophet (s) has mentioned nine Imams after himself from the progeny of Imam al-Husayn (a), the last one of whom is the Upriser (a) (al-Qa’im).
Abu Dharr narrated from the Prophet (s) that, “Imams (a) after me are twelve; nine of whom are from the progeny of Imam al-Husayn (a) and the ninth of whom is their Upriser (a) (al-Qa’im). Beware that the Twelve Imams (a) among you are like the Arc of Noah (a), anyone who boards it, will survive and anyone who does not boaed it, will perish.”
3. In another group of hadiths, the Prophet (s) only mentions the common names among Imams (a) such as, “Imams (a) after me are twelve, first one of whom is Ali (a), the fourth of whom is ‘Ali (a), the eighth of whom is ‘Ali (a), the tenth of whom is ‘Ali (a), and their last one is al-Mahdi.” Or the hadith saying that, “Imams after me are twelve persons of the Ahl al-Bayt (a), the first of whom is ‘Ali (a) and the middle one of whom is Muhammad (a) and the last one of whom is Muhammad (a), and he (a) is the al-Mahdi of my people, whom Jesus (a), son of Mary (a), will follow in prayer.”
4. In the final group of hadiths, the Prophet (s) introduced the Twelve Imams (a) with their names and titles in full.
In a hadith known as the hadith al-Lawh, the names of the Twelve Imams (a) are mentioned with their special descriptions.
The third proof of the imamate of Imams (a) is their infallibility. In some hadiths, Imams (a) of Ahl al-Bayt (a) are mentioned having the merit of infallibility. These hadiths in fact refer to the rational argument for the imamate of Imams (a) of the Ahl al-Bayt (a); since, from a rational point of view, Imam (a) is required to be infallible and because no one except Imams (a) have been infallible among the people, then their imamate is proven.
Another proof for the imamate of the Twelve Imams (a) is their superiority in moral virtues; it can be explained that having superiority in perfections and unique qualities such as knowledge, infallibility, etc. over others, Imams (a) of Shi’a deserve to take the position of imamate and leadership of people. It is obvious that with their presence, prioritizing others for imamate is rationally unwise and wrong.
Besides many hadiths that allude to superiority of Imams (s), the philosophy of imamate requires that due to the significance of the mission imam has about the guidance and leadership of people in religion and worldly matters, imam should be superior and most competent of all people so that they consider him as a role model in all perfections and follow him. This requires the purity of Imam and his possession of most noble of human manners and merits. From this point of view, anyone of the Twelve Imams (a) of the Shi’a have been so perfect in their time that the greatness of their character has been acknowledged by anyone and even those who debated or argued with them would express humbleness against their scientific and spiritual grandeur.
Another proof for the imamate of the Twelve Imams (a) of the Shi’a is the miracles and wonders they (a) made. Making such miracles have been of the following types:
And many more acts of wonder reported from Imams (a) and mentioned in authentic historical and hadith references such as al-Kafi, Ibn Shahr Ashub’s al-Manaqib, al-Mas’udi’s Ithbat al-wasiyya, al-Tabari’s Dala’il al-imama, etc.
Making such acts of wonder by the infallible Imams (a) which has been accompanied with the claim of Imamate is a proof for their Imamate, the same way the Prophet’s (s) miracles were a definite proof for the validity of their claim of prophethood.