The Twelve Imams are the spiritual and political successors to the Islamic prophet Muhammadin the Twelver or Athnā‘ashariyyah branch of Shia Islam and in Alevi Islam. According to the theology of Twelvers, the Twelve Imams are exemplary human individuals who not only rule over the community with justice, but also are able to keep and interpret sharia and the esoteric meaning of the Quran. Muhammad and Imams’ words and deeds are a guide and model for the community to follow; as a result, they must be free from error and sin, known as Ismah or infallibility and must be chosen by divine decree, or nass, through the Prophet.
The belief of Imamah
It is believed in Twelver Shia Islam that ‘aql, divine wisdom, is the source of the souls of the Prophets and Imams and gives them esoteric knowledge called Hikmah and that their sufferings are a means of divine grace to their devotees. Although the Imam is not the recipient of a divine revelation, he has a close relationship with God, through which God guides him, and the Imam in turn guides the people. The Imams are also guided by secret texts in their possession, such as al-Jafr and al-Jamia. Imamate, or belief in the divine guide is a fundamental belief in the Twelver Shia doctrine and is based on the concept that God would not leave humanity without access to divine guidance.
According to Twelvers, there is always an Imam of the Age, who is the divinely appointed authority on all matters of faith and law in the Muslim community. Ali was the first of the Twelve Imams, and, in the Twelvers’ view, the rightful successor to Muhammad, followed by male descendants of Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah. Each Imam was the son of the previous Imam, with the exception of Husayn ibn Ali, who was the brother of Hasan ibn Ali. The twelfth and final Imam is Muhammad al-Mahdi, who is believed by the Twelvers to be currently alive, and hidden in the Major Occultation until he returns to bring justice to the world. It is believed by Twelver Shia and Alevi Muslims that the Twelve Imams have been foretold in the Hadith of the Twelve Successors. All of the Imams met unnatural deaths, with the exception of the last Imam, who according to Twelver and Alevi belief, is living in occultation.
The Twelve Imams also have a leading role within some Sufi orders and are seen as the spiritual heads of Islam, because most of the Silsila (spiritual chain) of Sufi orders lead back to one of the Twelve Imams.