Islamic Studies Twelver Shiʿa
Andrew A. Newman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0077


Shiʿi Muslims believe that after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE, his cousin and son-in-law ʿAli (d. 661) inherited Muhammad’s spiritual and political authority over the ummah (the Muslim community). Thus, the Shiʿa reject the succession of the first three of Muhammad’s successors (khalifah, caliph) until ʿAli himself became caliph (665–661). After ʿAli’s assassination, the Shiʿa believe that the succession lay with his male descendants. Each of these men is called “Imam.” At present some 10–15 percent of the world’s 1 billion Muslims are Shiʿites. The largest of the Shiʿi groups extant in the early 21st century are the Twelver Shiʿa. The Twelvers believe that the spiritual-politico leadership of the community (the Imamate) was transferred down through ʿAli’s male descendants until the twelfth Imam, understood to have been born in 869. He is believed to be the Mahdi, and understood to be alive but in hiding from a few years after his birth. He is to return when deemed appropriate by Allah. In Iran, except for a brief hiatus in the 18th century, Twelver Shiʿism has been the established faith since the early 16th century. The faith forms the basis of the present-day Islamic Republic, which came into being in 1979. As of 2010, nearly 90 percent of 70 million Iranians are professing Twelvers. Elsewhere, the majority of Iraqi and Bahrayni Muslims also profess the Twelver faith. Twelvers also form sizeable minorities in Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, and areas in eastern Africa. They are also found in Afghanistan, Nigeria, Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America.

General Overviews

Momen 1985 discusses all major Shiʿi groups, their historical evolution within Islamic history, their recent history, and their key, distinguishing doctrines and practices. This work also includes detailed maps, demographic data, photographs, and an excellent bibliography of secondary sources. The author is especially careful to discuss non-Iranian Shiʿi communities. Although the volume is dated, it does give a good indication of the state of the field prior to and in the immediate aftermath of the Iranian Revolution. Halm 1991 is a good introduction to the history and key doctrines of the Twelvers, Ismaʿilis, and Zaydis. Richard 1995 is a translation of the author’s 1991 L’islam chi’ite: Croyances et ideologies. The volume conveys not only useful information but something of the distinctive “ambiance” of the faith as well. From the faith’s practitioners also come a series of useful volumes. Modarressi Tabatabaʾi 1984 offers an excellent overview of the key periods and names in the history of Twelver law. Tabatabaʾi 1975 was the first introductory work on the faith written for a foreign audience. Shomali 2003 is a brief but succinct introduction to the faith’s distinctive doctrines. Sobhani 2001 is a similarly useful introduction to the faith.

  • Halm, Heinz. Shiism. Translated by Janet Watson. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991.

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    A good, brief introduction to Twelver, Ismaʿili, and Zaydi Shiʿism. A translation of a 1987 German volume. The work addresses the history and key doctrines of the Twelvers, Ismaʿilis, and Zaydis. Useful bibliographies follow sections. The volume is a bit heavy-going for beginners.

  • Modarressi Tabatabaʾi, Hossein. An Introduction to Shiʿi Law: A Bibliographical Study. London: Ithaca, 1984.

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    This offers an excellent discussion of the different periods of and key trends within Shiʿi law from the period of the Imams to the Islamic Revolution. Excellent bibliography of the major primary source (i.e., Arabic- and Persian-language) materials and their authors.

  • Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shiʿi Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shiʿism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.

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    Still an excellent introduction to Shiʿism, and Twelver Shiʿism in particular. The first paperback edition appeared in 1987. Another paperback edition appeared in 1999, published by George Ronald.

  • Richard, Yann. Shiʿite Islam, Polity, Ideology, and Creed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

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    A useful introduction to Shiʿism that also captures something of the atmosphere of the faith.

  • Shomali, Mohammad Ali. Shiʿi Islam, Origins, Faith and Practices. London: Islamic College for Advanced Studies, 2003.

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    A concise introduction to the faith by a graduate of the Seminary in Qum and a holder of a PhD from the University of Manchester (UK).

  • Sobhani, Ayatatollah Jaʿfar. Doctrines of Shiʿi Islam: A Compendium of Imami Beliefs and Practices. Edited and translated by Reza Shaj-Kazemi. London: I.B. Tauris, in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2001.

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    The author is a senior member of the Council of Mujtahids in the Seminary in Qum, and director of the Imam Sadiq Institute. This is an equally valuable introductory volume that also addresses the faith’s distinctive doctrines and practices.

  • Tabatabaʾi, Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn. Shiʿite Islam. Translated by Sayyid Hossein Nasr. Persian Studies 5. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1975.

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    This was the first general introduction to the faith—its history, key doctrines, and practices, including a section on “temporary marriage”—written for a foreign audience by a major figure in the faith. The author died in 1982. In the preface, Nasr, a key figure in the development of the field of “Shiʿi studies,” argues that Shiʿism should be understood as essentially an esoteric faith.

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