Shia Diversity: Twelvers, Fivers, Seveners

As Shiism spread over time and space it became culturally diverse. This enriched Shia life and thought and added new dimensions to the faith’s historical development that went beyond its roots in the Arab heartland of Islam. The practice of the faith itself adapted to new cultures as its message spread eastward from the Arab lands to Iran and India. Succession crises through the ages led to offshoots that broke away from the main body of Shiism—also known as Twelvers, for recognizing twelve imams. Following the death of the fourth imam in the eighth century; a minority followed one claimant to the imamate who rose in rebellion against the Umayyads. They are known as Zaydis (named after Zayd ibn Ali), or Fivers, for following only five imams. Today most Zaydis live in Yemen and are closer to Sunnism in their practice of Islam.

A graver schism occurred after the death of the sixth imam, the law codifier Jafar al-Sadiq, in 765 C.E. Jafar’s eldest son, Ismail, had died before his father. A group of Shias claimed that Ismail had inherited his father’s religious charisma while both men were still alive. Others disputed this and located the succession in a living younger son. Those who affirmed the charisma of Ismail came to be known as Ismailis or Seveners, for breaking off from the main body of Shiism after the seventh imam.

Ismailis remained a small denomination, but one that accentuated the cult of the imams and emphasized their function of revealing the inner meaning of Islam. They had an esoteric bent and became immersed in philosophy and mystical practices, eventually breaking with some of the fundamental teachings of Shiism and even Islam. In the tenth century, Ismailis rose to power in Egypt and founded the Fatimid dynasty (909–1171). The Fatimids left an imprint not only on Cairo’s Islamic architecture but also on Islam in Egypt, where the level of special devotion to the Prophet’s family is more intense than anywhere else in the Sunni world. The Ismailis also produced the cult of the Assassins in the twelfth century, when Ismaili warriors terrorized Iran’s then Sunni leadership.

The descendants of Ismail and the Fatimids continue to serve as living imams of that community. The current imam is Prince Karim Aga Khan, who looks after his community’s welfare from his seat in Paris. Ismailis pay tithe to the Aga Khan, who in turn oversees his flock, guiding them in religious matters as well as ensuring their material prosperity. The Aga Khan has built universities, schools, and hospitals in Ismaili communities and used his influence with kings and presidents, generals and businessmen to further the interests of Ismailis wherever they live.

There are Arab Ismaili communities—for instance, in the remote Najran province of Saudi Arabia—but in recent centuries Ismailis have largely been an Indo-Iranian community. Most Ismailis have traditionally lived in a circular pattern of settlement that runs from India into western China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, northeastern Iran, and back down into Pakistan. The fall of the Soviet Union and certain openings in China have allowed the Ismailis to form renewed ties across this vast arc and the many international borders that it traverses. Under the British Raj, India’s Ismaili merchants did well and often migrated along imperial trade routes. Many settled in British East Africa and formed the merchant classes of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Africanization campaigns in that region in the 1970s—the worst one was part of the reign of terror that gripped Uganda under the dictator Idi Amin—sent many Afro-Indian Ismailis into exile. Some went to the United States or Britain, but most migrated to Canada. Over the centuries Ismailis have spun off smaller communities, including the Bohras of India, and have deeply influenced other small offshoots of Shiism, such as the Druze of the Levant, the Yezidis of Iraq, and the Alawi of Syria and Alevis of Turkey.

SOURCE: The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future, by Vali Nasr (W. W. Norton, 2006), pp. 75-77


Filed under Afghanistan, Iran, Islam, Turkey

7 responses to “Shia Diversity: Twelvers, Fivers, Seveners

  1. khadija

    I am trying to understand how shism works. How do you calm to be muslim if you recognize that Nabi Muhammad peace and blessing be upon him has said that he IS the seal of the prophets and know will come after. But the twelvers as you call them follow a person who refers to him self as the gate. and changes the laws that Allah ta ala has sent down. In his writtings he refers to himself, as the glory of Allah. I am shocked at such behavior.

    • Nasir

      I am a Suuni but I have never heared a Shia claiming that any of the 12 Imams were also Prophet.

    • Ismaili student

      Hi, Khadija. As a Shia Imami Nizari Ismaili Muslim, I can try to help answer your questions.

      Although Ismailis believe Muhammad is the seal of prophets, we don’t believe he is the last to guide the followers. By “seal” we believe that he is the last messenger, yes, but that does not mean for us that he is the last True Guide. For Ismailis, the guidance provided by Mohammad continues through the divinely-appointed Ali, and consequently through all the Imams that descend from him. The difference is that the imams do not reveal new revelations, but uphold the revelations and guide the community through them. This is why the imams are called the gate (bab) because they serve as the gate which uphold the revelations revealed by the prophet through which Ismailis can reach spiritual happiness and upliftment. Thus, the imams are the continuation of the prophet’s guidance.

      Going off of this, Ismailis do not believe that the imams alter any of the laws sent down by Allah. Ismaili beliefs are grounded in the esoteric, the inner meaning of the Qur’an. Sure, the imams may alter the outward laws i.e., ritualistic practices based on the needs of the community as time changes, but they do not alter the esoteric essence of the revelations at all. These are what constitute the true meaning of the Qur’an for Ismailis, and these are eternal and unchangeable.

      Furthermore, Ismailis believe Ali possessed the same divine position and soul as imam that manifested in Muhammad. Thus he has authority to call himself the glory of Allah. We believe all imams possess this divine soul and hold this same spiritual authority over the Ismailis and guide them on the right path.

      I hope I was able to answer your questions. For a more comprehensive understanding of Ismailis, please check out:

      Thank you

      • Arif

        You say Ali is equivalent to Mohammad interms of divine sacredness and soul BUT is this believe substantiated by Quran. What is the base that leads you to this conclusion

      • Will from Wakanda

        @ Arif Speaking as a student from Islamic history class (not a Muslim myself), I think that the Uthmanic Codex – the canonical Qur’an was compiled before the Sunni/Shii split and therefore, Ali’s divine designation as the rightful Islamic leader is a view supported by the Shii and not the Sunni. As to whether this can be found in the Qur’an, I’m pretty sure if it is stated so clearly in Qur’an then there won’t be a thousand years of split in the Muslim community.

  2. Sagie

    What book are you reading sister khadija. Try to listen to the lectures so sayed a Ammar nashawani to under the real truth. He base his lectures on hadiths after hadiths so there is no misconceptions of Shias

  3. To Ahl E Sunnah a God appointed person is for 2 reasons:-
    1- To bring revelations as the previous one is suspended or is corrupted.
    2- To come as a helper to another God appointed person in spreading the revelation as Harun A.S was to Musa A.S.
    Now that the series of revelations has stopped as Quran is the final revelation, whats the need for another God appointed person? Imam Jaffar or Imam Ismail couldnt be helpers of Muhammad S..A.W as never existed during his time. Then does it mean that the Quran is suspended and a new book is needed? or is the Quran corrupted that corrections need be made? Just for what reason did God send further appointed persons? If its not for new revelations , then?

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