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Ithna Ashari

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Ithna Ashari

    Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 , Shi'i Muslims split into factions over a disagreement about the number of true imams who had descended from Muhammad. The Zaydis recognized five imams and thus are called Fivers; the Ismailis recognized seven imams and are known as Seveners; the Ithna Ashari recognized twelve imams and are called the Twelvers. The Ithna Ashari form the largest subgroup of Shi'i Muslims, comprising a majority in present-day Iran. They also exist in large numbers in Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain.

    After the death of sixth imam Jafar al-Sadiq in 765 , the Ismailis, who believe that Jafar's son Ismail was the seventh imam, broke away from the majority who recognized Ismail's younger brother (Musa al-Kazim) as the seventh imam. The twelfth imam in the Ithna Ashari line, Muhammad al-Muntazar al-Mahdi (Muhammad the “Awaited One” and “Divinely-Guided One”) disappeared in 874 while he was still a child. Because he was too young to have fathered any children, his followers faced the problem of finding a successor. They established the doctrine of the Hidden Imam, which states that the twelfth imam never died but will remain in an unseen spiritual form, known as occultation, until the end of time. The Ithna Ashari, or Twelvers, believe that the Hidden Imam will return at the end of the world as the Mahdi, a divinely guided leader, who will restore justice and equality on earth.

    Twelvers acknowledge mujtahids as deputies of the Hidden Imam, who interpret Islamic law using independent reasoning. The most respected of these leaders are the ayatollahs, a title that means “signs of God.” The role of the ayatollahs is to provide guidance to the faithful while they await the coming of the Mahdi. See also Ismaili; Shi'i Islam; Titles, Honorific.

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