Twelve Infallible Men. The Imams and the Making of Shi’ism

Twelve Infallible Men
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 Twelve Infallible Men
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Matthew Pierce
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In 2003 I took up residence in the shrine city of Qum, Iran, a center of Shiʿa learning rivaled only by Najaf.1 One of the most striking aspects of the popular religious life I encountered was the love people expressed for the imams—the twelve pure and infallible figures believed to have inherited the knowledge and wisdom of the Prophet Muhammad. Teachers, friends, and neighbors recounted stories of the imams’ remarkable achievements and tales of the suffering and oppression they endured.

 Many of these stories were set in the distant past, drawn from books about the imams’ lives or recalled from preachers’ sermons. More striking, how- ever, were the stories of the imams as actors in our present-day world, as arbiters of divine favor in the daily lives of believers. Some people en- countered imams in their dreams; others were blessed during pilgrimages to shrines.

I came away from these encounters with a profound sense that the imams who walked the earth over a thousand years ago remain present to the faithful who love them, who mourn their suffering, and who seek their guidance with confidence and devotion.

 Interestingly, the stories that I heard were not exclusively, or even primarily, focused on the most famous imams, like ʿAli or al-Husayn. Several of the imams about whom I knew little at the time, and whose historical roles seemed insignificant to outsiders, also appeared regularly in inspirational accounts.

Alongside the contemporary oral culture of stories of the imams, countless books on the holy figures’ lives are found in Shiʿa shrines, mosques, and bookstores. Ranging from small leaflets to multivolume compendiums, these texts help sustain and authenticate popular conceptions of the nature of the imams and their role in the history of Islam.

But oral and written accounts propagated today do much more than doc- ument the historical lives of the imams; they also provide a framework for meaningful devotion and a system of piety rooted in the communal remembrance of the Prophet Muhammad and his progeny. This system of piety is the subject of this book. Rather than seeking to recover the historical Shiʿa imams, though that may also be an important task, this study explores how those imams have been remembered by the Shiʿa communities who love them.

More specifically, Twelve Infallible Men is an analysis of a subgenre of Islamic hagiography: works containing the life stories of all twelve Shiʿa imams. These collective biographies played a significant role in the formation of Twelver Shiʿa identity and religious orientation from the tenth to today.

The earliest collective bio- graphies, and the later works that followed their example, are connected not only by a common subject matter, but by recurring themes and motifs that can help increase our understanding of the development of Shiʿism.

Stories of saints offer us a window through which we can view the cultures in which the narratives are meaningful. Such stories help illuminate the concerns and perspectives of the religious communities in which they have been composed and transmitted, revealing the deep desires of those who tell them.

As Elizabeth Castelli shows in her study of early Christian martyrdom accounts, these narratives reflected and shaped broader Christian notions of martyrdom and its meaning in late antiq- uity, providing a platform through which early Christian identity was articulated.

Drawing upon studies of social memory, she illustrates how these accounts functioned as loci of communal reflection from antiquity until today.2 Though my project focuses on Shiʿa rather than Christian martyrdom accounts, Castelli’s research has shaped my own reading of early Muslim narratives, pointing as it does to the ways that Shiʿa communities made sense of their past through vivid narratives of the suffering of revered members of Muhammad’s family. The insights of another scholar of early Christianity, Averil Cameron, have also sharp- ened my perspective. As she points out, Christianity was able to “create its own intellectual and imaginative universe” in the context of a changing Roman Empire in part by telling the stories of the lives and deaths of Chris- tian saints. Such stories were central to the development of a “totalizing discourse” resilient enough to create an enduring universe of Christian myth.3

 Though the early Christian context is significantly different from the ʿAbbasid-era Islamic setting, Shiʿa Muslims also formulated an under- standing of their community on the basis of a shared memory of former suffering.

The theme of suffering in Shiʿa stories of the imams has been explored,4 but analyses of the significance of martyrdom have largely been focused on the most famous instance: the death of al-Husayn at Karbala. As I ex- plain later, a loose consensus gradually developed among the Shiʿa that all of the deceased imams (the twelfth is considered still living, though in hiding) died a martyr’s death. But this view took time to coalesce, and questions about this narrative of history remain.

Why did the Shiʿa come to the conclusion that all the imams were martyrs? What made that ver- sion of history compelling and convincing? Pursuing these questions, it becomes clear that martyrdom is only one of many experiences the imams are portrayed as having in common.

Though the biographers of the imams are remarkably (though never completely) consistent in the signs, symbols, and themes they use to portray their infallible leaders, suffering and martyrdom cannot be understood in isolation from other themes that appear across the biographies.

By analyzing these narrative patterns,5 while keeping in mind other saintly stories in different con- texts, the significance of the stories of the imams for Shiʿa communities in the late ʿAbbasid Empire becomes clearer.

The Stories of the Imams

Many forms of Shiʿa ritual, art, and literature played a role in shaping and transmitting the stories of the imams, but my study focuses on the sub- genre mentioned above: collective biographies of the imams. Beginning in the tenth century, Shiʿa writers began compiling these works, collating historical anecdotes and compelling narratives into single works that bound together the lives of all twelve imams.

Over the course of sub- sequent centuries, this type of Shiʿa literature expanded and developed immensely, and works of this kind continue to be written today.6

The present study focuses on five of the earliest extant examples: five texts, which I believe constitute the formative stage of this genre, that were written in Arabic from the tenth to twelfth centuries. Additional historiographical information on these works is included in the first chapter, but I will introduce them briefly here.

The earliest collective biography of any substantial length that survived the trials of history is Establishment of the Inheritance (Ithbat al-wasiya), a fascinating work completed in the year 943. Shiʿa sources have tradi- tionally ascribed this book to the well-known Shiʿa historian al-Masʿudi (d. 345/956), but there are good reasons to doubt this attribution. Another early surviving example, Proofs of the Imamate (Dalaʾil al-imama), is of equally questionable authorship.

 It has traditionally been ascribed to an early tenth century author, but some of its content clearly dates to the early eleventh century. We are on firmer historical ground with the other three works. The Book of Guidance (Kitab al-irshad), a profoundly influen- tial biography of the imams, was written around the turn of the eleventh century by a towering figure in classical Shiʿism, al-Shaykh al-Mufid (d. 413/1022), who lived in the tumultuous political context of the ʿAbbasid capital of Baghdad. The fourth work in the genre, Informing Humanity

(Iʿlam al-waraʾ), was written just over a century later by al-Fadl b. al-Hasan al-Tabrisi (d. 548/1154), who lived near Mashhad in the small town of Sabzevar. Al-Tabrisi most likely wrote this book between the years of 1130 and 1140. One of his students during that time, Ibn Shah- rashub (d. 588/1192), went on to write the last of the five works at the heart of this study. Ibn Shahrashub completed the expansive Virtues of the Descendants of Abu Talib (Manaqib al Abi Talib) while in Baghdad around

1150. These five works are intertextually entwined with one another, and they provide a unique window into the development of a distinctly Shiʿa narrative of history of the imams.7

These texts are relatively well known in Western academic contexts (with one, al-Mufid’s Book of Guidance, being available in English translation), and numerous scholars have mentioned their importance in passing;8 but overall, the collective biographies have received little scholarly analysis. Although they defy easy classification, they have been variously conceptualized as works of hadith, history, or hagiography.9

Like works of hadith, they contain sayings and teachings of the imams that have been referenced in attempts to understand Shiʿa theology and law.10 As historical accounts, they have been read alongside other works in attempts to construct a historical narrative of the early Islamic period.11 Less frequently, these works have been treated as hagiography,12 for they contain praises of the imams that reappear in Shiʿa shrine visitation rit- uals (ziyara), dramatic commemorations (taʿziya), and public retellings of the stories of the imams (rawza khwani).

For scholars of religious studies, the biographies of the imams may most naturally be seen as works of hagiography. This categorization pro- vides a helpful point of orientation from which to examine the literature, but it is not unproblematic.

The modern academic study of hagiography (or hagiology) is rooted in European scholarship on Christian saints, and even in that context scholars have debated the usefulness of conceptualizing hagiography as a genre.13

Hagiography, after all, is a modern construct that has no premodern equivalent—writers in the late antique and early medieval period did not conceive of hagiography as a category. Debate over the usefulness of hagiography as a conceptual tool has not led to a full abandonment of the term, but it has led to more nuanced discussions of subgenres of the literature and how different texts functioned in specific contexts.14 Approaches to hagiography, as Felice Lifshitz argues, must “consciously take into account changing political contexts.”15

Applying the concept of hagiography to non-Christian traditions comes with its own set of problems. Casting a text as Islamic hagiography can lead us to assume that what we know about Christian saints and Chris- tian hagiography is applicable to a vastly different religious and historical context. Despite the methodological risks, however, recent research on hagiography is helpful when it comes to examining the biographies of the imams.

The questions and methods used to read hagiography in other religious contexts illuminate the dynamics at play in the imams’ biographies, which, as I will show, have much in common with other forms of hagiography. But even when applying the methods and insights of those studies, I have attempted to remain open to arriving at different answers. Literary analyses of texts from non-Christian traditions must take into account key differences in sociopolitical and religious contexts.

Doing so not only sheds light on key developments within Islam, but also enriches the study of hagiography by demonstrating how stories of revered figures developed and operated in Muslim contexts.

The study of hagiography in Islam has been slow to develop. John Re- nard has made significant recent contributions to this underdeveloped field of studies with his Friends of God: Islamic Images of Piety, Commitment, and Servanthood.

This compendium is accompanied by ananthology of stories he edited entitled Tales of God’s Friends: Islamic Hagiography in Translation. The bulk of Renard’s work, however, as wellas that of others who have written on Muslim saints, is focused primarily on either Sufi saints or the prophets. The stories of the imams also deserve attention, in part because they give us information about the communities that received and transmitted them.

Twelve Infallible Men is the firststudy to take a broad approach to this literature in an attempt to under- stand how it reflected and shaped the concerns of early medieval Shiʿa communities.

Approaching the Texts

In his frequently cited article, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” Peter Brown notes that stories of saints often function “like a mirror.” He writes, “In studying both the most admired and the most detested figures in any society, we can see, as seldom through other evidence, the nature of the average man’s expectations and hopes for himself.”16

This is equally true of the biographies of the imams, who are, among other things, aspirational paragons of humanity. But the portrayals of the imams are complex. At every turn, the biographies reveal layers of legal, theological, and devotional concern.

The authors’ assumptions about the ideal man, a just society, and bonds of loyalty are interwoven throughout the texts. Understanding the function of the biographies in the communities therefore requires looking at the texts from multiple angles, including through the lenses of literary theory and gender studies.17 Using a multidisciplinary approach risks overgeneralization, and specialists in any number of subfields will likely find deficiencies in my analysis in certain areas.

I hope, however, that my study will spark further research into the biographies of the imams and offer a new way to engage the biographies as well as the communities that are devoted to these imams.

The questions at the center of this study are related to conceptions of the imams that solidified in the first few centuries in which their collective stories were told and retold. As such, my research is less concerned with the origin of specific accounts than with the way those stories con- tribute to the metanarrative constructed in the biographies.

The emergence and endurance of the themes and motifs considered in this book reveals a great deal about the concerns of the communities that found them meaningful. The question I have asked throughout, then, is what made these stories meaningful? Above all others, the theoretical appa- ratus that best helped me grapple with this question has been collective memory studies.18

The historical events around which a community coalesces often have less influence on the development of that community than how those events are remembered. Human memories of events or experiences are always at odds, to some degree, with the occurrences themselves. Moreover, individuals do not remember in isolation.

All memory is socially mediated and occurs within community. The preservation of a memory is contingent upon there being meaningful reasons to retain some details and not others, and meaning is supplied by an individual’s relationship to a social context.19 In this study, when I speak of social memory, I mean the general process of remembering certain accounts (and not others) from the near and distant past and preserving and trans- mitting those accounts to future generations.

 This process takes place in a social environment—it occurs in the context of the relationship be- tween the individual and the community to which he or she is connected. Viewing the historical record through the lens of social memory pro- vides a way of putting the collective and communal nature of historical writing in the foreground. It understands the individual author of each text in relationship to a community for which he or she writes and, per- haps most importantly, through the needs of that community.20

This study makes use of the discourse on social memory in an effort to more fully understand the classical Shiʿa biographies of the imams. Doing so helps us better assess the relationship between the Shiʿa memo- ries of the imams and the development of Shiʿa identity. By analyzing the themes of the collective biographies with an eye on the social memory being produced and reproduced through them, we can ask different questions of the texts.

 Throughout this study, I have attempted to be mindful of questions such as: Why is a given account memorable rather than forgettable? What purpose does this memory serve? What was it that made these accounts sensible?

What are the assumptions about community, personhood, gender, power, authority, and suffering that undergird these stories? What feelings are evoked through this literature? What was the anticipated response from the reader/audience? How do the stories express the concerns of this community of memory?21

I have not attempted to verify whether the events described in the stories actually occurred. I make no claims about the historical imams. Instead, I am concerned with what this literature tells us about the com- munity for which the works were written and by which the works have been transmitted.

The issue of historicity is moot, for the facticity of the literature has little bearing on the community’s ultimate judgment of its truth. Religion is not determined solely by the facts of history.

 It is created through interpretations that are molded into memorable, share- able narratives in relationship to the needs of a community. This is not to say that the stories of the imams are fictional. Some of them likely are; others likely are not.

We cannot presume a clear division between myth and history, as if texts can be categorized according to their relationship to facts. As Castelli persuasively argues, memory making can include history, and neither genre can be protected from the interests of those who tell these stories.22

With this in mind, it may be better to steer away from categorizing the accounts of the imams as hagiographies, which, as Thomas Heffernan rightly notes, conjures up ideas of “pious fictions.” Instead, the collective biographies may be better understood as what Heffernan calls “sacred biography.”23

The process of constructing a story that makes sense—one that is both memorable and shareable—is timeless, and it transcends the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction and between rationality and emotion.24 To understand these concepts as mutually exclusive binaries is to misapprehend the power of stories.

 Even today we tell stories that help us comprehend the barrage of information that science and technology bring to us.25 The biographers of the imams were storytellers. By calling them such I do not mean that they were unconcerned with historical facts and accurate information. Nor do I mean that they were the professional “storytellers” (qussas)26 of classical Arabic contexts.27

Rather, I am connecting these works to storytelling in its broadest and deepest sense, storytelling as a fundamental and indispensable means of making sense of one’s own life and identity.

Charting the Path

I have organized this book into five chapters. The first chapter provides a few notes on the historical context from which this genre of collective biographies of the imams emerged. I provide some historiographical notes about each of the five works on which this study is focused, and I attempt to make clear why I have chosen to focus on these particular collective biographies.

Readers with less interest in the specifics of each author may prefer to skip over that section; doing so will not jeopardize a reading of the subsequent chapters. Other readers may wish to return to the first chapter after the substance of my arguments becomes clearer. The remaining chapters are thematic and topical analyses of the works them- selves. Each subsection of these chapters explores a particular topic using the stories of a single imam/infallible.

Limiting the scope of the subsections to accounts about a single figure serves the purposes of coherence and brevity, but the observations within each section generally apply to the other imams as well, and I have included numerous cross-references in the notes.

The appendixes at the end of this work are intended to help readers navigate the many names and honorifics of the imams and to identify biographies beyond those I include in this study.

Chapter 2 begins my analysis of the biographies by exploring the deaths of the imams and the manner in which the authors negotiated a particular understanding of, and response to, those deaths.

I show how the memories of a community were shaped and maintained by these works. This relationship between the narratives and their meaning for the com- munity helps frame the remaining chapters.

In Chapter 3, I address the most famous aspect of the imams’ lives: their suffering. Specifically, I probe the nature and significance of their suffering through the notion of betrayal, a concept that suffuses the biographies. The ways the imams’ betrayals are remembered reveal the broad social implications of their sufferings, and the examples used…

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