Imam Ja‘far’s Legacy to the Community – The Formulation of the Doctrine of Imamate

By Nadim Pabani


As Shi’ism was still in its formative and defining period, it was constantly developing and no concrete ideas concerning notions of Imamate had yet been laid down prior to the arrival of the 5th (Muhammad al-Baqir) and 6th (Ja’far al-Sadiq) Shia Imams*.

The Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258 CE) came to power by preying on the hopes and aspirations of the Shia who had hopes of one day seeing a member of the household of the Prophet as Caliph of the Umma.

Active propagation in the name of “one from the House of Muhammad who is acceptable to all” [1] was undertaken by a Persian freedman named Abu Muslim. In his youth, Muslim had been attached to the Banu’l Abbas (‘the House of al-Abbas’ – al-Abbas himself being an Uncle of the Prophet) and during this latter period of Umayyad rule, he actively called people towards the House of Abbas, from which – it was argued – a descendant of al-Abbas would rise in order to eliminate the rule of the Umayyads. Through this manipulation, the Shia were made to believe that their hopes would be realised; that the Abbasids would be the dynasty to fulfil this role as protectors of Islam and supporters of the Ahl al-Bayt. Unfortunately, once in power, the Abbasids effectively turned their backs on the Shia community and instituted widespread persecution of their former supporters and those potential Imams from the Husaynid line who “were seen as dangerous rivals.” [2] It is thus in this hostile milieu of Abbasid leadership that the Imamate of Ja’far must be assessed.

Ja‘far’s Learnedness and the School of Fiqh (Jurisprudence)

History shows that Imam Ja’far was held in high esteem as a man of superior knowledge not just in the religious sphere. He was erudite in the application of Sharia and its injunctions and knowledgeable as well as in other fields such as philosophy. Two of the founding fathers of the four Sunni legal schools (Abu Hanifa and Malik ibn Anas) were students of Imam Ja’far and he was often referred to with honourable titles such as “the learned one” – his title “as-Sadiq” also literally means “the truthful”.

Many rulings, decisions, and judgements of Ja’far in his time gave rise to what is known today as the Ja’fari madhhab or school of thought which is the legal school adhered to by virtually all communities in Shia Islam. Even the Fatimid Ismailis who (split from the Twelver Shia owing to a difference of opinion upon the successor designated by Imam Ja’far) went on to establish their leadership eventually in Cairo under the Caliph-Imam al-Mu’izz (972-975 C.E.), effectively adhered to this madhhab. Within the Fatimid domain, and under the patronage of Imam al-Mu’izz, the famous Ismaili jurist Qadi Nu’man formed an “Ismaili” system of jurisprudence compiled as the Da‘a’im al-Islam or Pillars of Islam which utilised many of the legal rulings and sayings attributed to Imam Ja’far. This legal system, to this day, still represents the “most authoritative exposition of the law for the Tayyibi Ismailis.” [3]

This is testament to the importance of Imam Ja’far’s Imamate in the sphere of law and jurisprudence who, for Shias was the final authority on Earth in matters pertaining to faith and Sharia but also for the Sunnis was held in high esteem as an “Imam of fiqh”. [4]

What Key Doctrines/Principles had their Origins in Imam Ja‘far’s Time?

The Doctrine of Imamat and the Identity of the Imam

The Imamate of the 6th Shia Imam can be seen as the period in which certain principles were further developed, building upon the foundations which had been laid down by the 5th Shia Imam al-Baqir in his lifetime. [5] Thus, the concepts discussed below solidified further, gaining a more distinctive character in the time of Imam Ja’far.

“Al-Baqir introduced certain ideas which were to be fully elaborated by his son Ja’far as-Sadiq”. [6]

Like his father and grandfather (4th Shia Imam, Zayn al-Abideen) before him, Imam Ja’far remained politically quiescent and inactive. Whilst some may hold the view that the reasoning behind this was the fear of Umayyad/Abbasid persecution, or even facing the same fate as Imam Husayn, I would argue that it may have proved to be a very clever move on the part of the Shia Imam – for it was in this period of political inactivity – to an extent – that the main religious ideas and doctrinal formation of Imamate concepts really crystallised. Jafri also holds this view and mentions it in passing. [7]

Had Imam Ja’far, instead of remaining quiet in the face of growing Abbasid power, taken an activist approach and risen up sword in hand to fight for his right to rule (as was the case with Zayd ibn Ali, the half-brother of Imam al-Baqir), his revolt may have been crushed in a similar vein to the uprisings of others with Shia leanings who wished to install a member of the Prophets family to the Caliphate – an-Nafs az-Zakiyya, Mukhtar, Zayd etc.

Another issue cleared up through the notions of Imamate defined by Ja’far, was the identity of the Imam. We know that in the early period of Shiism, there was no set criteria for just who could legitimately claim to be an Imam. Momen states:

“The fact that Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, who was a son of ‘Ali by a Hanafi woman (i.e. not by Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet); Muhammad an-Nafs az-Zakiyya, who was a descendant of Hasan; ‘Abdu’llah ibn Muawiya; were all able to lay claim to Shi’i sympathy and to obtain considerable Shi’i support shows that some at least of the Shi’is of that time placed no particular emphasis on either descent from the Prophet through Fatima or even descent through ‘Ali – any claimant from the House of Hashim would do”. [8]

The Principles of Nass, Ilm and Taqiyya

Thus, it was the notions of Imamate laid down by Ja’far that had a large impact upon just who could rightfully claim the role of Imam of the Muslims. Hodgson mentions two of these doctrinal notions, the nass and ilm, which would later become key Imamate concepts as defined by Imam Ja’far.

“The idea of an imamate by nass restricted to a definite individual out of all the ‘Alids, continuing through all political circumstances, was complemented by that of an imamate based not primarily on a political claim, but on special knowledge, ‘ilm”. [9]

The nass is the explicit designation by the present Imam of his successor by way of divine appointment. In this regard the first ‘nass’ in the Umma can be said to have been made by the Prophet himself in the apparent designation of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib as claimed by the Shias. The principle of nass raised the institution of Imamate from a worldly one – such as the Caliphate chosen by the people – to a Divine one. So just like Nubuwwah (Prophethood), Imamah (Imamate) was now also a divinely ordained institution.

‘Ilm alludes to a certain type of knowledge possessed by the Imams. Rather than being knowledge acquired or gained through intellectual pursuit, this ilm is inherent in each Imam and it is this by way of this special knowledge that he is most fit to guide the umma. The possession of this ilm indicates that whether accepted by the people or not, the Imams status as such neither changes nor alters based on the number of adherents to his cause or an activist/quiescent approach. Whether having 10 or 10,000 followers, an Imam is an Imam regardless of the support gained among the masses.

Through these principles, Ja’far depoliticised the Imamate and not only legitimised the right of an Imam who remains politically quiescent but also narrowed the scope for defining just who the Imam can be. It could thus be argued that Ja’far’s developments tipped the scales from “political Shi’ism” in favour of a more “religious Shi’ism” based on the Imam who possess special knowledge and benefits from divine inspiration as opposed to an Imam (of many) who simply takes an activist approach.

Another idea introduced by Imam Jafar was that of Taqiyya – the precautionary dissimulation of one’s true beliefs in the face of danger. This principle was emphasised strongly by Jafar who, as a result of the above-mentioned principles, had restricted to a select few those who could legitimately claim the Imamate, which thus made these persons – as well as their followers – susceptible to even greater persecution by their major adversaries of the time, the Abbasids.

Taqiyya can thus be described as a “preservation‟ or “survival” tactic. It is to be noted that it can also be used in reference to the preservation of certain esoteric (inner/hidden) aspects of the Shia faith which are only to be disclosed to the initiates. In this regard, Imam Ja’far stated that this religion (Shi’ism) was one which should be kept undisclosed by the disciples of the Imams, holding back from revealing certain spiritual truths to the uninitiated who would not be receptive to these exalted higher spiritual truths. As an example, certain hadiths attributed to Imam Ja’far state that in certain cases disciples who utter the intimate secrets received from the Imam to others not worthy of them deserved to be cursed not because of what they said but because they said it:

“It happens that I confer a teaching to someone; then he leaves me and reports it exactly as he heard it from me. Because of this I declare that it is lawful to curse him and to dissociate oneself from him”. [10]


From what has been noted in the course of this piece, evident is the fact that major developments in the Shia faith occurred within the lives of the first six Imams and culminated in the solidifying of certain legal and religious principles in the Imamate of Ja’far al-Sadiq. It is this period, one can argue, in which Shi’ism officially developed and defined its character as a distinct community of interpretation within Islam.

Date posted: February 8, 2012

Copyright: Nadim Pabani 2012.


[1] Heinz Halm, tr. Janet Watson and Marian Hill, Shi’ism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991): 23.

[2] Ibid, 24.

[3] Wilferd Madelung, The Sources of Isma’ili Law, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 35, No. 1 (1976): 29-40.

[4] S. H. M. Jafri, Origins and Early Development of Shia Islam (London and New York: Longman Group Ltd and Librairie du Liba, 1979): 292.

[5] Arzina Lalani, Early Shi’i Thought: The Teachings of Imam Muhammad Al-Baqir (London: I.B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2000).

[6] Jafri, Origins, 248.

[7] Ibid, 249.

[8] Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi‘i Islam, (United Kingdom: George Ronald Publisher, 1985):64.

[9] Marshall G. Hodgson, How Did the Early Shi’a Become Sectarian, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 75, No. 1 (1955): 1-13.

[10] Al-Nu’mani, Kitab al-ghayba, ed. A. A. Ghaffari and Persian trans. By M. J. Ghaffari (Tehran, 1363): 57. As referenced in Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Spirituality of Shi’i Islam (London and New York: I.B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2011): 219.

* The Nizari Ismailis consider Imams Muhammad al-Baqir and Ja’far al-Sadiq as their 4th and 5th Imams respectively. In the names of the Imams that are recited in the Ismaili Dua, Hazrat Hasan is not included among the forty-nine Ismaili Imams from Hazrat Ali to the present Imam, Mawlana Shah Karim al-Hussaini, His Highness the Aga Khan. However, Hazrat Hasan is among the panj-tan-pak, or the five holy or pure ones. See The Ismailis: From the Earliest Times to the Fall of the Fatimid Empire.


About the author: Nadim Pabani, a resident of London, UK, obtained his Undergraduate Bachelor of Laws with Honours Degree from City University, London in Law and Property Valuation (LLB). Currently he is studying at The University of Edinburgh for a Masters as part of the MSc in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. His interests lie in the fields of Islamic (and more specifically Ismaili) History, Philosophy and Theology. His Masters Dissertation will involve a comparative study of the Fatimid and Alamut conceptions of the Qaim and Qiyamah with particular reference to the works of Nasir-i Khusraw, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and Hasan Mahmud, in order to explain the shift in doctrine between these two distinct phases of Nizari Ismaili history.


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9 thoughts on “Imam Ja‘far’s Legacy to the Community – The Formulation of the Doctrine of Imamate

  1. While I also find this article quite illuminating what Shams points out and the reply that Nadim gives are sadly bones of content between Nizari Ismailis and the Ithna-asheris. That should be eased as both these groups are Shias followers of Hazrat Imam Aly and of Ahl Bayt.

  2. Whilst the article is written well – the historical facts regarding the numbering of the Imams are wrong.

    Imam Zaynul Abideen was the 3rd Shia Imami Nizari Ismaili Imam – not the 4th.
    The same goes for Imam Muhammadinil Baqr who was the 4th and Imam Jafar as Sadiq who was the 5th – not the 6th.

    This view takes into account the Shi’a Ithna Asheri or Twelver view which is accepted by the Bohra Ismaili as well – that Imam Hasan was the 2nd Imam – followed by Imam Hussayn – who was his brother- however the Shia Imami Nizari Ismaili view does not adhere to this – as Imamat is patrilineal i.e. from Father to Son – not from brother to brother.

    Hazrat Hasan was the Imam al Mustawda but never the Imam Mustaqir.

    I would suggest making the corrections to correctly reflect the Shia Imami Nizari Ismaili view. Even Hazar Imam refers to Himself as the 49th Hereditary Imam – and if one adds Hazrat Hassan to the list of Imams – Hazar Imam would be the 50th Imam.

    • Hi Shams,

      I appreciate you flagging this point. I identify with your concern and, as a Nizari Ismaili Muslim, would agree with you completely.

      My only point would be that this paper was actually written as the foundation of a seminar presentation which I was assigned for my course entitled “An Introduction to Twelver Shiism” and as such, the source material used meant that I had to follow and identify the numbering of the Imams as noted in the source materials utilised.

      If you would refer to end of the first paragraph, you will see an asterisk added by the editor. This explains the differences in the opinion of the Ithna’ashari and Nizari Ismaili Muslims regarding Hazrat Hasan (a.s.) and so should hopefully allay your fears of any misrepresentation on the part of this author.

      Kind Regards and many thanks for your kind words regarding my article.


  3. A short but clear clarification of: The Doctrine of Imamat and the Identity of the Imam plus the Principles of Nass, Ilm and Taqiyya. Thank you.

  4. A good piece of information about Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq. Many thanks to you Nadim Pabani, and wish you complete success in your interesting and important study.

  5. The author, Nadim Pabani, deserves congratulations for sharing with us such clear and authentic information. Worth to read and understand.

    Thank you.

  6. A very inormative article well written for any Ismaili to understand. My best wishes in his masters studies in Edinburgh.I look forward to furher articles from him

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