The hadith was quoted with different wordings, and is taken as reliable by Sunni scholars of hadiths. The Shi'as appeal to this hadith as evidence for the imamate of their twelve Imams (a). Sunni scholars have no consensus over the instances of the twelve caliphs referred to by this hadith.
The hadith known as that of the Twelve Caliphs has been narrated by different narrators of hadiths with different wordings, although they all have one and the same content. The content of the hadith is that after the Prophet Muhammad (s), twelve people will be his successors. In different versions of this hadith, words such as "khalifa" (caliph), "amir" (ruler), "naqib" (head), and "imam" are used.
.جَابِر بْنَ سَمُرَةَ قَالَ سَمِعْتُ النَّبِی(ص)، یقُولُ: یکونُ اِثْنی عَشَرَ اَمیراً فَقالَ کلِمَهً لَمْ اَسْمَعْها، فَقالَ اَبی اِنَّهُ قالَ کلُّهُم مِنْ قُرَیشٍ
I heard the Prophet (s) say: 'there will be Twelve Amirs (rulers)', and then he said a word that I did not hear, but my father said that the Prophet (s) had said: 'they are all from Quraysh.
This hadith is also cited in Sahih Muslim with a slight variation as Twelve Caliphs. According to this book, the Prophet (s) said: "'Islam will always be respected as long as the Twelve Caliphs rule the Muslims'. He then said something that I did not hear, so I asked my father what the Prophet (s) said, He said that the Prophet (s) said, "They are all from Quraysh". This hadith is also cited in Sunan Abi Dawud and Sunan al-Tirmidhi.
A hadith is also cited in sources of hadiths from 'Abd Allah b. Mas'ud according to which the caliphs or Imams after the Prophet (s) are 12 people: the same number as that of Israelite heads or naqibs.
Sources of the Hadith
Ayatollah Safi Gulpayigani has devoted the first part of his book, Muntakhab al-athar, to the Hadith of Twelve Caliphs. He has collected 148 citations of the hadith in the early hadith collections. According to him, 17 companions of the Prophet (s) quoted the hadith from the Prophet (s) with different, though close, phrases.
Ayatollah Safi has cited 52 chains of narrations of the hadith narrated by Jabir b. Samura. Some of these chains are repetitive in their first three or four narrators. Four people have narrated the hadith directly from 'Abd Allah b. Mas'ud.
In addition to Shiite sources, the hadith was frequently cited in Sunni sources as well as the Hadith of Twelve Naqibs or Twelve Imams.
The author of Muntakhab al-athar collected and cited the hadith of Jabir b. Samura from some Sunni sources. He also cited the hadith narrated by 'Abd Allah b. Mas'ud from the Prophet (s) from Musnad Ahmad.
In addition to Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, the following Sunni sources cited the hadith as well:
- Al-Tirmidhi in his Sunan
- Sunan Abi Dawud
- Musnad Ahmad b. Hanbal
- Al-Suyuti in his Tarikh al-khulafa (A history of Caliphs).
Instances of the Twelve Caliphs
There is no doubt among Shi'as that the instances of the Tweleve Caliphs are the tweleve Imams.
Some Sunni scholars attempted to determine the instances of these twelve caliphs.
'Abd Allah b. 'Umar is quoted as saying that the Twelve Imams are Abu Bakr b. Abi Quhafa, 'Umar b. al-Khattab, 'Uthman b. 'Affan, Mu'awiya b. Abi Sufyan, Yazid b. Mu'awiya, al-Saffah, al-Mansur al-'Abbasi, Jabir, Amin, Salam, Mahdi, and Amir al-'Asab.
Al-Suyuti holds that the Twelve Imams are: Abu Bakr, 'Umar, 'Uthman, 'Ali (a), al-Hasan (a), Mu'awiya, 'Abd Allah b. al-Zubayr, and 'Umar b. 'Abd al-'Aziz. He then speculated that two other caliphs probably are al-Muhtadi al-'Abbasi and al-Zahir, both of whom were Abbasid Caliphs, since they were, according to al-Suyuti, righteous people. He then adds that the two other caliphs remain that we should wait for: one of them is al-Mahdi who is one of the Prophet's (s) Ahl al-Bayt (a), and the other he does not mention.
Ibn Hajar al-'Asqalani agrees with Qadi 'Ayad that the twelve caliphs are: Abu Bakr, 'Umar, 'Uthman, 'Ali (a), Mu'awiya, Yazid, 'Abd al-Malik b. Marwan, Walid b. 'Abd al-Malik, Sulayman b. 'Abd al-Malik, Yazid b. 'Abd al-Malik, Hisham b. 'Abd al-Malik, and Walid b. Yazid b. 'Abd al-Malik.
Al-Qunduzi al-Hanafi cited the hadith and then said that a close look into hadiths according to which the caliphs after the Prophet (s) are twelve reveals that by those twelve caliphs he meant the Twelve Imams from his own Ahl a-Bayt (a). He holds that the hadith does not refer to the Rashidun Caliphs since their number is smaller than twelve. It does not refer to Umayyad or Abbasid kings either, since their number is greater than twelve. Moreover, some of them were vicious and unjust people, and were not committed to Islamic rulings, except 'Umar b. 'Abd al-'Aziz. What is more, Banu Umayya were not from Banu Hashim, but the Prophet (s), according to 'Abd al-Malik's narration from Jabir, said that they are all from Banu Hashim. So the hadith can only refer to the Twelve Imams from the Prophet's (s) Ahl al-Bayt (a), since they were the most knowledgeable as well as the most pious people of their time, and were superior to others with respect to their acts and genealogy. Most important of all, they had inherited their knowledge from their ancestor, the Prophet Muhammad (s). Al-Qunduzi also appeals to hadiths, such as Hadith al-Thiqlayn, to support his view.
- Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, vol. 8, p. 127.
- Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, vol. 3, hadith 1453.
- Abū Dāwūd, Sunan, vol. 4, p. 106
- Tirmidhī, Sunan al-Tirmidhī, vol. 4, p. 501.
- Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, Musnad, vol. 1, p. 406.
- Ṣāfī Gulpāyigānī, Muntakhab al-athar, vol. 1, p. 19-41.
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