Twelver Sunnism

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Twelver Sunnism is a religious inclination within Sunni Islam, where, alongside belief in the first three caliphs, the guardianship of the Shi'a Imams (a) is also respected and believed. It is said that the foundation for this inclination was laid in the very early centuries, in contrast to the advocates of Uthman who opposed Imam Ali (a). However, it became more prevalent from the sixth century AH, initially in Iran and India, and subsequently in the eastern regions of Greater Khorasan and the territories of the Ottoman Caliphate.

The term "Twelver Sunnism" is a new terminology used in contemporary historical studies. However, some researchers cite a manuscript dating back to the late Safavid era, indicating that the Persian equivalent of the term (Tasannun Dawazdah-Imami) was already in use in Iran during that period. Factors contributing to the formation of Twelver Sunnism include the collapse of the Abbasid Caliphate, the religious tolerance of the Mongol Ilkhanates and Timurid rulers, the growth of Sufism and the authority of Sufis, and the proximity of Sufism and Shiism.

Researchers of history believe that a key reason behind the prevalence of Shiism in the Islamic East, particularly in Iran, and the foundation for the formation of the Shiite Safavid government was Twelver Sunnism. According to them, the presence of governments adhering to Twelver Sunnism throughout the ninth and tenth centuries prepared the ground for the religious transformation of Iranians from Sunnism to Shiism. Additionally, the existence of various cultural figures inclined to Twelver Sunnism, who in their works mentioned Shi'a Imams (a) as infallible divine authorities alongside the three caliphs, also contributed to this religious change in Iran.

Definition and Place

Twelver Sunnism is a religious tendency among Sunni Muslims who, alongside belief in the first three caliphs, respect and believe in the guardianship of the Shi'a Imams (a) and the Fourteen Infallibles (a). Twelver Sunnism is believed to be a key factor in the prevalence of Shiism in the eastern Islamic world, particularly in Iran, from the sixth century onwards. Moreover, the spread of Twelver Sunnism in Iran is considered the primary foundation for the emergence of the Shiite Safavid government. It is viewed as a major intellectual and religious development in Iran, which led to a decrease in denominational disputes between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims after the seventh century AH.


The term "Twelver Sunnism" is considered new in historical research and is not found in early historical sources. However, some researchers have discovered traces of this term's presence and prevalence in a manuscript from the later Safavid era (1090 AH).

The use and explanation of the term "Twelver Sunnism" are attributed to an essay written by Muhammad Taqi Danishpazhuh (1911-1996), an Iranian researcher and codicologist, in 1965. However, an elaborate discussion of this term has been provided in the works of Rasul Jafariyan.


According to some researchers, Twelver Sunnism began to take shape around the sixth century AH. Its foundations were laid in the early Islamic centuries, particularly in contrast to Sunni proponents of the third caliph Uthman, who disputed the legitimacy of Imam Ali's (a) caliphate. In contrast to this view, certain Sunni figures endeavored to highlight the virtues of Imam Ali (a) and other members of the Prophet's household (a). These individuals were often described in early Sunni biographical works (rijal) as Shia-leaning Sunnis or Sunnis accused of adhering to Shiism.

According to Jafariyan, as a result of the doctrinal efforts of this group of Sunni Muslims, a moderation took place within Sunni Islam around the sixth century AH. This moderation, focused on affection for the Prophet's household (a), prompted the authoring of books highlighting the virtues of Ahl al-Bayt (a) among Sunni Muslims. Among those who contributed to this endeavor were influential religious and scholarly figures such as Ahmad b. Hanbal (164/780 - 241/855), one of the four main Sunni jurists, and Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari (d. 310/923).

Additional factors contributing to the emergence of Twelver Sunnism include the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate, the religious leniency and tolerance of the Mongol Ilkhanates and Timurid rulers, the rise of Sufism and the influence of Sufi authorities, and the close association between Sufism and Shiism.

Reportedly, the tendency first gained prominence in Iran and India before spreading to the eastern regions of Greater Khorasan and the territories of the Ottoman Caliphate. Moreover, it is reported that the establishment of the Safavid dynasty in Iran resulted in the decline of this approach in the region.

Twelver Sunnism in the Realm of Politics

According to some historiographers, the religious transition among Iranians from Sunnism to Shiism was facilitated by Twelver Sunnism, within the context of politics and power dynamics. They report the existence of governments with Twelver Sunnism inclinations throughout the ninth and tenth centuries AH.

Before that, in the eighth century, signs of this inclination were apparent among numerous local governments in Iran and Iraq. For instance, the initial rulers of the Sarbadars exhibited such tendencies.

In the ninth century AH, Sultan Husayn Bayqara, a Timurid ruler, showed a tendency towards Twelver Sunnism by intending to deliver his sermons in the names of the Twelve Imams (a). However, 'Abd al-Rahman al-Jami and Amir Ali-Shir Nawayi prohibited him from doing so. During the same period, Jahan Shah Qara Qoyunlu minted coins with the phrase "Ali is God's appointed guardian" on one side and the names of the Rashidun Caliphs on the other. This act was interpreted as a sign of his inclination towards Twelver Sunnism.

The religious evolution of Safavid rulers followed a trajectory where they initially adhered to Sunni Islam, then leaned towards Twelver Sunnism, and eventually converted to Shiism. Some historians have presented evidence suggesting the presence of a similar inclination even within paradigmatic Sunni governments, such as the Ottoman Empire.

Twelver Sunnism in the Realm of Culture

Various cultural figures, spanning from the sixth century AH to the collapse of the Safavid dynasty, are considered to have had Twelver Sunni tendencies. Rasul Jafariyan contends that numerous works reflecting this tendency were produced by Sunni authors from the middle of the eighth to the tenth centuries AH. These works encompassed various genres including religious, historical, and literary (both poetic and prose), which, alongside references to the Rashidun caliphs, acknowledged the Shi'a Imams (a) as infallible divine authorities.

Some of the figures with a tendency towards Twelver Sunnism who authored works reflecting this inclination include:

  • The anonymous author of the book Mujmal al-tawarikh wa-l-qisas (written in the year 520 AH) is considered to have a tendency towards Twelver Sunnism. In this book, after recounting the history of the caliphs, the author addresses the history of the Fourteen Infallibles (a).
  • Abu Muhammad 'Abd al-'Aziz b. Muhammad al-Hanbali al-Junabidhi (d. 611 AH) authored the book Ma'alim al-'itrat al-nabawiyya wa ma'arif ahl al-bayt al-Fatimiyya al-'Alawaiyya (The hallmarks of the Prophetic family and the teachings of the Fatimid Alawite household), focusing on the biographies of the Shi'a Imams (a) up to the eleventh Imam (a).
  • Muhammad b. Yusuf al-Ganji al-Shafi'i (d. 658 AH) authored Kifayat al-talib, a work dedicated to discussing the virtues of Imam Ali (a) and Ahl al-Bayt (a).
  • In his Tarikh barguzida (Selected history), Hamd Allah al-Mustawfi (d. after 750 AH) followed his biographical accounts of the caliphs with those of the Imams (a), referring to the Shi'a Imams (a) as "Infallible Imams" and "God's proofs for the people."
  • In his poems, while distancing himself from Shiism, Khwaju Kirmani (d. 753 AH) praises and extols the twelve Imams.
  • 'Abd al-Rahman al-Jami (817-898 AH), a Hanafi and Naqshbandi Sufi poet, who expresses pessimism about Shias in his works, nonetheless shows affection for the Shiite Imams (a).
  • Fadl Allah b. Ruzbahan al-Khunji al-Shafi'i (d. 930 AH) exhibits this tendency in his work Wasilat al-khadim ila al-makhdum, which serves as an exposition of the greetings to the Fourteen Infallibles (a).
  • Shahab al-Din Ahmad b. Hajar al-Haytami al-Shafi'i (909-974 AH) authored al-Sawa'iq al-muhriqa in rejection of Shiism. However, he nonetheless explains the virtues of the Prophet's household (a), including the Shiite Imams (a), in this work.
  • Jamal al-Din 'Abd Allah b. Muhammad al-Shabrawi al-Shafi'i (1092-1172 AH) in his al-Ithaf bi-hubb al-ashraf (The gift of the love for the noblemen).
  • Sulayman b. Ibrahim al-Qunduzi al-Hanafi (1220-1294 AH) in his Yanabi' al-mawadda (springs of love).
  • Mu'min b. al-Hasan al-Shablanji al-Shafi'i (1250-1308 AH) in Nur al-ibsar.