What is the truth about the issue of the twelve imams according to the Sunnis and the Shi’as?

The Details of the Question
What Quranic basis do Shia Muslims have for believing in 12 Imams who follow Muhammad (pbuh)? Where can we find solid Quranic proof that the Imams were decreed by God as successors to Muhammad? Shi’as often point to Muhammad's last sermon, the famous Ghadir Khom speech, and claim that he said "I leave you with the Quran and the ahl-al bayt." How much historical evidence do we have of Muhammad making such a statement? In short, is Shi'a Islam even valid?
The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

Although the Shi’as are divided into some classes such as Ghaliya, Zaydiya and Imamiya, when it is said Shi’a, Imamiya is generally understood in our time.
After the passing away of the Prophet (pbuh) to the Eternal Realm, the Shi’as accept Hazrat Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) and his two sons in order and his grandsons as the legal imam (caliph) by the determination and the will of the Prophet and they regard believing in the twelve imams as a foundation of the faith. Therefore, that group is called as “Ithna Ashariyya” since they accept only the twelve imams as the imams; it is called as “Imamiya” since they accept believing in the imams as a condition of the faith; and it is called as “Ja’fariyya” since they rely on the opinions of Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq both in faith and worship and acts.

The Shi’as are of the opinion that the imamate, namely, the caliphate is not from the “minor” acts which can be left to the desire and election of the Muslims as the Sunnis accept. According to them, imamate is a pillar existing in the basis of the religion and takes place among the fundamentals of the faith. Therefore, the Shi’as have to believe in the existence of the imam in the same way as they believe in Allah, the prophets and the Day of Judgment. According to that faith, the imams are innocent just like the prophets; they never commit a minor or a major sin, they do not behave unjustly; a person who does not know them becomes an unbeliever. Moreover, “Their commands are the commands of Allah, their prohibitions are His prohibitions. Obeying them is obeying Allah; disobedience to them is disobedience to Allah.”    

Iran, which accepts Imamiya as a formal madhhab (school of law) today, has given the duty of imamate including the religious authority to “Ayatullah al-Uzma” (Great Sign of Allah). Therefore, absolute obedience to that “imam” is obligatory. Opposing him is like opposing Allah and the Prophet. In the Iranian constitution, where the article “The formal religion of Iran is Islam and its school of law is Ithna Ashari Ja’afari. And that article can never be changed” takes place, believing in the “Twelve Imams” is accepted as an important principle.(1)  

The issue of imamate, considered as above, does not take place among the fundamentals of the religion in any way according to the Sunnis. The imam, namely the caliph, comes to the mission by the conferring and the election of the Muslims. Any person possessing the determined attributes in the matters of the world and the hereafter can undertake the management of the Muslims. He cannot be innocent and sinless in any way.  

In regard to the opinion of the Sunnis about the Twelve Imams; the eleven imams (their number is twelve with Hazrat Ali) are exalted saints and authorities in point of merit, godliness and spiritual ranks.

Badiuzzaman mentions the twelve imams while listing the persons who are the objects of mystery of the hadith “The scholars of my community are like the prophets of the Children of Israel.” (2) He introduces the twelve imams as the great people of the Sunnis by stating “The people of fact, first of all, the Sunnis as the Four Imams (the imams of the four schools of law) and the Ithna Ashara Imams (the Twelve Imams) of the Family of the Prophet..” in another statement of him. (3)
The Twelve Imams are the following persons: Hazrat Ali, Hazrat Hasan, Hazrat Hussain, Ali bin Hussain, Muhammad Baqir, Ja’far as-Sadiq, Musa Kazim, Ali Riza, Muhammad Taqi, Ali Naqi, Hasan Asghari and Muhammad Mahdi (may Allah be pleased with them.) 
1. Çağımızda İtîkâdî İslâm mezhepleri, p. 118-139; Muvazzah îlm-i Kelam,p. 24-25.
2. Said Nursi, Risale-i Nur Collection, The Rays, p. 527.
3. Said Nursi, Risale-i Nur Collection, Emirdağ Lahikası, 1:201

Mehmet Paksu

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