Today’s Baghdad has been ravaged by war into a shadow of its former self, but in the early medieval period, it was the center of one of history’s greatest civilizations. A thousand years ago, the city was home to important Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars who debated and refined the philosophical and theological positions of their faith communities. This was also a time when differences within these communities grew more pronounced.
Centre College’s Matthew Pierce, assistant professor of religion, has published a book focused on this formative period of history: Twelve Infallible Men: the Imams and the Making of Shi’ism (Harvard University Press, 2016). The book examines medieval narratives of holy figures known as the imams and how these narratives helped shape a distinct Shi’a Islamic identity.
The division between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims is often traced to a historical dispute over religious authority after the death of Muhammad, the final prophet of Islam, in 632 CE. In his book, however, Pierce argues that historical events in the wake of the prophet’s death ultimately had less impact on Islam than stories about these events written centuries after the fact.
By the 10th century, the Muslim community had expanded exponentially, but some felt that it had gone astray because Muslims had not followed the right leaders. Shi’a Muslims believed that the imams were the correct leaders, and they recorded many stories about these twelve men, whom they loved deeply.
“The twelve imams were a lineage of highly revered descendants of the Prophet Muhammad that spanned eleven generations of fathers and sons from the 7th through the 9th century,” Pierce says. “Like many saints in the Christian tradition, the imams were persecuted by their enemies, and stories about their lives and deaths became powerful sources of religious imagination and inspiration.
“Twelve Infallible Men looks at the stories written about these saintly imams in the three centuries after their disappearance,” Pierce continues. “Their stories helped shape and define the largest branch of Shi’a Islam, and they continue to be read and recited at Shi’a religious gatherings today. Analyzing the biographies of the imams teaches us a great deal about the concerns and desires of Shi’a Muslims at a critical juncture in history.”
Pierce’s vision for Twelve Infallible Men was born of research and impacted by time spent in Iran, where he lived from 2003 to 2006.
“The book developed out of a dissertation project during my graduate studies at Boston University,” Pierce explains. “Much of the inspiration came from reading Elizabeth Castelli’s research on stories of early Christian martyrs in Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making. As I read her insightful analysis of fantastical Christian accounts of early saints, I was reminded of the many Shi’a Muslim stories of the twelve imams of Shi’ism.
“I had lived in Iran, a predominately Shi’a Muslim country, for several years and had read many stories about the Shi’a imams,” Pierce adds. “My research was already focused on early Shi’ism, but studying the stories of the imams gave me a unique way of thinking about how Shi’ism developed in the ways that it did.”
Pierce feels that the book’s theme is not exclusive to Shi’ism.
“At the broadest level, Twelve Infallible Men is about how and why stories are told,” he says. “Storytelling plays a central role in most cultures and religious traditions of the world. How we tell stories often says as much about ourselves as it does the characters of the story.
“Stories become popular because they resonated with a community in some way. My analysis of the biographies of the imams looks at why these particular stories were meaningful to an emerging Shi’a Muslim community.”
by Cindy Long
June 16, 2016