Twelve Infallible Men

The Imams and the Making of Shi'ism

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Matthew Pierce
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , June
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


With his 2016 book, Twelve Infallible Men: The Imams and the Making of Shi’ism, Matthew Pierce makes an important contribution to scholarship on the Shi’i and the literature surrounding the Imams. Pierce’s scholarship is impressive, with over three hundred sources and sixty pages of notes, in a study that he describes as “an analysis of a subgenre of Islamic hagiography: works containing the life stories of all twelve Shi’a imams” (3). Pierce expertly takes us through these stories, examining themes like suffering, memory, gender, political power, and theology. 

The first chapter examines the historical context out of which these narratives emerge. For readers interested in the history of the Shi’i as a community, this is an especially useful chapter. It is also a great resource for the classroom, highlighting pointing out the problems with over-simplistic treatments of the Sunni-Shi’i split, a topic that Pierce explores with great skill. Another strength of this chapter (and indeed, of the other chapters) is Pierce’s attention to detail, as he takes us through topics like early Arabic literature, the “Shi’a century,” and the personalities who figure prominently in those early centuries. I had trouble putting this book down, which cannot be said for many academic titles. One line that stuck with me was, “These memories, maintained through stories, poems, and rituals, have a durability that endures across time, but they are continually reinterpreted as the community to which they are meaningful undergoes change” (41). In following chapters, he describes these memories, stories, poems, and rituals and shows how they function in the past and present for Shi’i Muslims. 

The second chapter focuses on the deaths of the imams. As Pierce writes, the Imams “functioned as a type” and their stories exist as a “typology” that is “laden with symbolism” but that is not “merely symbolic” (51). The imams are distinct, even though they exist together in a type of narrative that includes themes like martyrdom, the paradigmatic enemy, suffering, and grief. Of interest is the focus on ritual, how women were (and are) involved in it in acts such as lamentation and in mourning rites that are limited to women. In all of this is a redemptive vision; that through suffering, weeping, and mourning for the dead, the appointed one will return and make things right. As Pierce puts it, “Misfortune was thus embraced as part of God’s plan for the select. But the community was reassured that every trial endured would be met with retribution. The world might be filled to the brim with cruelty, but al-Mahdi would return to fill it equally with justice” (65). 

Chapter three continues the theme of suffering through a lengthy discussion of the narratives of the lives of the imams. Betrayal is the operative theme in these stories and in addition to their theological importance, they helped to establish the boundaries of the community. Pierce focuses on many of these stories, including the most important of them all—the Battle of Karbala. The imagery of blood in this story is seen in examples like “the very heavens wept blood on that day,” “the sky rained blood,” and “people in distant cities claim to have found fresh blood under every stone” (73). For those familiar with the visual culture of Shi’i Islam as seen in paintings of the sufferings of the martyrs, this is an especially powerful section

The fourth chapter focuses on the bodies of the imams. For those scholars interested in material religion, this is an especially relevant chapter. As scholars of Islam can attest, more work on bodies is needed, although scholars like Scott Kugle, Shahzad Bashir, and Afsaneh Najmabadi have inspired more work in this area in recent years. Pierce gives us a meditation of the bodies of the imams that communicates just how important they are for Shi’i. As he puts it, “The beautiful bodies of the imams were sites of devotion, affection, and blessing” (97). The imams show love toward one another, they are loved by their followers, and they reflect the love inherent in the tradition of Islam. Pierce discusses other themes in this chapter, including masculinity, miracles (one imam knew seventy-two languages), and mysticism (100, 107-8). The last part of the chapter discusses Fatima through her “proper use” of her body, her lack of menstruation, and her role in devotion. As Pierce reminds us, “Fatima, and to a lesser extent the other ideal women, were important and powerful symbols that helped orient male Shi’a devotion to the imams” (122).

Chapter five is centered on the births of the Imams, which also involves Shi’i women, primarily through the theme of motherhood. Here, the divine light known as Nuris central as a quality identified with Prophet Muhammad, his family, and of course, the imams. Nur is central to the theme of leadership in Shi’ism. As Pierce writes, “Unlike narratives from other traditions, Shi’a accounts hold that ‘Ali and the imams received and passed on the divine light, the luminous substance that marked and empowered the true prophets across time” (130). One of my favorite parts of this chapter was the retelling of ‘Ali’s birth inside the ka’aba, which would be wonderful to include when teaching about the ka’aba, and which is absent from most academic treatments of the city of Mecca. It is an important detail that connects the imams to Abraham and thus to the entire prophetic tradition. Later in the chapter Pierce writes, “the birth of each imam is depicted as a momentous event of universal relevance that reveals the ontological reality of the imamate as a timeless institution” (145). 

In the Epilogue, Pierce presents a compelling argument for more studies of Shi’ism and its many narrative traditions. He rightly argues that historically the Shi’i have been seen as “other,” a result of the Orientalism that has at times plagued the field of Islamic Studies (147-8). With his book, Pierce gives us an example of what is possible in the field—a lovely book that does much to teach us about Islam, its many traditions, and the ways in which memory functions in the lives of its followers. I would urge my fellow scholars to consider this book for their students, for it is a readable volume that undergraduate and graduate students would appreciate and learn much from.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sophia Rose Arjana is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Western Kentucky Univeristy.

Date of Review: 
May 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew Pierce is Assistant Professor of Religion at Centre College.


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