Agents of the Hidden Imam: Forging Twelver Shi‘ism, 850-950 CE

By Edmund Hayes, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen

In 874 CE, the eleventh Imam died, and the Imami community splintered. The institutions of the Imamate were maintained by the dead Imam’s agents, who asserted they were in contact with a hidden twelfth Imam. This was the beginning of ‘Twelver’ Shiʿism. Edmund Hayes provides an innovative approach to exploring early Shiʿism, moving beyond doctrinal history to provide an analysis of the socio-political processes leading to the canonisation of the Occultation of the twelfth Imam. Hayes shows how these agents cemented their authority by reproducing the physical signs of the Imamate, including protocols of succession, letters and the alm taxes. Four of these agents were ultimately canonised as “envoys” but traces of earlier conceptions of authority remain embedded in the earliest reports. Hayes dissects the complex and contradictory Occultation narratives to show how, amidst the claims of numerous actors, the institutional positioning of the envoys allowed them to assert a quasi-Imamic authority in the absence of an Imam.


‘This book studies a crucial yet poorly understood period in the history of Imami Shiʿsim. Hayes has produced a compelling historical narrative out of a difficult and fragmentary record. Significantly, he reminds us that doctrine is never sui generis, and that to understand doctrinal history, we must keep in mind the social and the political.’

Mushegh Asatryan – University of Calgary

‘An innovative study – the first of its kind – in which the relationship between the Imam and the community is examined in terms of institutional structures and networks, and not purely as a matter of doctrine. For the first time, we have a history of early Imami Shi’ism which incorporates developments in religious doctrine with political structures, religious institutions and the practices of early Imami believers. The work provides us with a clear and detailed account of the Imam’s practical as well as doctrinal authority in early Shi’ism. The finding have implications beyond Shi’i studies with implications for our understanding of the development of institutional religion in the Umayyad and Abbasid periods.’

Robert Gleave – University of Exeter

‘An exciting, path-breaking book that examines the emergence of Twelver Shīʿism through the lens of the forgotten actors at the heart of the story: the agents of the imams. Part social history, part history of religion, this is essential reading for anyone interested in the many different kinds of Islam that developed in the early period.’

Christian C. Sahner – University of Oxford

Publisher: Cambridge Univ Press

Hardback 292 pages  $100

publication date:January 2022



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