Embodied Imamate

Mapping the Development of the Early Shiʿi Community 700-900 CE

ERC Horizon STG project, 2024-2028

PI: Edmund Hayes, Leiden University

According to the canonical accounts of Twelver Shiʿism, the Imams were a sequence of twelve men who passed supreme religious authority in succession from father to son between 661 and 874 CE. Yet this canonical sequence owes more retrospective doctrinal reconstruction than to the historical existence of a continuing institution of leadership. Nonetheless, this canonical doctrine of twelve Imams remains a dominant paradigm that has meant that a systematic history of the emergence of the Imamate as an institution has not yet been attempted.

The Imami Shiʿi Imams played a key role in early Islam. Their leadership defined the quietist yet oppositional community of the “Imami Shiʿa”, a community scattered throughout the Islamic empire. Their quiet opposition to the status quo gave rise to one of the great reservoir of alternative narratives about the meaning of Islam and Islamic history, providing an important parallel to the dominant narratives emerging from governmental elites, and Sunni voices claiming orthodoxy. A comprehensive history of Imamate has never been written. Scholarship on Imami Shiʿism has overwhelmingly focused on doctrine. However, religious groups are fundamentally social phenomena, and must be studied in their social, as well as their doctrinal dimensions. Hence, this project, “Embodied Imamate: Mapping the Development of the Early Shiʿi Community 700-900 CE (ImBod),”will frame the Imamate as a set of social interactions between two aspects which are rarely separately theorised: the Imams, and the community who venerated them.

The project aims to propose the first rigorously historical model for how, when and why the Imamate emerged and developed as an institution. Members ImBod team will be assigned particular thematic spheres in order to identify and study the networks, actors, institutions, spaces, objects and processes through which the Imamate was mediated and performed within the Imami Shiʿi community and beyond.

The project will bring together a broad array of sources (material, documentary and textual) and approaches, both traditional close-reading and computational analysis approaching the vast, but challenging textual corpus of Shiʿi and non-Shiʿi texts that bear on the development of the Imamate.


The ImBod team will work in parallel on the following overlapping spheres as locations for the institutional and hagiographical production of Imamate:

  • The household of the Imams centred upon the Imam’s own body, his family, servants and slaves
  • the elites of imperial Arab-Muslim society to which the Imams were connected through kinship, marriage and competition for resources
  • and the networks of bureaucratic, dynastic, court and scholarly influence through which the Imams were connected to the Imami community and broader society

The ImBod team will thus identify:

  • the networks within which acts of mediation and community-construction were performed
  • the types of network relationships, including bureaucratic, kinship, financial, and knowledge-transmission
  • key powerbrokers in the community, including Imamic family members, local dynasties, appointed Imamic agents, and scholars who represented the Imams through texts
  • the financial interests driving network interactions, especially the positionality provided by control of capital and revenue collection
  • the physical objects (money, letters, talismans) which mediated individuals’ sense of physical connection with an often distant Imam
  • the spaces and locations both close to and distant from the Imams where the Imamate and the Imami community was performed
  • the actions and processes through which the Imamate was transmitted and performed, leading to the ritual construction of identity

In studying the social networks of Shiʿism, ImBod will also provide a clearer perspective on the creation and transmission of the textual sources for Shiʿi history. Building upon recent pioneering work in the study of chains of transmitter names attached to early Arabic historical and religious reports, ImBod researchers will employ network-critical evaluation of reports to date and assess the sources, as well as to reconstruct the historical milieu within which reports circulated.