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  • Twelve Infallible Men: The Imams and the Making of Shiʿism by Matthew Pierce
  • Alexander Khaleeli
Twelve Infallible Men: The Imams and the Making of Shiʿism. Matthew Pierce, 2016. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 272 pp., £35.95. ISBN 978-0-67-473707-5 (hbk).

In the rich Islamic intellectual tradition, the role of narrative is frequently overlooked in favour of its abundant legal, theological and mystical literature. However, in terms of the everyday lives of ordinary believers past and present, religious narratives probably held much more significance than the elite discourses of jurisprudence or theology. Indeed, even today, most people (religious or otherwise) do not think of their place in the world in terms of abstract rational principles or moral law, but in terms of the stories (religious, national, cultural and personal) that they tell about themselves.

The present volume considers the hitherto neglected subject of Shiʿi writings on the lives of the Twelve Imams. But, rather than trying to piece together the lives the Imams themselves, Matthew Pierce is more concerned with tracing the formative role these biographies and hagiographies played in shaping nascent Shiʿi identity. In line with this goal, Pierce begins not with the Imams themselves, but much later, with their followers in tenth-century Baghdad and the unique pressures they were facing. Perhaps signalling the adoption of a more functionalist approach to such literature, the author aims to shed light on the motivations of the scholars who compiled these accounts and interrogate the purpose and significance these works held for the Shiʿa at the time they were authored. From here, he goes on to illustrate the effect that stories have had on the collective imagination of the Shiʿa community to the present day and how they have helped them to negotiate and define their place both within Muslim society and in contrast to the Sunni majority.

Pierce presents a succinct discussion of his major themes (153 pages), supporting this with two indices introducing the personas of the Twelve Imams and briefly surveying the genre of biographical works about them. In addition, there are numerous footnotes, all of which will be of interest. Therefore, this work will not only fill an important niche in [End Page 377] the field of Shiʿa Studies, but also (it is hoped) open up new avenues for exploration by specialists.

Alexander Khaleeli
The Islamic College, London, UK


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pp. 377-378
Launched on MUSE
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