Hadith of the Twelve Successors

In addition to the fabrication of hadith, the ruling powers also took the trouble to change well-known traditions. One in particular reinforces their legitimacy and is a well-known hadith transmitted amongst both the Sunni and the Shia schools of thought.

Al-Bukhari, al-Muslim, Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud, al-Tabarani, and Ibn Hajar all narrate the famous hadith which says, “The successors after me will be twelve, and all of them will be from Bani Hashim,”[42] except that in the sahih books, “Bani Hashim” has been changed to read “Quraysh.”

How did the change in the hadith happen? According to al-Muslim, the narrator Jabir b. Samrah reports:

I went with my father to see the Prophet and I heard him say that after him there would be twelve successors. Then he said something that I could not hear very well. I turned to my father and asked him, “What did the Prophet say?” My father said, “The Prophet said, ‘All of them will be from Quraysh.’” [43]

Al-Bukhari relates the story somewhat differently, using the word “amir” (commander) instead of “khalifah”:

I heard the Prophet say that there will be twelve amirs, but then said something I could not hear. I asked the person sitting next to me what the Prophet said and he replied, “All of them are from Quraysh.”[44]

Abu Dawud says:

When the Prophet said, “There will be twelve successors after me,” all the people began to do takbir (uttering “Allahu akbar”) and raised their voices while the Prophet was speaking. Therefore, I could not hear the Prophet because all of the people were saying takbir. So I asked my father, “What did the Prophet say after that?” He said, “All of them will be from Quraysh.”[45]

Ahmad b. Hanbal simply relates that Jabir b. Samrah says, “I heard the Prophet saying, ‘This nation will have twelve successors,’[46] and ‘all of them will be from Quraysh.’”[47] Al-Tabarani includes the same hadith, only using the word “qayyim” (guardian) instead of “khalifah.”[48]

However, Ibn Hajar points to the root of the matter and explains that Jabir b. Samrah was sitting and could not hear the Prophet clearly. He turned to the two people next to him; one of them was his father and the other was Umar b. al-Khattab. As the Prophet was speaking, the people were listening quietly. Suddenly, when he approached the subject of who was to succeed him, clamor broke out (described in the other reports as takbir). Few could hear the Prophet clearly. However, according to Ibn Hajar, a person was ready to relate what the Prophet had said, and that was Umar b. al-Khattab – who as a key member of the Quraysh group had a strong interest in ensuring that the caliphate was not limited to the members of Bani Hashim.[49]

In addition, Sunni scholars have had difficulty interpreting this hadith, since their number of successors to the Prophet never reached twelve. Shia scholars on the other hand, maintain that this hadith relates to the twelve Imams whom they say the Prophet designated to succeed him, one after another, beginning with Imam Ali b. Abi Talib and ending with Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi.

[42] Al-khulafa min badi ithna ashar wa kulluhum min Quraysh (Bani Hashim)
[43] Sahih al-Muslim, 3:1452, hadith 5
[44] Sahih al-Bukhari, 9:101
[45] Sunan Abi Dawud, 4:106, hadith 4280
[46] Musnad Ahmad, 5:106
[47] Ibid., 5:86
[48] Al-Tabarani, Mujam al-Kabeer, 2:196, hadith 1794
[49] Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari fi Sharh al-Bukhari

When Power and Piety Collide by Sayed Moustafa al-Qazwini