It was the middle of the ninth century. Men on horseback carried orders from Iraq, the center of the Muslim empire. Baghdad had only existed for a hundred years, built specifically to be the capital of one of the richest and most powerful dynasties of that era. Claiming descent from Abbas, one of the uncles of the Prophet Muhammad, blessings upon him and his family, the Abbasid caliphs laid claim to Islam itself. The holy war (jihad) was carried out under their orders. The pilgrimage to Makkah (hajj) was symbolically led by the caliph. They appointed judges to administer sacred law (shari’ah), and doled out patronage to scholars writing books on everything from the prophetic biography (sirah) to Greek philosophy (falsafa). Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that the impact the Abbasids had on human history is still felt today.
But there were also some people subjected to Abbasid persecution who remain influential, despite their marginalization in the ninth century. One of them is the subject of this writing, ‘Ali b. Muhammad b. ‘Ali b. Musa b. Ja’far b. Muhammad b. ‘Ali b. Husayn b. ‘Ali b. Abu Talib. Often known as Imam al-Naqi, he is believed by approximately 200,000,000 Muslims today to be the 10th leader of the Muslim community after the Prophet Muhammad, blessings upon him and his family. His leadership was not based on number of followers nor military strength; rather, according to the perspective of Twelver Shi’i theology, his leadership was Divinely conferred.
Linage of Imam al-Naqi
So it is no surprise to those who see themselves as faithful to his legacy that, in the year 848, the Abbasid caliph Mutawakkil ordered Imam al-Naqi to leave his home in the city of Madinah and move to the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, where the caliphs held court at the time. Under the close watch of Abbasid guards and spies, Imam al-Naqi remained in Samarra in a state of house arrest until he was buried there in 868 – twenty years a prisoner. During this time, Mutawakkil ordered the destruction of the tombs of Imam al-Naqi’s forefathers, as well as the public cursing (la’an) of their progenitor, ‘Ali b. Abi Talib. These were symbolic acts intimately tied to one another – the attempt to suppress the sacred dead and the sacred living simultaneously.
Interpreting these caliphal policies is easy: Imam al-Naqi and the lineage he represented was a threat to the Abbasids and the system they administered. Imam al-Naqi, even while confined to Samarra, collected and distributed a Qur’anic tax that the caliphs considered their sole right as leaders of the Muslim armies. Once collected by the Prophet himself, blessings upon him and his family, the khums was a tax of 20% on various categories of profit and income. This system of private sacred taxation represented Imam al-Naqi’s base of support throughout Abbasid society,  and represented a significant deviation from mainstream jurisprudence, a difference maintained by the Twelver Shi’i community until this day.
Imam al-Naqi’s grandfather had been named heir apparent to the caliphate by Mutawakkil’s uncle, Ma’mun, but was eventually poisoned and buried in a remote part of the empire. His only surviving son, Imam al-Naqi’s father, was married to Ma’mun’s daughter, but Imam al-Naqi’s mother was not the Abbasid princess. His mother, as was the case with many of his forefathers, was a slave woman. As such, Mutawakkil’s actions were an attempt to erase this past and restore sole predominance to the Abbasids.
During this time, many scholars traveled the Muslim world, studying and teaching Islam as best they knew how. Perhaps the most famous of them was al-Bukhari, who died two years after Imam al-Naqi in 870. Al-Bukhari was able to travel to many cities freely, and study with its scholars, collecting historical reports about the early generations of Muslims. His book, Sahih al-Bukhari, went on to become one of the most famous in the history of Islamic scholarship. Al-Bukhari was no threat to the established order, and as such his life unfolded in remarkably different ways from his contemporary, Imam al-Naqi. Al-Bukhari’s family had only become Muslim a few generations back, and he was from a politically marginal region the empire. Imam al-Naqi, on the other hand, was the living legacy of prophetic blood, and so it was not enough to simply stop his teaching in Madinah. His very physical presence was considered problematic.
Despite all of this, there still remain some teachings transmitted from Imam al-Naqi. Undoubtedly this is due to those faithful who believed in him, and weathered the storm along with him. Most prominent among them is a text known as al-ziyara al-jami’ah al-kabira. In this text, the Twelver Shi’i doctrine of Imamate (imamah) is given full explication in ritual form. It makes sense that this text would emerge in a time of persecution, when access to Imam al-Naqi was restricted, and the faithful needed a way to reaffirm their loyalty. The khums was a way of expressing allegiance in jurisprudence (fiqh), and al-ziyara al-jami’ah al-kabira was a text that could be read for the sake of affirming a theology (‘aqida) that was under assault. In addition, the text was a means of spiritually connecting with the lineage itself, despite the caliphal destruction of their burial sites.
Taken together, this information makes it clear that Imam al-Naqi was a Shi’i Imam. Whether one believes in his Imamate is a separate matter, and concerns faith (iman) and not necessarily history (ta’rikh). But some contemporary descendants of Imam al-Naqi’s forefathers, most notably some of the progeny of his great great uncle ‘Ali al-‘Uraydi, maintain that Imam al-Naqi was a Sunni. However, the historical evidence tells a different story. For some, this may be inconsequential, as the great historiographical debates between Sunnis and Shi’is are usually held in regards to earlier figures such as ‘Ali b. Abi Talib. But if the Sunni community can accept that the Twelver Shi’is of today take their understanding of Islam directly from a contemporary of al-Bukhari, then we can see each other more fairly. For the conviction of many Sunnis lies in their belief that al-Bukhari is a direct link (sanad) to the Prophet, blessings upon him and his family, which is precisely what Twelver Shi’is see in Imam al-Naqi and his forefathers. And if Sunnis can embrace that the history of the persecution of the Ahl al-Bayt has historical precedent in the rule of Mutawakkil, then perhaps we can move forward a small degree towards greater sympathy regarding continued persecution today. In 2006, Imam al-Naqi’s burial site was decimated by an extremist suicide bomber, and its renovation is ongoing.
But if we maintain, without any historical evidence, that the Imams were all Sunnis in jurisprudence (fiqh) and theology (‘aqida), then we run the risk of perpetuating the attempted erasure of the legacy of Ahl al-Bayt that Mutawakkil tried so hard to complete.
Imam al-Naqi’s burial site in early 2016
 For a readable history of the Abbasids, see Kennedy, Hugh; When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty (De Capo Press, 2006)
 For brief biographies of two early Muslim legal scholars who held the position of “chief justice (qadi al-qudat)” under the Abbasids, see Yusuf, Hamza; The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi (Zaytuna Institute, 2007) pp. 85-7
 For brief remarks regarding Abbasid influence on the formation of prophetic biography, see Brown, Jonathan A.C.; Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2011) pp. 86-8
 The “b.” refers to the Arabic bin, which means “son of.”
 I have chosen to refer to him by his title al-Naqi (The Pure), because that is the title through which I feel the most affection for him. Why that is so is explained here: https://amercycase.com/2015/11/19/secrets/
 Writing in 2006, based on published data from 2003, Vali Nasr gives an estimated Twelver Shi’i population of between 130-195 million. Due to population growth in the last decade, it is fair to assume that the upper range of that estimate is now well beyond 200 million. See Nasr, Vali; The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape The Future (W.W. Norton, 2006) p. 34
 Modarressi, Hossein; Crisis and Consolidation in the Formative Period of Shi’ite Islam (The Darwin Press: 1993) p. 15
 Kennedy, Hugh; The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates, 2nd ed. (Pearson, 2004) p. 167
 I will leave “khums” untranslated, as that it is the standard in English-speaking Twelver Shi’i communities.
 For a brief insight into the way the caliphs would normally regard the khums as solely “the spoils of battle,” see Keller, Nuh Ha Mim; Reliance of the Traveller (Amana Publications, 1999) p. 606
 See Modarressi, pp. 14-7, for details regarding Imam al-Naqi’s khums system.
 Kennedy, pp. 152-3
 For a contemporary Twelver Shi’i interpretation of these historical details, see Nakhshawani, Dr. Sayed Ammar; The Fourteen Infallibles (The Universal Muslim Association of America, 2014) pp. 217-22
 For a brief biography of al-Bukhari, see Brown, Jonathan; The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim: The Formation and Function of the Sunni Hadith Canon (Brill, 2007) pp. 65-8
 Baqir Sharif al-Qarashi maintains that this text is most certainly authentically attributed to Imam al-Naqi. See his book, Ḥayāt al-Imām ‘Alī al-Hādī, ed. Mahdī Bāqir al-Qarashī (Mu’assasat al-Imām al-Ḥasan, 2013) p. 170