Matthew Pierce

Twelve Infallible Men

The Imams and the Making of Shiism

Harvard University Press 2016

New Books in BiographyNew Books in Gender StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Islamic StudiesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in ReligionNew Books in Religion & FaithNew Books Network September 7, 2016 Kristian Petersen

The story of the martyrdom of Husayn, the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, is recounted annually around the world. More broadly, the communal retelling of the...

The story of the martyrdom of Husayn, the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, is recounted annually around the world. More broadly, the communal retelling of the lives of Shia imams has played an important part in shaping Shia identity and practice. Matthew Pierce, Assistant Professor of Religion at Centre College, examines the early canonization of these life stories in Twelve Infallible Men: The Imams and the Making of Shiism (Harvard University Press, 2016). Pierce carefully conceptualizes the relationship between history, author, text, and audience through an examination of several collective biographies of the twelve imams from the 10th-12th centuries. From this sub-genre several themes arise in the presentation of the imams, their families, and their actions. Martyrdom is central to the retellings not only of Husayn, but of all the imams. The imams’ death are remembered through images of suffering and mourning but structured in ways that provide solace for the audience. The collective biographies also offer representations of the imams’ bodily performance and communicate idealized forms of masculinity. Accounts of women in the biographies also help in establishing gender norms for the audience. In our conversation we discussed the social role of biography, collective memory, medieval Sunni and Shia identities, gendered bodies, birth narratives, devotional practices, imam Ali’s primordial existence, martyrdom, and the narrative relationships between the imams.


Kristian Petersen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha. His research and teaching interests include Theory and Methodology in the Study of Religion, Islamic Studies, Chinese Religions, Human Rights, and Media Studies. You can find out more about his work on his website, follow him on Twitter @BabaKristian, or email him at kjpetersen@unomaha.edu.

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