Did the Prophet (s) really say there will be 12 Caliphs after him? Sunni references?


Is it true that there is a hadith from the Holy Prophet(s) that he said that there will be 12 caliphs or rulers after him? If it does exist, is it authentic, and does it exist in both Shia and Sunni books of narration?

Please provide me with some of the main Sunni references if possible. Also, what do Sunni Muslims say about this hadith if it exists in their books?


The famous Prophetic narrations of ’12 Caliphs’ or ’12 Emirs’ are mentioned in many books of Hadith including Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim:

يَكُونُ اثْنَا عَشَرَ أَمِيرًا – فَقَالَ كَلِمَةً لَمْ أَسْمَعْهَا فَقَالَ أَبِى إِنَّهُ قَالَ – كُلُّهُمْ مِنْ قُرَيْشٍ.

Jaber Ibn Samorah said I went to the Prophet (P) and I heard him saying: “There will be 12 Emirs”- then the Prophet (P) said something that I did not hear so I asked my father about it and he said, the Prophet (P) added: “they are all from Qoraysh.” (Bukhari, Hadith No. 7222).

عَنْ جَابِرِ بْنِ سَمُرَةَ قَالَ دَخَلْتُ مَعَ أَبِي عَلَى النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ ، فَسَمِعْتُهُ يَقُول: إِنَّ هَذَا الْأَمْرَ لَا يَنْقَضِي حَتَّى يَمْضِيَ فِيهِمْ اثْنَا عَشَرَ خَلِيفَةً . قَالَ : ثُمَّ تَكَلَّمَ بِكَلَامٍ خَفِيَ عَلَيَّ . قَالَ : فَقُلْتُ لِأَبِي : مَا قَالَ ؟ قَالَ : كُلُّهُمْ مِنْ قُرَيْشٍ.

Jaber Ibn Samorah said I went to the Prophet (P) and I heard him saying: “Indeed this matter will not be completed until there will be 12 Caliphs amongst them.” He then added something softly that I did not hear, so I asked my father about it who said: The Prophet (P) said: “They are all from Qoraysh.” (Muslim, Hadith No. 1821, Book of leadership).

The above narration has been one of the most mysterious narrations for Sunni scholars. Al-Nawawi; the most famous interpreter of Sahih Muslim, who while quoting from many scholars regarding the meaning of the abovementioned Hadith, quotes from al-Qadi A’yadh who suggested:

و يحتمل أن يكون المراد مستحقي الخلافة العادلين ، وقد مضى منهم من عُلم ، ولا بد مِن تمام هذا العدد قبل قيام الساعة

“And it is possible that it is meant for those just people who deserve the Caliphate, and some of them who are known have already passed and the rest must come before the Resurrection Day.” (Sharh Muslim vol.12 p.202)

Ibn Kathir; the famous Sunni Imam of Hadith and historian says:

ومعنى هذا الحديث البشارة بوجود اثني عشر خليفة صالحًا ، يقيم الحق ويعدل فيهم ، ولا يلزم من هذا تواليهم وتتابع أيامهم ، بل قد وجد منهم أربعة على نَسَق ، وهم الخلفاء الأربعة: أبو بكر ، وعمر ، وعثمان ، وعلي ، رضي الله عنهم ، ومنهم عمر بن عبد العزيز بلا شك عند الأئمة ، وبعض بني العباس. ولا تقوم الساعة حتى تكون ولايتهم لا محالة ، والظاهر أن منهم المهدي المبشر به في الأحاديث الواردة بذكره

“This Hadith is a glad tiding that there will be 12 righteous Caliphs (after the holy Prophet), who will establish truth and justice. However, it does not necessarily mean they should lead one after the other! Thus among them it could be undoubtedly Omar Ibn Abdul-Aziz, and some of the Abbasid kings! (In any event), the Resurrection Day will not happen until they (the 12 Caliphs) undoubtedly rule. And apparently al-Mahdi; whose glad tiding has been mentioned in many narrations is one of them!” (Tafsir Ibn Katheer, vol.3, p.65).

Ibn Hajar; the author of Fathul-Bari, whose book is celebrated as one of the best interpretations of Sahih Bukhari, while quoting from al-Mohallab says:

لم ألق أحدا يقطع في هذا الحديث يعني بشيء معين

“I have not met anyone who could be certain about the meaning of this Hadith!” (Fathul-Bari, vol. 13, p.211)

Similarly, Ibn Jouzi; the renowned Hanbali scholar confesses:

هذا الحديث قد أطلت البحث عنه، وتطلّبت مظانّه، وسألت عنه، فما رأيت أحدا وقع على المقصود به

“I have researched for long to understand this Hadith and referred to many references and made much enquiries about it, yet I did not meet anyone who could understand it.” (Kashful-Majhool, vol.1 p.449)

Likewise, Ibn Taymiyya says:

ومنهم من قال: لا أفهم معناه كأبي بكر بن العربي

“Among them (scholars) are those like Abi-Bakr Bin Arabi who said: “I do not understand the meaning of the Hadith!” (Menhaju-Sunna, vol. 8 p.173)

Are Bani Umayyad from the tribe of Qoraysh?

In an attempt to complete the number 12, many of the Sunni scholars insist on including some of the Umayyad kings.

This argument is very futile for many reasons:

1. The Umayyad kings were more than twenty!

2. The Caliphs of the holy Prophet (P) have to be the most pious and righteous Muslims. Would they regard the cursed Yazid as one of the Caliphs of the holy Prophet?! Would Marwan Ibn Hakam, who was explicitly cursed by the Prophet (P), be another caliph of the Messenger of Allah?!

3. The holy Prophet (P) foretold that his twelve Caliphs are from the tribe of Quraysh. Although it is famously taken for granted that the Umayyad are from the tribe of Quraysh, the fact is otherwise:

– Bukhari narrated that when the holy Prophet (P) was distributing the share of the ‘Near of the kin’ he refused to give any share to the children of Abd-Shams (Umayyad), as well as the children of Noufil. He only distributed them amongst the children of Hashim and Mottalib. When Uthman Ibn Affan (known as the 3rd caliph, and who was from Umayyad family) and Jobair Ibn Mot’em (who was from Bani Noufil) complained, the holy Prophet (P) said: “Only the Children of Hashim and the Children of Mottalib are one family.” (Bukhari, vol. 5, p.79).

– Umayya; the grandfather of the Umayyads, was an adopted child of Abd-Sham, not a biological child. Imam Ali (a.s), in one of his letters to Mo’awiyah with reference to this fact writes:

و أما قولک انا بنوعبدمناف، فکذلک نحن ولکن
لیس أمی
ۀ کهاشم، ولا حرب کعبدالمطلب و لا ابوسفیان کأبی طالب و لا المهاجر کالطلیق، و لا الصریح کاللصی

“And as to what you said that you are from the children of Abd Manaf, then so are we. However, Umayyah is   not like Hashim (in virtue and biological relation), and nor is Harb like Abdul-Mottalib, neither is Abu-Sofyan like   Abu-Talib. Also, the one who willingly migrated (in)to Islam is not the same as the one who was freed, just as the one who is biologically related is not the same as the one who is adopted.” (Nahjul-Balagha, Letter No.17)

When Imam Ali (a.s) heard that his opponents claimed the caliphate with the excuse that they are from Quraysh he said: “How strange! They referred to the tree but ignored its fruit!”  (Bani-Hashim is a branch of Quraysh.)


The Twelve Caliphs or Emirs are the Twelve Imams of Ahlul-Bayt (a.s)

There is no sect in Islam other than us, the Twelvers (Shi’a), who by the Grace of God believe in twelve leaders after the holy Prophet (P), all of whom are from his Noble Family. Thus, the Prophetic Hadith that the renowned Sunni scholars could not make any meaning of, is so well understood, even by our children.

The 12 Imams are:

1. Imam Ali
2. Imam Hasan
3. Imam Husain
4. Imam Ali Ibn Husain al-Sajjad
5. Imam Muhammad Ibn Ali al-Baqir
6. Imam Ja’far Ibn Muhammad al-Sadiq
7. Imam Musa Ibn Ja’far al-Kadhem
8. Imam Ali Ibn Musa al-Reda
9. Imam Muhammad Ibn Ali al-Jawad
10. Imam Ali Ibn Muhammad al-Hadi
11. Imam Hasan Ibn Ali al-Askari
12. The promised Imam Muhammad Ibn Hassan al-Mahdi

Peace be upon them all.

Note how the holy Prophet (P) in his famous Hadith of Thaqalayn has referred to his noble family as one of the two types of Caliphs he has left behind:

Zaid Ibn Thabit narrated from the Messenger of Allah (P): “Surely, I leave behind two Caliphs for you: the Book of Allah, a linked rope between heaven and earth, and my noble family, and truly these two will not be separated until they return to me at the Pool (of Kauthar).” (Kanzul-Ummal, vol. 1, p.44).

For more information, please see here.

Answered by: Sheikh Mansour Leghaei