Imam is the one who stands in front; a role model for the Muslim community in all its spiritual and secular undertakings. In legal writings the term is applied to the leader of the congregational prayers in the mosque. Historically, Muslim rulers used to appoint the imam for the official function of leading the Friday services in the main mosque of capital cities. Sunni Muslims use the title for their prominent jurists, who are also regarded as the founders of their legal schools, such as Abu Hanifah and Shafii. In Shi’ism the imam is the divinely appointed successor of Muhammad and is regarded as infallible, with the ability to make binding decisions in all areas of human activity.
Imam in Quran[edit | edit source]
The word “imam” is an Arabic term signifying a leader, a model, an authority, or an exemplar. The term occurs in the Quran, for example at 2:124, with reference to God’s promise to make Abraham an “imam for the people,” and at 11:17 and 46:12, where the “Book of Moses” is characterized as an “imam.” In early theological and juristic literature, the Quran and the Sunna are sometimes referred to as imam, although the Qur’an does not describe itself as such.
Sunni Imams[edit | edit source]
Debates on the question of who was best qualified to be the imam and whether a sinful leader might be removed from his position as the head of the community played an important role in the development of Sunni religious and political thought. Medieval Sunni jurists held the position of the imam to be deducible from revelation rather than reason, and considered this position to be essential for the defense of Islam and the implementation of the sacred law, the shari‘a. In general, they required that the caliph/imam be a member of Muhammad’s tribe of Quraysh, be duly elected by the people or nominated by his predecessor, and possess moral probity, religious knowledge, and the physical faculties necessary for the discharge of his duties. With the decline of the caliphate and the rise to power of the military warlords, however, the jurists came to recognize that any ruler—and not necessarily the caliph—who wielded effective political power was the legitimate imam, as long as his actions did not flagrantly contravene the shari‘a.
Shi’a Imams[edit | edit source]
To the Shi‘ites, the term imam has a different signification altogether. It refers to a member of the family of the Prophet (Ahl Al-Bayt), and usually to a member of “the family” as descended from Muhammad’s daughter Fatima (d. 633) and her husband ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661). The history of Shi‘ism is marked by numerous disagreements on the precise identity and number of the imams, as well as on how to define the imam’s authority and functions; and many of these disagreements have continued to the present, as have distinct Shi'ite communities. The Imamis, who came to be the most numerous group among the Shi‘ites, believe in twelve imams, hence their common designation as “Ithna ‘asharis” or “Twelvers.” The Twelver imams are believed to be sinless, the repository of authoritative knowledge, and indispensable for the guidance and salvation of the community. The last of these imams is believed to have gone into hiding in 874. While leading Twelver-Shi‘ite jurists (mujtahids) have continued the imam’s function of providing religious guidance and leadership to the community (even as they have long debated the scope of their own authority in his absence), belief in his eventual return is a cardinal feature of the Twelver religious system.
BIBLIOGRAPHY[edit | edit source]
- Amir-Moezzi, M. A. The Divine Guide in Early Shi‘ism. Translated by David Streight. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.
- Calder, Norman. “The Significance of the Term Imam in Early Islamic Jurisprudence.” Zeitschrift fur Geschichte der arabisch-islamischen Wissenschaften. F.dited by F. Sezgin. Frankfurt: Institut fur Geschichte der arabisch-islamischen Wissenschaften, 1984.
- Madelung, Wilferd. “Imama.” In The Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2d ed. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1960.
- Sachedina, A. A. Islamic Messianism: The Idea of Mahdi in Twelver Shi‘ism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981.