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Imamate (Arabic: الإمامة) is the English word used to describe the office of the imam. In works of Muslim jurisprudence, both Shi’a and Sunni, the leader of the Muslim state is referred to as the imam. The term imam is also used in other religious contexts (such as a prayer-leader).

In Sunnism[edit | edit source]

The imam, in Sunni political theory, was the head of the Muslim state, whose responsibility was to ensure that the state operated in the correct Islamic manner. It was to the imam that the Muslims should pay their alms (zakat) and land tax (kharaj). It was with the imam that minority communities (such as Christians or Jews, normally termed “the protected people” or ahl al-dhimma) would make their agreement of protection, and when necessary, it was the imam who would lead the state in war with the enemies of Islam. This theoretical presentation was rarely realized, and the gap between theory and practice was recognized by other terms for the actual holders of political power (khalifa, sultan, amir, and even shaykh) that were rarely used to describe leaders in the theoretical works of jurisprudence, but were the standard appellations in works of history and biography, and in the increasingly popular mirror works, containing advice for kings and governors. The compromise evident in the interface between the theory and the historical development of the Muslim community is neatly exemplified by the debate among Sunni thinkers concerning the imamate of one who, though not the most pious of the community, has the appropriate political skills.

In Shi’ism[edit | edit source]

It is perhaps in the Shi’ite tradition that the term imam has been subject to the most discussion. For all the Shi’a, the imam was the descendant of Ali (the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad), who held both religious and political authority (irrespective of the extent of his own personal power). The imam was commonly held to have inherited these roles from the prophet Muhammad. In this sense, an imam was like a prophet. However, in other ways the imam was distinguished from a prophet. In particular, the imam was not the recipient of a divine revelation (wahy), but was “inspired” to lead the community. This was often attributed to an unusually close relationship with God, through which God guides the imam, and the imam in turn guides the people.

The divisions between the various contemporary Shi’ite groupings (Twelvers, Zaydis, and Isma’ilis) are, primarily, over questions of the imamate (What authority does he have? What power can he exert? Who, precisely, is the imam at the present time, and how is the imam selected or elected from among the Prophet’s descendants?).

In Zaydi Doctrine[edit | edit source]

The Zaydi Shi’a (so called because of their belief in the imamate of Zayd b. ‘Ali, a son of the great-grandson of the prophet Muhammad) have determined the imam to be a learned and pious descendant who comes forward to claim the office of the imam. For Zaydis, there may be periods when the world is devoid of an imam, and for some Zaydis, there may be times when there are two Imams. The major Zaydi community is based in Yemen, and the political leaders of Yemen were usually considered imams. However, in 1962, the last Zaydi imam (Imam Ahmad Hamid al-Din) died, leading to a revolution in Yemen and the end of the Zaydi imamate there. There has been no universally recognized imam for Zaydi Shi’ite since then, though there is no theoretical bar to one emerging in the future.

In Isma’ili Doctrine[edit | edit source]

The Isma’ili Shi’a have consistently argued that the imam is the current oldest male in a long line of descendants of the Prophet descended from Isma’il, the son of Ja’far (the great-great-great grandson of the Prophet). Isma’il fathered Muhammad, and the Isma’ili imams are all, supposedly, descended from him. The Isma’ilis have splintered into various groups over the past one thousand years. Some believe the line of imams to have disappeared and been replaced with a line of “propogators” (du’at); many others have recognized a line of imams, right up to the present day. The current holder of the imamate (according to these Isma’ilis), is Karim Khan Agha Khan, who became imam in 1971.

In Twelver Doctrine[edit | edit source]

A most extensive discussion of the Shi’ite theory of the imamate is that found within the Twelver Shi’ite tradition. Twelver Shi’a (or Ithna’ ‘ashari) are so named because of their belief in twelve imams (‘Ali, followed by eleven descendants), the last of whom has gone into hiding on a semi permanent basis (ghayba), to return at some point in the future to judge humankind. The Twelver Shi’ite writers shared with some Isma’ili theologians a rational argument for the existence of an imam: God would not leave the world without some sort of “guidance” (huda) for humanity, for to do so would make him both uncaring (in terms of neglect for his creation) and unjust (in that people would be punished in the afterlife for sins committed due to a lack of guidance from God). The imam, then, becomes a necessary condition of humankind’s continuation of religious life in the world. In Twelver philosophical works (such as those of the Twelver Mulla Sadra [d.1637]), the imam’s role is expanded, from a mere guarantor of religious life to a creational conduit, through whom the world was created, and by whom the world is maintained in existence.

In addition to these rational deliberations on the nature of the imam, there were exegetical efforts, whereby the imams were identified with certain expressions within the Quran. Quran 7:181, for instance, mentions people created by God to “guide [human beings] to the truth.” This for Twelver Shi’ite writers like the great Quranic exegete al-Tabarsi (d. 1158) is a clear reference to the imams. The Twelver Shi’ite theologian al-Shaykh al-Tusi (d. 1067), for example, outlines the qualities of an imam, which include designation (nass—by a previous imam), omniscience, being the most excellent (afdal) of the people, and (most crucially) being infallible (ma’sum). While the strictly political functions of the imam in Shi’ite thought do not differ significantly from those outlined in Sunni writings, the notion (particularly evident in Isma’ili

and Twelver writings) of the imam’s infallibility (isma), both in terms of interpretation and in terms of behavior, makes the Shi’ite conception distinctive. The imam, therefore, holds a more central role in Shi’ite community life than the imam of Sunni political theory. He is both perfect political leader and unchallenged religious authority.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • Abrahamov, Binyamin. “al-Kasim Ibn Ibrahim’s Theory of the Imamate.” Arabica 34 (1987): 80–105.
  • ‘Allama al-Hilli. “’Allama al-Hilli on the Imamate.” In Authority and Political Culture in Shi’ism. Edited by S. A. Arjomand. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988.
  • Momen, Moojan. Introduction to Shi’ite Islam. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.

Source[edit | edit source]

  • Robert Gleave (2004). Encyclopedia of Islam and Muslim World. Edited by Richard C. Martin. USA: Macmillan; P: 628-629. ISBN 0-02-865912-0