The term used in Islam for denoting a person with special qualities relevant to the religion. The term is used 7 times in the singular and 5 times in the plural (a’imma) in the Koran, although the contemporary meaning of the term is not based on the Koran, but rather on theological developments.
The term “imam” is used in many different contexts, and with different meanings. Five different ways of understanding the term are explained below, but there has never been any attempt to create a consolidated system for the different usages. It differs from group to group, from sect to sect and sometimes even from mosque to mosque.
In Shi’i Islam the theological concepts related to the imam are the very foundations upon which the rest of the theology rests. In Sunni Islam the term “imam” is used principally as a title, and has minimal importance in theology.
In the mosque
The congregational prayer performed in the mosque is supposed to have a leader, and this person is called “imam.” In the standard interpretation, being imam is not a profession, nor is it a qualification: The imam is imam only as long as he is leading the prayer.
Any respected Muslim who is normally well-trained in leading prayer, as-Salat, can be an imam. In general, it is the most learned and most respected person in the assembly who is offered the honour of being imam.
However, in modern times, many mosques have made their imam into something more: an employed leader of the congregation, a counterpart of a priest, nothing less. The imam may be a spokesman for the members of the congregation and an adviser in all questions that relate somehow to religion.
Shi’i Islam. The highest leader
There are several different nuances in views of the “imam” among the Shi’is, but a common assumption is that he is the leader of all Muslims, and, by extension, a leader in the world. In Twelver Shi’i Islam, imams existed only through the first centuries of Muslim history, possibly into the 10th century.
There are differences about what makes an imam an imam, and therefore who may become imam. At the time of the first imam, Ali, there was only one view, even if the imamship had not yet been defined. The original idea about the imam intends that he:
- Be a man of direct descent of either Husayn or his brother Hassan
- Not be a minor
- Be sound in mind and body
- Have competent knowledge of theology
- Have the capacity of being a ruler
The imam is supposed to have a special relationship to God — to have something that comes close to divine powers. The imam is supposed to be the guide of the human race, in both religious as well as secular issues. Due to such expectations, there can only be one imam at a time.
Due to his close relationship to God, he is the only one who fully understands all aspects of Islam, the infallible and only one who can give interpretations of the Koran and the hadiths. Hence, he is the only one who can rule Muslim society on a day to day basis.
Moreover, among many Shi’is there is an idea that there are two types of imams: The true and the false. The false imams are the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs, while the true imams are the ones in the list to the left.
According to the Twelver Shi’is — the largest Shi’i group — there were 12 imams, of which the last went into occultation around 941 CE and is expected back in the form of a Mahdi (a savior character with many similarities to the Messiah in Judaism and Christianity).
Along the line of the 12 imams, there were many disputes over who was the right one. Records show that there were more than 40 Shi’i sects growing out of these disputes. The first group, the now-extinct Saba’iyya, thought that Ali had become divine, and went into occultation instead of dying.
With all imams, save Husayn, groups differed over who was the right imam. Most of these groups have since long disappeared, but a couple of them still exist.
After the 4th imam (died in 712 or 713 CE), one group claimed that Zayd was the rightful new imam, and from this the Zaydis emerged.
Some years later (in 765 CE), another group claimed that Isma¢il was the rightful 7th imam, and from their point of view the Isma’ilis developed. At a later stage, they either became absorbed by a non-Muslim faith or came to incorporate other belief systems, thus creating an independent religion. In the times when Isma’ilism was still part of Islam, the Druze faith would emerge from within their ranks.
The Zaydis believe that there can be more than one imam at one time and that there can be periods when there are no imams at all.
Shi’i Islam. Modern reinterpretations
With Ayatollah Khomeini, a new orientation took hold in Twelver Shi’ism. Many of the qualities earlier resting with the imam alone, were determined to be within the reach of the most learned men within their respective branches of Islam.
Hence, Khomeini, and his associates, could efficiently rule the religious life of Iran, something that would not have been possible if the older ideas about the imam should continue to prevail (where the imam alone was the rightful leader of the Muslim community).
Sunni Islam. Caliphs
As the leaders of the community, the caliphs have been called “imams.” Since there are no longer any caliphs, this use of the term “imam” is of minimal importance.
Sunni Islam. Eminence
As a way of expressing eminence for certain learned men inside Islam, the term “imam” may be added to the their names. Examples of learned men being called “imam” are the founders of the schools of Sharia, and the great theologian al-Ghazzali.