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Encyclopedia > Imams
This article forms part of the series
Vocabulary of Islam
Five Pillars
Profession of faith
Prayer · Alms · Fasting
Pilgrimage to Mecca
Jihad (See Sixth pillar of Islam)
Prophets of Islam
Caliph · Shia Imam
Companions of Muhammad
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Najaf · Karbala · Kufa
Kazimain · Mashhad · Samarra
Hijra · Islamic calendar · Eid ul-Fitr
Eid ul-Adha · Aashura · Arba'in
Mosque · Minaret · Mihrab · Kaaba
Islamic architecture
Functional Religious Roles
Muezzin · Imam · Mullah
Ayatollah · Mufti
Interpretive Texts & Practices
Qur'an · Hadith · Sunnah
Fiqh · Fatwa · Sharia
Sunni: Hanafi · Hanbali · Maliki · Shafi'i
Shi'a: Ithna Asharia · Ismailiyah · Zaiddiyah
Others: Ibadi · Kharijite · Murjite · Mu'tazili
Sufism · Wahhabism · Salafism
Non-Mainstream Sects / Movements
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Nation of Gods and Earths · Zikri · Druze
Related Faiths
Alawi · Babism · Bahá'í Faith · Yazidi

Imam is an Arabic word meaning "Leader". The ruler of a country might be called the Imam, for example. The term, however, has important connotations in the Islamic tradition.


Prayer leader

The common everyday use of the word is for a person leading Muslim congregational prayers. In this meaning Imam is not required to be a cleric.

Sunni "Imams"

The term is also used for a recognized religious leader or teacher in Islam, often for the founding scholars of the four Sunni madhhabs, or schools of religious jurisprudence (fiqh). For example, Imam Abu Hanifa. Or the Imams of the sciences related to Hadith such as Imam Bukhari, Imam Muslim, Imam Abu Dawood. Or the heads of the Prophet's decendants in their times such as Imam Jafar Sadiq.

Shia Imams

In the Shia context, Imam also has a meaning more central to belief.

The Shia interpretation is that the Quran clearly says that only God can appoint an Imam and no one else has the power to designate one. The incident of Ghadeer-e-Khum is referenced as when Muhammad declared Ali as the leader of the community after him.

According to the Twelve-Imam Shiite dogma, imam is a divine status, greater than the status of a Prophet. According to this ideology this title is reserved for only twelve early leaders of Islam—Ali, Hasan, Husayn, and nine of Husayn's descendants.

Following is a listing of the rightful sucessors of Muhammad, as recognized by mainstream ("Twelver") Shias. Each Imam was the son of the previous Imam, except for Husayn who was the brother of Hasan. See Shia Imams for details.

  1. Ali ibn Abu Talib (600 - 661)
  2. Hasan ibn Ali (625 - 669)
  3. Husayn ibn Ali (626 - 680)
  4. Ali ibn Husayn (658 - 713), also known as Zainul Abideen
  5. Muhammad al Baqir (676 - 743)
  6. Jafar as Sadiq (703 - 765)
  7. Musa al Kazim (745 - 799)
  8. Ali ar Rida (765 - 818)
  9. Muhammad at Taqi (810 - 835)
  10. Ali al Hadi (827 - 868)
  11. Hasan al Askari (846 - 874)
  12. Muhammad al Mahdi (868 - ?))

The Ismailis trace a different line of Imams, branching at one of Husayn's descendants, Ismail bin Jafar.

The Zayidis trace a different line, branching at Husayn's grandson, Zaid.

External links

  • For a slightly more detailed description of the Shiite belief (and for the other names and titles of the twelve Imáms), see, for example, http://www.bahai-library.org/books/dawnbreakers/preface/prefislam.html .
  • Graphical illustration of the Shia sects (http://philtar.ucsm.ac.uk/encyclopedia/islam/shia/index.html)
  • Akhbari sub-sect (http://www.akhbari.com), a Shia school that rejects modern innovations; including Khomeini's

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Imam (944 words)
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.
The imam may be a spokesman for the members of the congregation and an adviser in all questions that relate somehow to religion.
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.
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