What is an Imam?

Apparently yesterday two Imams traveling to DC for a conference on Islamophobia were asked to leave their flight by the pilot, who refused to take off with them on board (thanks to woodturtle for posting the link!).

Pretty much everything that needs to be said about this has been – it’s obviously racist and an act of ridiculous hysteria, the pilot was seriously out of line and the Imams have every reason to be offended (as do all of the rest of us).  But it strikes me reading the coverage of the story that no one ever really talks about what an Imam is or what an Imam does, except dressing in traditional clothing and sometimes getting kicked off airplanes.  So here’s a go . . .

This is one of those times in which it’s important to remember that Islam is not a homogeneous community, but that there are actually Muslim sects.  In particular, the concept of “Imam” means something very different in Sunni versus Shi’i tradition.  In Sunni tradition, the Imam is the person who leads prayers in a mosque.  This person often takes on both administrate and pastoral roles, as well, caring for the maintenance of the mosque and offering support to his fellow Muslims, but in its basic formation, anyone who leads prayers is, technically, an Imam.  Today, there is a wider tradition of training Imams, and often Imams are expected to have undertaken some kind of training in Islamic thought, generally being literate in Arabic and versed in Islamic law.  But in the early and Medieval period, the concept was far more fluid, and early sources regularly refer to figures acting as Imams, which is not a derogatory concept, but is rather short-hand for “they led prayers in this particular circumstance but this was not normally their job”.  In fact, the first caliph Abu Bakr was an Imam for the early community even in the lifetime of the Prophet (peace be upon him) – when the Prophet (s’lm) was ill, it was Abu Bakr who led prayers.

In the Shi’a tradition, the term can be used the same way, but it also has a larger and more theologically-loaded meaning.  “Imam” becomes the Shi’a term for the correct, divinely-appointed leader, in opposition to the “caliph”, who was the Sunni leader of the community (the only exception is the Prophet’s nephew and son-in-law ‘Ali, who was both caliph and Imam).  For Shi’a, the Imam must be ahl al-bayt (literally “people of the house(hold”)), meaning from the family of the Prophet, and traditionally the succession of Imams was traced from Muhammad to ‘Ali to ‘Ali’s sons al-Hassan and al-Husayn (peace be upon them).  In Shi’ism, “walaya” or submission to the Imam is considered a Pillar, or required act.  Some also practice “tawassul” or intercessory prayer to the Imams.

In particular, Twelver and Isma’ili Shi’ism, which are the two largest sects, common in Iran, central Asia and south Asia, hold that true Imams are those who possess “ismah” (divinely-appointed wisdom, akin to infallibility) which allows them to understand doctrine free from corruption or error.  According to Twelver Shi’ism, the succession of Imams passed through twelve Imams, and the twelfth Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi, called the “Hidden Imam,” who disappeared in 878, will reappear at the End Times (indeed, his name “al-Mahdi” is one of the Muslim term for the Messiah).  Not all sects of Shi’ism accept that Muhammad al-Mahdi is the Mahdi, and in some Shi’i traditions, as well as in Sunni tradition, Jesus is understood as the Mahdi.

So basically, in general, the kinds of Imams that you meet walking around town are people who lead prayers in a mosque, but occasionally in Muslim writing the term will be used in a very different way.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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