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IMAMATE . The Arabic term imam means in general "leader" or "master." In nontechnical usage it is often applied to a leading authority in a field of scholarship or to the leader of a community. As a technical term in Islamic law and theology, it refers to the legitimate supreme leader of the Muslim community and also to the leader of the ritual prayer (alāt ). The imamate, as the office of imam, will be dealt with here in these two technical senses.

Supreme Leadership of the Muslim Community

The question of leadership, in theory and practice, has historically evoked different responses within the different branches of Islam.

The Sunnīs

Representing the great majority of Muslims, the Sunnīs have generally viewed the historical caliphate as the legitimate leadership of Islam after the prophet Muammad. For them, the imam is thus identical with the ruling caliph. Actual rule, even if reduced to a minimum, is indispensable for the legitimacy of the imam. Throughout history, however, the Sunnīs were primarily concerned with preserving the unity and solidarity of the Muslim community under a single imam and were prepared to compromise on the ideal of his legitimacy and justice. Sunnī theory generally held that the true and exemplary caliphate, meaning the vicegerency of prophecy (khilāfat al-nubūwah ) was restricted to the first four, or "Rightly Guided" (Rāshidūn) caliphs, Abū Bakr, ʿUmar, ʿUthmān, and ʿAlī. This view was embodied in a well-known adīth attributed to Muammad, according to which the caliphate was to last for only thirty years after his death and to be followed by mere autocratic kingship (mulk ). Sunnīs considered the first four caliphs to be the most excellent of humankind after Muammad and thus entitled to his succession as leaders of the community.

This judgment did not apply, however, to the later caliphs, many of whom were seen as unjust and impious. While the later caliphate was thus recognized to be imperfect, Sunnī doctrine viewed it still as a divinely sanctioned and indispensable institution and stressed the obligation of every Muslim to obey and actively support the established imam, be he just or oppressive, pious or immoral, except in violation of the religious law. Conservative traditionalist opinion, especially that of anbalī jurists, virtually equated power and legitimacy, affirming the validity of the imamate gained by usurpation. In their view, the imamate could become binding without any act of recognition by the Muslim community. The only prerequisite for the rightful imam was that he be a Muslim of the Quraysh, the tribe of Muammad.

A less radical view of the caliphate was taken by another current of Sunnī thought, represented in particular in the legal school of al-Shāfiʿī. The Shāfiʿī jurists did not confine the legitimate imamate to the most excellent of the community and allowed that a less excellent candidate might be chosen, especially in order to avoid discord. They considered the late caliphate essentially as a legitimate continuation of the ideal rule of the four Rightly Guided caliphs, to be judged by the standards they had set. On this basis they elaborated a comprehensive legal doctrine concerning the qualifications, election, rights, and duties of the imam. Their activity reached its peak with al-Māwardī (d. 1058), whose book Al-akām al-sulānīyah (The statutes of government) came to be widely regarded as an authoritative statement of classical Sunnī teaching on the imamate.

Classical theory

Classical Sunnī theory considered the imamate as an institution necessary for the legitimacy of all acts of government. Thus it held that the Muslim community was under the obligation to set up an imam as its supreme head at all times. It allowed for only a single imam at any time and considered rival caliphs, even if they were in clear control of part of the Islamic world, to be illegitimate. The imam was to be of Qurayshī descent, male, major, free, physically fit, and capable to execute the political and military duties of the office. He was to have the knowledge of the religious law required for the judgeship and probity as required for legal testimony. The imam could be either appointed by his predecessor or elected. These alternative modes of investment were based on the fact that the second caliph, ʿUmar, was appointed by his predecessor, Abū Bakr, but, before his death, set up an electoral council (shūrā ) of six prominent companions of the Prophet to choose his successor. The later caliphs in most instances appointed their successors, commonly their sons.

In the case of election, the law considered any Muslim of probity, discernment, and with knowledge about the nature of the office qualified to act as an elector. The number of electors required to make the election binding on the whole Muslim community was generally held to be small, and a common view considered a single elector sufficient. The legal doctrine here reflected the fact that in the absence of an appointed successor a handful of powerful men were usually able to impose a successor of their choice. The election was not intended to be a free choice between candidates, but a selection of the "most excellent" in religious terms. The election of the "less excellent" was viewed as permissible only for proper cause.

The imamate became legally invalid through loss of liberty and of mental or physical fitness. Many Shāfiʿī authorities also held it to be forfeited by loss of probity through immoral conduct, injustice, or heterodoxy; this view was denied, however, by others and by anbalī and anafī opinion in general. In practice there was no way to apply this rule. Sunnī law defined the duties of the imam as: guarding the faith against heresy, protecting the peace in the territory of Islam, defending it against external enemies, conducting jihād against those outside the territory of Islam resisting its supremacy, enforcing law and justice between disputants, administering punishments (udūd) under the religious law, collecting legal alms and other taxes and the fifth of war booty due to the imam, spending revenue according to the provisions of the law, and appointing trustworthy and qualified officials in delegating his authority.

Subsequent developments

The overthrow of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 confronted Sunnī legal theory with a new situation. The Abbasid shadow caliphate set up by the Mamluk sultans in Cairo was generally ignored. After the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1516, the claims of the Ottoman sultans to the caliphate gained some popular support. Sunnī jurists, however, mostly considered the imamate to be in abeyance. Relying on the legal principle of necessity (arūrah ), they maintained that because the actual exercise of power was essential to the imamate, its functions had devolved upon the rulers of the Muslim world, whoever they were. The formal abolition of the Ottoman sultanate (1922) and caliphate (1924) by the Turkish National Assembly has led to a renewed interest in the question of a supreme and universal leader of Islam. Although some modernists have denied the need for the imamate, others among them, as well as fundamentalists, have advocated its restoration. Here the ideal model is the caliphate of the four Rightly Guided caliphs rather than the later dynastic caliphate. Modernists have stressed in particular the principle of rule by consultation (shūrā ), often seen to imply the need for an elected parliamentary council to advise the supreme ruler, and the principle of election rather than appointment by the imam's predecessor.

The Shīʿah

While Sunnī Muslims were essentially motivated to back the actual holder of supreme power as the guarantor of the unity of the Muslim community, the Shīʿah have primarily emphasized the principle of legitimacy of the imam, which they see vested in the family of the prophet Muammad. The majority of Shīʿī imams, except among the Zaydīyah, never held political power, though the Shīʿah considered them solely entitled to the supreme leadership of the Muslim community and viewed the historical caliphs, with the exception of ʿAlī, as illegitimate usurpers. Partly as a result of their lack of political power, the Shīʿah have tended to endow their imams with great religious authority and to place the imamate at the center of religion.


Twelver Shīʿī doctrine bases the imamate on the permanent need for a divinely guided, infallible ruler and teacher of religion. This need was recognized through human reason rather than revelation. After the age of the prophets had come to a close with Muammad, these divinely guided leaders were the imams, beginning with Muammad's cousin and son-in-law, ʿAlī. They were, like the prophets, fully immune from sin and error and shared the same function and authority, though they would not bring a new divine scripture because the Qurʾān was final. The imamate thus assumed the same religious significance as prophecy. Ignorance or disobedience of any of the imams constituted infidelity equal to ignorance or disobedience of the Prophet. For the Twelvers, the imamate is handed down by divinely directed designation (na ) of the successor. Thus the great majority of the companions of Muammad and the Muslim community at large had become apostates when they recognized Abū Bakr as the imam in place of ʿAlī, who had been publicly designated by Muammad as his successor. After asan and usayn, the grandsons of Muammad, the imamate was to be transferred only from father to son among the descendants of usayn.

In 874 the death of the eleventh imam without apparent son caused a crisis that was eventually resolved by the affirmation that a son had been born to him and continued to live on earth, though in concealment (ghaybah ) from humankind. The twelfth imam was identified with the eschatological Mahdi or Qāʾim who is expected to appear before the end of the world and to rule it in glory. Because the twelfth imam is present on earth and may show himself to some of the faithful in person or in a dream, he is held to be essentially still able to fulfill his supreme function of conveying infallible divine guidance. His more practical legal duties and rights have either been assumed gradually by the Shīʿī ʿulamāʾ (religious scholars), who claim a general deputyship of the imam during his concealment, or remain in abeyance.

Twelver Shīʿī tradition ascribes to the imams numerous miracles and supernatural powers. They are described as having complete command of all crafts and languages, including those of animals. Though they are not endowed with a natural knowledge of the hidden, God gives them knowledge of anything they wish to know: "what has been and what will be." Because they inherit the knowledge of the prophet Muammad, they are perfectly informed of both the outer (exoteric) and the inner (esoteric) meaning of the Qurʾān. They are in possession of all revealed scriptures as well as books containing secret knowledge, including the Saīfah, Jafr, Jāmiʿah, and the Muaf of Fāimah. They receive divine guidance from an angel who speaks to them and informs them, though unlike the messenger prophets, they do not see him.

The imams are endowed with the Holy Spirit. In numerous passages of the Qurʾān they are evoked by terms such as "the light of God," his "witnesses," his "signs," those "firm in knowledge." They are the "vicegerents" of God on earth and the "gates" through which he may be approached. In popular piety the privilege of the imams to intercede with God for the sinners of their community has always loomed large and has inspired the frequent pilgrimages of the faithful to their tombs. Later esoteric Twelver Shīʿī teaching, influenced by ūfī and Ismāʿīlī thought, defined the permanent essence of the imamate as walāyah, the quality of a walī, "friend of God," and as the esoteric aspect of prophecy. The imam was viewed as the initiator to the mystical truths.


When, after the sixth imam, Jaʿfar al-ādiq, the Ismāʿīlīyah separated from the group developing into the Twelver Shīʿah, they retained the idea of a permanent need for a divinely guided, infallible leader and teacher but developed from it a cyclical view of the history of the true religion. For the Ismāʿīlīyah, prophetic revelation progresses through seven eras. Each of the first six is inaugurated by a "speaker prophet," who brings a scripture with a law and is followed by a "silent fundament." The fundament reveals the esoteric truth concealed in the scripture and is followed by seven imams in sequence, the seventh of whom rises in rank to become the speaker of the following era. The imam takes the place of the speaker prophet in guarding and applying the literal aspect of the revealed law, while his ujjah ("proof"), representing the rank below the imam in the hierarchy, succeeds the fundament in revealing the esoteric truths to the initiate.

In the sixth era, that of Muammad and Islam, ʿAlī was the fundament and Jaʿfar al-ādiqʿs grandson Muammad ibn Ismāʿīl the seventh imam from asan. As such he was expected, after his imminent advent from concealment, to rise in rank to become the seventh speaker prophet, who was identified with the Mahdi and Qāʾim. This early Ismāʿīlī expectation was modified in the tenth century by the rise of the Fatimid caliphs, who claimed to be imams. Some Ismāʿīlī backers of the Fatimid caliphate recognized the first Fatimid caliph as the Mahdi, while others continued to expect the early return of Muammad ibn Ismāʿīl and considered the Fatimids his lieutenants. As Fatimid rule continued, however, these eschatological expectations receded, and the Fatimid caliphs were viewed as a continuous line of imams within the era of Islam.

After the fall of the Fatimid dynasty, the Ismāʿīlīyah survived mainly in two branches. The ayyibīyah recognized al-ayyib, an infant son of the Fatimid caliph al-mir about whose fate nothing is known, as their imam and denied his death. They hold that al-ayyib, though in concealment, remains in touch with his community and will return. He is not identified, however, with the eschatological Qāʾim. In later ayyibi gnostic thought, the imam is described as having both a human nature (nāsūt ) and a divine nature (lāhūt ). His human, physical nature, also called the "camphoric figure," is composed of the vapors that arise from the souls of the faithful three days after their death. The divine nature is described as a light temple formed by the assembly of light points of the souls of the faithful and the teaching hierarchy. This light temple will, after the death of the imam, rise to the horizon of the Tenth Intellect, the demiurge, where it will assemble with the temples of the other imams to form the immense light temple of the Qāʾim.

The Nizārī branch recognized Nizār, a son of the Fatimid caliph al-Mustanir, as their imam and has continued to adhere to a line of present imams leading, for the great majority, to the Aga Khans. The proclamation of the resurrection (qiyāmah ) in 1164 and the subsequent return to an age of concealment brought major reforms of the esoteric doctrine of the imamate. The imams were now raised in rank above the prophets. As a potential Qāʾim, each imam was held to have the authority to suspend or apply the religious law as the circumstances required. The imam was in his spiritual essence defined as a manifestation of the divine word or command, the cause of the spiritual world. The faithful attain spiritual birth, or resurrection, through recognition of the essence of the imam. In the era of concealment, spiritual union with the imam was restricted to his ujjah, who was his gate for the faithful and the sole dispenser of spiritual truth.


Unlike other Shīʿī Muslims, the Zaydīyah do not consider their imams divinely protected from error and sin and do not recognize a hereditary line of imams. They hold that after the first Shīʿī imams, ʿAlī, asan, and usayn, who were appointed by the prophet Muammad through a descriptive designation, the imamate belongs to any qualified descendant of asan or usayn who rises against the illegitimate rulers. Apart from his descent, the legal qualifications of the imam are substantially the same as in Sunnī law. Special emphasis is placed, however, on religious learning, competence to render legal judgment, moral integrity, and courage. Zaydī imams have generally been scholars of rank and authors of the most authoritative Zaydī religious works. The imamate becomes legally binding upon the issuance of a formal call to allegiance (daʿwah ) and rising against illegitimate rule, not through election or appointment by a previous imam. After his call to allegiance, recognition and active backing of the imam is incumbent upon every believer. The imamate is forfeited by loss of any of the qualifications, in particular by moral offenses. According to the prevalent doctrine, only the most excellent claimant is entitled to the imamate, and if a more excellent candidate arises to claim it, the excelled imam must surrender it to him. This has been disputed, however, by some later authorities. In practice rival claims to the imamate have often divided the allegiance of the Zaydī communities, both in Yemen and in the coastal regions south of the Caspian Sea.

Although in Zaydī legal theory there must always be a qualified candidate for the imamate, the Zaydī imamate has often been in abeyance for prolonged periods. The list of recognized imams has never been definitely fixed, though there is consensus on many of them. Many Zaydī ʿAlīd rulers did not claim the imamate or were not recognized as imams by later Zaydī opinion because they did not fulfill the requirements, especially that of religious learning. These were often considered as "restricted" imams, or "summoners" (duʿāt ), with limited authority.


Whereas the Shīʿah historically based their repudiation of the Sunnī caliphate on the principle of legitimacy, the Khārijīs founded their opposition on an uncompromising concept of the justice and moral integrity of the imam. In Khārijī doctrine the imam loses his legitimacy by any violation of religious law and must be removed, by force if necessary. The unjust or immoral imam and his supporters are to be treated as infidels unless they repent. ʿUthmān and ʿAlī are viewed as initially legitimate imams who became infidels by their illicit acts and thus were rightfully murdered. Any Muslim who does not dissociate himself or herself from them and their supporters shares their state of infidelity. Likewise any Muslim who does not affirm solidarity with just imams such as Abū Bakr and ʿUmar is an infidel. The Khārijīs also unanimously rejected the elitist Sunnī doctrine restricting the imamate to the Quraysh. They held that any qualified Muslim, even of non-Arab and slave origin, was eligible. An exceptional view extended this egalitarian principle to women as well. The other qualifications and functions of the imam were similar to Sunnī doctrine, with special emphasis on the Qurʾanic duty of "commanding what is proper and prohibiting what is reprehensible" and on the imam's leadership of the jihād against non-Khārijī Muslims.

Only the most moderate sect of the Khārijīs, the Ibāīyah, survived the first centuries of Islam. The Ibāīyah took a more accommodating view toward non-Khārijī Islam at large, and their doctrine came to recognize different types of imams corresponding to the four states in which the community of the faithful could face its enemies. These include the state of manifestation, when the community was strong enough to overcome the opponent; the state of defense, when it could merely hope to ward off the enemy; the state of self-sacrifice, when a small group of the faithful seeking martyrdom would choose to attack a powerful enemy; and the state of concealment, when the faithful were forced to live under the rule of the opponent and to practice dissimulation. Only the imam of the state of manifestation was entitled to exercise all the functions of the imamate.

Leadership of the Ritual Prayer

The ritual prayer, which is obligatory for every Muslim five times daily, may be performed individually or in group with a leader who is called the imam. The same applies to several special prayers, which are merely recommended, on the occasion of festivals and solar or lunar eclipses, prayers for rain, and supererogatory and funeral prayers. In most of these cases group prayer, preferably in a mosque, is the recommended form whenever possible. The congregational Friday prayer, which is generally obligatory for those in easy reach of a congregational mosque (jāmiʿ ), can only be performed in group with an imam.

The imam must face the qiblah, the direction toward Mecca. In the mosque he stands in front of the mirāb, or prayer niche, which indicates this direction. In the early time of Islam a staff or lance was placed in the ground before him. The congregation stands in rows behind the imam; no one is permitted to be in front of him. If there is only a single worshiper following the prayer, he may stand at the imam's right, and a second one may stand at his left. The members of the congregation must strictly follow the imam in every movement and recitation. While the imam recites in a loud voice, however, they should generally not be heard. If the congregation is too large for everyone to see and hear the imam, special "conveyors" (sg., muballigh ) may be employed to repeat his takbīr s, marking the transition to the next phase of the prayer, for the worshipers in the back rows or outside the mosque.

The obligation to imitate strictly the movements of the imam applies even if a worshiper belongs to another legal school prescribing different prayer rituals. While this rule has been generally accepted among the four Sunnī schools, there have at times been problems. Some anafī authorities held that raising the hands during the bowing (rukūʿ ) and lifting the head, as practiced by the Shāfiʿīyah and others, invalidates the prayer and ruled that a anafī must not pray behind a Shāfiʿī imam. This matter provoked friction between the two schools for centuries.

A group praying outside a mosque may generally choose its own imam. Preferably he should be the most worthy among them, with particular consideration given to probity, knowledge of Qurʾanic texts for recitation during prayer, knowledge of the ritual, and freedom from speech defects. While a woman may act as prayer leader only for other women, the imam may be a minor boy, a slave, or a moral offender among men and women alike. Prayer led by an imam with a speech defect is invalid. In a private home, the owner is most entitled to lead the prayer even if otherwise more worthy men are present.

Mosques have generally appointed official imams. Whenever the official imam or a substitute appointed by him is present, he is entitled to lead the prayer. In the congregational mosques or others maintained by the caliph, his governors, or, in modern times, the government, the imam is appointed by them. In private mosques maintained by individuals or local communities, the imam is chosen by the neighborhood. Once chosen he cannot be removed except for cause. The imam has usually the right to choose and direct the muezzin, who makes the call to prayer.

The imam of the Friday congregational worship may be appointed separately from the imam of the daily prayers. He is normally also the preacher (khaīb ), who delivers the official sermon (khubah ) with the prayer for the ruler before the Friday prayer. In early Islam the Friday congregational prayer in particular was led by the caliph himself in the capital and by his governors in the provincial capitals. Later they generally deputed imams. The Friday prayer remained closely associated with government authority, however, and some of the legal schools held it to be invalid without the presence of the supreme imam (caliph) or his appointed representative. In Twelver Shiism, for instance, the Friday worship has been generally held to be in abeyance in the absence of the rightful supreme imam. Only when the Safavids established a Shīʿī regime in sixteenth-century Iran did the matter become controversial, and some Shīʿī jurists maintained that Friday worship was obligatory in the presence of a qualified legal scholar. Today the Friday prayer is performed among the Twelver Shīʿah, though not as widely as among Sunnīs. Sunnī concern for maintaining the unity of Islam by backing the established rulers, whatever their moral failings, found expression in the affirmation contained in many Sunnī creeds that every Muslim must "pray behind every imam, be he righteous or immoral." The Shīʿah and Khārijīs generally reject this attitude and prohibit prayer behind an imam who is known to be either immoral or heterodox.

See Also

Aga Khan; Caliphate; Ghaybah; ʿIsmah; Nubūwah; Walāyah.


There is no comprehensive study of the imamate. The institutional development of the caliphate is analyzed by Thomas W. Arnold in his The Caliphate (Oxford, 1924); the second edition contains a chapter on the abolition of the caliphate and its aftermath by Sylvia G. Haim (New York, 1965). See also Emile Tyan's Institutions du droit public musulman (Paris, 19541957), volume 1, Le califat, and volume 2, Califat et sultanat. The most authoritative medieval treatise on the Sunnī (Shāfiʿī) legal doctrine of the imamate, al-Māwardī's Kitāb al-akām al-sulānīyah, has been translated into French by Edmond Fagnan, as Les statuts gouvernementaux (Algiers, 1915). Modernist views are discussed by Malcolm H. Kerr in his Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muammad ʿAbduh and Rashīd Riā (Berkeley, Calif., 1966) and by Henri Laoust in the introduction to his Le califat dans la doctrine de Rašīd Riā (Beirut, 1938), which contains the translation of a major work on the subject by a conservative modernist.

Twelver Shīʿī doctrine is described by Dwight M. Donaldson in The Shiʿite Religion (London, 1933), and later esoteric teaching by Henry Corbin in Histoire de la philosophie islamique, vol. 1 (Paris, 1964), pp. 53109. For ayyibi esoteric doctrine, see the analysis and annotated translation of a typical ayyibi treatise on the subject in chapter 4 of Henry Corbin's Trilogie ismaelienne (Tehran, 1961). Nizārī doctrine after the qiyāmah is described by Marshall G. S. Hodgson in The Order of Assassins (1955; reprint, New York, 1980), pp. 160175. Rudolf Strothmann's Das Staatsrecht der Zaiditen (Strasbourg, 1912) discusses Zaydī legal doctrine and practice. Khārijī doctrine is analyzed by Elie Adib Salem in Political Theory and Institutions of the Khawārij (Baltimore, 1956), especially in chapter 4. For details of the legal rules concerning the imamate of the ritual prayer, see chapter 9 of al-Māwardī's work cited above and Nawawī, Minhaj et Talibin: A Manual of Muammadan Law according to the School of Shafī, translated by E. C. Howard (1914; reprint, Lahore, 1977), pp. 4269.

Wilferd Madelung (1987)

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