Since the word "imam" has a long and complicated history in Muslim society, it is not surprising that its meaning and conceptualization should undergo some development when Islam is transferred to the North American milieu. Meaning "leader" or "master" in its early Arab form, it took on important new meanings with the historical evolution of Muslim civilization. Thus, in Sunni tradition, the imam is associated with community leadership of a ritual kind, while in Shiʿism, the Imam (always capitalized) takes on transcendent dimensions. Within Shiʿism there are obvious differences in understanding the roles associated with the imam, depending on whether we are referring to Twelver Shiʿism as represented by the majority religion of Iran, or Ismaʿili tradition, whose religious head is the Aga Khan. These differences continue among Muslim immigrants.
At the same time, there has been an evolution of the imam of the local mosque brought about by the North American experience. For example, two important influences have been the rise of powerful African-American Muslim groups and the pressure of congregational structures within American culture. There are four principal areas of modification: educational, programmatic, official, and developmental. While most of these changes are found within Sunni organizations and African-American Muslim groups, they have also had an impact on Shiʿa structures. While given different names, the functions are developing whatever the religious focus of the group.
Educational changes are most noticeable with regard to the leadership itself. In present-day North America, mosques are self-consciously taking an active and involved role in community life, and the need to have an educated leadership to appeal to the educational levels of members is having its effect. This is particularly evident where second- and third-generation immigrants have moved into positions of responsibility; these leaders have insisted that mosque personnel reflect their own educational levels. In some mosques, imams are also called on both to address the educational requirements of a college-educated clientele and to provide intellectual and cultural background for the practice of Islam for their children. One of the ongoing responsibilities is the teaching of Arabic, the liturgical language of Islam. Management, educational, and psychological counseling skills are also in high demand. These needs have encouraged a more educated leader within the mosque community.
Early leadership among immigrant communities arose from among immigrants themselves or from imams trained in schools "back home." Bringing imams to North America required sufficient financial commitment to pay salaries and provide housing, a situation that was difficult to sustain in the first half of the twentieth century. Several Middle Eastern countries subsidized organizations for this purpose. On the other hand, among the early Black Muslim masjids, missionary imams were supported by Elijah Muhammad's organization; once established, they were primarily dependent on family and converts for financial assistance. As Islam has matured in North America, some commuinities have set a benchmark amount for leading families to contribute so that religious organizations and mosques can be placed on fiscally solid ground. In keeping with North American expectations of "results" for payment, the imam has had to develop skills to meet expectations. At the same time, the demand for greater social and religious abilities has spawned a culture of workshops, seminars, and weekend retreats designed to address specific Islamic issues. In some cases, advanced schools have been set up on an ad hoc basis to address these sophisticated requirements for imams.
Muslims in North America have had to face the difficult task of dealing with a society whose values often conflict with those of traditional Islam. Moreover, mosque communities function in line with the congregational norm in North America: Religious institutions are entirely a matter of personal, not state, interest. Without a Muslim culture to sustain it, the mosque community must sustain itself, and this makes the local mosque much more a center of personal and religious continuity. The result is that programs aimed at maintaining and enhancing Islam shift to the mosque and its personnel. Imams must carry out training sessions for children and other young people, organize and staff family enrichment programs, promote Islam among converts, and develop community spirit. In these tasks the imam functions much as a minister or a rabbi in a Christian or a Judaic congregation. Promotional activity for Islam in general or the local mosque in particular is an added programmatic dimension of the imam's work.
Most religious jurisdictions in North America have an official face—that is, they represent to the public, to the media, and to the institutional culture distinctive attitudes and ideas. The official charged with this responsibility, reflecting the expectation of ministers in the population at large, is the imam. He (there are no female imams) must present the views of the group in public forums and in interactions with various charitable, educational, and political organizations; hence the requisite that the imam be highly articulate in English, and perhaps also (in some locales) in French and Spanish. Moreover, high-profile African-American Muslim spokespersons have established the expectation that Muslim leaders be able to handle themselves in interviews with radio and TV personnel. Preaching, traditionally associated with the ùlama (scholarly class) in Muslim countries, has shifted to the mosque environment in North America, and likewise may be the responsibility of the imam. Interreligious dialogue is another task normally assigned to the imam. Finally, the imam is now crucially involved in ceremonial aspects of social life, such as marriages and funerals, which bring Muslims into the public eye, and peoples from other faiths into contact with Muslims. The role of mediator and interpreter of the tradition has rested on him.
Finally, the imam in North America has had to marshal support for developmental issues, such as the construction of Islamic schools, the formation and care of halfway houses for prisoners, and housing and support for broken families. Without the close family system found in traditional Muslim society, the mosque community, lead by the imam, has had to provide a surrogate network for the sustenance of community life. Thus, where families have traditionally been the foundation for marriage counseling and encouragement, in some cases that responsibility has shifted to the mosque community and professional help. Indeed, it is more the case that religious people will seek such assistance through sympathetic imams rather than in secular counseling services. Moreover, the mobility of North American society has meant that the elderly may not live in the vicinity of their families. Mosques have therefore had to step in with programs to sustain the retired and the elderly, a responsibility that ultimately comes to bear on the imam and his sensitivity to problems of an aging society.
In short, the function of the imam within both indigenous and immigrant Islamic communities in North America has evolved perceptibly from the notion of leader and traditional ritual specialist originating in Islamic countries, reflecting the new and different cultural situation of Islam on this continent. More and more, the imam in North America is becoming a religious professional, befitting a sophisticated Islamic society with its own distinctive character in the religious landscape.
Madelung, W. "Imama." In The Encyclopediaof Islam, 2nd ed., vol. 3, edited by B. Lewis, V. L. Menage, C. Pellat, and J. Schacht. 1971.
Madelung, W. "Imamate." In The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 7, edited by M. Eliade. 1987.
Waugh, Earle H. "The Imam in the New World: Models and Modifications." In Transitions and Transformations in the History of Religions, edited by F. Reynolds and T. M. Ludwig. 1980.
Waugh, Earle H. "Muslim Leadership and the Shaping of the Umma: Classical Tradition and Religious Tension in the North American Setting." In The Muslim Community in North America, edited by E. H. Waugh, B. Abu-Laban, and R. Qureshi. 1983.
Earle H. Waugh
Imām is a substantive from the Arabic verb amma meaning to precede, to lead; serving as an example or object of imitation, particularly in prayer. The substantive imām may designate a person, or an object serving as a model or guide. The Prophet Muhammad is the imām of the Muslim community. In this sense, the successor to the Prophet, the caliph, is the imām of his subjects. The "four imāms" are the founders and heads of the four principal schools of the sunnites. In the sense of religious leader, the term is also applied to the great jurisconsults and theologians of Islam, such as algazel (ghazzĀlĪ, al-) and Ibn Taimīya. In the sense of guide, imām is applied to the qu’ran (sacred scripture of the Muslims) as the guide of the Muslims; it also designates the vulgate of the Qu’ran, the copying of which was ordered by the third caliph, 'Uthmān. In the Qu’ran itself, the term imām is used to designate the scripture of any people. The term was also used to designate the leader who guided travelers, or the driver of camels.
In Muslim constitutional law, the imām is the supreme head of the executive power (see islamic law). As such, "the Supreme Imām" (al-imām al-a’ẓam ) is the title given to the caliph. The function itself is called "the imamate" (al-imāma ) or "the supreme imamate" (al-imāma al-‘uẓmā ), a term that is synonymous with caliphate (khilāfa ). The imām is also the person who leads the prayer, and imāma is the term applied to that function (originally, the caliph led the prayer). This is not necessarily an official function; any competent Muslim may lead the prayer, and as such would be the imām of the prayer.
Imām is also used by the shĪ’ites to designate a legitimate successor of the Caliph ‘Alī. Shī’ites Imāms are believed by their followers (currently 9 percent of Islam) to be impeccable; in Shī’ites usage the term takes on mystical and eschatological overtones.
See Also: ismailites.
The word "imam" is an Arabic term signifying a leader, a model, an authority, or an exemplar. The term occurs in the Qur˒an, for example at 2:124, with reference to God's promise to make Abraham an "imam for the people," and at 11:17 and 46:12, where the "Book of Moses" is characterized as an "imam." In early theological and juristic literature, the Qur˒an and the sunna are sometimes referred to as imam, although the Qur˒an does not describe itself as such. The leader of the congregational prayers is typically designated as an imam, and from the ninth century onwards the term was also used for leading Sunni religious scholars. Most commonly, however, the term refers to the caliph in the Sunni juristic literature and, in Shi˓ism, to the infallible guide of the community.
Debates on the question of who was best qualified to be the imam and whether a sinful leader might be removed from his position as the head of the community played an important role in the development of Sunni religious and political thought. Medieval Sunni jurists held the position of the imam to be deducible from revelation rather than reason, and considered this position to be essential for the defense of Islam and the implementation of the sacred law, the shari˓a. In general, they required that the caliph/imam be a member of Muhammad's tribe of Quraysh, be duly elected by the people or nominated by his predecessor, and possess moral probity, religious knowledge, and the physical faculties necessary for the discharge of his duties. With the decline of the caliphate and the rise to power of the military warlords, however, the jurists came to recognize that any ruler—and not necessarily the caliph—who wielded effective political power was the legitimate imam, as long as his actions did not flagrantly contravene the shari˓a.
To the Shi˓ites, the term imam has a different signification altogether. It refers to a member of the family of the Prophet (ahl al-bayt), and usually to a member of "the family" as descended from Muhammad's daughter Fatima (d. 633) and her husband ˓Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661). The history of Shi˓ism is marked by numerous disagreements on the precise identity and number of the imams, as well as on how to define the imam's authority and functions; and many of these disagreements have continued to the present, as have distinct Shi˓ite communities. The Imamis, who came to be the most numerous group among the Shi˓ites, believe in twelve imams, hence their common designation as "Ithna ˓asharis" or "Twelvers."
The Twelver imams are believed to be sinless, the repository of authoritative knowledge, and indispensable for the guidance and salvation of the community. The last of these imams is believed to have gone into hiding in 874. While leading Twelver-Shi˓ite jurists (mujtahids) have continued the imam's function of providing religious guidance and leadership to the community (even as they have long debated the scope of their own authority in his absence), belief in his eventual return is a cardinal feature of the Twelver religious system.
Amir-Moezzi, M. A. The Divine Guide in Early Shi˓ism. Translated by David Streight. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.
Calder, Norman. "The Significance of the Term Imam in Early Islamic Jurisprudence." Zeitschrift fur Geschichte der arabisch-islamischen Wissenschaften. Edited by F. Sezgin. Frankfurt: Institut fur Geschichte der arabisch-islamischen Wissenschaften, 1984.
Madelung, Wilferd. "Imama." In The Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2d ed. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1960.
Sachedina, A. A. Islamic Messianism: The Idea of Mahdi in Twelver Shi˓ism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981.
Muhammad Qasim Zaman
2. Among Shiʿites, the Imām has an incomparably higher status. Initially, it is almost synonymous with ‘rightful caliph’ (khalīfa), i.e. ʿAlī and his descendants. The stress on succession led to the elaboration of the Imām as one who has received secret knowledge (jafr), and who still receives (or may receive) direct divine guidance. There is dispute among Shiʿites whether the line ended with the seventh (Seveners) or twelfth (Twelvers or ʾIthna ʿAshariyya) successor, complicated further by those who believe there is a Hidden Imām (see AL-MAHDĪ) whom the initiate can recognize, who may still give guidance, and who will become manifest at the End (see also ISMĀʿĪLIYA).
3. Among Sūfīs (not always in distinction from (2)), the imām is the guide to true knowledge, and is thus equivalent to pīr (in Persian) or murshid.
4. The two larger beads in the subḥa (rosary)
i·mam / iˈmäm/ • n. the person who leads prayers in a mosque. ∎ (Imam) a title of various Muslim leaders, esp. of one succeeding Muhammad as leader of Shiite Islam: Imam Khomeini. DERIVATIVES: i·mam·ate / -ˌmāt/ n.
A Muslim prayer leader. During the prayer the imam conducts and regulates the general rhythm of the collective prayer. For the Sunnis, the imam is only one among others exercising this function. Recognizable for his competence in religious studies, the imam, sometimes under the name of a khatib, also functions as a preacher.
SEE ALSO Sunni Islam.