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IMAM. A title indicating leadership, governance, or rule, imam (Ar., imam) is used in a wide variety of contexts by both Sunni and Shi’i Muslims. The most common contemporary use of the word is to designate the leader of congregational prayers, this being justified by the etymological sense of imam as “one who stands in front.” (In Iran, the leader of the Friday prayers held in large mosques or other appropriate spaces is called imam jum’ah).

The word imam occurs in the Qur’an as an attribute not only of prophets, such as Abraham (surah 2.124), but also of the revelation entrusted to Moses (surah 46.12), as well as serving as designation for the record of deeds with which man will be presented in the hereafter (surah 36.12). However, numerous traditions of the Prophet refer to the leader or ruler of the Muslim community as imam, and the term came to be recognized, by both Sunnis and Shi`is, as meaning “the one exercising general leadership in both religious and political affairs” (Sharif al-jurjani, Kitab al-ta`rifat, Beirut, 1983, p. 35).

Gradually, however, the word came to acquire a special significance for Shi is, for whom recognition of the legitimate leader of the Muslim community was an essential article of faith. The succession of twelve figures, identified by the majority of Shi`is as successors to the Prophet, were seen by them to possess not only the right to rule but also inerrancy and, therefore, supreme authority in all matters of jurisprudence and Qur’anic exegesis. The last of the twelve was Muhammad ibn Hasan al-`Askari, who is believed, in 872, to have entered a state of occultation (ghaybah) from which he will ultimately reemerge. Precisely the anticipation of his parousia has enabled the Twelfth Imam to remain a focus of Shi’i devotion, even while several of his functions have been exercised on his behalf by the jurists. More generally, awareness of the imams has been kept alive by the recitation of the supplicatory prayers that several of them composed and by pilgrimage (ziydrah) to their shrines at Najaf, Karbala, Kazimayn, and Samarra in Iraq and Mashhad in Iran, as well to countless tombs of their real or putative descendants (imamzadah) scattered across Iran. [See Ziyarah; Imamzadah J

Modern times have not, in general, brought any change in Shi i conceptions concerning the Twelve Imams. However, the Iranian ideologue ‘Ali Shari at! (1933-1977) denounced what he regarded as an undue mythologization of them. This, he claimed, had resulted in their reduction to ritually invoked intermediaries between man and God or even in their transformation into angelic or supernatural beings, utterly removed from the plane of historical reality. He drew attention to the fact that imam is cognate with ummah, which he defined as a society “in which individuals come together in harmony with the intention of advancing and moving toward their common goal.” Accordingly he reinterpreted the function of the imam, in radically modernistic fashion, as “a committed and revolutionary leadership, responsible for the movement and growth of society on the basis of its worldview and ideology, and for the realization of the divine destiny of man in the plan of creation” (Islam-shinasi, Tehran, n.d., vol. I, pp. 97-98).

After the triumph of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989), leader of the movement, was officially designated as imam (see, for example, preamble to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran). In view of the adulation that was widely accorded to Khomeini, it has sometimes been suggested that this use of the title made (or was intended to make) Khomeini the equal of the Twelve Imams in every respect. The designation of Khomeini as imam (first occurring in 1964 in a poem by Ni’mat Mirzazadah) did not, however, attribute inerrancy to him; it was the consequence of the recognition that he was fulfilling a practical role of comprehensive leadership. The use of the title imam for the leader of a modern ShN movement had, in any event, a precedent in the case of Imam Musa al-Saar (disappeared in 1977), the founder of the Harakat al-Aural in Lebanon. Adherents of the archconservative Hujjatiyah movement in Iran sought, nonetheless, to prevent all confusion by referring to Khomeini as na’ib al-imdm (“deputy of the [Twelfth] Imam”).

[See also Ghaybah; Mahdi; Shill Islam, historical overview article; and the biography of Khomeini.]


Al Kashif al-Ghita’, Muhammad al-Husayn. The Origin of Shiite Islam and Its Principles. Qom, 1982. See pages 48-55.

Mufid, Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-. KitBb al-Irshdd: The Book of Guidance. Translated by I. K. A. Howard. Qom, 1981.

Muzaffaz, Muhammad Rida al-. The Faith of Shi’a Islam. London, 1982. See pages 31-49.

Sachedina, A. A. Islamic Messianism: The Idea of Mahdi in Twelver Sht`ism. Albany, N.Y., I98I.

Tabataba’1, Muhammad Husayn. Shiite Islam. Albany, N.Y., 1977. See pages 173-222.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/imam/

  • writerPosted On: April 19, 2014
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