It is most commonly used as the title of a worship leader of a mosque and Muslim community among Sunni Muslims. In this context, imams may lead Islamic worship services, serve as community leaders, and provide religious guidance.
For Shi'a Muslims, the imam has a more central meaning and role in Islam through the concept of imamah; the term is only applicable to those members of Ahl al-Bayt, the house of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, designated as infallibles.
The Sunni branch of Islam does not have imams in the same sense as the Shi'a, an important distinction often overlooked by those outside of the Islamic faith. In everyday terms, the imam for Sunni Muslims is the one who leads Islamic formal (Fard) prayers, even in locations besides the mosque, whenever prayers are done in a group of two or more with one person leading (imam) and the others following by copying his ritual actions of worship. Friday sermon is most often given by an appointed imam. All mosques have an imam to lead the (congregational) prayers, even though it may sometimes just be a member from the gathered congregation rather than an officially appointed salaried person. The position of women as imams is controversial. The person that should be chosen, according to Hadith, is one who has most knowledge of the Quran and Sunnah (prophetic tradition) and is of good character; the age being post-puberty.
The term is also used for a recognized religious scholar or authority in Islam, often for the founding scholars of the four Sunni madhhabs, or schools of jurisprudence (fiqh). It may also refer to the Muslim scholars who created the analytical sciences related to Hadith or it may refer to the heads of Muhammad's family in their generational times.
The following table shows the considered imams in the context of scholarly authority by Sunni Muslims:
|Madhhab (Schools of Jurisprudence)||Aqidah (Schools of Theology)||Science of Hadith|
|Imam Abu Hanifa||Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (Athari)||Imam Bukhari|
|Imam Malik||Imam al-Ashari (Ash'ari)||Imam Abu Dawood|
|Imam Shafi'i||Imam Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (Maturidi)||Imam Muslim|
|Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal||Wasil ibn Ata (Mu'tazili)||Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal|
The Position of Imams In Turkey
Imams are appointed by the state to work at mosques and they are required to be graduates of an İmam Hatip high school or have a university degree in Theology. This is an official position regulated by the Presidency of Religious Affairs in Turkey and only males are appointed to this position while female officials under the same state organisation work as preachers and Qur'an course tutors, religious services experts. These officials are supposedly belong to the Hanafi school of the Sunni sect.
Central figure in an Islamic movement are also called as Imam like the Imam Nabahwi in Syria and Ahmad Raza Khan in India called as the Imam of Sunni Muslims.
In the Shi'a context, an imam is not only presented as the man of God par excellence, but as participating fully in the names, attributes, and acts that theology usually reserves for God alone. Imams have a meaning more central to belief, referring to leaders of the community. Twelver and Ismaili Shi'a believe that these imams are chosen by God to be perfect examples for the faithful and to lead all humanity in all aspects of life. They also believe that all the imams chosen are free from committing any sin, impeccability which is called ismah. These leaders must be followed since they are appointed by God.
Here follows a list of the Twelvers imams:
|Importance||Birthplace (present day country)||Place of death and burial|
|1||Ali ibn Abu Talib
علي بن أبي طالب
Abu al-Hassan or Abu al-Husayn
أبو الحسین or أبو الحسن
(Commander of the Faithful)
|The first imam and successor of Muhammad in Shia Islam; however, the Sunnis acknowledge him as the fourth Caliph as well. He holds a high position in almost all Sufi Muslim orders (Turuq); the members of these orders trace their lineage to Muhammad through him.||Mecca, Saudi Arabia||Assassinated by Abd-al-Rahman ibn Muljam, a Kharijite in Kufa, who slashed him with a poisoned sword. Buried at the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, Iraq.|
|2||Hassan ibn Ali
الحسن بن علي
|He was the eldest surviving grandson of Muhammad through Muhammad's daughter, Fatimah Zahra. Hasan succeeded his father as the caliph in Kufa, and on the basis of peace treaty with Muawiya I, he relinquished control of Iraq following a reign of seven months.||Medina, Saudi Arabia||Poisoned by his wife in Medina, Saudi Arabia. Buried in Jannat al-Baqi.|
|3||Husayn ibn Ali
الحسین بن علي
|He was a grandson of Muhammad. Husayn opposed the validity of Caliph Yazid I. As a result, he and his family were later killed in the Battle of Karbala by Yazid's forces. After this incident, the commemoration of Husayn ibn Ali has become a central ritual in Shia identity.||Medina, Saudi Arabia||Killed on Day of Ashura (10 Muharram) and beheaded at the Battle of Karbala. Buried at the Imam Husayn Shrine in Karbala, Iraq.|
|4||Ali ibn al-Hussein
علي بن الحسین
|al-Sajjad, Zain al-Abedin
|658-9 – 712
|Author of prayers in Sahifa al-Sajjadiyya, which is known as "The Psalm of the Household of the Prophet."||Medina, Saudi Arabia||According to most Shia scholars, he was poisoned on the order of Caliph al-Walid I in Medina, Saudi Arabia. Buried in Jannat al-Baqi.|
|5||Muhammad ibn Ali
محمد بن علي
(splitting open knowledge)
|Sunni and Shia sources both describe him as one of the early and most eminent legal scholars, teaching many students during his tenure.||Medina, Saudi Arabia||According to some Shia scholars, he was poisoned by Ibrahim ibn Walid ibn 'Abdallah in Medina, Saudi Arabia on the order of Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik. Buried in Jannat al-Baqi.|
|6||Ja'far ibn Muhammad
جعفر بن محمد
|Established the Ja'fari jurisprudence and developed the Theology of Shia. He instructed many scholars in different fields, including Abu Hanifah and Malik ibn Anas in fiqh, Wasil ibn Ata and Hisham ibn Hakam in Islamic theology, and Jābir ibn Hayyān in science and alchemy.||Medina, Saudi Arabia||According to Shia sources, he was poisoned in Medina, Saudi Arabia on the order of Caliph Al-Mansur. Buried in Jannat al-Baqi.|
|7||Musa ibn Ja'far
موسی بن جعفر
Abu al-Hassan I
أبو الحسن الأول
|Leader of the Shia community during the schism of Ismaili and other branches after the death of the former imam, Jafar al-Sadiq. He established the network of agents who collected khums in the Shia community of the Middle East and the Greater Khorasan.||Medina, Saudi Arabia||Imprisoned and poisoned in Baghdad, Iraq on the order of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. Buried in the Kazimayn shrine in Baghdad.|
|8||Ali ibn Musa
علي بن موسی
|Made crown-prince by Caliph Al-Ma'mun, and famous for his discussions with both Muslim and non-Muslim religious scholars.||Medina, Saudi Arabia||According to Shia sources, he was poisoned in Mashad, Iran on the order of Caliph Al-Ma'mun. Buried in the Imam Reza shrine in Mashad.|
|9||Muhammad ibn Ali
محمد بن علي
|Famous for his generosity and piety in the face of persecution by the Abbasid caliphate.||Medina, Saudi Arabia||Poisoned by his wife, Al-Ma'mun's daughter, in Baghdad, Iraq on the order of Caliph Al-Mu'tasim. Buried in the Kazmain shrine in Baghdad.|
|10||Ali ibn Muhammad
علي بن محمد
Abu al-Hassan III
أبو الحسن الثالث
|Strengthened the network of deputies in the Shia community. He sent them instructions, and received in turn financial contributions of the faithful from the khums and religious vows.||Surayya, a village near Medina, Saudi Arabia||According to Shia sources, he was poisoned in Samarra, Iraq on the order of Caliph Al-Mu'tazz. Buried in the Al Askari Mosque in Samarra.|
|11||Hassan ibn Ali
الحسن بن علي
|For most of his life, the Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mu'tamid, placed restrictions on him after the death of his father. Repression of the Shi'ite population was particularly high at the time due to their large size and growing power.||Medina, Saudi Arabia||According to Shia, he was poisoned on the order of Caliph Al-Mu'tamid in Samarra, Iraq. Buried in Al Askari Mosque in Samarra.|
|12||Muhammad ibn al-Hassan
محمد بن الحسن
|al-Mahdi, Hidden Imam, al-Hujjah
|According to Twelver doctrine, he is the current imam and the promised Mahdi, a messianic figure who will return with Jesus. He will reestablish the rightful governance of Islam and replete the earth with justice and peace.||Samarra, Iraq||According to Shia doctrine, he has been living in the Occultation since 872, and will continue as long as God wills it.|
Fatimah, also Fatimah al-Zahraa, daughter of Muhammed (615–632), is also considered infallible but not an Imam. Shi'a believe that the last Imam [the Mahdi] will one day emerge.
At times, imams have held both secular and religious authority. This was the case in Oman among the Kharijite or Ibadi sects. At times, the imams were elected. At other times the position was inherited, as with the Yaruba dynasty from 1624 and 1742. The Imamate of Futa Jallon (1727-1896) was a Fulani state in West Africa where secular power alternated between two lines of hereditary Imams, or almami. In the Zaidi Shiite sect, imams were secular as well as spiritual leaders who held power in Yemen for more than a thousand years. In 897, a Zaidi ruler, al-Hadi ila'l-Haqq Yahya, founded a line of such imams, a theocratic form of government which survived until the second half of the 20th century. (See details under Zaidiyyah, History of Yemen, Imams of Yemen.)
Ruhollah Khomeini is officially referred to as Imam in Iran. Several Iranian places and institutions are named "Imam Khomeini", including a city, an international airport, a hospital, and a university.