In Arabic, the word imam means “one who is in front.” Three distinct meanings are attached to the term. First, and most commonly, imam refers to the individual who leads the ritual prayer in the local mosque. Any mature adult can fulfill the role, and members of local communities frequently share this responsibility. Women may lead prayer and preach to groups of women only. Once local communities become large enough to have the necessary funds, they typically hire a religious scholar to serve as full-time spiritual leader with the more official title of Imam (with a capital I). An Imam’s overall function is roughly similar to that of the pastor of a parish church. He counsels, visits the sick, performs funeral services, and generally administers the affairs of the mosque. To assist him in his work, the community often hires secretaries, directors of education and other services, and teachers, if the mosque sponsors a school. Second, important spiritual and intellectual leaders throughout Islamic history have gained the title Imam in recognition of their prominence and accomplishments. In those instances the title is honorary rather than functional. Finally, the term imam refers to the individuals whom the various Shi’a communities regard as spiritual descendants of Muhammad. This narrowest of the three meanings is applied and interpreted in different ways by the major Shi’a groups (Twelvers, Seveners, and Fivers). Most recently Twelver Shi’ites of Iran and Iraq bestowed the title on the Ayatollah Khomeini in a way that suggested a blend of the second and third meanings explained here.
An imam reads from the Qur’an at the Hassan II Mausoleum in Rabat, Morocco. (posztos [colorlab.hu] / Shutterstock.com.)