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Mughal Imams in discourse
Prayer in Cairo, painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1865

Imam (/ɪˈmɑːm/, Arabic: إمام, imām; pl.: أئمة, a'immah) is an Islamic leadership position. For Sunni Muslims, Imam is most commonly used as the title of a prayer leader of a mosque. In this context, imams may lead Islamic prayers, serve as community leaders, and provide religious guidance. Thus for Sunnis, anyone can study the basic Islamic sciences and become an Imam.

For most Shia Muslims, the Imams are absolute infallible leaders of the Islamic community after the Prophet. Shias consider the term to be only applicable to the members and descendants of the Ahl al-Bayt, the family of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. In Twelver Shīʿīsm there are 14 infallibles, 12 of which are Imams, the final being Imam Mahdi who will return at the end of times.[1] The title was also used by the Zaidi Shia Imams of Yemen, who eventually founded the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen (1918–1970).

Sunni imams[edit]

Sunni Islam does not have imams in the same sense as the Shi'a, an important distinction often overlooked by those outside of the Islamic religion. In everyday terms, an 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. Women cannot be an imam in the presence of men, but allowed to be an imam to other women in the case if no man is available. 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.

Title of scholarly authority[edit]

Another well-known use of the term is as an honorary title for a recognized religious scholarly authority in Islam. It is especially used for a jurist (faqīh) and often for the founders of the four Sunni madhhabs or schools of jurisprudence (fiqh), as well as an authority on Quranic exegesis (tafsīr), such as Al-Tabari or Ibn Kathir.

It may also refer to the Muhaddithūn or scholars who created the analytical sciences related to Hadith and sometimes refer to the heads of Muhammad's family in their generational times due to their scholarly authority.[2]

Imam Ibrahim Hawlery
Occupation type
Activity sectors
CompetenciesKnowledge of Quran and Sunnah, religious devotion
Education required
Madrassa, İmam Hatip school or university education
Fields of
Related jobs

The position of imams in Turkey[edit]

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[3] in Turkey and only males are appointed to this position, whilst female officials under the same state organisation work as preachers and Qur'an course tutors, religious services experts, etc. These officials are supposed to belong to the Hanafi school of the Sunni sect.

A central figure in an Islamic movement is also called an imam, like Imam Nawawi in Syria.

Shia imams[edit]

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.[4] 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 Shia imams:

Number Name
Importance Birthplace (present day country) Place of death and burial
1 Ali ibn Abi Talib
علي بن أبي طالب
Abu al-Hassan or Abu al-Husayn
أبو الحسین or أبو الحسن
Amir al-Mu'minin
(Commander of the Faithful)[6]
Birinci Ali[7]
23 BH–40[8]
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.[6] Mecca, Saudi Arabia[6] Assassinated by Abd-al-Rahman ibn Muljam, a Kharijite in Kufa, who slashed him with a poisoned sword.[6][9] Buried at the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, Iraq.
2 Hassan ibn Ali
الحسن بن علي
Abu Muhammad
أبو محمد
İkinci Ali[7]
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.[12] Medina, Saudi Arabia[10] Poisoned by his wife in Medina, Saudi Arabia.[13] Buried in Jannat al-Baqi.
3 Husayn ibn Ali
الحسین بن علي
Abu Abdillah
أبو عبدالله
Sayed al-Shuhada
Üçüncü Ali[7]
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.[14][16] Medina, Saudi Arabia[14] Killed on Day of Ashura (10 Muharram) and beheaded at the Battle of Karbala.[14] Buried at the Imam Husayn Shrine in Karbala, Iraq.
4 Ali ibn al-Hussein
علي بن الحسین
Abu Muhammad
أبو محمد
al-Sajjad, Zain al-Abedin[17]
Dördüncü Ali[7]
658–9[17] – 712[18]
Author of prayers in Sahifa al-Sajjadiyya, which is known as "The Psalm of the Household of the Prophet."[18] Medina, Saudi Arabia[17] According to most Shia scholars, he was poisoned on the order of Caliph al-Walid I in Medina, Saudi Arabia.[18] Buried in Jannat al-Baqi.
5 Muhammad ibn Ali
محمد بن علي
Abu Ja'far
أبو جعفر
al-Baqir al-Ulum

(splitting open knowledge)[19]

Beşinci Ali[7]
Sunni and Shia sources both describe him as one of the early and most eminent legal scholars, teaching many students during his tenure.[19][20] Medina, Saudi Arabia[19] 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.[18] Buried in Jannat al-Baqi.
6 Ja'far ibn Muhammad
جعفر بن محمد
Abu Abdillah
أبو عبدالله

(the Trustworthy)

Altıncı Ali[7]
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.[22] Medina, Saudi Arabia[21] According to Shia sources, he was poisoned in Medina, Saudi Arabia on the order of Caliph Al-Mansur.[21] Buried in Jannat al-Baqi.
7 Musa ibn Ja'far
موسی بن جعفر
Abu al-Hassan I
أبو الحسن الأول[23]
Yedinci Ali[7]
Leader of the Shia community during the schism of Ismaili and other branches after the death of the former imam, Jafar al-Sadiq.[25] He established the network of agents who collected khums in the Shia community of the Middle East and the Greater Khorasan.[26] Medina, Saudi Arabia[24] Imprisoned and poisoned in Baghdad, Iraq on the order of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. Buried in the Kazimayn shrine in Baghdad.[24]
8 Ali ibn Musa
علي بن موسی
al-Rida, Reza[27]
Sekizinci Ali[7]
Made crown-prince by Caliph Al-Ma'mun, and famous for his discussions with both Muslim and non-Muslim religious scholars.[27] Medina, Saudi Arabia[27] 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.[27]
9 Muhammad ibn Ali
محمد بن علي
Abu Ja'far
أبو جعفر
al-Taqi, al-Jawad[28]
Dokuzuncu Ali[7]
Famous for his generosity and piety in the face of persecution by the Abbasid caliphate. Medina, Saudi Arabia[28] 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.[28]
10 Ali ibn Muhammad
علي بن محمد
Abu al-Hassan III
أبو الحسن الثالث[29]
al-Hadi, al-Naqi[29]
Onuncu Ali[7]
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.[29] Surayya, a village near Medina, Saudi Arabia[29] According to Shia sources, he was poisoned in Samarra, Iraq on the order of Caliph Al-Mu'tazz.[30] Buried in the Al Askari Mosque in Samarra.
11 Hassan ibn Ali
الحسن بن علي
Abu Muhammad
أبو محمد
Onbirinci Ali[7]
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.[32] Medina, Saudi Arabia[31] According to Shia, he was poisoned on the order of Caliph Al-Mu'tamid in Samarra, Iraq. Buried in Al Askari Mosque in Samarra.[33]
12 Muhammad ibn al-Hassan
محمد بن الحسن
Abu al-Qasim
أبو القاسم
al-Mahdi, Hidden Imam, al-Hujjah[34]
Onikinci Ali[7]
According to Twelver doctrine, he is the current imam and the promised Mahdi, a messianic figure who will return with Isa (Jesus). He will reestablish the rightful governance of Islam and replete the earth with justice and peace.[36] Samarra, Iraq[35] According to Shia doctrine, he has been living in the Occultation since 872, which shall continue as long as God wills it.[35]

Fatimah, also Fatimah al-Zahraa, daughter of Muhammed (615–632), is also considered infallible but not an Imam. The Shi'a believe that the last Imam, the 12th Imam Mahdi will one day emerge on the Day of Resurrection (Qiyamah).


See Imamah (Ismaili doctrine) and List of Ismaili imams for Ismaili imams.


See details under Zaidiyyah, Islamic history of Yemen and Imams of Yemen.

Imams as secular rulers[edit]

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. See List of rulers of Oman, the Rustamid dynasty: 776–909, Nabhani dynasty: 1154–1624, the Yaruba dynasty: 1624–1742, the Al Said: 1744–present for further information.[37] 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.[38] 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.



See also[edit]


  1. ^ The abbreviation CE refers to the Common Era solar calendar, while AH refers to the Islamic Hijri lunar calendar.


  1. ^ Corbin 1993, p. 30
  2. ^ Dhami, Sangeeta; Sheikh, Aziz (November 2000). "The Muslim family". Western Journal of Medicine. 173 (5): 352–356. doi:10.1136/ewjm.173.5.352. ISSN 0093-0415. PMC 1071164. PMID 11069879.
  3. ^ "Presidency of Religious Affairs". www.diyanet.gov.tr.
  4. ^ Amir-Moezzi, Ali (2008). Spirituality and Islam. London: Tauris. p. 103. ISBN 9781845117382.
  5. ^ The imam's Arabic titles are used by the majority of Twelver Shia who use Arabic as a liturgical language, including the Usooli, Akhbari, Shaykhi, and to a lesser extent Alawi. Turkish titles are generally used by Alevi, a fringe Twelver group, who make up around 10% of the world Shia population. The titles for each imam literally translate as "First Ali", "Second Ali", and so forth. Mattar, Philip (2004). Encyclopedia of the modern Middle East & North Africa. Detroit, Mich: Macmillan Reference USA. ISBN 9780028657691.
  6. ^ a b c d e Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. "Ali". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2007-10-12.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Mattar, Philip (2004). Encyclopedia of the modern Middle East & North Africa. Detroit, Mich: Macmillan Reference USA. ISBN 9780028657691.
  8. ^ Tabatabae (1979), pp.190-192
  9. ^ Tabatabae (1979), p.192
  10. ^ a b "Hasan". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2007-11-08.
  11. ^ Tabatabae (1979), pp.194–195
  12. ^ Madelung, Wilferd. "Hasan ibn Ali". Encyclopaedia Iranica. Retrieved 2008-03-23.
  13. ^ Tabatabae (1979), p.195
  14. ^ a b c d "al-Husayn". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2007-11-08.
  15. ^ Tabatabae (1979), pp.196–199
  16. ^ Calmard, Jean. "Husayn ibn Ali". Encyclopaedia Iranica. Retrieved 2008-03-23.
  17. ^ a b c d Madelung, Wilferd. "'ALĪ B. AL-ḤOSAYN". Encyclopaedia Iranica. Retrieved 2007-11-08.
  18. ^ a b c d e Tabatabae (1979), p.202
  19. ^ a b c d e Madelung, Wilferd. "AL-BAQER, ABU JAFAR MOHAMMAD". Encyclopaedia Iranica. Retrieved 2007-11-08.
  20. ^ Tabatabae (1979), p.203
  21. ^ a b c d e Tabatabae (1979), p.203-204
  22. ^ "Wāṣil ibn ʿAṭāʾ". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 1 January 2019.
  23. ^ a b Madelung, Wilferd. "'ALĪ AL-HĀDĪ". Encyclopaedia Iranica. Retrieved 2007-11-09.
  24. ^ a b c d e Tabatabae (1979), p.205
  25. ^ Tabatabae (1979) p. 78
  26. ^ Sachedina (1988), pp.53–54
  27. ^ a b c d e f Tabatabae (1979), pp.205–207
  28. ^ a b c d e Tabatabae (1979), p. 207
  29. ^ a b c d e f Madelung, Wilferd. "'ALĪ AL-HĀDĪ". Encyclopaedia Iranica. Retrieved 2007-11-08.
  30. ^ Tabatabae (1979), pp.208–209
  31. ^ a b c d Halm, H. "'ASKARĪ". Encyclopaedia Iranica. Retrieved 2007-11-08.
  32. ^ Tabatabae (1979) pp. 209–210
  33. ^ Tabatabae (1979), pp.209–210
  34. ^ "Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Hujjah". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2007-11-08.
  35. ^ a b c d Tabatabae (1979), pp.210–211
  36. ^ Tabatabae (1979), pp. 211–214
  37. ^ Miles, Samuel Barrett (1919). The Countries and Tribes of the Persian Gulf. Garnet Pub. pp. 50, 437. ISBN 978-1-873938-56-0. Retrieved 2013-11-15.
  38. ^ Holt, P. M.; Holt, Peter Malcolm; Lambton, Ann K. S.; Bernard Lewis (1977-04-21). The Cambridge History of Islam. Cambridge University Press. p. 365. ISBN 978-0-521-29137-8.

Works cited[edit]

General references[edit]

  • Martin, Richard C. (2004). "Imam". Encyclopaedia of Islam and the Muslim World. Vol. 1: Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World: A–L. MacMillan. ISBN 0-02-865604-0.
  • Momen, Moojan (1985). An Introduction to Shi'i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelve. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-03531-4.

External links[edit]