The term ‘Imamah’ is derived from the Arabic word Imam which means ‘a leader’.
In Islam it refers to the person leading other Muslims in Swalat.
One is considered an Imam or leader when he is knowdgeable in the Islamic law has acceptable character and excellent moral standards.
A Muslim leader should also be responsible and one who abides by the Islamic laws and teachings of the Sharia.
Leaders must be able to make sound decisions that will be acceptable in the context of their jurisdiction.
He has to be a role model to others.
Apart from the leader in swalat, the term Imam is also used to refer to:
Nabii Ibrahim (AS) when Allah (SWT) promised him leadership for the entire Nations. Allah (SWT) says, “…He (Allah) said: ‘I will make you an Imam to the nations.’ He (Ibrahim) pleaded: ‘And also (Imams) from my offspring!’ He (Allah answered: ‘My promise is not within the reach of evil doers!” [Q 2:124]
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was also referred to as Imam. He as Imam ul Anbiya wal Mursalin (leader of Prophets and messengers) as refered to in the journey of Isra wal Miraj when he lead all the prayers in Swalat.
The person leading other Muslims during other acts of worship. For example the one who leads others in the burial rituals, during aa’awa activities among others.
The scholars of Fiqh, who came up with the four schools of thought (Madhahib) i.e. Imam Malik, Imam Shafi, Imam Hambal and Imam Abu Hanifa.
Major compilers of Hadith among the Sunni like Imam Bukhari, Imam Muslim, Tirmidhi, Imam Abu Daud, Imam Ibn Majah and Imam Nasai.
The Khalifa of the Muslims e.g. Khalifa Abubakar, Umar, Uthman and Ali.
Muslim philosophers like Imam Ghazal, Ibn Rushd, and Ibn Sina among others.
The spiritual leaders of the Shia such as Imams Zainul Abidin, Jafar us Sadiq, Musa Al Kadhim etc
b) Shia concept of an Imam
We ealier learnt in this chapter that an Imam literally means a leader.
The Shias also hold the belief about Imamah.
They have several beliefs about an Imam as follows:
An Imam is appointed by Allah through divine inspiration to the previous Imam.
The leadership of the Muslims was passed over to the Imams after the death of the Prophet.
All Imams were from the Ahl ul bait (close family members) of the Prophet.
The first Imam according to the Shia was Ali bin Abu Twalib.
Imams receive spiritual guidance from Allah (SWT).
They are conversant with the divine law.
All the Imams are Maasumin i.e they are protected from sin by Allah.
For any Imam (Muslim leader), there is a proceedure of appointment.
During the time of the prophet (PBUH) he himself would declare one as a leader using certain creteria such as, one who had memorised Quran and a large number of hadith, and had good qualities.
Likewise, the selection or appointment of an Imam in the present age is based on one’s knowledge of the Qur’an, Hadith and Fiqh, the degree of taqwa and age of the person.
b) Declaration of Ali bin Abi Talib at Ghadir Khum (the pond of Khum)
Ali bin Abi Talib was one of the closest companions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
According to the Shia, the Prophet openly declared who would succeed him as a Khalifa before his demise.
This happened after Hijjatul Wida’ (the farewell pilgrimage).
The Holy Prophet (PBUH) left Makkah on 14th Dhul Hijja 10 A.H. and his caravan reached Ghadir Khum(about 3 miles north-west of Makkah) on 18th Dhul Hijja.
This was the place where people from various provinces would bid Good bye to each other and take different routes for their home.
In this place, the following verse was revealed: "O Apostle! Deliver what has been sent down to you from your Lord; and if you don't do it, you have not delivered His message (at all); and Allah will protect you from the people ..." [Q 5:67].
After the revelation of this Holy verse from Allah (SWT), the Prophet then delivered a memorable sermon in which he said: “…O faithfulls, whomsoever I am his master (Mawla) and the authority on whom he obeys, Ali will be his master. O Allah! Be friendly towards the friends of Ali: help those who help him and hinder those who hinder him, and may the truth always be with him.”
In a Hadith cited by the Shias Buraida narrates: “I invaded Yemen with Ali and I saw coldness from his part; so when I came (back) to the Messenger of Allah and mentioned Ali and criticized him, I saw the face of the Messenger of Allah change and he said: ‘O Buraida, am I not closer to the believers than they are to themselves?’ I said: ‘Yes, O Messenger of Allah.’ He (then) said: ‘Whosoever’s Mawla (master) I am, this Ali is also his Mawla (master).’” (Musnad Ahmad [v5 #22995])
From the above Hadith, the Shias believe that the Prophet appointed Ali as the leader of the Muslims after his death.
c) Qualities of an Imam
We had mentioned earlier in this chapter that an Imam is a leader.
And as a leader one is supposed to have qualities that make him stand out in the society.
Therefore an Imam is required to have the following qualities:
He should know and understand the Holy Qur’an and Hadith.
He should be able to recite the Qur’an correctly and nicely.
He should be a respected member of the community.
He should be acceptable to the believers.
Is also required to be very knowledgeable in all aspects of Islamic Sharia because he must be able to give sermons regarding Islam.
He should be pious and morally upright.
d) Duties and significance of an Imam
An Imam leads Muslims during prayers.
The Imam may also serve as a member of the larger leadership team in a Muslim community.
The Imam may be involved in community and social services like visiting the sick, rising funds for the needy members of the community.
As a respected member of the community, the Imam may be consulted for personal or religious issues.
The Imam is involved in ensuring peace, harmony and social cohesion in the society e.g. engaging in inter-faith service programs.
He gives spiritual advice and is consulted in family issues, or in other times of need.
Officiating Muslim marriages and organizing educational gatherings in the mosque.
The Imam is a teacher for he teaches others about the Muslim religion, through lectures and Friday sermons.
The Imam also conducts Islamic religious ceremonies.