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Imtiyazr Yusuf
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


Imam (Ar. imām, pl. aʿimmah) as used in the Qurʿān means leader, foremost, symbol, model, ideal, example, revelation, guide, and archetype. The term appears in the Qurʿān seven times in the singular and five times in the plural form. Historically, the term means religio-political leader of the Muslim community, but for various sectarian and historical reasons the term has been interpreted and applied in different ways throughout Islamic history and into the modern period.

Qurʿānic Use of the Term.

The first mention of the term imam in the Qurʿān is in reference to Abraham as the leader of humanity (2:124). This verse gives advice that religious submission to the concept of monotheism involves trials leading to the attainment of moral integrity. Qurʿānic verses 46:12 and 11:17 allude to the revelations received by Moses and Muḥammad as imam—books of religious guidance—while Qurʿān 36:12 refers to the record of individual deeds as imam.

The Qurʿān also distinguishes between two types of imams. Qurʿānic verses 21:73, 28:5, and 32:24 refer to the imams (aʿimmah) of guidance (hidāyah), or religious leaders who promote religious belief and rectitude, while the Qurʿānic verses 9:12 and 28:41 refer to imams of unbelief (kufr) and the fire (al-nār). The latter are unjust and immoral leaders who spread corruption and disbelief in God, and lead humanity to hell.

The Qurʿānic narratives about the Prophets Lot and Shuʿayb and opposition to them is presented as a contest between imams of hidāyah and imams of kufr. The Qurʿān (17:71) mentions that on the Last Day, imams—leaders from the progeny of Adam and their communities—will be called to witness the result of the deeds committed during their lifetimes.

The Qurʿānic archetype of the imam as an exemplary religious and social leader of the community represented in the Abrahamic narrative has been adopted in various ways by Muslim sects and groups in connection to their religious and political lives. In this regard, sects and groups assert the Qurʿānic legitimacy of their political theologies.

Sunnī and Shīʿī Use of the Term.

The majority Sunnī sect of Islam use the term imam to mean the prayer leader in the mosque. For them the term does not carry any divine designation. The term constitutes an archetypal reference to the prophetic personalities of Abraham, Moses, and Muḥammad as model prophets, statesmen, and as representative models who adhered to the religious doctrine of monotheism and were religious, moral, and sociopolitical leaders. Sunnī Muslims also use the term imam as an honorific title for religious scholars and personalities such as the founders of the four Sunnī schools of jurisprudence and mystics such as Imam Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111 CE).

The term imam has played a significant role in the politico-religious development of the Muslim worldview by shaping different Muslim political theologies. Hence, it is a contested term, especially in regard to its usage in the Sunnī and Shīʿī sects of Islam, for example the Sunnī religious movements of the Wahhābīyah and al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn (the Muslim Brotherhood) at one time referred to their respective founders, Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (d. 1792 CE) and Ḥasan al-Bannā (d. 1949), as imams, but have now abandoned such usage and refer to them as shaykhs, largely because of the increased sectarian implications of the term.

The term imam acquired a politico-religious connotation with the sectarian splits in the Muslim community. The Khawarīj, the first sect of Islam that emphasized the principle of human equality, maintained that an imam should be a person of knowledge and piety, and be elected freely, irrespective of his tribal and racial background. Currently, the Ibāḍīyah, the surviving Khārījī subsect who are a majority in Oman, and also exist as minorities in Zanzibar, the Mzab valley of Algeria, the Nafus mountains of Libya, and Jerba island near Tunisia, still use the term imam in reference to their leaders. The Ibāḍīs hold that the imam should be elected by the elders of the community and can be deposed if found unfit. However, in contemporary times, the political office of the head of the Omani state is that of a hereditary sultan belonging to the Bu Saʿadī dynasty and is not referred to as an imam. The imamate movements from the hinterland of Oman opposed the Omani sultanate, but were pacified in 1950s. Contemporary Oman does not aspire to be an imamate.

The Shīʿī reject the politico-religious leadership of the first three caliphs of Islam and instead recognize ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib as the first imam; his authority is inherited genealogically by his descendants. Descendants of ʿAlī through his marriage to the Prophet's daughter Fāṭimah are held as the legitimate heirs to the office of the imamate. The Shīʿī believe that the imam inherits both bāṭinī (inner) knowledge of the Qurʿān, and the right to political leadership from Muḥammad to ʿAlī and their descendants.

The Shīʿī also hold that the Prophet Muḥammad, upon his return journey after the farewell pilgrimage, halted at the place of Ghadīr Khumm and held a meeting, in which he declared to those gathered that, “Of whomsoever I am master (mawlā), then ʿAlī also is his Lord. O God! Be the supporter of whoever supports ʿAlī and the enemy of whoever opposes him.” The following two verses of the Qurʿān were revealed on this occasion, confirming ʿAlī's appointment as the imam.

"This day have I perfected your religion for you and completed My favor unto you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion. [And]… O Messenger! Make known that which has been revealed to you from your Lord, for if you do it not, you will not have conveyed His message. Allah will protect you from mankind. Lo! Allah guides not the disbelieving folk. (5:3, 5:67)."

The Shīʿī interpret the usage of the following terms in the Qurʿān as references to the imam: ahl al-bayt—members of the Prophet's household (33:33); al-qurbā—Muḥammad's kinsfolk (42:23); āyāt Allāh— signs of God (7:9, 10:7, 22:57, 29:49, 38:29); al-ṣādiqīn—the truthful (9:119); ūlā al-amr—those charged with authority; ṣirāṭ al-mustaqīm—the straight path (1:6, 6:153, 15:41, 16:76, 20:135, 43:42); ḥabllillāh—the cord of God (3:103); naʿīm Allāh—God's blessings (14:28); al-ʿurwah al-wuthqā—trustworthy handhold (2:256); al-nūr —the light (64:8); rāsikhūn fī al-ʿilm—those firmly rooted in knowledge (3:7); ahl al-dhikr—people of the remembrance of God (21:7, 16:43); burhān—proof and nūr mubīn— manifest light (4:174); and imām al-mubīn—manifest or apparent imam (36:12 and 15:79).

These Qurʿānic references to the imam are interpreted by the Shīʿī to mean that belief in the imam is a part of imān (faith). The imam is the guide for believers and manifest personification of God's Word, which is always present in the world even if it is hidden (ghayba). And for all the Shīʿī groups, the seed and the office of imamate is passed from one imam to another through the divinely inspired process of naṣṣ (investiture) and the imams are considered maʿṣū—infallible. The imams are seen as the ḥujjah (competent authorities) in the post-prophetic era; thus deserving obligatory and full obedience. There are two types of imam in the Shīʿī sect, the ghayb (hidden) and the ḥaḍir (apparent).

Subsects of Shīʿī and the Imam.

The Shīʿī community is divided into several subsects; these are related to the differences over the role and succession of imams. These differences take the form of quietist or activist politico-religious orientations. The first division within the Shīʿī occurred after the death of Ḥusayn when the Shīʿīs of Kufa, dissatisfied with the quietist leadership of Ḥusayn's only surviving son ʿAlī Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn (658–712 CE), opted for ʿAlī's third son Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥanafīyah, born of a Ḥanafī woman, as the imam to confront the Umayyad oppression. The claim of Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥanafīyah was supported by a Shīʿī activist Mukhtār ibn Abī ʿUbaydah who led an uprising in 686 C.E. Though Mukhtār was killed, the support for the imamate of Ibn al-Ḥanafīyah continued. With the death of Ibn al-Ḥanafīyah in 700 CE, his followers, known as Kaysanīyah, believed that he did not die but had gone into occultation (ghayba) and would return as the divinely guided one (al-mahdī) before the end of the world. Hence, these new concepts were introduced into Muslim political theology.

The Shīʿī imams lived through political opposition and at times experienced persecution from both the Umayyad and the ʿAbbāsid rulers. The first ʿAlīd from the Ḥusaynid lineage to oppose the Umayyads was Zayd bin ʿAlī, the second son of ʿAlī Zayn al-ʿAbidīn. Zayd and his supporters preferred an activist and public demonstration of the claim to the office of imamate. He led a revolt in 740 CE in which he was killed. Two Zaydī imamates have been established since, first by al-Ḥasan ibn Zayd in northern Iran (864–1125 CE) and the second by al-Hādī ila al-Ḥaqq al-Mubīn Yaḥyā ibn al-Ḥusayn in Yemen (893–1965 CE). Today in Yemen, the Zaydīs do not hold any political power but are an important socioreligious force.

The Zaydīs do not view the imam as semi-divine, for them he should be politically active in public life; thus there is no space for belief in “hidden imams.” Furthermore, for the Zaydīs the imam should be a descendant of ʿAlī and Fāṭimah and there can be one, several, or no imam at a particular time. Several Zaydī imams have been renowned scholars of Islamic theology and jurisprudence.


The Ismāʿīlī Shīʿī (Seveners) accept the imamate of Ismāʿīl bin Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (765–775 CE), the first son of the sixth Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (d. 765 CE) as their imam. There are two reports about his appointment as imam. One report says that Ismāʿīl predeceased his father and thus Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq selected his other son, Mūsā al-Kāẓim from his second wife, as the next imam. The second report states that Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq changed his investiture of Ismāʿīl upon learning of his indulgence in intoxicants and association with extremists, so he appointed Mūsā al-Kāẓim as the next imam. But the Ismāʿīlīs hold that Ismāʿīl did not die, nor did Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq change his naṣṣ (investiture).

For the Ismāʿīlīs, the imam manifests the First Intellect in the theory of emanation, he is God as He appears to humanity—he is the human manifestation of God. God has two types of personification: the lāhūt, or hidden nature, and the nāsūt, or apparent manifestation. The imam represents the human apparent manifestation of the hidden nature of God. Thus the Ismāʿīlīs refer to their imam as the word of God or evidence of God.

After Ismāʿīl, Ismāʿīlī daʿwah spread east and west throughout the Muslim world. In 910 C.E, the Fāṭids established an Ismāʿīlī imamate in Egypt which lasted till 1171 C.E. The eighth Fāṭid imam, Mustanṣirbillāh selected his son Abū Manṣūr al-Nizār to succeed him but he was overthrown by his brother Abū Qāsim Aḥmad Mustʿalī. This led to the split between the Nizārī and Mustʿalī Ismāʿīlīs. The Nizārī Ismāʿīlī mission then spread to Syria and Persia; the sect is currently present in Iran, India, Pakistan, East Africa, Yemen, Syria, Tajikistan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada. Nizārī Ismāʿīlīs are the largest group in the Ismāʿīlī sect. They follow Prince Karīm al-Ḥusayni, the fourth Aga Khan (b. 1936), referred to as the forty-ninth Ḥāḍir, or the Living/Apparent Imam. As an imam with a modern and international outlook, the present Aga Khan has contributed successfully to the educational and socioeconomic development of the Nizārī Ismāʿīlīs.


The other Ismāʿīlī subsect is that of the Mustʿalī Ismāʿīlīs, the followers of Imam Abū Qāsim Aḥmad Mustʿalī who had imprisoned Nizār. Mustʿalī became the ninth Fāṭimid imam. He was succeeded by his son al-Amīr who was assassinated in 1130 C.E. He was then succeeded, after a struggle, by his cousin l-Ḥāfiẓ. But the majority of the Mustʿalī Ismāʿīlīs supported al-Amīr's infant son al-Ṭayyib as their imam. However, the baby imam disappeared and is regarded as having entered ghayba (occultation) and will come forth at some future time. The Mustʿalī Ismāʿīlīs have thus come to be known as Ṭayyibī Ismāʿīlīs.

During the absence of the imam, the dāʿī al-muṭlaq (missionary or summoner) functions as the vicegerant or representative of the hidden imam. The dāʿī al-muṭlaq is responsible for managing the spiritual and social matters of the community. Thereafter, Ṭayyibī Ismāʿīlīism spread to Yemen and India. In 1591 CE, after the death of the twenty-sixth dāʿī al-muṭlaq, a split occurred within the Ṭayyibī community over the matter of dāʿī leadership. The Yemeni group and some among the Indians accepted Sulaymān bin Ḥasan as their dāʿī al-muṭlaq; this group is known as the Sulaymānīs. Those in India and Pakistan opted for the leadership of Dāʿūd b. Quṭbshāh and are known as the Dāʿūdīs.


The Sulaymānīs are currently present in Yemen, Saudi Arabia (Najrān province), India, Pakistan, Thailand, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United Sates. In 2005, the fifty-first dāʿī al-muṭlaq of the Sulaymānīs, Sayyidnā al-Sharafi Ḥusayn b. Ismāʿīl al-Makrami died and was succeeded by Sayyidnā al-Fakhri ʿAbd Allāh b. Muḥammad al-Makrami as the fifty-second dāʿī al-muṭlaq of the hidden imam.

Dāʿūdī Ismāʿīlīs.

The Dāʿūdī Ismāʿīlīs, also known as Bohrās, are present in India, Pakistan, East Africa, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Sayyidnā Muḥammad Burhānuddīn (b. 1915) of Mumbai, India, is the current and fifty-second dāʿī al-muṭlaq of the Dāʿūdīs. The ʿAlawī Bohrās, who split from the Dāʿūdī Bohrās in 1625 CE over the issue of succession of the dāʿī al-muṭlaq were then led by ʿAlī b. Ibrāhīm (d. 1637 CE); they are presently led by Sayyidnā Abū Hātim Ṭayyib Ziyauddin (b. 1932) of Vadodara, India, their forty-fourth and current dāʿī al-muṭlaq.

Ithnā ʿAsharīs.

The majority Shīʿī group is called Imāmī or Ithnā ʿAsharīs (Twelvers), because they believe in twelve imams. The Ithnā ʿAsharī Shīʿī view the imams as the divinely elected religious and political leaders of the community.

The difference between the Ithnā ʿAsharīs and the Ismāʿīlīs lies in the dispute over the succession to Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq; the Ithnā ʿAsharīs hold that Ismāʿīl predeceased his father and that Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq appointed his other son Mūsā al-Kāẓim as the successor imam. Before his death, Mūsā al-Kāẓim (d. 799 CE) appointed ʿAlī al-Riḍā (d. 818 CE) as the next imam; the successor imams were Muḥammad al-Jawād (d. 835 CE), ʿAlī al-Hādī (d. 868 CE), and Muḥammad al-Mahdī, who entered occultation in 874 CE and will return as the Mahdī—the guided one.

In the absence of the imam, Ithnā ʿAsharī fuqāʿ (religious jurists) deputize on his behalf, manage the religious, social, and political affairs of the community, and are known as marjaʿ al-taqlīd, the reference point of emulation. Formerly, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1989) of Iran and Sayyid Abū al-Qāsīm al-Khūʿī (d. 1992) of Iraq were marjaʿ. Today, Ayatollah ʿAlī Khameneʿi, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Muḥammad Rūḥānī and Ayatollah Muḥammad al-Shīrāzī, both from Iran, and Ayatollah ʿAlī Sijistānī of Iraq, Ayatollah Mīrzā al- Iḥqaqī of Kuwait are living marjaʿ.

Modern Shīʿī Interpretations.

The term imam has been reinterpreted in contemporary times within the Ithnā ʿAsharī sect by thinkers and religious scholars such as ʿAlī Sharīʿatī (d. 1977) and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. ʿAlī Sharīʿatī called for the demythologization of the term imam; he interpreted it in radical political terms to make it relevant to the contemporary political situation and the demands for political change during the reign of the Shah of Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini proposed the politico-religious theory of wilāyat al-faqīh (deputyship of the jurist) assigning a politically active role for religious scholars in the era of the absence of the imam during and after the Shah's reign in Iran.

The term imam has also been used in contemporary Ithnā ʿAsharī political language in references to Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and Sayyid Mūsā al-Ṣadr (who disappeared in 1978 under suspicious circumstances) in Lebanon, but without any reference to religious infallibility.

Various Shīʿī groups pay different taxes to the Imam, whether apparent or hidden. The Ithnā ʿAsharīs pay khums (lit., one-fifth) of 5 percent of their savings per full lunar year to the marjaʿ al-taqlīd, the representative of the hidden imam. The Nizārī Ismāʿīlīs pay 10 percent, known as dassondh in Gujarati (Ar. ʿushr) plus 2.5 percent for zakāt, for a total of 12.5 percent to the Aga Khan—the Apparent Imam. The Dāʿūdī Bohrās pay ṣilat al-imām to the dāʿī al-muṭlaq; he collects this as an offering to the hidden imam, and it is to be transferred to the imam when he appears.

Female Imams.

Historically, the term imam, both for Sunnīs and Shīʿīs has always been interpreted and used in male gendered terms. Recently, there has emerged a debate on the gender aspect of the imam, whether it should be interpreted in exclusively male terms, and whether or not women are also entitled to serve as imams.

On March 18, 2005, a female African-American professor, Amina Wadud, led a group of New York Muslims in the obligatory Friday congregational prayer. This was the first time that a woman had performed as an imam, or prayer leader, of a mixed gender congregation. The event caused much controversy in the Muslim world. It raised an intense debate ranging from the ritualistic to the legalistic aspects of the act, covering issues such as whether or not it is permissible in Islam for a woman to lead the prayer service, and what are the implications for Islamic law and gender issues in the Muslim world. Islam does not nullify a prayer on the basis of who leads the service; in Islam acceptance of prayer is not determined by the gender of the Imam.

The contemporary worldwide debate about female imams is a result of the influence of modern trends of feminism and globalization. The two sides of the debate both base their positions on the traditions of Islamic history, culture, and on contemporary contexts.

Muslim women who support the role of female imams cite of the marginalization of women from public religious life; they maintain that Muslim women are unable to engage in religious education and discourse, and are sequestered in separate sections of the mosques. They assert that womens’ social roles are restricted to the home and child-rearing, while men take the dominant positions in all religious, educational, and social activities. Amina Wadud's supporters base their position on an event from the life of the prophet Muḥammad. It is reported that he permitted a Muslim woman of his community named Umm Waraqah to lead a prayer service. Amina Wadud's activities reflect Muslim womens’ attempt to claim their status as liberated human beings under Islam.

The advocates for socially engaging Muslim women cite the opinions of legal scholars such as al-Ṭabarī, al-Muzanī, AbūThawr, Ibn Taymīyah, and Muḥammad Ḥamidullah, who accept the role of women as imams. Contemporary Sunnī ʿulamāʿ are divided on the issue; e.g., Egypt's Grand Muftī Shaykh ʿAlī Jumʿah [Ali Gomaa] declared that it is permissible for women to lead prayers provided the congregation agrees to it. While Shaykh Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī of Qatar, a respected Muslim jurist and scholar, opposes the practice of women serving as imams on the grounds that a woman's physique and bodily movements would distract men's attention during prayers. The debate on this issue will certainly continue.


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