1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Imām
IMĀM, an Arabic word, meaning “leader” or “guide” in the sense of a “pattern whose example is followed, whether for good or bad.” Thus it is applied to the Koran, to a builder’s level and plumb-line, to a road, to a school-boy’s daily task, to a written record. It is used in several of these, senses in the Koran, but specifically several times of leaders and (ii. 118) of Abraham, “Lo, I make thee a pattern for mankind.” Imām thus became the name of the head of the Moslem community, whose leadership and patternhood, as in the case of Mahomet himself, is to be regarded as of the widest description. His duty is to be the lieutenant, the Caliph (q.v.) of the Prophet, to guard the faith and maintain the government of the state. Round the origin and basis of his office all controversies as to the Moslem state centre. The Sunnites hold that it is for men to appoint and that the basis is obedience to the general usage of the Moslem peoples from the earliest times. The necessity for leaders has always been recognized, and a leader has always been appointed. The basis is thus agreement in the technical sense (see Mahommedan Law), not Koran nor tradition from Mahomet nor analogy. The Shī’ites in general hold that the appointment lies with God, through the Prophet or otherwise, and that He always has appointed. The Khārijites theoretically recognize no absolute need of an Imām; he is convenient and allowable. The Motazilites held that reason, not agreement, dictated the appointment. Another distinction between the Sunnites and the Shī’ites is that the Sunnites regard the Imām as liable to err, and to be obeyed even though he personally sins, provided he maintains the ordinances of Islām. Effective leadership is the essential point. But the Shī’ites believe that the divinely appointed Imām is also divinely illumined and preserved (ma‘ṣūm) from sin. The above is called the greater Imāmate. The lesser Imāmate is the leadership in the Friday prayers. This was originally performed by the Imām in the first sense, who not only led in prayers but delivered a sermon (khuṭba); but with the growth of the Moslem empire and the retirement of the caliph from public life, it was necessarily given over to a deputy—part of a gradual process of putting the Imāmate or caliphate into commission. These deputy Imāms are, in Turkey, ministers of the state, each in charge of his own parish; they issue passports, &c., and perform the rites of circumcision, marriage and burial. In Persia among Shī’ites their position is more purely spiritual, and they are independent of the state. A few of their leaders are called Mujtahids, i.e. capable of giving an independent opinion on questions of religion and canon law. A third use of the term Imām is as an honorary title. It is thus applied to leading theologians, e.g. to Abū Ḥanīfa, ash-Shāfi‘ī, Malik ibn Anas, Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (these are called “the four Imāms”), Ghazāli.
See McG. de Slane’s transl. of Ibn Khaldūn’s Prolégomènes, i. 384 seq., 402 seq., 426 seq., 445; iii. 35, 58 seq.; Ostrorog’s transl. of Māwardī’s Ahkām i. 89 seq.; Haarbrücker’s transl. of Shahrastānī by index; Juynboll’s De (D. B. Ma.)Wet, 316 seq.; Sell’s Faith of Islam, 95 seq.; Macdonald’s Development of Muslim Theology, 56 seq.