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An imam is a person having great authority in Islam. There are five different specific meanings of the term:

  • in a mosque, a leader in prayer is the imam only while he leads the prayer. More generally, the imam is the most respected person in the assembly. In modern times, the term has expanded to include a leader employed by the congregation, like a priest in Christianity.
  • in Shia Islam, the highest leader is the imam. The first imam was Ali. The imam is presumed to have a special relationship to Allah.
  • Under the direction of Ayatollah Khomeini in Shia Islam, the imam alone was no longer considered to be the sole leader and authority, and Khomeini and his associates ruled the religious life in Iran.
  • In the largest branch of Islam, Sunni Islam, caliphs were called imams. But there are no longer any caliphs, so the term "imam" in that sense means almost nothing today.
  • Also in Sunni Islam, "imam" is added to the names of learned men, such as founders of the schools of Sharia and as an honor to the great theologian al-Ghazzali.

There are five key differences about what makes an imam an imam, and therefore who may become imam. At the time of the first imam, Ali, there was only one view, even if the imamship had not yet been defined. The original idea about the imam intends that he:

  1. Be a man of direct descent of either Husayn or his brother Hassan
  2. Not be a minor
  3. Be sound in mind and body
  4. Have competent knowledge of theology
  5. Have the capacity of being a ruler

The imam is theoretically a non-violent man, although due to the aggressive and violent nature of the Koran there have been many incidents of violent acts carried out by an imam toward woman. For instance, it was revealed that a Muslim imam who lives in Germany and lectures on non-violence beat his wife bloody and broke her bones when she said she wanted to live a more "western" lifestyle.[1] The imam is alleged to have shouted a verse from the Koran at his wife as he beat her. He shouted, "Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. [...] As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them." She was allegedly assaulted so badly that she suffered a broken nose and shoulder and numerous cuts and bruises.

Most commonly, the imam may not conduct the violence but order others to do so for them under Sharia law. For example, in Bangladesh, the imam at the local mosque decidedly punished a 14-year-old girl to 101 lashes because she was raped by a married man. She lasted only 70. The 14-year-old Bangladeshi Muslim girl was lashed to death, accused of adultery by the imam.[2]


Encyclopedia of the Orient


  1. Jonathon M. Seidl. ‘Non-Violent’ Imam Beats His Wife Bloody While Quoting the Koran, The Blaze, Posted on December 2, 2010.