What is an Imam?

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

The word imam is an Arabic word that means “leader.” Depending on the usage of the word and whether or not it is written with a capital “I”, the word can hold many different meanings and connotations. When Imam is capitalized, the word becomes honorific and conveys reverence. As with many ancient words that relate to faith, the word carries a great deal of meaning and, depending on usage in text as well as speech, can take on numerous different meanings. The subtleties can be difficult for an outsider to understand and might require expert services to properly translate.

A map of the Middle East.
A map of the Middle East.

Consider the word “God,” for example. For someone who was just beginning to familiarize herself with the English language and Western traditions, the word “God” would take a great deal of study to understand. First of all, the definition of God is different in every religious tradition. In some faiths, there is one God. In other, there are many gods. The official name and personage is different in each faith. Furthermore, the term is a part of vernacular.

In some Muslim congregations, imams function much like a parish priest or rabbi.
In some Muslim congregations, imams function much like a parish priest or rabbi.

In most basic terms, the word "imam" is used in the Middle East much as the word “minister” is used in British English. In this sense, “minister” is a title that can be held by a religious leader, or a person holding an important office, such as the Prime Minister or the Minister of a government department. In the same manner, the word “imam” can be used to discuss the ruler of a country, or one who is an important member of a religious community. An imam is commonly a person who leads congregational prayers in Muslim places of worship. However, to be considered an imam, one does not have to be an official cleric.

An imam is usually knowledgeable of Islamic law.
An imam is usually knowledgeable of Islamic law.

The word “imam” has deep roots in Islamic tradition, especially in both Sunni and Shia religious texts. In the very beginning of Islamic tradition, these religions used the word “imam” in referring to the Caliph. The Caliph is the leader of Islam throughout the world and the successor of the prophet Mohammed. Not only is the word subject to many different interpretations, but it also holds different meanings for different people. While Sunni and Shia peoples both use the word “imam” to discuss important religious leaders, the usage is different in each sect.

If you come across the term “imam” in your reading or studies, you can rely on the most basic definition, however, and assume that the word is referring to a religious or government official. Context clues, of course, will also help you to understand the specific meaning of the term.

The word "imam" has deep roots in both the Sunni and Shia interpretations of Islam.
The word "imam" has deep roots in both the Sunni and Shia interpretations of Islam.
Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for wiseGEEK, Diane is the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. She has also edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter Sapling, and The Adirondack Review. Diane has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

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Discussion Comments


Sorry, but I think you got it wrong. Someone who follows an Imam is a follower, not a slave. An Imam never forces someone to do something; he just shows you the best way of living, and you should choose your way. There is no compulsion to accept the ways! I suggest that you do further research. Thank you so much.


Actually Imam is the old word for human and Imam really means "imitator" or to imitate!

Humans "Imams" made in the imitation or image of the gods! Hence, Imam says I am a leader made by the gods to tell you all what to do, you slaves!

You think the Sumerian Empire just went away? It never left; it just migrated around in different guises for thousands of years! And now you have twisted the teachings of living in a balanced universe instead of the chaotic one we live in now!


to become an Imam you must be: Muslim, Male, Mature, Free man (not a slave), Fair, aptitude( wise, smart ..) and about a mosque's Imam: he must be fair, has Islamic knowledge, good reading of Quran. and also the woman can be an Imam in a prayer but only for women.


analyze and explain the role and function of the mosque in the muslim community.


analyze and explain the role and function of a imam in a sunni mosque?


What skills does a Imam need to become an Imam?

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