Imam – is an Arabic word means “leader”or head of the Muslim community. It is an honorary post given to specially trained Muslims capable of leading prayers in the mosques.
The world Imam has been used several times in Quran to refer to leaders and Abraham. But not many people that the office of the imam was one of the things that led to the Shia-Sunni divide in the Muslim community.
The story dates back to just after the death of Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. After Muhammad’s death, it was difficult to decide who should succeed him as the leader of the one hundred thousand strong Muslim community. A group within the Muslims preferred Abu Bakr, a Companion of the Prophet, as the Caliph (politico-social leader) while another group was supporting the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali as the Caliph and sole interpreter. Finally, Abu Bakr was appointed First Caliph.
This led to the divide as the followers of Abu Bakr came to be known as Sunni Muslims. Sunni means ‘one who follows the Sunnah’ or what the Prophet said or desired. Muhammad asked Abu Bakr, to lead the prayers. At the time when he was on his deathbed, this only meant that he wanted to announce Abu Bakr as the next leader, the Sunnis say.
Those who believed that Ali should be made Prophet’s successor came to be known as Shi’a Muslims. The Shi’as’ stood their case on the ground that Muhammad, on the way back from his last Hajj had proclaimed Ali the spiritual guide and master of all believers. He said that anyone who followed prophet Muhammad should follow Ali.
Another interpretation of the same event is that Shia’s wanted the Islamic leadership should remain in the hands of the family of the Prophet. Ali was the Prophet’s son-in-law, the husband of his daughter, Fatimah.
They protested loudly when the leadership of the Muslim community (Caliphate) was passed on to Abu Bakr, an outsider. The Sunnis, who insisted that the leadership should remain in the hands of a person who was worthy of leading the people, had their way when Abu Bakr a close friend of the Prophet was chosen.
Concept of Imam for Sunnis:
The Sunnis consider imam to be a recognized religious or scholarly authority — one who leads Islamic prayers, and others copy his actions.
Muhammad is the final prophet. All Muslims are equal before God.
All mosques have an imam who leads the prayers; it could even be a person from the gathering rather than a salaried person..
Has knowledge and faith in of the Quran and Sunnah.
Good character, irrespective of age.
Sunnis oppose the “saintly” role the Imams in Shia faith. This amounts to elevation of humans to godly status that forbidden.
Women can not lead prayers, except the wives of imams
Concept of Imam for Shia’s:
Shi’a consider Imam to be a man of God par excellence
The leader of the community appointed by God as a perfect example in all aspects of life.
The chosen imam is pure and free from committing any sin
Infallible successor of Muhammad
Imams are the only legitimate interpreters of the Quran.
There have been 12 imams. Ali was the first, Hussein the third.
The last imam Mahdi or the Messiah will return someday
Fatimah al-Zahraa the daughter of Muhammed is also considered perfect, but not she is not given the same status as Imam.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini introduced the concept of “velayat-e faqih” (guardianship of jurisprudence) in Iran. This resulted in a hybrid government, in which an elected parliament and president could be overruled by a body of appointing religious clerics.
Imams all over the world are either elected or inherit the honorary position. In some places, Imams are paid employees. But in all cases, they can be removed if they deviate from their religious duties.