Muslim prayer leaders recite Arabic verses from the Koran.
Muslim prayer leaders recite Arabic verses from the Koran.

In Islam, which translates as "submission to God," a direct relationship with God is so important that great responsibility falls on individuals to perform daily prayers, alone or as part of a congregation. Imams, or Islam’s spiritual leaders, not only give sermons and lead the congregational prayers, but also take on a variety of other roles. Evidence of the imam's varied role is seen throughout history and today around the world.

Many Faces

All Muslims follow the same rituals of prayer worldwide.
All Muslims follow the same rituals of prayer worldwide.

The role of an imam in Islam, while essential, is diverse and less formally defined than that of a Christian priest's role, for example. An imam can be a salaried professional at a mosque or a community volunteer who leads prayers. He might be a theological scholar or a modest businessman who helps at the local mosque. According to Islamic rulings modeled on the life of Prophet Muhammad, a Muslim who leads prayers must be a sane adult who is knowledgeable about the tenets of Islam and the rituals of prayer.

Imams in History

Imams lead congregations in mosques every Friday.
Imams lead congregations in mosques every Friday.

The Prophet Muhammad was the first leader of prayer and sermons in the history of Islam. He preached in the seventh century to a growing group of followers in Arabia, and taught methods of prayer and faith so that others could lead prayer as well. His example in life and practice is called “Sunnah,” and is considered a model for leaders in Muslim prayer and in all areas of life. Following the Prophet’s death, subsequent leaders of the Islamic empire were called "caliphs," and also functioned as imams.

As sects developed within Islam over time, the imam’s role assumed different characteristics. In early Islamic history, the Sunni sect of Islam viewed its spiritual leaders as capable of error, but also as deserving of respect and obedience for their knowledge and guidance. The Shi’ite sect believed imams were infallible and chosen by God to lead by example. Today, the term "imam" is used more generally for Muslims who lead prayers and who may be an otherwise qualified authority in a religious community.

Model for Prayer

Men follow an imam in prayer.
Men follow an imam in prayer.

Throughout the Muslim world, theological scholars known as "mullahs" or "shaykhs" are qualified to lead prayers, and are also considered imams. Since Muslims pray five times a day, an imam might not always be available to lead prayers. However, any time Muslims pray in a group, one person steps forward to lead the ritual of prayer and recitation, so that the prayer can happen on time and in sync.

Traditionally, imams are male, and they lead congregations of five or more people on Fridays, or one or more persons during other prayer times. A woman can also lead prayer among a group of women, and must lead a group of women in Friday prayer if no male imam is present. According to rules of most Islamic sects, men are to attend all congregational prayers whenever possible, while women are permitted to pray either in congregation or alone at home.

Leading Communities

Imams urge believers to follow the word of God.
Imams urge believers to follow the word of God.

In addition to leading daily and Friday prayers, imams also oversee mosques and other religious organizations. They also serve as community leaders and experts in theology, law and other subjects related to Islam. Their role and degree of authority vary depending on the community, country and sect.