The question of who is the highest member of Islam is a complex one. A number of different sects exist within Islam, with different histories and different types of clerical hierarchies. The lines can also sometimes be blurry between the power and status of religious and political leaders in certain Islamic states.
The religion of Islam developed in what is now Saudi Arabia, in the early seventh century. Islam's founder, Muhammad, regarded by Muslims as God's messenger, delivered God's message to humanity, which was subsequently written down as the Quran, Islam's holy text. Islam draws in part upon Christian and Hebrew texts and traditions, and regards Muslims, Jews and Christians as "people of the book," who worship the same God. Muhammad not only inaugurated the Muslim faith, but also launched a series of military campaigns to spread the message of Islam: at its peak, the Muslim empire comprised most of the Middle East, North Africa and part of Spain.
The highest member of Islam, in terms of theological and symbolic significance, is the Prophet Muhammad. In the Islamic faith, Muhammad was the last in a series of prophets that included Moses, David and Jesus. The revelations Muhammad received from God are, for Muslims, the final and perfected word of God as given to humanity. God's revelations were given to Muhammad and then written down in Arabic as the Quran, which means "recitation." Muhammad is revered by Muslims as a nearly divine figure: he is not divine in the sense of the Christian Jesus, but rather is regarded as "the most perfect of God’s creatures."
Islam does not have a patriarch in the way that some Christian sects do. The Roman Catholic Church, the Coptic Church, and the Orthodox traditions -- Russian and Greek -- all have patriarchs, who are considered God's representative on Earth. Historically, the Islamic world was ruled by a "Caliph," who oversaw the expanding Muslim empire, and exercised both temporal and spiritual power. The Caliphate lasted from the seventh to the 13th century, when Baghdad, the capital of the Islamic empire and the heart of the Abbasid Caliphate, was overrun by the Mongols.
Clerics, Sheikhs, Imams and Ayatollahs
Determining who is the highest member of Islam is complicated by the sectarian divisions within Islam. Sects such as the mystical Sufis do not have a hierarchy of leaders, but do have "sheikhs," master teachers who, in some cases, are venerated as saintly figures. Sunni Muslims have professional holy men, or clerics, but no hierarchy comparable to the Roman Catholic Church's system of priests, bishops, cardinals and the Pope, for instance. Shiite Islam, and specifically the dominant "Twelver" branch, does have patriarchal spiritual leaders, in the form of "imams," understood to be the true successors of Muhammad. Twelver Shiites believe that there were 12 legitimate successors to the Prophet Muhammad. The 12th, Muhammad al-Muntazar al-Mahdi, is believed to have been saved from persecution by God and hidden away until the end of time, when he will return as the Messiah. In the meantime, the word "imam" is used in Shiite communities to designate a spiritual leader who guides the community. Iran, a predominantly Twelver Shiite nation, has "Ayatollahs," Islamic scholars of the highest standing who have a voice in political and religious affairs, and who also have influence on Islamic thought and practices outside of Iran.
- University of Notre Dame: Arabic and Middle East Studies: Medieval Period of Expansion
- Encyclopedia of Religion and Society: Islam
- Encyclopedia Britannica: The Ethical and Spiritual Character of Muhammad
- New Advent: Catholic Encyclopedia: The Pope
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Caliphate
- BBC Religions: Sunni and Shi'a
- Daily News Egypt: The Miracles of Sufi Sheikhs
- Oxford Islamic Studies Online: Ayatollah