An imam (e mom) is an arabic word meaning the prayer leader of a mosque; a muslim leader of the line of 'Ali held by Shi'ites to be the divinely appointed, sinless, infallible successor of Muhammad; or any of various rulers that claim descent from Muhammad and exercise spiritual and temporal leadersip over a muslim region. The title is found in the Qur'an and refers to leaders and to Abraham.
In part, the rivalry in Iraq between Sunnites and Shi'ites, both Muslim, derive from different conceptions of the origin and basis of the office of imam. Sunnites believe an imam, as successor of the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, assumes his administrative and political, but not religious functions. He is appointed by men and is liable to error. He is to be obeyed even though he personally sins, provided he maintains the ordinances of Islam. Essential to Sunnite Islam is the belief that general consensus of the community determines matters of doctrinal importance and interpreted revelation.
In Shi'ite Islam, the imam has absolute authority and is believed to be the sole possessor of secret insights into the Qur'an given them by Muhammad. They are viewed as men illumined by the Primeval Light, God, and as divinely appointed and preserved from sin. They alone determine matters of doctrinal importance and interpreted revelation.
These differences between the Sunnites and Shi'ites began with the death of 'Ali, the fourth caliph in the year 661. He was the son-in-law of Muhammad, not a direct blood descendant of Muhammad. Partisans of 'Ali attempted to preserve leadership of the entire Muslim community among the descendants of 'Ali.
There is currently no consistency in the number of legitimized imams among the major sects. Sab'iyah Isma'ilis acknowledge seven imams and Ithna 'Ashari acknowledge twelve.
There has also arisen a belief in the hidden imam, who is identified with the mahdi, a man who will come at the end of the times, the prophesied redeemer of Islam. He will be the imam Shi'ite messianic figure, "The Guided One". He will be a normal man and will follow the true Islam.
The term imam has also been used as an honorary title applied to such figures as a caliph and certain theologians. The title is also sometimes given to the specially trained Muslims who lead prayers in the mosques. The term and its usage differs from group to group and from sect to sect. It is always a term of respect.
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