Imam (إمامimām; plural: أئمة aʼimmah: “leader,” “model”) in a general sense, one who leads Muslim worshippers in prayer. In a global sense, imam is used to refer to the head of the Muslim community (ummah). The title is found in the Qurʾān several times to refer to leaders and to Abraham. The origin and basis of the office of imam was conceived differently by various sections of the Muslim community, this difference providing part of the political and religious basis for the split into Sunni and Shiʿi Islam.

It is most commonly used as the title of a worship leader of a mosque and Muslim community among Sunni Muslims. In this context, imams may lead Islamic worship services, serve as community leaders, and provide religious guidance. In Yemen, the title was formerly given to the king of the country.

For Shi’a Muslims, the Imams are leaders of the Islamic community or ummah after the Prophet. The term is only applicable to the members of Ahl al-Bayt, the family of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, designated as infallibles.

Sunni imams

The Sunni branch of Islam does not have imams in the same sense as the Shi’a, an important distinction often overlooked by those outside of the Islamic religion. In everyday terms, the imam for Sunni Muslims is the one who leads Islamic formal (Fard) prayers, even in locations besides the mosque, whenever prayers are done in a group of two or more with one person leading (imam) and the others following by copying his ritual actions of worship. Friday sermon is most often given by an appointed imam. All mosques have an imam to lead the (congregational) prayers, even though it may sometimes just be a member from the gathered congregation rather than an officially appointed salaried person. The position of women as imams is controversial. The person that should be chosen, according to Hadith, is one who has most knowledge of the Quran and Sunnah (prophetic tradition) and is of good character.

The term is also used for a recognized religious scholar or authority in Islam, often for the founding scholars of the four Sunni madhhabs, or schools of jurisprudence (fiqh). It may also refer to the Muslim scholars who created the analytical sciences related to Hadith or it may refer to the heads of Muhammad’s family in their generational times.

The Position of Imams In Turkey

Imams are appointed by the state to work at mosques and they are required to be graduates of an İmam Hatip high school or have a university degree in Theology. This is an official position regulated by the Presidency of Religious Affairs in Turkey and only males are appointed to this position while female officials under the same state organisation work as preachers and Qur’an course tutors, religious services experts. These officials are supposed to belong to the Hanafi school of the Sunni sect.

A central figure in an Islamic movement is also called as an Imam like the Imam Nabhawi in Syria and Ahmad Raza Khan in India and Pakistan is also called as the Imam for Sunni Muslims.

Muslims praying in 1865 Cairo by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Muslims praying in 1865 Cairo by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Shi’a imams

Main articles: Imamah (Shi’a doctrine) and The Twelve Imams

In the Shi’a context, an imam is not only presented as the man of God par excellence, but as participating fully in the names, attributes, and acts that theology usually reserves for God alone. Imams have a meaning more central to belief, referring to leaders of the community. Twelver and Ismaili Shi’a believe that these imams are chosen by God to be perfect examples for the faithful and to lead all humanity in all aspects of life. They also believe that all the imams chosen are free from committing any sin, impeccability which is called ismah. These leaders must be followed since they are appointed by God.


Here follows a list of the Twelvers Shia imams:

# Name


Arabic title

Turkish title

Lived (CE)

Lived (AH)

Place of birth

Importance Reason
Place of death

Place of burial

1 Ali ibn Abi Talib
ٱلْإِمَام عَلِيّ ٱبْن أَبِي طَالِب عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام

Abu al-Hasan
أَبُو ٱلْحَسَن

  • ʾAmīr al-Muʾminīn
    (أَمِير ٱلْمُؤْمِنِين)
    (Commander of the Faithful)
  • al-Murtaḍā
    (The Beloved)
  • al-Waṣīy
    (The Successor)
  • al-Walīy
    (The Wali)

23 (before Hijra)–40

Makkah, Hijaz

Cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad. According to Twelver Shia belief he was the only person to have been born in the Ka’bah, the holiest site in Islam, and the first male to openly accept Islam. Considered by Shia Islam as the rightful Successor of Muhammad. Sunnis also acknowledge him as the fourth Caliph. He holds a high position in almost all Sufi Muslim orders (Turuq); the members of these orders trace their lineage to Muhammad through him. Assassinated by Abd al-Rahman ibn Muljam, a Kharijite, in Kufa, who struck his head with a poisoned sword while he was in prostration praying on the Night of Qadr in the month of Ramadan.

Buried at the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, Iraq, according to Twelver Shia beliefs.

2 Hasan ibn Ali
ٱلْإِمَام ٱلْحَسَن ٱبْن عَلِيّ عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام

Abu Muhammad
أَبُو مُحَمَّد

  • al-Mujtabā
    (The Chosen)
  • Sibṭ an-Nabīy
    (سِبْط ٱلنَّبِيّ)
    (Tribe of the Prophet)


Madinah, Hijaz

He was the eldest surviving grandson of Muhammad through Muhammad’s daughter, Fatimah az-Zahra. Hasan succeeded his father as the caliph in Kufa, and on the basis of a peace treaty with Muawiyah, he relinquished control of Iraq following a Caliphate of seven months. Poisoned by his wife in Madinah on the orders of the Caliph Muawiyah.

Buried in Jannat al-Baqi, Medina, Saudi Arabia.

3 Husayn ibn Ali
ٱلْإِمَام ٱلْحُسَيْن ٱبْن عَلِيّ عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام

Abu Abdillah
أَبُو عَبْد ٱللَّٰه

  • Sayyid ash-Shuhadāʾ
    (سَيِّد ٱلشُّهَدَاء)
    (Master of the Martyrs)
  • al-Maẓlūm
    (The Tyrannized)
  • Sibṭ an-Nabīy
    (سِبْط ٱلنَّبِيّ)
    (Tribe of the Prophet)


Madinah, Hijaz

He was a grandson of Muhammad and brother of Hasan ibn Ali. Husayn opposed the validity of Yazid ibn Muawiyah. As a result, he, his family and his companions were later killed in the Battle of Karbala by Yazid’s forces. After this incident, the commemoration of Husayn ibn Ali has become central to Shia identity. Killed and beheaded at the Battle of Karbala.

Buried at the Imam Husayn Mosque in Karbala, Iraq.

4 Ali ibn Husayn
ٱلْإِمَام عَلِيّ ٱبْن ٱلْحُسَيْن ٱلسَّجَّاد عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام

Abu Muhammad
أَبُو مُحَمَّد

  • as-Sajjād
    (The Consistently Prostrating)
  • Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn
    (زَيْن ٱلْعَابِدِين)
    (Ornament of the Worshippers)
658/9 – 712


Madinah, Hijaz

Author of prayers in Sahifa al-Sajjadiyya, which is known as “The Psalm of the Household of the Prophet.” He survived the Battle of Karbala because he was told not to participate due to a debilitating illness. He was poisoned on the order of Caliph al-Walid I in Madinah.

Buried in Jannat al-Baqi, Medina, Saudi Arabia.

5 Muhammad ibn Ali
ٱلْإِمَام مُحَمَّد ٱبْن عَلِيّ ٱلْبَاقِر عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام

Abu Ja’far
أَبُو جَعْفَر

  • Bāqir al-ʿUlūm
    (بَاقِر ٱلْعُلُوم)
    (The Opener of Knowledge)


Madinah, Hijaz

Sunni and Shia sources both describe him as one of the early and most eminent legal scholars, teaching many students during his tenure. He was poisoned by Ibrahim ibn Walid ibn ‘Abdallah in Madinah on the order of Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik.

Buried in Jannat al-Baqi, Medina, Saudi Arabia.

6 Ja’far ibn Muhammad
ٱلْإِمَام جَعْفَر ٱبْن مُحَمَّد ٱلصَّادِق عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام

Abu Abdillah
أَبُو عَبْد ٱللَّٰه

  • aṣ-Ṣādiq
    (The Honest)


Madinah, Hijaz

Established the Ja’fari jurisprudence and developed the theology of Twelvers. He instructed many scholars in different fields, including Imams Abu Hanifah and Malik ibn Anas in fiqh, Wasil ibn Ata and Hisham ibn Hakam in Islamic theology, and Jabir ibn Hayyan in science and alchemy. He was poisoned in Madinah on the order of Caliph Al-Mansur.

Buried in Jannat al-Baqi, Medina, Saudi Arabia.

7 Musa ibn Ja’far
ٱلْإِمَام مُوسَىٰ ٱبْن جَعْفَر ٱلْكَاظِم عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام

Abu al-Hasan I
أَبُو ٱلْحَسَن ٱلْأَوَّل

  • al-Kāẓim
    (The Confined)


Al-Abwa’, Hijaz

Leader of the Shia community during the schism of Ismailis, and other branches such as Waqifis, after the death of the former Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq. He established the network of agents who collected khums in the Shia community of the Middle East and the Greater Khorasan. He holds a high position with the Mahdavia; the members of these orders trace their lineage to Muhammad the Prophet if Islam through him. Imprisoned and poisoned in Baghdad, Iraq on the order of Caliph Harun al-Rashid, according to Shia belief.

Buried in the Al-Kazimiyah Mosque in Baghdad, Iraq.

8 Ali ibn Musa
ٱلْإِمَام عَلِيّ ٱبْن مُوسَىٰ ٱلرِّضَا عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام

Abu al-Hasan II
أَبُو ٱلْحَسَن ٱلثَّانِي

  • ar-Riḍā
    (The Pleasing)


Madinah, Hijaz

Made crown-prince by Caliph Al-Ma’mun, and famous for his discussions with both Muslim and non-Muslim religious scholars. According to Shia sources, he was poisoned in Mashad, Iran on the order of Caliph Al-Ma’mun.

Buried in the Imam Rida Mosque in Mashad, Iran.

9 Muhammad ibn Ali
ٱلْإِمَام مُحَمَّد ٱبْن عَلِيّ ٱلْجَوَّاد عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام

Abu Ja’far
أَبُو جَعْفَر

  • al-Jawwād
    (The Generous)
  • at-Taqīy
    (The God-Fearing)


Madinah, Hijaz

Famous for his generosity and piety in the face of persecution by the Abbasid caliphate. Poisoned by his wife, Al-Ma’mun’s daughter, in Baghdad, Iraq on the order of Caliph Al-Mu’tasim.

Buried in the Al-Kazimiyah Mosque in Baghdad, Iraq.

10 Ali ibn Muhammad
ٱلْإِمَام عَلِيّ ٱبْن مُحَمَّد ٱلْهَادِي عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام

Abu al-Hasan III
أَبُو ٱلْحَسَن ٱلثَّالِث

  • al-Hādī
    (The Guide)
  • an-Naqīy
    (The Pure)


Surayya, a village near Madinah, Hijaz

Strengthened the network of deputies in the Shia community. He sent them instructions, and received in turn financial contributions of the faithful from the khums and religious vows. He was poisoned in Samarra, Iraq on the order of Caliph Al-Mu’tazz.

Buried in the Al Askari Mosque in Samarra, Iraq.

11 Hasan ibn Ali
ٱلْإِمَام ٱلْحَسَن ٱبْن عَلِيّ ٱلْعَسْكَرِيّ عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام

Abu al-Mahdi
أَبُو ٱلْمَهْدِيّ

  • al-ʿAskarīy
    (The Garrison Town One)


Madinah, Hijaz

For most of his life, the Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mu’tamid, placed restrictions on him after the death of his father. Repression of the Shia population was particularly high at the time due to their large size and growing power. He was poisoned on the order of Caliph Al-Mu’tamid in Samarra, Iraq.

Buried in Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, Iraq.

12 Hujjat Allah ibn al-Hasan
ٱلْإِمَام حُجَّة ٱللَّٰه ٱبْن ٱلْحَسَن ٱلْمَهْدِيّ عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام

Abu al-Qasim
أَبُو ٱلْقَاسِم

  • al-Mahdīy
    (The Guided)
  • al-Qāʾim
    (The Riser)
  • al-Ghāʾib
    (The Hidden)
  • al-Ḥujjah ʾĀl Muḥammad
    (ٱلْحُجَّة آل مُحَمَّد)
    (The Proof of the House of Muhammad)


Samarra, Iraq

According to Twelver Shia doctrine, he is the current Imam and the promised Mahdi, a messianic figure who will return with the prophet Isa (Jesus). He will reestablish the rightful governance of Islam and establish justice and peace in the whole earth. According to Twelver Shia doctrine, he has been living in the Occultation since 874, and will continue as long as God wills.

Fatimah, also Fatimah al-Zahraa, daughter of Muhammed (615–632), is also considered infallible but not an Imam. The Shi’a believe that the last Imam, the 12th Imam Mahdi will one day emerge on the Day of Resurrection (Qiyamah).


See Imamah (Ismaili doctrine) and List of Ismaili imams for Ismaili imams.


See details under ZaidiyyahIslamic history of Yemen, and Imams of Yemen.

Imams as secular rulers

At times, imams have held both secular and religious authority. This was the case in Oman among the Kharijite or Ibadi sects. At times, the imams were elected. At other times the position was inherited, as with the Yaruba dynasty from 1624 and 1742. See List of rulers of Oman, the Rustamid dynasty: 776–909, Nabhani dynasty: 1154–1624, the Yaruba dynasty: 1624–1742, the Al Said: 1744–present for further information. The Imamate of Futa Jallon (1727-1896) was a Fulani state in West Africa where secular power alternated between two lines of hereditary Imams, or almami. In the Zaidi Shiite sect, imams were secular as well as spiritual leaders who held power in Yemen for more than a thousand years. In 897, a Zaidi ruler, al-Hadi ila’l-Haqq Yahya, founded a line of such imams, a theocratic form of government which survived until the second half of the 20th century.

Ruhollah Khomeini is officially referred to as Imam in Iran. Several Iranian places and institutions are named “Imam Khomeini”, including a city, an international airport, a hospital, and a university.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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