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ISLAM Judaism | Christianity
How are the roles of leadership and authority exercised?
by John Kaltner

Most imams have some kind of formal education in Islamic theology, although this is not a requirement for the office. Any good Muslim with an unblemished reputation and a well-developed understanding of the faith is qualified to function in this capacity. Those who have attained a degree in Islamic theology have normally done so at one of the many centers of learning found throughout the Muslim world.

In a small number of countries, the imams are assigned to mosques by the government. This is commonly done throughout the world when the mosque in question is a prominent one of historical importance. Generally speaking, the lack of an institutional hierarchy means there is no overseeing body that determines which imam serves where. Such decisions are usually made at the local level by the members of the individual mosque.

A major responsibility of the imam is to be the leader during the five prescribed prayer times throughout the day. This entails standing facing the mihrab, the niche that indicates the direction toward Mecca, with his back to the congregation. All in attendance face in the same direction behind the imam, and they take their lead from him on when to do the prayers, bows, and protestations that comprise Islamic prayer.

The imam’s role in leading communal prayer is the primary reason why the office is reserved for men. The various body movements of the prayer cycle would put a woman in a potentially embarrassing physical position in front of the praying men, a situation to be avoided. The distractions that would result from having members of the opposite sex in close proximity to one another is an additional reason often cited for separating the men and women during prayer.

Another important task the imam performs is to give the sermon at the noon prayer gathering on Friday, the holy day of the week in Islam. At a particular point in the service, he moves over to the pulpit, a symbol of his authority, and reads a portion of the Qur’an to the congregation. In countries where Arabic is not the native language, the text is first read in Arabic and then translated into the local language.

After the reading is concluded, the imam then delivers the sermon, which usually draws upon the Qur’an passage or comments on some aspect of it. As is the case in similar addresses given by worship leaders in Judaism and Christianity, the imam’s sermon typically contains a combination of textual analysis, moral instruction, and exhortation on how to apply the reading’s message to one’s personal life.

In addition to these formal activities, the imam serves in a variety of capacities that mirror very closely those associated with priests, ministers, and rabbis. He is the person to whom members of his mosque turn in matters related to their spiritual wellbeing. He offers advice and council to those who are experiencing problems in their personal or professional lives. He visits the sick and the dying and attempts to comfort them and their loved ones. He is involved in the religious education of his congregation on both the individual and communal levels. When they have questions regarding what Islam teaches about a particular social issue, they turn to him.

There is no ordination service or similar ceremony that officially designates someone an imam and formally recognizes his readiness to function as a leader. Similarly, Islam lacks any sacraments or other rituals that can only be performed by him and therefore set him apart from the rest of Muslims. Any male member of the community can lead prayer, give the sermon, and officiate at a funeral or wedding.

Consequently, there is a very strong sense of equality among all Muslims because there is no group or class of individuals whose role in the community gives them a special status or distinguishes them from the rest by virtue of their ability to perform certain functions reserved only for them. Those in a position of authority are no different from the others, and their authority is always exercised for the good of the group as a whole.

As noted above, in Shi`a Islam various religious leaders play leadership roles in the absence of the hidden imam. These are jurists and theologians who are trained in the religious sciences and therefore qualified to lead the community on behalf of its missing leader. These men play a more prominent role than the imam in Sunni Islam since their authority extends beyond leading prayer and delivering the weekly sermon. Leaders with titles like Hujjat al-Islam (“Proof of Islam”) and Ayatollah possess a great deal of authority because they are able to perform important tasks like render legal verdicts and formulate doctrine.

Copyright ©2006 John Kaltner

John Kaltner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses in Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Islam: What Non-Muslims Should Know (2003); Inquiring of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qu’ran (2003); Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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