What are the important leadership roles in the community?
by John Kaltner
he is the standard for Muslims in every time and place, the Prophet
Muhammad continues to play a central leadership role within his
community centuries after his death. Many Muslims look to his example
and intentionally model their own lives on what he said and did
as recorded in the hadith collections and other Islamic
sources. Muhammad therefore
remains the ideal figure within whose shadow all subsequent leaders
must function and operate.
the early period of Islamic history religious authority and political
authority were often joined together and associated with one individual.
This was considered to be in line with the precedent established
by Muhammad, who was both a prophet of God and a statesman during
his lifetime. For example, the “Rightly Guided Caliphs”—the
four men who ruled the Islamic community after the death of the
Prophet (632-661 CE)—were held to be the final authorities
in all matters of religion and politics. As Islam spread during
their reigns, they had a profound impact on shaping both the physical
and spiritual dimensions of the emerging empire.
this situation did not continue for long. For a variety of reasons
it soon became clear that it would be better to separate religious
authority from political authority, and that is the arrangement
that continues to be operative in most of the Islamic world to the
present day. Consequently, leadership in Islam is primarily exercised
within the spiritual realm in a way that is similar to what is found
in Judaism and Christianity.
there are some key differences among the three faiths in this area.
One of the most important is the lack of a clergy or institutional
hierarchy in Islam. While
there are authority figures in the religion, there is no equivalent
to the priesthood or the rabbinate in Islam. Within
the context of worship, the most important role is played by the
imam, who serves as the prayer leader. Most mosques, especially
large ones, have a permanent imam who functions in this
capacity on a full-time basis.
smaller mosques it is more common to rotate leaders from among the
community so that no one person is identified with the role. The
backgrounds and qualifications of imams vary considerably, and they
function independently of each other. The lack of a hierarchy or
level of authority above them—as seen, for example, in the
Catholic Church, where the bishops are the superiors of priests—makes
this autonomy and independence possible.
the area of ritual and worship, there are other individuals who
function as leaders within the community, and some of these will
be mentioned below. But when it comes to the daily lives of the
vast majority of Muslims, it is the imam, more than anyone
else, who is looked to as an authority figure. It should be noted,
however, that there is some possibility for confusion over the precise
meaning of the term imam because it means one thing to
Sunni Muslims and another thing to Shi`a Muslims.
has been described above more accurately reflects the practice and
understanding of Sunnis, for whom imam is a generic term
referring to any prayer leader.
Shi`a Muslims, though, the word denotes a particular individual
who is the leader of their community par excellence. The Shi`a believe
so strongly that the Prophet Muhammad is the quintessential authority
figure for Muslims that they maintain that only a descendant of
the Prophet can properly lead them. For this reason they often refer
to themselves as “the people of the house” (in Arabic,
ahl al-bayt), an allusion to Muhammad’s genealogical line.
to Shi`a belief, after the death of Ali, the fourth of the “Rightly
Guided Caliphs” and the son-in-law of the Prophet, leadership
was passed on to his two sons and then to their sons, forming an
unbroken chain that could trace its roots back to Muhammad. Each
of these leaders was called the imam, and he exercised
complete authority over the Shi`a community during his lifetime.
The chain came to an abrupt halt in the ninth century CE, when the
twelfth imam had to go into hiding out of fear for his
life. Shi`a Muslims believe he is still in hiding somewhere in the
world and will return at some future point.
reason why the twelfth imam was forced to flee was that
Shi`a Muslims have often been oppressed by the majority Sunnis.
In order to ensure his survival the imam was taken into
hiding by God until he can claim the leadership of the entire Muslim
community that is rightfully his. While most Shi`a believe it was
the twelfth imam who went into hiding (and are therefore
called “Twelvers”), there are a few sects that maintain
it was actually the seventh imam. The entire community
believes that in the interim between his departure and return, authority
rests in a group of religious leaders among whom are the Ayatollahs,
whose title literally means “sign of God.”
©2006 John Kaltner
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
Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers
(Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).
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.