Imām is literally one who is imitated or whose example is followed from i'tamma bi-hī, he followed or imitated him. It generally means a head or a chief or a leader whether he follows the right way or not. In relation to congregational prayers, the imām is the person who leads the prayer. Abraham is spoken of as having been made an imām because he fulfilled the Divine commandments--and every imām should try to follow his example; and an unjust person did not deserve to be made a leader--even though he may be of high parentage (v. 1).
That the man who leads the prayers is called an imām shows that he should be one occupying the highest place of honour in his community on account of his righteousness. While alive, the Holy Prophet himself acted as imām; and when he was unable during his last illness to perform that function, he ordered that Abū Bakr should act as imām (h. 1).
The honour of acting as an imām should be conferred upon the man who occupies the highest place of honour in a community (h. 1): it is further laid down that the man having the greatest knowledge of the Qur'ān should be chosen as imām (hh. 2, 3), even though he be a slave (h. 4). He should not be paid any remuneration for leading prayers (H. vi:12), It is not, however, prohibited to say prayers behind an imām who is either a usurper (h. 5) or an unrighteous person (b. 6). A blind man is not unfit to lead the prayers (h. 7), nor is a woman (h. 8). The imām should have regard for the weak and the sick among those who follow him (h. 9). Those who follow the imām shall not anticipate him in any movement (h. 10). When a person joins the congregational service, he should start his prayer where he finds the imām (h. 11). The position which the imām occupies in relation to the congregation is explained in hh. 12-14. There is no harm if a wall intervenes between the imām and the congregation (b. 15).
1 Abū Mūsā said, The Prophet, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him, fell ill and his illness became severe; so he said:
"Tell Abū Bakr that he should lead the prayer for the people."1 ... So the messenger came to him, and he (Abū Bakr) led the prayer for the people in the lifetime of the Prophet, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him.
2 Abū Mas'ūd said, The Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him, said
"The man who knows most the Book of Allāh shall act as imām of a people;2 and if there are persons equal in their knowledge of the Qur'ān, then he who has greater knowledge of
1. While alive, the Holy Prophet himself acted as imām and led the prayers. During his last illness he became too weak to leave his bed and to go out to pray in congregation; so he directed that Abū Bakr should lead the prayers. This Hadīth, along with the Holy Prophet's practice, is conclusive proof that the man who held the highest place of honour in the community on account of his righteousness acted as imām, for after the Holy Prophet Abū Bakr was admittedly the most excellent of his followers.
2. Evidently what is meant is excellence in knowledge of the Holy Qur'ān. not merely its recitation.
the Sunnah; and if they are equal in their knowledge of the Sunnah, then he who is first in hijrah; 3 and if they are equal in hijrah, then he who is older in years; and a man shall not lead another in prayer in the place where he (the latter) is in authority,4 and no one shall occupy the place of honour in another man's house except with his permission.
3 Ibn 'Abbās said, The Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him, said:
"The most virtuous among you shall deliver the adhān, and those having most knowledge of the Qur'ān shall act as imams."5
4 Ibn 'Umar said, When the first emigrants
3. Precedence in hijrah was an indication of precedence in sacrifices for Islām.
4. Thus the master of the house or the imām of a particular mosque has a greater right to lead the prayers there than a mere visitor.
5. The mu'adhdhin and the imām, the two office-bearers of the mosque, are thus to be chosen for their moral excellence and knowledge of the Qur'ān.
came to 'Usbah, a place in Qubā', before the coming of the Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him, the slave of Abu Hudhaifah, used to act as their imām, and he had the greatest knowledge of the Qur'ān.6
(B. 10: 54)
5 'Ubaid Allāh reported that He entered upon 'Uthmān ibn 'Affān and he was then besieged (by the rebels). He said, Thou art the imām of the people and to thee has happened what thou seest, and the rebel imām leads our prayers and we consider this to be a sin. He said, Prayer is the best of things which people do; so when people do a good work, do thou also do the good with them, and when they do evil, do thou shun their evil.
6. A slave became the imām because he excelled others in knowledge.
6 Abū Hurairah said, The Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him, said:
"Jihād is incumbent on you under every commander whether he is virtuous or wicked, even though he be guilty of heinous sins and prayer is incumbent on you behind every Muslim whether he is virtuous or wicked, even though he be guilty of heinous sins;7 and the holding of a (funeral) service on every Muslim is incumbent whether he is virtuous or wicked, even though he be guilty of heinous sins."
7 Anas reported that The Prophet, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him, left Ibn Umm Maktūm after him to act as imām of the people, and he
7. No one can be chosen as imām for carrying on jihād or for leading prayers unless he possesses the requisite qualifications. and, therefore, a man who is guilty of heinous sins cannot be chosen for either purpose. But if such a p. 115 man is chosen by mistake or if he commits such a sin after he has been chosen, he must be followed so long as he is not removed from that office, as no organization can be maintained otherwise.
was a blind man.
8 It is reported about Umm Waraqah who had learned the Qur'ān by heart that The Prophet, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him, commanded her that she should act as imām of the people of her house, and she had a mu'adhdhin and she used to act as imām of the people of her house.8
(Ah. VI, 405)
9 Abū Hurairah reported that The Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him, said:
"When one of you leads the prayer for the people, he should lighten it, for among them is the weak one and the sick one and the old one; and when one
8. This shows that a woman may act as imām. There is nothing to show that there were no males among the people of her house; on the other hand. it is clearly stated that she had a mu'adhdhin who was evidently a male.
of you prays alone, he may lengthen (it) as he likes."
10 Barā' said,
It was the practice that when the Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him, said sami' Allāhu li-man hamidahū, none of us bent down his back (for falling down in prostration) until the Prophet, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him, fell down in prostration, and then we fell down in prostration after him."
11 Abū Hurairah said,
The Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him, said:
"When you come to prayer, and we have fallen down in prostration, fall down in prostration and do not count it as anything, and whoever joins in one rak'ah joins the prayers."9
9. If a man joins the congregational service in sajdah, it should not be counted as a rak'ah, from which it follows that if he joins it in rukū', it shall be counted as a rak'ah.
12 Samurah said,
The Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him, commanded us that when we were three, one of us should stand in the front.
13 Abū Hurairah said,
The Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him, said:
"Keep the imām in the middle and close the openings."10
14 Ibn 'Abbās said,
I said my prayers with the Prophet, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him, on a certain night and 1 stood on his left, and the Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him, took hold of my head from, behind me and placed me on his right
10. Hh. 12, 13 give the position of the imām. He should stand in the front, forming a row by himself, and he should also be in the middle, so that the rows behind him should have an equal number of men on his right and left.
hand, then he said prayers.11
15 'Ā'ishah said,
The Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him, used to say his prayers at night in his enclosure, and the wall of the enclosure was low, so the people saw the person of the Prophet, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him, (standing in prayers), and some people got up and followed him in his prayers.12
11. If there are only two men in a congregational service, they should stand in the same row. the imām standing on the left. If, however, a third man joins later, either the imām should go forward and stand in front, or the first follower should step behind, forming with the new-comer a row behind the imām.
12. This was the Holy Prophet's tahajjud prayer in the mosque during Ramadzān. The enclosure was made of mats. The hadīth shows that there is harm if anything intervenes between the imām and the congregation.