Previous posts in this discussion:
PostIslam: Mullahs and Imams (Vincent Littrell) (John Eipper, USA, 11/19/05 2:06 pm)
Robert Whealey wanted to know the difference between a mullah and an imam. Vincent Littrell writes: In most of the Islamic world an imam is one who on Fridays leads the prayer and gives the sermon in a mosque. There are differences between the Sunni and Shi'a branches of Islam as well as schools of thought within those branches regarding how the term "imam" is used and criteria that allow for the usage of that title. Generally speaking, an imam's standing or credibility is dependent on eloquence, follower's perception of holiness or knowledge, charisma, tribal links, etc...some imams have great credibility and are very much taken seriously by their followers, jurists, and other imams abroad, others of course are not. In the Shi'a world, titling someone an "imam" is showing great respect to that person (as in "Imam" Khomeini) if not outright sanctifying him. In the Sunni world, the title of imam may have more political meaning than religious. even if the holder of that title conducts religious services. Sunnis generally do not sanctify the holder of the title.
A mullah is one who has gone through schooling and is considered learned in scripture and the sacred law. Mullahs are known to serve as judges in the Shari a courts of varying schools of thought in both Sunni and Shi a Islam. Graduates of seminaries or Madrassas throughout the Islamic world are many times given the title of Mullah. In Shi a doctrine, the role of the Imam is different and much greater than the imam of the Sunni world (there are variations from this line of thinking however, some Shi'a leaders perceived as having special significance have been titled "Imam" who do not fall into the doctrinal criteria for that title). I differentiate between an imam (with a little "i") and the doctrinally significant to Shi'ism...Imam. This is to show the difference in station between how Sunni's view an imam and the Shi'a view to what they believe to be a sanctified Imam. The Imamate is an institution of all important significance in Shi a Islam. Arzina R. Lalani. Early Shi i Thought: The Teachings of Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (I.B. Taurus, 2004) is truly a superbly readable work I highly recommend it to anyone interested in not overly abstruse or lengthy yet scholarly discussion about debate within Islam regarding succession to the Prophet Muhammad as well as about Shi a views on the nature of the Imamate ) discusses the Shi a view to the Imams drawing from Imam al-Baqir s (the 5th Imam in Twelver Shi a and Ismaili doctrine). She comments on the subject:
Imams are blessed with freedom from error (infallibility) and are: the chosen ones and are named as those who submitted not only in the Qu ran but also in the earlier scriptures. Since they have been endowed with knowledge from God, the imams, have the clear signs of God in their hearts, and since they are ahl al-dikr, namely people of the Message, it is they who should be questioned about its interpretation. (Lalani, 65, 69) it is the imams who know all the interpretations of the Qu ran. ...The imams are the chosen servants of God who have been given the Qu ran as an inheritance. (Lalani, 65). The imams, are the light which guides men along the path of righteousness. (Lalani, 68)
In Shi a doctrine, the Imams achieve their station generally through heredity, though a process of nass or designation is conducted by a preceding Imam in naming his successor. There can only be one Imam at a time. This concept of nass and its link to heredity is generally accepted in Shi'a thinking, though in the history of Shi ism there has been debate about this link whether an Imam might designate someone who is not a descendent is a question that has come up. In Shi a doctrine the first of the true Imams in the Islamic dispensation, was the Prophet Muhammad s son-in-law Ali Abi Talib. Individuals descended from Ali and his wife Fatima (Muhammad s daughter) who have been designated through nass are considered the Imamate of Shi a Islam. Of course within Shi ism there is dispute about who the true Imams are; thus you have three major branches of Shi ism today: Twelver Shi ism, Zaydiism, and the Ismailis.