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Head of the Muslim community. In Sunnite Islam the imam was identical with the caliph, designating the political successor of Muhammad. The Sunnites held the imam to be a man capable of error but deserving obedience provided he maintained the ordinances of Islam. In Shi'ite Islam the imam became a figure of absolute religious authority, possessed of unique insights into the Qur'an and divinely appointed and preserved from sin. With the historical disappearance of the last imam, there arose a belief in the hidden imam, who is identified with the mahdi. The term imam is also given to Muslims who lead prayers in mosques and has been used as an honorary title.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on imam, visit Britannica.com.