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How does Someone Become an Imam?

Tricia Christensen
Updated: Mar 02, 2024

It is difficult to describe the methods to become an imam since the term means different things to the different Islamic sects. For example, anyone who leads prayers at a prayer service is temporarily an imam. To become an imam in this sense, one may merely need to be an adult male. The term imam is also given to some heads of Arabic states, so the Shiite Islamic sect considered Ayatollah Khomeini an imam, for example. The word can simply mean "leader" and can be more a title of honor than a job for which a person prepares.

Some Islamic congregations do hire an imam to work in much the same function as a parish priest or rabbi. He may help guide the congregation, but often the job of discussing the Qur’an is left up to a sheikh.

It is very rare for any Islamic sect to accept a female imam. Like in many denominations of Christianity, there is some debate as to whether the traditional prohibition against female leaders is based on historical patriarchy and sexism, or on the spirit of the faith. Though very exceptional, in some places, it's possible for a woman to be accepted as an imam; she must have significant study in the Qur’an, be virtuous, and may have to stand behind the men to lead prayer, as is often the custom in mosques.

More regularly, a woman may serve as an imam and prayer leader only for groups of women, or only for her family. This subject of who can become an imam is still under debate since the Qur’an does not explicitly express that a women cannot serve in this capacity. In fact, one of the wives of Muhammad is said to have led the women in prayer. In 2005, Turkey became one of the first countries to welcome women who wished to be imams, and the country is educating quite a few women who wish to serve as vaizes, or preachers.

In general, however, the imam as leader of a community still tends to be male, and men are usually more easily accepted in this position. Often, the imam will have an advanced education and will be very knowledgeable about sharia, the Islamic law set down in the Qur’an and further writings. This helps the imam who works in a pastoral capacity to counsel members of the mosque.

Sometimes, those who study sharia are called clerics by the western world, but these people are actually more accurately called imams. For those wishing to become an imam, the best course of action may be to consult someone serving in this role already in one’s sect of Islam. He will be most familiar with the topic and can help the person learn the specific requirements for study within that sect.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By discographer — On Sep 10, 2012

@indigomoth-- I think you misunderstood. Even if a woman becomes and imam, she can only congregate women, not men. In Islam, women and men cannot pray side by side. The women have to be in a separated area.

I know that women in Turkey and a few other countries are trying to become imams, but it's really not a widespread movement. In many Muslim countries, women don't even go to the mosque except during Ramadan. They just pray at home so there really isn't a need for women imams.

By ZipLine — On Sep 10, 2012

My best friend is an imam. He was always really interested in religion and he had started reading the Qur'an from a really early age. But he started his career in college where he was leading the Friday prayers every week.

After college, he went to an Institute in Canada for Islamic studies and started working as an imam full time when he came back.

By ysmina — On Sep 09, 2012

@anon7818, @anon7818-- As far as I know, it really depends on the country you are located. In the US, there isn't a specific educational requirement for imams. The basic requirements is that the person be fluent in Arabic, he must be able to understand the Qur'an and recite it. He must also be knowledgeable in hadeeth (sayings and teachings of the Prophet) as well as tasfeer, which is the interpretation of the Qur'an.

I go to a mosque nearby for Friday prayers and our imam is actually Egyptian and he received religious education in Egypt. I think it's very common for mosques to hire imams that were educated abroad as there are specific schools for imams in many Muslim countries.

So if you are knowledgeable in all the things I mentioned, have some education background in Islamic studies and Qur'an, enjoy teaching, are a good speaker and are passionate about Islam, you can apply to mosques to work as an imam.

By indigomoth — On Sep 07, 2012

I didn't realize that Turkey was so advanced in their thinking. I've always felt it a real shame that most Muslims will follow their own cultural heritage rather than looking at the actual teaching of the Koran, which have very few of the anti-female restrictions that seem to be standard in a lot of places.

If anything I've always thought it was a sign of how weak someone thinks the men are that they believe men cannot remain calm when they see a woman. Any man who is that weak really needs to work on their spirituality!

By pastanaga — On Sep 06, 2012
@anon7818 - It really does differ from country to country and from sect to sect, as the article says. People tend to see Islam from the outside as though it is a single entity, but it's the same as Christianity. There are dozens of different interpretations of it.

If you are really interested in knowing how someone becomes an imam, you need to pick a country and a sect and possibly even narrow it down further to a particular sect in a particular community and then study how they appoint people to be imams because anything else is going to have multiple answers.

By anon267624 — On May 10, 2012

What do you need to become an imam? Like what age?

By anon256496 — On Mar 22, 2012

Post # 6 mentions 'women are short in mind and religion' - this is from a weak "sahih" hadith and has no basis in the Quran.

By anon136961 — On Dec 25, 2010

As far as i know, the minimum requirements to become an imam are:

1. He should attend all prayers regularly in congregation.

2. He should memorize the Quran and its meaning very well.

By anon90269 — On Jun 15, 2010

The post above under number six is short on facts and high on emotion. Islam says 'women are short in mind and religion'. Well I say, that whoever "Islam" is, Islam should stop insulting women. As Nike says, 'Just do it, Islam.'

By anon88584 — On Jun 06, 2010

islam doesn't prohibit a women to become an imam but only to lead women's prayer.

but only man can lead a public prayer. why?

A man uses his head more than his heart.

A women is a soft mother.

A man can attend the prayer 95 percent of the time.

A women imam will miss at least seven days (mother nature).

It is not appropriate for women to bend over in front of men during the prayer because it will cause a disturbance.

islam says women are short in mind and religion,

meaning, she misses seven days of prayer each month for her period. that's the religion shortness.

her heart overcomes her mind. she will deal with tough situations in loving tender ways, which might be wrong.

By anon54006 — On Nov 26, 2009

This article doesn't really answer the question of how one becomes a cleric, Imam or other dedicated religious person as a lifelong vocation. Other than dedication, is there a formal process, specific educational requirements, vows, rites, an election, a sponsor, a structure, etc...

By anon7818 — On Feb 03, 2008

do you need to meet specific requirements to become an imam?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor...
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