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There are two important words in the culture and society that I belong to. These are imam and haraam. It is important to determine the meaning of these from its cultural context.
But at the same time it is also important to find out how people use these words in order to find out how it was used out of context. It is also important to find out how its meaning has evolved when it was used beyond the borders of my country and beyond the society that I belong to.
The purpose of this study is to appreciate a more systematic and scientific way of determining the meaning of words. Most of the time the meaning of the word is derived from its usage and it is affected by the environment where it was used.
For example the use of the word Imam in the Arab world creates different layers of meaning based on the cultural background of the people. But the same word can be used in an American university and discussed among non-Muslim students to create another different layer of meaning.
The stated goal can be accomplished by examining different ways the word Imam and haraam were used in published books. It is significant to use examples from books because these are products of professionals and highly educated people.
Therefore, their use of the words Imam and haraam came from an educated background. Thus, when there is a major difference in the implied meaning, then, it can be concluded that it is not the result of an error but a different cultural appreciation of the meaning of the word.
An Imam is one whose leadership is to be emulated or followed (Hughes, 1996, p.203). The first instance of its usage is linked to leadership. But it is a leadership defined by examples of works and attributes that serves as a template for others to follow (Abdul-Rahman, 2007, p.12).
In Muslim societies the term is used in reference to the Koranic statute with regards to the blessed life of Abraham the patriarch. In the Surah II one can find the following statement that the Lord has set Abraham as an Imam for the people. In this particular example one can see a clear definition of Imam beyond the religious connotation of the word.
It is not proper to define this passage from the Koran in connection to the religious function of present day Imams working in Muslim communities and Mosque. Thus, if one interprets the use of Imam in this Koranic passage cannot be interpreted solely on religious terms because Abraham was not an official member of a religious system. Abraham was a patriarch to whom Muslims find their beginning.
Thus, they honor Abraham beyond the religious sphere. Therefore, when the Surah calls all the faithful to consider Abraham as an Imam it has to mean a different thing. It has to be interpreted as example. Therefore, an Imam is an example for all.
An Imam is also called a Khalifa according to the Muslim faithful. The use of the word Imam in this context denotes leadership. In the Hidaya there is the admonition that a good Imam is someone who has the qualities essential to govern. The specific qualifications pertain to the role of magistrates in society such as maturity of age and intellect.
Leadership is seen not only as an official capacity but also in a non-official role. In another example, the word must be interpreted as community leader. In one community in Chicago an Imam was revered not only because of his ability to talk about Islam but also his capability to help enhance the lives of the Muslims. In this particular example the Imam was instrumental in the creation of an Islamic Center (Walbridge, 1997, p.28).
It can be argued that an Islamic Center is linked to a religious activity. But there are other activities that occur in the said facility that affects not only the spiritual aspect of life. In the said community center teenagers are given other avenues to expend their energy and reduce their chance to do mischief in the streets.
In another example, the Imam is seen as a village leader. It is interesting to note that in this particular village the Imam is not just a religious leader but a healer and barber. Thus, in a certain context, an Imam is a revered figure in a community. The same importance given to a religious figure. But in this particular example, the Imam contributes to community-building apart from his religious capacity.
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The most popular definition and popular usage of the term Imam can be found within the religious sphere. In an Islamic society the primary purpose of an Imam is to advance their religion and to strengthen the followers of Islam (Hughes, 1996, p.230).
In this context, the Imam is seen as a religious leader in the same level as a priest or a pastor. This interpretation of the word Imam is strengthened by another example. This example comes in the form of an argument that the Qur’an cannot be interpreted in a common sense manner without using the words that were uttered by the Imams (Cole, 2002, p.193).
An Imam is seen as a religious leader in the sense that he provides access to wisdom that is usually inaccessible to those who did not have the opportunity to study in a formal setting. An example of this usage can be seen in a commentary made by a young man who was so pleased with the help of an Imam.
He said that an Imam is a Muslim minister and that his primary function is to help him access the Koranic message even if he is an African-American (Masud, 2010, p.4).
A thorough discussion of the word Imam will not be complete without taking on the misinterpretation of the world and how it was used as a form of ridicule by those who linked Imam with terrorism.
As a result there are those who use the word Imam not in conjunction with the intended use of the word by members of an Islamic state who view Imams with great respect. In one example the Imam is seen as a part of a perverted religious and social system (Lawton, 1993, p.182).
In this particular use of the term Imam, he is seen as a religious leader that inspires people to murder in the name of this particular religion. It is disheartening thing to know that people can twist a word and use it out of its cultural context. But on the other hand it must be acknowledged that the usage of term evolves depending on the cultural perspective from which it was used.
In this discussion, the word Imam has three major definitions based on the different examples examined earlier. An Imam is a role model for people An Imam is a religious leader.
An Imam is a community leader. Unfortunately, there are those who have extreme understanding of the Islamic religion and use violence to advance their agenda. As a result there are those who view Imams with suspicion and in some cases they become objects of derision.
It must be made clear that the correct interpretation of the word Imam can be achieved if the interpreter bases his interpretation not on examples used by the popular mass media but the definition given by the source of the word.
In this particular case, the word Imam originated in Islamic societies. Therefore, it is imperative to find out the correct use and original meaning of the word in order to enhance its value and for people to use it properly.
In one example of its usage the word is linked to what a young man learns from the Koran. It went on to say that there are things that the Koran allows and odes not allow (Black, 2002, p.6). Thus, it can be seen from this example that haraam means a system of rules.
The word haraam creates a demarcation line that separates right from wrong and the sacred from the profane. This assertion is strengthened by the argument that there is a word that is usually paired to haraam and this is none other than the word halaal.
In a specific usage of this word when it comes to right and wrong, a commentator said that it is haraam to drink alcohol. It is also haraam to eat pork meat. It is also haraam to kill an animal not in accordance to a specific regulation. In other words there is an authorized way to slaughter animals for consumption.
In this regard, haraam can also be understood as unauthorized. Thus, an unauthorized act is haraam. It requires a certain adherence to rules and disobedience to a set of rules is considered as haraam. In this example the word haraam can be interpreted as a set of rules. A haraam is understood as a form of standard. An action is measured against this standard. An action that fails the test of the said standard is considered as haraam.
Another example of the use of the word of haraam is seen in the way a man makes an oath and declares that something that is beautiful and beneficial can become haraam if he is not faithful to the terms of a covenant.
In an Islamic society the word haraam evokes such a powerful and negative emotion that the meaning has evolved as an enforcement mechanism. For example, a husband said that his wife will become haraam to him if he breaks an oath or is proven to be a liar and a cheat when it comes to a contract.
It has to be pointed out that a husband and a wife is not haraam. Marriage is something considered beautiful in all cultures. Thus, it is interesting to determine the reason why the husband used the term haraam in conjunction with his wife.
A careful analysis of the statement will reveal that the husband wanted to show his commitment by using the most hated thing that can be applied to his wife in the event that there is a breach of contract.
The use of haraam to help enforce a contract also denotes a different layer of meaning for the said term. By declaring that his wife will become haraam to him in the case of violations in the contract, it can be argued that the term must be interpreted as forbidden in contrast to the original use which is unauthorized action or religious sacrilege.
In another example, the word haraam was used in the same statement where one can find the word Internet. The word Internet is a modern terminology. Thus, it can be argued that haraam can be interpreted as an ethical standard.
Therefore, in an Islamic society the people are aided by haraam in order to develop a form of ethical standard. There are difficult ethical dilemmas that cannot be resolved by a mere application of legal law. Haraam as a system of analyzing a particular action can help the people make the correct decision.
There are different usages of the word haraam but the most basic interpretation is one that pertains to acceptable diet for religious purposes. In one example, the word haraam was used to determine if a wild animal is fit for consumption. In this particular example it says that a wild animal is haraam if it can fly or run away. In this particular context no one can hunt down a young deer because it cannot run away.
A young partridge cannot be hunted because it cannot fly away (Swan, 1999, p.94). In this example the word haraam is used not only in the context of strict dietary rules but it also provides a framework to develop a set of actions that is acceptable to the community and to God.
The basic interpretation of the word haraam can be understood from the perspective of religion. Its origin can be found in the religious beliefs of Muslims. A haraam therefore cannot be separated from halaal. When combined these two words creates a set of standards.
This set of standards can help a Muslim determine if a particular action is acceptable to the community and to God. In most cases there are specific laws that enable a Muslim to clearly understand if a particular action is haraam or not.
The second major way to interpret haraam is to view it as a mechanism to enforce a contract. The word haraam has become a source of derision. Therefore, a Muslim man or woman will not be linked to this word. As a consequence its meaning has evolved to mean something that is of ill-repute.
Therefore, it is used to strengthen a vow. When a husband said that his wife will become haraam he has made his intentions clear because he values his wife. Now, the word is seen from another perspective because it is now seen as forbidden.
Haraam can be interpreted as a set of rules that can help a person resolved an ethical dilemma. Thus, it can be seen as an ethical standard. There are many things in this world that cannot be reduced to basic rules. It is easy to prescribe rules when it comes to dietary restrictions.
But it is impossible to write specific rules to deal with different scenarios. For example, it is impractical to develop specific laws when it comes to design of a house, the type of business that a Muslim person should engage in, and the type of cars that must be purchased. Thus, haraam can be used to develop a system to analyze ethical dilemmas. As a result haraam can be interpreted not only as a set of rules but a way of life.
Abdul-Rahman, M. (2007). Islam: questions and answers. London: MSA Publications.
Black, C. (2002). Pakistan the culture. New York: Crabtree Publishing.
Cole, R. (2002). Sacred space and holy war. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hughes, T. (1996). A dictionary of Islam. UK: AES Press.
Lawton, D. (1993). Blasphemy. PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Masud, A. (2010). Journey of an American Muslim. IN: AuthorHouse.
Swan, J. (1999). The sacred art of hunting. WI: Willow Creek Press.
Walbridge, L. (1997). Without forgetting the Imam. MI: Wayne State University Press.