What does it mean to be an Imam? The imam stands amaam al-jama’ah (أمام الجماعة), in front of the congregation. They are the person that is followed. They say allahu akbar, and the congregations repeats, allahu akbar. They called out sami’ Allahu liman hamida, that Allah hears whoever is in praise; and the congregation replies, rabbana laka’l hamd, that our Lord, to you all praise. The Imam stands in front. Leads. The congregations follows. Behind.
The Zapatista principle is “lead by obeying”. Leader must obey the people, the community. Decisions must take time. This is tied to a political life, I grant, and not perhaps a ritual one. But I don’t know enough about the Zapatistas to know what is ritual and what is politics. And perhaps that is the wrong question in any case: after all, is there a difference for us between ritual, which is the practice of turning towards Allah; politics, which is the practice of bringing justice amongst our people; and theology, which is how we understand this thing towards which we turn?
How do you lead and obey at the same time? How do you lead a prayer in a circle and keep everyone oriented towards Makkah? And I mean this in practical terms as well as ethical/intellectual/emotional.
Practical questions: How does the congregation and the imamat function? What is the physical shape of the jamaat? Who is imam and how do they become so?
Possible Answer 1: The imam is the person who does the imamat. I think it would be best to formulate it in this direction. Not: the imamat is done by the imam. Thus: whoever leads the prayer is the imam. It follows from this that while they are leading prayer, they are imam. They don’t need to be imam before or after.
Whereas if the imamat is done by the imam, we are suggesting that the imam exists outside of the prayer moment. Which is unnecessary because we do not always need to be led. We need to be led during prayer. What we need before and after needs other thinking.
So who can be imam? I think anyone. We are taught that anyone who is righteous and has respect in the community can lead the prayer. At all regular moments, that means anyone. Presumably there are extraordinary circumstances where this would exclude someone. But even that consideration, especially made in the abstract, sows the seed of authoritarianism.
Theoretical consequences: All of this would mean that imamat is transient, a baton passed from person to person as needed. That not one of us is more worthy, more righteous than the other, because righteousness is judged by Allah, and S/He’s not coming to do that any time soon.
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا ۚ إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ –
O humanity, indeed we made you from male and female, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another;
surely the most noble of you in the sight of Allah are those who most God-conscious;
indeed Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware.