The difference between an imam, a sheikh, a mufti and a faqih
A local newspaper office in Cairo requests a clarification for the following:
1- The difference between an imam, a sheikh, a mufti and a faqih
2- Their nature of their work
3-The necessary experience that qualifies each to hold their respective titles
4-The institutions that confer these titles
1- Imam. The term has various meanings which include:
• Someone who leads others in prayer. He must be:
o A Muslim
o Proficient in reading the Qur'an
o Male (if the congregation includes males). A female may only lead other women in prayer
o The imamate of a boy is valid
• In Islamic law the word imam may refer to the ruler of a state depending on the context
• The word likewise refers to a person who has profound [religious] knowledge or someone who is foremost among the religious community. There is no minimum to the skills required to qualify a person to this title, but the matter depends upon a scholar's renown and recognition by other scholars which, in turn, depends upon time and place.
2- Sheikh. It refers to:
• Someone who is 60 years of age or over
• The head of a tribe or a small village, even if a young man
• In Egypt, the term is customarily used to refer to a person who studies the sciences of Islamic law, even if a child. For this reason, a person who has memorized the Qur`an is called a 'sheikh' even if he is not specialized in the sciences of Islamic law. This is because memorizing the Qur`an is considered seeking [religious] knowledge.
Is a scholar who studies the science of deriving practical legal rulings from the sources of Islamic law such as the Qur`an, the Sunna, scholarly consensus and analogy which are related to the acts of a legally responsible person. Based on this, the faqih is involved in studying and understanding the primary texts and deriving legal rulings from them which will delineate human acts from among the obligatory, prohibited, disliked, recommended and permissible.
A mufti is a faqih in the sense outlined above. Moreover, a mufti is acquainted with the reality of the times in such a manner as to allow him to relate the legal ruling to this reality for the purpose of achieving the higher objectives of Islamic law which include preservation of the self, intellect, religion, honor and property.
From the above, we notice that in professional literature, the term 'imam' does not denote an office as much as it does the status of someone occupied with studying the sciences of Islamic law. In this sense, such persons are referred to as imams by scholarly circles. The same holds true of the term 'sheikh'.
As for the title faqih, it is conferred by higher academic institutions upon those who teach in universities and other institutions of knowledge; authors, especially those who are considered a reference in their field, or those who formally or popularly take up issuing religious edicts. Al-Azhar, the Research Assembly, the Ministry of Endowments and the Ministry of Justice are the official institutions to appoint muftis in Egypt.
In Egypt, the grand mufti is appointed by the president of the republic. Conditions for his appointment include: a degree in Islamic law, training/experience in understanding the reality of the times and in issuing religious edicts. Like judges, a mufti must be known for his equity- he must possess the proper scholarly tools that allow him to understand the reality of the times, as well as the ability to tie the legal ruling to current events while simultaneously achieving the objectives of Islamic law.
A person is not called by the above titles simply because he discusses religion in the media—as is the case at present—without meeting the academic and scholarly tools requirements at al-Azhar University or without authorization from the above mentioned specialized official institutions.
According to law and centuries old custom, Sheikh al-Azhar or the grand Imam as he is sometimes called, is in charge of Islamic affairs. Senior religious leaders include: the minister of Endowments, in charge of Islamic da'wa and communicating it through all channels both inside and outside the country; the president of al-Azhar University, in charge of the scholarly aspect of religion at the university level and the Grand Mufti of Egypt, in charge of issuing fatawa to those who solicit them both from inside or outside the country. In [Egyptian] decorum, it has become customary to refer to the minister of Religious Endowments 'ma'aly al-wazir', the president of al-Azhar University as 'fadilat al-ustaz al-doctor' and the Grand Mufti as 'fadilat al-mufti'.