In these latter times it has become rampant among people to refer easily to individuals as being ‘imām’. It has even gotten to the point where the one being given this title is from among the smallest person of knowledge. This is a matter that, had it not been for the extreme effects such titles hold, would have been considered insignificant.
However, these titles have an effect as a person may hear an individual being described as an imām and henceforth emulate his opinions. Despite the fact this person is not deserving of such emulation. This is also like the widely dispersed saying concerning anyone who has been killed in a battle that he is a martyr (shahīd). This is ḥarām as it is impermissible to testify martyrdom for every individual person by name.
Imām al-Bukhārī [raḥimahullāh] named a chapter [in his ṣaḥīḥ] concerning this issue: ‘Chapter [concerning] the impermissibility of saying ‘so and so’ is a martyr’ and the Prophet (ﷺ) said:Allāh knows best who strives in His cause and Allāh knows best who is injured in His cause. ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb (raḍī Allāhu ʿanhu) also used to forbid such things. Rather, we say:
Whoever is killed in the way of Allāh is a martyr. And whoever is killed by destruction [of his lodgings or other building] or by drowning is a martyr. But we never testify for an individual by name as being a martyr. For if we were to establish the permissibility of such things for ourselves, it would then be permissible for us to testify that specific people who died on īmān are in Jannah, simply because that person was a believer. Thus, such things are impermissible.
Source: Al-Sharḥ al-Mumtiʿ 1:17-18
Translated by: Riyāḍ al-Kanadī