Islam: Sunni

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Islam: Sunni

The term Sunni is an adjective formed from the noun sunna (plural sunan ), an ancient Arabic word meaning "customary practice." Although in the pre-Islamic world of tribal Arabia the word sunna referred generally to the time-tested and widely accepted customs of a tribe, in the Islamic period the term came to refer specifically to the customary practices or "way" of the prophet Muhammad and the first generation of pious Muslims. Eventually the adjective Sunni came to describe the largest of the three primary sectarian divisions among Muslims: Sunnis, Shiites, and Kharijites.

Accounting for nearly 90 percent of the world's Muslims, Sunnis emphasize their commitment to both the precedents established by the Prophet and the unity of the historic community (referred to in Arabic as either the umma or the jama'a ). The term Sunni is actually an abbreviation of the fuller expression ahl al-sunna wa-l-jama'a, "the people of the [Prophet's] way and the community." Of course nothing in this self-description by the majority of Muslims should convey that either Shiites or Kharijites see themselves as any less committed or faithful to the Prophet's way.

Early History

In the mold of great Hebrew prophets, Muhammad combined both political and religious authority as the leader of the early Islamic community (umma ). On his death in 632 the Prophet left no clear message as to how leadership of the Muslim community should devolve after him. Initially, therefore, divisions among Muslims were prompted by disputes over succession to the leadership of the community, rather than by doctrinal differences. The first five successors to the Prophet were, in fact, elevated in different ways to leadership of the community, reflecting the ambiguity among early Muslims about the Prophet's intentions regarding succession.

The majority position, which eventually appropriated the appellation Sunni to describe itself, held that in the absence of a clear message detailing an alternative arrangement, the Prophet intended for the Muslim community to proceed in selecting its leaders according to ancient Arab tribal custom. Traditionally, tribal leaders were selected from a relatively small pool of respected senior figures within the tribe. Once consensus on a new leader was achieved through deliberations of the tribal council, the choice of a new leader was confirmed by the public offering of an oath of allegiance, known as the bay'a, to the new leader by senior clan leaders within the tribe.

The earliest accounts suggest that following the Prophet's death, the early Muslim community in Medina was initially thrown into confusion even about whether or not the Prophet intended the Muslim community to remain unified under a single leader, combining both political and religious authority, or whether each tribe was expected to revert to selecting its own tribal chief. The matter was temporarily, though not decisively, resolved when 'Umar ibn al-Khattab, a highly respected figure among the Prophet's inner circle, offered the public bay'a to Abu Bakr, the Prophet's oldest and closest friend. This dramatic gesture convinced other leading figures to quickly follow suit in offering the bay'a to Abu Bakr. However, during his two-year reign Abu Bakr was engaged in re-extending authority over various tribes throughout Arabia that believed their submission to the Muslim state ended with Muhammad's death.

There was no doubt among the early Muslims that although the Prophet's successors would continue his function as political and religious leader of the umma, they would not continue his prophetic role. The Arabic term used among Sunnis to designate the successors of the Prophet is khalifat rasul allah (deputy of the Prophet of God), from which the English term caliph is derived. Sunnis recognize four legitimate caliphal successors to Muhammad: Abu Bakr (r. 632634), 'Umar (r. 634644), 'Uthman ibn 'Affan (r. 644656), and 'Ali ibn Abi Talib (r. 656661), who are collectively referred to among Sunnis as the "Rightly Guided Caliphs" (al-khulafa' al rashidun ). Following the assassination of the last of these four caliphs in 661, the governor of Syria, Mu'awiya (r. 661680), was successful in establishing the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled over the early Islamic empire for nearly a century. Although the Umayyads, like many dynasties that succeeded them, also claimed the title of caliph, subsequent Muslim historiography tended to refer to the Umayyad rulers as muluk (kings) to indicate that the political authority they exercised lacked the legitimacy of religious leadership over the umma, which the first four caliphs enjoyed.

Exact details of the succession disputes that established the three main divisions among Muslims are now clouded by centuries of partisan accounts, but the broad outlines are clear. During the first two decades after the Prophet's death, probably about the time of the accession of the third caliph, 'Uthman, in 644, a minority party among Muhammad's companions began to champion the cause of 'Ali ibn Abi Talib as the rightful successor to the Prophet. 'Ali was the first cousin and later son-in-law of Muhammad. He was also the son of Abu Talib, in whose house the Prophet had been raised after he was orphaned at age six. 'Ali clearly enjoyed a very close personal relationship to Muhammad, probably analogous to a devoted younger brother, and he is reported to have been the first male convert to Islam. Although 'Ali did not contest the elevation of the first three caliphs before him, the early histories make clear that 'Ali and his supporters resented his being passed over in favor of 'Uthman in 644. Devoted support to the cause of 'Ali survived his own assassination in 661 and was transferred to his two sons through the Prophet's daughter Fatima: al-Hasan (c. 625669) and al-Husayn (c. 626680).

The supporters of 'Ali and his heirs became known as shi'at 'Ali, "the party of 'Ali," from which the abbreviated shia (Shiite) comes. Over time the Shiites developed an elaborate doctrine rejecting the Sunni claim that the Prophet had left no clear message about succession after his death. Based on their own interpretation of a widely accepted statement made by the Prophet during his farewell pilgrimage to Mecca, the early Shiites asserted that Muhammad in fact left a very clear message that succession to the combined political and religious leadership of the Muslim community rightfully lay with 'Ali and his two sons through the Prophet's daughter Fatima. Shiites, therefore, rejected the first three caliphs, on whose memory they are known to invoke curses, in favor of 'Ali ibn Abi Talib and his descendents, whom they refer to as imams, rather than caliphs. In the early twenty-first century Shiites account for nearly 10 percent of the world's Muslims.

Kharijites, the smallest of the three major divisions among Muslims (currently less than 1 percent), also arose out of these early succession struggles. When 'Ali was elevated to the caliphate following the assassination of the third caliph, 'Uthman, in 656, the new caliph faced several challenges to his authority. The most serious opposition came from the governor of Syria, Mu'awiya, a cousin of the murdered third caliph, who suspected 'Ali of complicity in the death of his kinsman. Mu'awiya refused to give the bay'a (oath of allegiance) to 'Ali, which quickly led to battle between 'Ali's forces and the Syrian garrison. When stalemate was reached between the two sides, 'Ali reluctantly agreed to a call for arbitration in hopes of ending bloodshed between Muslims. Although the arbitration process ultimately proved futile, the very fact that 'Ali had accepted arbitration, rather than allow God to decide matters on the battlefield, prompted a group of 'Ali's own supporters to withdraw from among his ranks. Forced to make an example of these deserters, 'Ali's forces engaged and massacred them at the Nahrawan canal in Iraq in 658. Among Sunnis this group of deserters became known pejoratively as Khawarij, meaning "those who go out." In revenge for the massacre at the Nahrawan canal, 'Ali was himself assassinated by a Kharijite in 661. Like the Shiites and the Sunnis, the Kharijites eventually developed their own elaborate doctrine of the caliphate and their own legal schools. Essentially, the Kharijites held a radically egalitarian view of who was qualified to serve as caliph. They also came to hold an extreme view that any caliph who failed to apply or abide by the holy law of Islam forfeited both his office and his lifean idea that has inspired many modern Islamic political extremists.

The evolution and elaboration of each of these three major sectarian divisions among Muslims occurred slowly over time and did not spring wholly formed from these early disputes over succession. Each sect would also eventually generate numerous of their own subsects and divisions, which underscores the frequently unappreciated historical fact that the formation of Islam as a whole unfolded over centuries, not decades. Furthermore, the critical geographical location where the formation of Islam occurred between the mid-seventh and the mid-tenth centuries was not Arabia, but rather Syria and Iraq. The primitive form of Islam that came out of Arabia with the early Muslim conquests of the mid-seventh century, therefore, possessed very little of the sophisticated theological or legal superstructure recognized as so central to the tradition today. The fact that Islam came fully into formation in Iraq and Syria is significant because this area had long served as the frontier between the two great Mediterranean civilizations of late antiquity, Rome and Persia. As the new Islamic order began to take shape in this dynamic region between great empires, it drew important inspiration from both of the great civilizations that had previously dominated the Mediterranean world.

Unlike the earlier Christian experience, where slow conversion over nearly three centuries preceded the exercise of political power beginning in the reign of Constantine (r. 306337), the early Islamic state came to dominate a vast empire in a remarkably short period. Within a century of the Prophet's death, Muslim armies had reached southern France in the west and northern India in the east. The rapidity of the early Muslim conquests, combined with the fact that Islam and the civilization that it inspired were still in formation, presented the Umayyad rulers of the first unified Muslim empire with enormous challenges. Faced with the task of administering a vast empire before the superstructure of Islamic law, institutions, political thought, and theology was yet in place, the Umayyads were compelled to make a variety of pragmatic administrative decisions that were effective but hardly uniform in character. Essentially, the Umayyads tended to confirm prevailing practice, whatever that might be, in the eclectic and far-flung empire they ruled from their capital in Damascus.

Unfortunately for the Umayyads, much of what eventually became accepted Sunni theory and practice of law, government, and administration was defined in opposition to whatever exigency-driven expediencies the Umayyads felt compelled to employ in ruling their empire. Not only does this circumstance explain the generally unfavorable evaluation of the Umayyads in subsequent Muslim historiography, but it also contributed greatly to the coalescence of opposition to the Umayyad dynasty, which resulted in their overthrow and replacement by the Abbasids in 750.

Under the Abbasids (7501258), especially during the first three centuries of their rule, classical Islamic civilization reached fruition. Their new capital of Baghdad was by all accounts not only a fabulous city in its own right, but it was also a great magnet for artists, belletrists, craftsmen, and thinkers from throughout the Islamic world. It was thus during this golden age of early Abbasid rule that the distinctive and characteristic forms of classical Islamic thought and institutions took definitive shape.

By the mid-ninth century the political fragmentation of the universal empire was too advanced for the Abbasids to check. From this point forward, the political unity of the Islamic umma would remain an ideal for Muslims but not a practical reality as a host of local powers and regional empires asserted themselves. By this point, however, the basic outlines of classical Islamic thought and institutions were well enough established that they flourished even without the benefit of political unity that the universal empire had once afforded. This was a remarkably vibrant and highly cosmopolitan civilization of great cities, closely linked by shared religion and language, as well as by extensive crisscrossing trade networks and frequent artistic and intellectual exchange. Rival courts competed with each other in patronizing philosophers, scholars, theologians, jurists, physicians, craftsmen, writers, master builders, and poets, all of whose creativity and genius reflected positively on their benefactors. In this sense the political fragmentation of the universal empire from the mid-ninth century onward probably contributed greatly to the diverse and vibrant creativity of this period by ensuring multiple sources of patronage in all fields of learning and creative production. The economic vitality of Islamic civilization, with its vast and ever-expanding trade networks stretching from East Asia to the Atlantic and from sub-Saharan Africa to Central Asia, ensured an unparalleled level of wealth and further expanded the patronage base well beyond royal courts.

Principal Doctrines and Ritual Practice

Islam falls squarely within the tradition of Abrahamic monotheism and shares certain parallels with both Judaism and Christianity. As explained above, the three major sectarian divisions among Muslims did not originate in doctrinal disagreements. Although certain doctrinal differences among them developed over time, these do not affect essential core beliefs, which are shared universally by Muslims.

At the heart of Islamic theology lies an uncompromising and absolute belief in the unity of God, whom Muslim and Christian speakers of Arabic alike refer to as Allah. The Islamic doctrine of the oneness of God, referred to as tawhid in Arabic, forms the first half of the Muslim profession of faith: "There is no god, but God." The Koran is quite specific in its rejection of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, and Muslim theologians have traditionally shared the skepticism of their Jewish colleagues about the genuineness of Christian monotheism.

To associate anything else with God, or to submit to anything other than God, is shirk (polytheism), the one sin that God does not forgive. Idolatry in the Muslim understanding involves far more than worshiping pagan deities, and shirk occurs whenever people place their own personal desires above the will of God.

The God of Koranic revelation is, like the God of the Hebrew Bible, both the creator of the universe and the ultimate judge before whom all people will eventually be called to account at the end of time. These dual qualities of creator and judge help to explain why the Koran stresses both God's mercy and wrath.

Muslim theologians distinguish between the transcendent essence of divinity, which is unknowable, and the attributes of God, which are manifest in the cosmos. In discussing these divine attributes, classical Muslim theologians usually referred to the "Beautiful Names of God." Although the attributes, or names, of God are frequently paired in contrasting qualities (e.g., "He who gives life" and "He who brings death"), the "names of mercy" are said to dominate the contradictory "names of wrath."

Having created the universe, God ordains an order or law according to which all things rightfully submit. Submission to the will of God, in fact, is central to veneration of the divinein which the entire created cosmos is properly engaged. Ironically, humanity, which stands at the apex of the created universe, is almost uniquely endowed with the capacity to something less than full submission to God's will. Like Jews and Christians, Muslims believe that humanity comprises a very special part of creation, being created in the image or "form" of God. This unique attribute of human beings affords humanity the possibility of realizing its noble callingserving as God's deputies on earth (khalifat allah fi'l-ard ). Because human beings possess the ability throughout their lives to submit to things other than God, it is on the sincere extent of his submission that each person will be judged by God at the end of days. The awesome and inescapable reality of Judgment itself is dealt with in great detail in the Koran, as are the alternative destinations of paradise and hell to which the judged are ultimately consigned.

The ultimate sign of God's mercy is the fact of divine guidance, which has come to humanity through the agency of prophets (anbiya', singular nabi ). Beginning with the first man, Adam, and concluding with Muhammad, God has sent prophets bearing revelation outlining the divine will for mankind. Unfortunately, the human capacity for ignoring and twisting the revelations of God is limitless, which necessitates God's correcting and restating revelation by sending subsequent prophets. With Muhammad and the Koran, however, Muslims believe, humanity has the corrected and most complete version of God's revealed word. And assertion of the prophetic role of Muhammad forms the second half of the Muslim profession of faith. The Koran reflects God's considerable impatience with the human capacity to corrupt the divine message, which is underscored by warnings that God's patience in this regard is at an end, and hence there will be no further divine revelation. Muhammad, therefore, is understood as the "seal of the prophets."

The Koran, as the complete and perfected word of God, made manifest in the world through the prophetic agency of Muhammad, is the earthly version of a heavenly archetype existing eternally with God. It must be emphasized here that Muslims understand the Koran not as the word of Muhammad, somehow inspired by God, but as the absolute word of God himself. In this sense, Muslims see Islam as "the religion of the Book." They likewise regard Jews and Christians as "people of the Book," because they are believed to have also received genuine, though incomplete, divine revelation. The actual content of both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, however, have historically held very little interest for Muslims because not only are they incomplete, but Muslims believe that Jews and Christians either willfully or carelessly corrupted the content of the divine scripture they received.

The fact that Christians and Jews were recipients of genuine revelation, however, has historically implied for Muslims that neither Jews nor Christians could be forcibly converted to Islam. This same prohibition against forcible conversion was later applied to various other religious communities that Muslims identified as genuinely monotheistic. Polytheists, however, did not fare so well, and were forcibly converted, on pain of death or enslavement, particularly in the early Islamic period.

Although Christians, Jews, and other monotheists, referred to collectively as dhimmis, or "protected peoples," were not routinely compelled to convert to Islam, they were frequently subjected to various disabilities, such as the payment of a special tax known as the jizya, and indignities, such as sumptuary laws, designed to encourage their conversion to Islam. Although this limited tolerance that medieval Muslim societies traditionally afforded other monotheistic faiths would not satisfy contemporary sensibilities, by comparison with such institutions as the Inquisition in Christian Europe, Islamic tolerance of other monotheistic faiths was indeed remarkable.

The refusal of Christians and Jews to recognize the prophecy of Muhammad was viewed by Muslims as willful disobedience of God, which should not be ignored but actively challenged. This sense of responsibility for the fate of the souls of others was very much part of a larger understanding Muslims traditionally had, that they were specifically commanded by God to "command what is good, and forbid what is evil" in the world. Muslims in the classical period suffered no doubts about the answer to Cain's rhetorical question in the Book of Genesis: they clearly understood that they were indeed their brother's keeper.

The word Islam itself in Arabic conveys a notion of inner peace that humans can only achieve through sincere submission to the will of God. The most obvious demonstration of this submission to God is expressed in what are frequently referred to as the five pillars of Islamic faith: devout and public profession of faith (shihada ), the ritual performance of worshipful prayer (salat ) at five appointed times each day, the annual giving of alms to the poor (zakat ), annual fasting (sawm ) from before sunrise until sunset throughout the Islamic month of Ramadan, and the performance of a pilgrimage (hajj ) to Mecca at least once during one's life, assuming health and finances permit. It must be stressed, however, that these ritual obligations only demarcate the most basic outlines of submission to God's will. Devout Muslims see themselves as engaged in a profound struggle to submit their own wills to God's law in every aspect of life. In fact, they frequently refer to this inner struggle as the greater jihad.

Practice, Law, and Authority

The scope of God's law, the shari'a, is as expansive and as comprehensive in Islam as is halakah in Judaism. In fact, all human actions and interactions fall into and are analyzed by Muslim jurists in one of five categories: (1) actions that God specifically commands (such as fasting and five daily performances of prayer); (2) actions that God encourages but does not insist upon (such as charity beyond what the zakat requires); (3) neutral actions about which God is indifferent; (4) discouraged but not prohibited actions (such as divorce); and finally (5) forbidden actions (such as murder and drinking alcohol). In very much the same manner as rabbinic law, Islamic jurists submit all actions to careful analysis in an effort to determine the will of God. Ultimately, submission to God lies in the considerable effort that devout believers invest in ensuring that all of their actions are measured in the light of and conform to the shari'a. This emphasis on the correctness of action among the faithful in both Judaism and Islam distinguishes these traditions as orthopractic and sets them both apart from Christianity, with its historic emphasis on orthodoxy, the correctness of doctrine, among believers.

Although Muslims, like Jews, historically focused primarily on faithful adherence to God's law, it is important to note that the shari'a is not in any sense a uniform legal code. Rather it is a legal framework within which considerable disputation occurs. Basing their analysis primarily on the Koran and extensive collections of reports, known as hadith, about what the Prophet did and said, as well as several subsidiary sources of divine law, Muslim jurists generated an immense body of jurisprudence over the centuries in their efforts to discern and apply the specific content of divine law.

Because Sunnis, unlike Shiites, never developed a clerical order or hierarchy, there was no body or institution in Sunni Islam charged with establishing definitively which legal opinions were authoritative and which were not. Again, very similar to the rabbinic system, jurisprudence in Sunni Islam is remarkably decentralized. The opinions of certain jurists gain authority over time as they are cited positively by subsequent jurists in their own legal opinions. Legal reasoning among Sunnis divided itself into a number of "schools" of jurisprudence known as madhahib in Arabic, of which four survive: Hanafi, Shaf'i, Hanbali, and Maliki. Although both the approach to legal reasoning and the specific content of law in each school do not vary greatly, there are some important differences among them. As a general rule these legal schools predominate regionally (for example, Malikis in North Africa and Hanbalis in northern and central Arabia). Shiites and Kharijites developed their own legal schools.

The decentralized character of authority in Sunni jurisprudence extends more broadly to the entire field of religious knowledge. Because there is neither a formal clergy nor any ordination process among Sunni religious scholars, referred to collectively in Arabic as the 'ulama' (Anglicized as ulema ), the educational process through which individuals gained admission to the class of religious scholars traditionally tended to be highly personal. Again, much like the rabbinic system, promising students sought and were granted permission to study under recognized authorities. Upon the completion of their studies they received a certificate from the master certifying their competence in whatever field of religious science they had studied with him.

Like Judaism and Christianity before it, Islam was profoundly affected by its encounter with Hellenistic thought. By the early Abbasid period, speculative theology among Sunnis was dominated by a series of competing schools that emerged in response to various major doctrinal debates among the ulema over such issues as predestination versus free will, whether the Koran was created or coexistent with God, and the extent to which the Koran should be interpreted literally or metaphorically. The assistance of politically powerful patrons was frequently sought by partisans in these contentious debates among the ulema to ensure the persecution of their opponents.

Islamic mysticism, usually referred to as Sufism, like law, theology, and philosophy, also played a major role in shaping Sunni spirituality from an early date. In Sufism authority also tended to be both highly diffuse and personal in character. By the mid-thirteenth century an elaborate series of mystical brotherhoods, known as tariqas, emerged and replaced an earlier, more informal collection of individual mystics surrounded by their disciples. Under the tariqa system, with each brotherhood having its master and established rule of esoteric development, a greater measure of conformity to normative Sunni doctrine among mystics was finally achievedto the great relief of mainstream Sunni ulema, who were frequently troubled by the more exuberant and ecstatic expressions of mystical gnosis among the Sufis.

The great mystical brotherhoods of the later Middle Ages also attracted large followings among all sectors of the population. Many people were especially attracted by the public veneration of great mystical saints, known in Arabic as awliya' (singular wali ), "the friends of God," especially at the site of their tombs. In a religious system where prophetic revelation ended decisively with Muhammad's death in 632, wilaya, or sainthood, offered an important opportunity for mediation with God. Although many Sunni jurists opposed the cult of the saints, others found ways to accommodate this highly popular practice within the framework of normative Sunni practice.

Despite the fact that political and religious authority were theoretically unified for Sunnis in the office of caliph, as a practical matter, after the breakdown of centralized power in the Abbasid period, effective political power passed to and was monopolized by various regional dynasties and other secular political forces, which, nonetheless, frequently maintained the fiction that they were ruling in the name of the caliph. Philosophers, such as Abu Nasr al-Farabi (c. 878c. 950), articulated elaborate theories of the caliphate and its qualifications long after caliphs ceased wielding effective political power. Thus the office of caliph continued to symbolize the ideal unity of the Muslim umma for Sunnis in a reality characterized by political fragmentation. Although the ulema class frequently decried the failure of secular political authorities to rule in accordance with the shari'a, the religious establishment came to see their primary role as guardians of the shari'a in a world without effective caliphs. Whenever possible they sought to pressure political authorities to adhere more closely to the shari'a, but the ulema effectively recognized a de facto division between political and religious authority from the Abbasid period onward.

See also Death and Afterlife, Islamic Understanding of ; Jihad ; Law, Islamic ; Mysticism: Islamic Mysticism ; Philosophies: Islamic ; Religion: Middle East ; Religion and the State: Middle East ; Sufism .


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