The vast majority of the Muslims professing belief in the unicity of God and the apostleship of muḤammad. They derive their title from the Arabic word sunna, meaning custom, use, or statute. In the development of islam the term took on the meaning of the standard practice derived from Muḥammad and the early Muslim community; as such it was opposed to innovation (bid'a ). In the various crises that arose and split the Muslim community, the majority steered a middle course between extremes and labeled themselves the "people of the Sunna and the community."
Basic Principles. The peculiar constitution of the Muslim community, which developed without any clear distinction either between politics and religion or between morality and law, precludes any facile comparison with Christianity. The roots of Muslim faith are found in the qur’Ān, the Sunna of the Prophet, and the consensus of the community. The institution of consensus, in a society without central religious control or a priesthood, allowed for the incorporation of the historical process of development and customary uses that had no roots in the Qur’ān or the Sunna. At the same time, it set the limits of orthodoxy by rejecting developments that jarred the sensibility of the tradition-centered community. As a result, it is difficult to define clearly the dogmas of the orthodox community or to record any universally valid creed. There are creeds in abundance, but they are the product of individual reflection or group beliefs.
Like all Muslims, the Sunnites accept the "Five Pillars" of Islam: witness to one God and His apostle Muḥammad, prayer, alms, the fast of ramaḌĀn, and the Ḥajj, or pilgrimage, to mecca. But in the elaboration of these basic beliefs and practices distinctions arise.
Perhaps the clearest distinction setting off the Sunnites from the other major sects is found in the constitutional theory of the caliphate (see caliph). The Khawarij (Seceders) at one extreme maintained the elective principle, leaving the community free to set up or depose whomsoever they wished. The shĪ’ites, at the other extreme, claimed that divine right limited succession to the offspring of ‘alĪ and Fatima, Muḥammad's daughter. The Sunnites, avoiding the anarchy of Kharajism and the exclusiveness of Shī’ism, held that the caliph must be of Muḥammad's tribe of the Quraysh and incorporated a theory of election that was flexible enough to accept historical facts and was symbolized in the oath of allegiance that the community offered to the de facto caliph. Although the caliphate, for all practical purposes, disappeared in 1258, the community division it occasioned remained firm. Earlier and later crises left their stamp on orthodoxy, but divisions were smoothed over by deeper loyalties.
Different Schools of Thought. Within the community thus defined, law and religious practice carry more significance than dogma and belief. The Sunnites accept as orthodox the four schools of law: Ḥanafite, Mālikite, Shāfi‘ite and Ḥanbalite (see islamic law). But in the matter of belief, divisions are less clear. Two main tendencies remain constant: the stubborn traditionalist position of Ḥanbalite theology, which allows little room for reason, and the moderate theologizing position of the Ash‘arite school, which uses reason and its categories to safeguard revelation. A third, rationalistic tendency, defeated by orthodoxy in the Middle Ages, is evident again today in the attempts to restate Islam in modern terms. However, political, social, and economic problems tend to obscure theology; accordingly, it would be temerarious to define Sunnite orthodoxy in other than historical terms.
Early contact with Christianity, Hellenism, and Iranian religious thought gave rise to theological questions often complicated by political overtones. Faith, sin, and free will became the focus of early discussions. Based on the Qur’ān and early tradition, the orthodox maintained that faith (imān ) is distinct from membership in the community (islām ). The latter comprises outward adherence, while the former comprises, in addition, submission of heart and good works. Though dispute continued on whether faith admitted of degrees, the consensus held that faith was not lost by grave sin, and that a sinner who believed in God's unicity would be rescued from hell by Muḥammad's intercession.
Triumph of Traditionalism. The main theological dispute, which ranged over three centuries, pitted the traditionalist theologians against the mu‘tazilites, who had adopted Greek categories and logic in the defense of Islam. The general dispute was between a literal acceptance of the Qur’ān and tradition, and a rational theology seeking to safeguard the unity and justice of God. The specific questions debated were God's attributes, the Qur’ān, free will, and the vision of God. In the 9th century the Mu’tazilite doctrine of a created Qur’ān was forcibly imposed by the Caliph Ma‘mūn, but he and his immediate successors succeeded only in hardening the opposition that centered around Aḥmad ibn H:anbal, the eponym of the fourth school of law and the advocate of an uncompromising traditionalist theology. Again in the 10th century, under the Shī’ite dynasties in Iraq, Mu’tazilism had a free rein. The Ḥanafite law school tended to identify itself with a Mu’tazilite theology, and the Shāfi‘ite school with a moderate position using the theology (kalĀm) of the Mu’tazilites, while defending the attributes of God, the uncreatedness of the Qur’ān, and the absolute power of God over good and evil. This latter, the Ash‘arite school, derived its name from Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī al-ash’arĪ (d. 935). He personally appears to have renounced Mu’tazilism for anbalism, but his followers developed a via media. It is usually claimed that Ash’arism, under the Sunnite revival of the seljuk Turks in the 11th century, became the orthodox theology, but more recent studies make clear the persistance of H: anbalite traditionalism content to describe God as He describes Himself in the uncreated Qur’ān, without asking how or why. Reason as advocated by the Mu’tazilites was driven from orthodoxy and found its home with the Shī’ites.
Later, philosophy suffered the same defeat, but the resulting emphasis on the transcendence of God cleared the way for the spread of an ascetical mysticism emphasizing God's immanence. algazel (al-Ghazzālī; d. 1111), philosopher, theologian, and mystic, symbolizes the fusion that took place. He found philosophy sterile and theology useful only for defense. True knowledge came through mystic experience. ṢŪfĪsm did develop anomistic and monistic branches, but there remained a legitimate mysticism that flowered into brotherhoods spread across the face of Islam to serve a social as well as a religious function (see dervishes).
Shift in Authority. While Islam has undergone continuous development throughout its 14-century history, making any model of a "golden age" followed by a "decline" and then a "revival" untenable, movements within Islam in the modern era of the 19th and especially the 20th centuries have taken unprecedented directions. Though such movements had previously arisen out of the dynamic of Muslim religious renewal, a decisive new factor that molded movements after 1800 was the progressive integration of the Muslims into the modern world. With the European colonial intrusion, the Muslims' situation was transformed for the first time from that of an independent universe into that of a minority in a non-Muslim world. The continuing political dominance of the European powers, coupled with widespread technological, educational, and other structural changes set in motion by the European colonial endeavor, led to a profound transformation of the discourses of Islam and their meanings.
The most salient development in Islam, which has become especially acute in the 20th century, is the unprecedented weakening of traditional religious leadership and the resulting plurality of sources of authority. The classical 'ulamā ' held a near monopoly not only on religious authority but also over education, writing, intellectual activity, and popular approval. The rulers were weak and unable to mobilize the people to build institutions of the modern state. With the arrival of European colonization, this situation changed. Rulers like Muḥammad ‘Alī in Egypt (ruled 1805–48), supported by European advisers, were able to seize the sources of income of the 'ulamā ' from charitable foundations to send students to Europe to study European knowledge, which was more advanced in the scientific field, and generally to strengthen the state by establishing official institutions. This compromised the monopoly of the 'ulamā ' on education in the first degree.
At the same time, science and modernism also directly influenced the thinking of the 'ulamā '. In Egypt, for example, Rifā 'ah al-Tahtāwī (1801–73) represented the beginning of a development culminating in Muḥammad ‘Abduh (1849–1905), who emphasized the texts of the Qur’ān and prophetic traditions (ḥadīth ) at the expense of jurisprudence, insisted on the right of the scholar to interpret texts (ijtihād) independently, deemphasized Ṣūfīfism, and accepted materialist explanations of the Qur’ān that reduced the supernatural element. Soon such "reformist" trends were bring promoted throughout the Muslim world, from Indonesia to Morocco, often with the usually intended effect of reducing the authority of the more traditional 'ulamā '. In India, a similar trend can be seen in the teachings of Sayyid Amad Khān (1817–1898).
Conservative 'ulamā ' responded to the modernist challenge by repudiating modernism, as at the ancient mosque of al-Azhar in Egypt (founded 974) or the modern academy at Deoband in India (founded 1867), but their own arguments were subtly altered by the new situation. Thus, the Deobandis, although adhering to the Ḥanafi school of jurisprudence, continued the revival of the ḥadīth begun by Shāh Walī al-Dihlāwī (1703–62), thereby contributing to the spread of textualism that has characterized much of Islam in the 20th century. Although they also maintained Ṣūfīfism, it received less attention than before. Most portentously, the Deobandis enthusiastically established religious discourse in the vernacular Urdu, changing the unique status of Arabic as the sole medium of religion. The unprecedented use of the vernacular languages for religious purposes, including Friday sermons, has continued to grow down to the present.
Impact of Secular Education. No other single factor had such an impact in undermining the authority of the 'ulamā ' as the spread of secular education. By 1900, secular-educated Muslims and their governments desired to set up schools in the European model in their homelands as soon as possible. Thus, Cairo University was founded in 1908. Generally, Muslim graduates of European-style schools were strongly under the influence of prevailing patterns of European thought. While these were a threat to the 'ulamā ' in the sense that they tended to treat the received tradition of Islam with disdain and to promote modern thinking, they did not significantly challenge the 'ulamā ' on the latter's own ground of religion. Indeed, such graduates of modern institutions often did not give much heed to religion, viewing it as their European contemporaries did—a problem to be contained—in order to establish the supremacy of the state for their nationalist state-building projects. The 'ulamā ' did battle with the modernists, but the elite nature of the latter and their alienation from the culture of the Muslim world in the first half of the 20th century did not seriously threaten the status of the 'ulamā ' with the people as the sole legitimate interpreters of the faith.
This began to change, however, once the shock of the first encounter with the West had begun to wear off. For their part, many of the 'ulamā ' who had adopted modernist positions began to return to a more conservative construction of Islam, such as ‘Abduh's famous pupil, Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍa (1865–1935). Once the exact nature of the West's technical superiority and political hegemony had been clearly understood through a careful study of the West itself, and the technical gap began to be narrowed, it could be seen that it was not necessary to make as many concessions as had been thought at first. Thus, Riḍa retreated from some materialist interpretations of scripture and also reaffirmed the role of Islam in government.
But while such development was happening with some of the 'ulamā ', many of the modern-educated Muslims also began to have doubts about the West and modernism. Some of them ardently returned to Islam, where they were welcomed as allies by the traditional 'ulamā ', except when they attacked the 'ulamā ' head-on with charges of backwardness or obsequiousness to the government. But such exchanges were the exception rather than the rule, and relations of the conservative modern-educated with the conservative 'ulamā ' were on the whole cordial.
Nevertheless, the rise of a class of modern-educated intellectuals ardently committed to Islam constituted a far more serious challenge to the ' ulamā ' than that of the secular intellectuals and led to a serious decline in the authority of the 'ulamā '. The intellectuals, trained in modern knowledge, could see the flaws in the information of the 'ulamā ' about the world, and this perception would spread as modern education was gradually extended to the masses everywhere. Thus, although no one questioned their knowledge of classical religious texts, the 'ulamā ' were no longer the scholars and intellectuals in other fields as they had been in premodern times.
A Rereading of Islam. On the other hand, the committed intellectuals could and did study the source books of the religion, unconsciously bringing the critical attitude fostered by their modern education with them. This enabled them to engage in a massive rereading of Islam based on the Qur’ān, usually without much emphasis on the ḥadīth, which was very large, diffuse, and difficult to access. Thus, ḥadīth remained largely the preserve of the 'ulamā '. Because the intellectuals spoke and wrote in the language of the people, their works were widely read. Though they often did not claim the title of tafsīr (exegesis) for their efforts, their works tended to replace the scholarship of the traditional 'ulamā ' at the popular level. Such works include the commentaries of Sayyid Quṭb of Egypt (1906–66), Sa’īd awwa of Syria (1935–89), Abū al-A’ā al-Mawdūdī of India and Pakistan (1903–79), and Hamka of Indonesia (1908–82), the latter two in vernacular languages. Thus, the previous longstanding monopoly of the 'ulamā ' on scriptural interpretation was decisively breached. No less important, the appeal to the modern mind and the political and social activism that characterized the new works clearly departed far from the methods and content of the traditional interpretations.
Indeed, all of the above mentioned commentators were involved in Muslim mass political movements in their respective countries and spent time in prison, where Sayyid Quṭb was executed. Their ideas even attracted many of the traditional 'ulamā ', such as Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (b. 1917) and Yūsuf al-Qardāwī (b. 1926) in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood became a major political force from the 1940s through the 1960s before it was suppressed by the government. Meanwhile, the intellectuals themselves tended to become more conservative the more they studied the received heritage of Islam. Many were described as salafī, meaning that they abandoned the traditional schools of law for a more ḥadīth -based approach. They were also highly critical of Ṣūfīfism. This fitted well with the doctrine backed by the Saudi Arabian religious establishment, which tried to influence the new movements to remain non-revolutionary, with mixed success.
Bibliography: h. a. r. gibb, Modern Trends in Islam (Chicago 1947). h. lammens, Islām: Beliefs and Institutions, tr. e. d. ross (London 1929). a. j. wensinck, The Muslim Creed (New York 1932). r. j. mccarthy, The Theology of al-Ash‘ari (Beirut 1953). h. laoust, La Profession de foi d'Ibn Baṭ ṭa (Damascus 1958). g. makdisi, Ibn’Aqīl et la réurgence de l'Islam traditionaliste (Damascus 1963). l. gardet, Le Cité musulmane: Vie sociale et politique (2d ed. Paris 1961). w. c. smith, Islam in Modern History (Princeton 1957). a. al-ahsan, Ummah or Nation? Identity Crisis in Contemporary Muslim Society (Leicester 1992). j. l. esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (New York 1992); j. l. esposito, ed., Voices of Resurgent Islam (New York 1983). f. rahman, Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition (Chicago 1984).
[j. j. donohue/
k. y. blankinship]