There was only one madhhab (school of fiqh) during the time of the Righly-guided Caliphs (Khalifah-Rashedien). With the emergence of the Umayyad rule, the situation changed. The Umayyad caliphs did not have the same religious authority as the previous ones. After the Umayyad (661-750 CE) came the Abbasids. In comparison to the Umayyads, they were more supportive of Islamic law. The crystallization of four major Sunni madhahib of Islamic fiqh came about by the third century of Hijrah; before this there were about twenty different madhahib.

In the Sunni world there are now Four Orthodox Schools (Schools of Fiqh) of thought [the Four Madhahib]: the Shafi’i, Hanafi, Maliki and Hanbali. With regard to legal matters, these four orthodox schools give different weight in legal opinions to prescriptions in the Quran, the hadith or sayings of the Prophet Mohammad, the consensus of legal scholars, analogy (to similar situations at the time of the Prophet), and reason or opinion. Towards the end of the first century of Islam, Imam Abu Hanifa in Kufa and Imam Malik in Madina founded mazahib (schools) or religio-legal thought, named after them as the Hanafi and the Maliki schools. In the following century, the two other great schools were founded -- the Shafei school of Imam Idris al-Shafei in Egypt and the Hanbali school of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal in Baghdad. The differences between the four famous Jurists Imaam Abu Hanifa, Shaaf'ee, Maaliki and Hanbaliy stem from their differences on principles. The basic principle according to Imaam Maaliki is to prefer Amal-e-Madinah, that is the practices of the people of Madina Munawwarah. However, that principle is not adopted by Imaam Ahmad ibn Hanbal.

The fanatical loyalty to a particular madhhab among Muslims is decreasing. Now Hanafi, Shafi`i, Maliki and Hanbali and even Ja`fari followers pray together and work together. Most scholars hold that it is not required of the Muslim to follow a certain Fiqh School because nothing can be made required of Muslims except that made by Allah and His Prophet. When in need of Fatwa, Muslims could consult with any scholar regardless of his Madh-hab. A common Muslim is said to have no Madh-hab.

Sunni Islam does not possess clerical hierarchies and centralized institutions. The absence of a hierarchy has been a source of strength that has permitted the faith to adapt to local conditions. However, it also has been a weakness that makes it difficult for Sunni Muslims to achieve any significant degree of solidarity. Despite some very minor disputes there are many Sub-Groups in the four groups like Kharjiites, Wahabis, Deobandi, Barelvi, Ahle-Sunnat Wal Jamat, Ahle Hadith, Ghurba Ahle Hadits, Sunnis of Green Turban, Sunnis of Brown Turbans etc. etc. They declare each other wrong and seldom offer prayer behind each other.

Among Sunni Muslims, effective power and the ability to maintain order are sufficient for legitimate authority, in stark contrast to the more uncompromising Shia views of government as the sole province of religious leaders. For Sunnis, even a bad Muslim ruler is preferable to chaos and anarchy, and the Sunni religious tradition contains only a limited right to rebel. However, if a ruler commands something that is contrary to God’s law, the subject’s duty of obedience lapses.

Originally political, the differences between Sunni and Shia interpretations rapidly took on theological and metaphysical overtones. In principle a Sunni approaches God directly; there is no clerical hierarchy. Some duly appointed religious figures, however, exert considerable social and political power. Imams usually are men of importance in their communities but they need not have any formal training; among the beduins, for example, any tribal member may lead communal prayers. Committees of socially prominent worshipers usually run the major mosque-owned land and gifts. In many Arab countries, the administration of waqfs (religious endowments) has come under the influence of the state. Qadis (judges) and imams are appointed by the government.

The Sunni tradition is one of the two main sectarian divisions in Islam (the other being Shi'a). A number of important principles govern the Sunni tradition. The Prophet and his revelation are of foremost authority.In order for the Qur'an to be used as a basis for sound judgement for subjects under dispute it is necessary to take sound hadiths into account. Qur'anic verses should be interpreted in the context of the whole of the Qur'an. In understanding the Qur'an rational thinking is subordinate to revelation. If the Qur'an or the Sunnah of the Prophet offers a clear judgement on anything, the Muslim is obliged to follow this judgement. If there is no clear judgement about anything in the Qur'an, then it is necessary to make a rational opinion (known as Ijtihad) which is consistent with Qur'anic teaching. The first four caliphs were the legitimate rulers of the early community. Faith and deeds are inseparable. Everything occurs according to the divine plan. Allah will be seen in the life after death.

The Sunni tradition also emphasises the importance of religion in the formation of public policy. This emphasis has, according to Sunni-Muslim scholars, given rise to two interrelated processes: the supremacy of the Shari'a and the sovereignty of the Islamic community. According to the Sunni tradition, if Islam is a legalistically oriented religion, concerned with the organization of human society, it follows that religious teaching must concern itself with matters of marriage and divorce, inheritance and ownership, commercial transactions and contractual dealings, government, banking, investment, credits, debts and so on. The proper execution of these contractual matters according to the principles of the shari'a based on the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet constitutes an important part of the way to salvation.

History Islam is divided between the minority Shia tradition and the majority Sunni tradition. The minority group regard the Prophet's Son in law, Ali, and his descendants as divinely authorised to rule the Muslim community. The majority group believed that the caliph should be appointed through the consensus of the community.

The Muslim community's encounter with other cultures, coupled with further divisions in the community itself, brought home the need to formulate the principles of faith within a rational framework. In the 10th century much of the contents of the Muslim community's theology was put into a set of propositions known as Sunni (orthodox) theology. The word Sunni derives from the sunnah, or example, of the Prophet, and indicates the orthodoxy of the majority community as opposed to the peripheral positions of schismatics who by definition must be in error.
A further response to schisms involved developing a trend of accommodation and synthesis. The principle of accommodation made it possible for diverse schools of thought to coexist and recognize each other. Thus, the two principal theological schools of al-Ashari and al-Maturidi accepted each other as orthodox while opposing minority traditions such as Mu'tazilah, Kharijites and Shi'a. The legal framework of the Sunni tradition was provided by the Hanafi, Shafi'i, Maliki and Hanbali schools.

The political leadership of the Sunni community, and therefore the symbol of orthodoxy has been the caliphate. After the first four caliphs the community came under the authority of the Ummayads, who set up their capital in Damascus. The period of the Ummayad caliphs (661-750) saw the conquest of North Africa and Spain. In 732 Muslim armies reached as far as Toulouse in the south-west of France. In the East, Muslim armies arrived in Afghanistan and the region that is present-day Pakistan. In 750 the Ummayad caliph was overthrown in rebellion led by the 'Abbasids, who were to form the next caliphate. Remnants of the Ummayad family, however, were able to establish themselves in Muslim Spain, where they ruled until 1031.
The 'Abbasids established their capital in Baghdad in 750. From then until the 10th century both the Muslim empire and the power of the 'Abbasids continued to grow. However, from the 10th century the empire began to fragment. A rival caliphate, the Fatimids, was established in North Africa. The Mongol invasions and the capture of Baghdad in 1258 brought to an end the caliphate in Iraq. An 'Abbasid caliphate was established in Cairo, but this was without any real political power.

The caliphate was taken over when the Ottomans invaded Egypt in 1517. The defeat of the Ottoman empire after the first world war, and the creation of a secular state in Turkey (which had been at the heart of the Ottoman empire) brought the caliphate to an end. For the first half of the twentieth century many regions of the Islamic world have sought to free themselves from European colonial rule. In the absence of the caliphate a pan-Islamic identity has been sought through organisations such as the Muslim World League and the Islamic Conference. Internal divisions have, however, impeded any real scope for Islamic unity.

Page last updated: Friday, November 25, 2005 22:04:51 -0500