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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Sacred Narratives

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Kaaba: photo courtesy of m0h via C.C. License at FlickrEventually, other genres grew out of the need to preserve the memory of the first generations of Muslims. Beyond mere biographical notices, a genre called manaqib, or "virtues literature," and another called fada'il or "religious merits literature" became a vital part of the Sunni historical tradition. These holy biographies (hagiographies, from the Greek Hagios, holy) went far beyond the bare facts of this or that Companion's life, and included length descriptions of their piety, bravery, asceticism (zuhd in Arabic), and general excellence in character. Like the Christian version of the same literary genre, Islamic hagiography sought to extol the virtues of heroes of the past, constituting another set of sacred narratives about the generations succeeding the initial dawn of Islam.

Masjid Nawabi (Prophet’s Mosque) in Medina: photo courtesy ofomarsc via C.C. License at FlickrThe fada'il genre expanded yet again. By the 10th century C.E., the religious merit of places as well as people was finding a niche in the burgeoning Sunni tradition.  Syrian Sunnis in particular were hard-pressed to rival the foundational cities of Mecca and Medina, not to mention the long-standing sanctity of Jerusalem among all three Abrahamic faiths. They went to great lengths to collect and disseminate sacred stories about the Holiness of the Syria, and especially of Damascus.

Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, site of the Night of Power:photo courtesy of upyernoz via C.C. License at FlickrMany great cities and even small villages, by this time, were receiving their own treatment in the hands of historians who sought to prove that their regions and localities were of eternal as well as earthly importance. A city like Mecca was likened to the navel of the universe, or the center of the cosmos. Syria was likened to a human body, with Damascus as the heart, animating the whole region. Medina was consistently referred to as a city of light, for its initial welcoming of the Prophet upon his emigration from Mecca. A small town outside of Damascus, like Darayya, could boast that several dozen Companions of Muhammad had lived and been buried there, adding to that city's holiness.

Praying at Mt Arafat during the annual pilgrimage (hajj):photo courtesy of aljazeeraenglish via C.C. License at FlickrAs with other sacred narratives about people and places, in the Sunni tradition the evolution and dissemination of these types of stories accompanied a burgeoning practice of local pilgrimages in addition to the major Islamic pilgrimage made annually to Mecca. Text and practice went hand in hand in this regard, displaying the interweaving of tradition and material culture.

Study Questions:
     1.    What sacred texts do Sunnis share with all of Islam? What narrative separated it?
     2.    Describe the relationship between biography and Sunni legitimation of power.
     3.    Why was the fada'il expansion to include places important to ritual within Islam?


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