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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Community Organization

Written by: Nancy Khalek

The organization and leadership of Sunni Islam has had a formative impact on Sunni identity. The clan-dominated and tribal structure of pre-Islamic Arabian society placed a great emphasis on family relationships and kinship. The initial distinguishing feature of Sunni Islam was that although the denomination eventually settled upon members of the prophet's clan as leaders for the Muslim community - in contrast to those who supported Ali as the rightful inherit or of the mantle of leadership - Sunnis elected a leader by consensus. This had an immediate impact on subsequent generations of the early Muslim community.

Although it began as a rather small group, the Muslim umma (community) grew rather quickly into the global community of Muslims. National controversies surrounding the establishment of dynastic rule from Syria, and later from Baghdad, likewise contributed to different conceptions of the Muslim community. Conversion to Islam, a phenomenon that grew enormously with time over the course of the second and third centuries of the Islamic era, influenced the concept of who was a part of the Muslim community.

There are many anecdotes regarding leadership from among non-Arab converts to Islam in the early Muslim world. One such anecdote consists of an interview between one 9th-century caliph and a legal scholar. In it, the caliph asks the scholar about who has been put in charge of the affairs of various regions of the Islamic world, from Syria to Yemen to North Africa. As the legal scholar responds, naming those leading the various regions, the caliph follows up by asking if the person was Arab or a non-Arab convert to Islam. In every region but one, the scholar answered that the regional leaders were converts to Islam. The caliph then responds by saying that non-Arabs were dominating the religion, which had begun among the Arabs. The scholar's pious response was that knowledge of religion should determine leadership, as opposed to tribal or ethnic affiliation. The point of the anecdote is that even in the early days of Islam, non-Muslim converts were asserting their rights and equal status as Muslims, in spite of the fact that they were not part of the originally Arab Muslim community.

In the later Middle Ages and into the early modern era, the notion of the Islamic community evolved with the political exigencies faced by various leaderships. The disintegration of the Islamic Empire began in the mid-8th century with the Abbasid revolution. Rival states, such as the Fatimids in Egypt, established in the mid-10th century, were established across geographical boundaries in what is usually referred to as the "Muslim Commonwealth." Some of these had distinct sectarian affiliations.


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