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Religion Library: Sunni Islam


Written by: Nancy Khalek

Other informal leaders also contribute to the cohesion and local identity of their communities. The term "shaykh" is occasionally used interchangeably with "imam," but the word shaykh is more traditionally understood as an elder. In Sufi communities or tariqas, the shaykh is not so much the overseer of rites and ceremonies as a teacher, a personal and spiritual advisor and guide for students seeking to perfect their worship and cultivate an interior religious life.

Contemporary imam teaching in a Damascus mosque: photo courtesy of paalia via C.C. License at FlickrFinally, a word on gender is particularly important when considering leadership in Sunni society. In the vast majority of Sunni communities, imams are men. There is the occasional example of women leading congregational prayers or delivering a Friday sermon (some more controversial than others), but these are the exception. In all-female communities, however, such as certain female Sufi orders (an order is a type of Sufi school or practice, often centered around one teacher), women or shaykhas (the feminized form of the word shaykh) certainly perform the role of spiritual leaders for their students and disciples. They often prescribe extra practices for their students, such as reading particular prayers or offering superogatory prayers. Sufism, often defined as a mystical or esoteric approach to Islam, often offers expanded roles for female teachers and practitioners, and all-female Sufi orders are quite popular, for example, in modern-day Syria and Lebanon.

One important consideration for Sunni Islam is the fact that although there are no professional clergy in any denomination, there are scholars whose advice is sought by people looking for advice and rulings on matters of Islamic law. These people, called muftis, issue opinions that are not legally binding but which carry the weight of moral authority in many communities. Many famous opinions, called fatwas, have involved controversial people or events, particularly in the modern period.

One misconception about a fatwa is that this kind of opinion or document makes a certain action or belief compulsory for all Muslims. In fact, a fatwa is simply an opinion that has no legal authority. People seek this kind of advice when they are looking for the input of scholars and those who are specialized in the study of Islam. These types of opinions vary enormously, depending on the school of thought to which a scholar belongs. It is entirely possible to receive conflicting opinions about one legal issue or question. What is most common is that a mufti will issue an opinion that is relevant to his or her local community, and which reflects the needs and particular culture of a specific time and place.

Study Questions:
     1.    How do imams contribute to rituals within Sunni Islam?
     2.    Why are imams consulted in times of crisis and change?
     3.    What is the relationship between gender and imams?
     4.    What is a fatwa?


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