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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Vision for Society

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Pluralism has been a guiding principle of Islamic behavior since the medieval period. Muhammad himself had relationships, some more controversial than others, with Christian and Jewish communities. The expansion of the Islamic state meant that as a community, Muslims encountered and governed over various other religious groups. A principle of tolerance and a "live and let live" maxim - derived from verses of the Quran in which Muhammad is told to inform other communities that "to you is your religion and to me is mine" -- was developed early in the Muslim community. This is not to say that there were never persecutions against non-Muslims, or that tolerance was universally applied.

It is occasionally said, although the idea has less currency now than in previous generations, that Islam initially spread by force or by "the sword." Most scholars agree that this is a mischaracterization of the early period of Islamic conquests. Nonetheless, the topic deserves some clarification here.

The initial concept or vision for an Islamic society held by the early community of Muslims was actually not focused on converting the world to Islam. In the first decades of expansion, non-Muslim subjects provided an important tax base for the new Islamic state. In fact, the early caliphs were reluctant to extend the financial privileges afforded to Muslims to their non-Muslim subjects.

It is impossible to gauge levels of conversion, but it's clear that during the conquests and shortly thereafter, that is, over the course of the 7th and 8th centuries, more and more people began to convert to Islam. The fact that these new subjects embraced the faith but were not from an Arab background presented social and intellectual challenges to the leaders of the Muslim community who were forced to reconsider the shapes and contours up society.

Sunni Islam distinguished itself from other denominations in its view about who was fit to lead the Muslim community. Unlike Shiite Islam, which places moral authority in the person of the imam, Sunni Islam has a vision for society that is not invested in a single lineage. This is not to say that government leaders and religious scholars always behaved in ways that were unified or consistent. In fact, conflicts between religious scholars and those who held political power were common in the medieval era. On the other hand, occasionally scholars and rulers worked hand-in-hand to put forward their own vision for Islamic society. In the 12th century, for example, Syria had a special place in the Islamic world within the context of the Crusades. Its sultan, Nureddin, launched a campaign that was both military and intellectual with the aid of prominent scholars who helped craft a vision of what the Sunni world should look like.

In the modern era it is much more difficult to pinpoint a single vision for Sunni society. It is impossible to overstate the diversity of views regarding what constitutes Islamic society in the Sunni world. Geographical and ethnic diversity, on the one hand, and linguistic and cultural differences on the other, have meant that various people will have established their own understandings of what social structures, family structures, and political ideologies should influence their vision for society. That said, the real-time technology with which various parts of the Sunni world communicate and a deeper global society have enabled enormous cross-fertilization. That is to say, segments of society that were never before connected now have rapid communication and an international reach due to the Internet.


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