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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Early Developments

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Sectarianism emerged early in Islamic history. The major split, between Sunni and Shi‘a leadership, centered on questions of authority and political legitimacy. By the 2nd century of the Islamic era, this split had affected the production and trajectories of traditional literature, including hadith (sayings by and about Muhammad). As each camp devised different ways to understand the past, Sunnism became more than a "side" in the factionalization that resulted from the controversial caliphate of Ali.

The designation "Sunni" contains theological and legal implications. In the first centuries of Islamic life, from the mid-7th to the 10th century or so, a system of Islamic law that encapsulated what would become a typically Sunni approach to the interpreting the Quran (scripture) and hadith would develop slowly and organically, alongside other branches of study like theology, philosophy, grammar, and other disciplines.

The Sunni schools of law, four of which have survived in significant numbers and continue to exist today, incorporate their own historical vision and interpretive methodologies. Often, the term shariah is used as a synonym for Islamic law, but this is a misnomer. Shariah is a term for a way of life, a legal system within a belief system. A more accurate synonym for law or jurisprudence in Arabic is fiqh.

Islamic law, as an organized scholarly field, developed rather early relative to other genres of Islamic scholarship. It is a sophisticated and comprehensive legal system, which has occasionally led modern scholars to characterize Islam as an extremely litigious religion. However, in a manner more analogous to Jewish law, Islamic law is one component of a broader system of belief and practice. Based on the hadith, it was necessarily a system that incorporated a sense of history, of tradition, and of a communal identity. The formation of Islamic law, then, is central to the historical development of the Muslim community.

The Islamic World expansion, 622-750
     Expansion 622-632
     Expansion 632-661
     Expansion 661-750

The term shariah, literally "a way," occurs in both the Quran and the hadith. In spite of such austere origins, interpreters and exegetes have never been shy about exploring legal definitions and applications in a variety of ways, which led to their creation of systems and rules of interpretation. In other words, despite its sacred meaning for Muslims, religious law was not to be handled with kid gloves.  For the first three centuries of Islamic history, legal scholars interpreted shariah for an adapting and growing Empire.


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