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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Early Developments

Written by: Nancy Khalek

No system of thought or cultural development begins ex nihilo. In terms of Sunni law, pre-existing norms, from the Arabian Peninsula as well as from the well-established Sasanian (Persian) Empire, affected patterns of early Islamic thought. For example, the law of retaliation for bodily crimes against specific people already existed in the Arabian Peninsula before the dawn of Islam. It was incorporated, with some modification, into an Islamic legal principle called qisas. While the Quran contains injunctions regarding elements of Islamic conduct, and despite the fact that many of its verses regarding inheritance or divorce are quite litigious, the scripture does not contain an actual law code. The hadith, obviously important for rounding out interpretation of the scripture, were vast and numerous and already a subject of their own study. Combining interpretations of these sources required theoretical structures to accommodate the needs of the changing Islamic empire.

Umayyad caliphate at its greatest extent (750 CE): PublicDomainMoreover, the empire was indeed growing. Over the course of just under a hundred years, the Umayyad dynasty presided over the expansion of Islam into India, North Africa, and Spain. To legislate matters of everyday life in these diverse areas, judges called qadis presided over the affairs of the Muslim populations.  In the following century, the Abbasid dynasty ruled from its own capital, Baghdad, a period that began the age commonly referred to as the "Golden Age" of Islamic thought. Impacted enormously by sophisticated Persian court culture, the Abbasids had their own views about the centralization of government, while provincial qadis continued to preside over civil law.Abbasid Caliphate (green) at its greatest extent, c. 850:Public Domain

Over time it became inevitable, however, that local concerns and customs would engender different interpretations of law.  Different legal systems began to develop in several regions. There is no official clerical class, doctrinal council, or sole spiritual authority in Islamic society.  The formalization of Islamic law was therefore organic and multi-faceted.  Four schools of Sunni law exist today. Developed through generations of students and scholars, these four "schools of law," or madhahib in Arabic, are named for the teachers whose approach to hadith and religious practice was later elaborated on. It is important to remember that these schools are not distinguished from one another along doctrinal lines; they differ, rather, in terms of the execution of certain ritual and practical aspects of Islam and in their approaches to the interpretation of sources. Adherents of each Sunni school all regard one another as valid. The four remaining schools of Sunni law and their eponymous founders are:

  1. The Hanafi School, named after Abu Hanifa (d. 767)
  2. The Maliki School, named after Malik ibn Anas (d. 796)
  3. The Shafi‘i School, named after Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi‘i (d. 820)
  4. The Hanbali School, named after Ahmad bin Hanbal (d. 855)
 

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