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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Early Developments

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Al-Shafi‘i (the Shafi'i School) in particular had an enormous impact on the formalization of Sunni approaches to Islamic law, arguing for the primacy of the Quran, followed by the hadith. If those two sources failed to produce adequate guidance on a matter, a qadi was to seek the guidance of the consensus, called ijma‘, of other legal scholars. Only as a final recourse should a qadi rely upon his own judgment in finding some analogous precedent.  Originally, this inspired some controversy, as other jurists were more comfortable resorting to their own judgment, or ra'y, in times of necessity. Camps termed the ahl al-hadith ("proponents of tradition") and the ahl al-ra'y ("proponents of reason") argued over the validity of their differing approaches. In spite of these controversies, Al-Shafi‘i had a major and lasting impact on Sunni Islam.

Study Questions:
     1.    What are the theological implications of following the Sunni tradition?
     2.    How did Sunni law build upon pre-existing norms?
     3.    Why was geography a factor in Sunni law consistency?
     4.    Why did the four schools of law develop? Which has had the most lasting impact on the Sunni tradition?


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