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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Nancy Khalek

The early Islamic conquests and subsequent Empire are marked features of the development of Islam as a whole. The Umayyad Dynasty, ruling during the greatest period of expansion from the mid-7th to the mid-8th centuries, existed, strictly speaking, in a period known as "formative." That is, designations such as "Sunni" were yet to have acquired any definite sectarian meaning in this early stage of Muslim life. Nonetheless, the Umayyad period is one to which we can trace basic building blocks of what would come to be known as Sunni Islam, with its particular vision of leadership and authority.Umayyad caliphate at its greatest extent (750 CE): PublicDomain

When it comes to assessing persecution and authority in Islamic history, the institution of the caliphate is the one in which tensions and rifts show through most clearly. The term "caliphate" refers, in the first instance, to the position of political and spiritual authority over the Islamic community.  The caliph was referred to as "Amir al-Mu'minin," the "Commander of the Believers." The exact meaning and nuances of this phrase shifted to accommodate differing interpretations of legislative and spiritual jurisdiction.

In spite of its apparent clarity of meaning, the caliphate has been one of the most divisive issues in Islamic history, going as far back as the original succession to Muhammad. While the original caliphate was Muhammad's rule in Medina, over the course of time, several states were led by caliphates, and occasionally by rival ones.  Again, with precedents as early as the election of Abu Bakr's ascension to the role of caliph in 632 C.E., Sunnis believed that a process of consensus, or shura, should determine who holds the position of caliph.  The historical vision of Sunnis includes a consideration of the first four caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman and Ali, as "Rightly Guided" or "Rashidun."

"Golden Age" or "Age of Rashidun"
Death of Muhammad632 CE
Caliphate of Abu Bakr632-634 CE
Caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattab634-644 CE
Caliphate of Uthman ibn Affan644-656 CE
Caliphate of Ali Ibn Abi Talib (cousin & son-in-law of Mohammad)656-661 CE
Fitna: first Islamic civil war656-661 CE
Arbitration between Ali and Mu'awiyah658 CE
Death of Ali ibn Abi Talib661 CE

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