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Religion Library: Sunni Islam


Written by: Nancy Khalek

Following Abu Bakr's death in 634, he was succeeded by another prominent Companion, Umar ibn al-Khattab. When Umar was murdered in 644, he was succeeded by yet another member of Quraysh, Uthman ibn Affan. It was Uthman's murder, in 656, that entrenched sectarian affiliations for the long term, since his supporters felt that Ali, upon assuming the caliphate, was lax in his pursuit of the criminals. It is important to note at the outset that Sunnis still held Ali in high esteem, as he was related to the prophet and had been an early convert to Islam. His prominence in the community, even to those who did not pledge him their initial loyalty, was and would remain intact. He would even eventually succeed to the caliphate himself. Yet the initial divide over the justice of his having been passed over was sufficient to lay the groundwork for permanent sectarian divides.

These divides were exacerbated and made firm by the conflict and turmoil that continued to plague the Muslim community in its first decades. The First Civil War took place upon the murder of the third Sunni caliph, Uthman. The caliph, of a mixed reputation because of claims of ineffective leadership and nepotism, was besieged in his home and brutally killed. By this time, Ali had succeeded to the caliphate, and Uthman's supporters accused Ali of failing to avenge his slain predecessor.

"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

For the next five years, the entirety of his reign, Ali faced opposition and revolts. In 656, he faced and defeated an uprising led by one of the prophet's widows, Aisha, and her supporters Talhah and al-Zubayr. This event, dubbed the Battle of the Camel because Aisha herself is said to have ridden into battle in a litter on a camel's back, was not the last obstacle Ali would face. Contenders for power in Syria, relatives of Uthman, faced off in the Battle of Siffin in 658. This prolonged battle came to a close when Muawiya, the leader of the Syrian opposition, had his troops ride into an arbitration with copies of the Quran affixed to the ends of their lances. Ali agreed to arbitration, a fact for which he would pay dearly. Secessionists from his own group of supporters, called Kharijites, betrayed him and declared him an illegitimate leader. Ali was assassinated by a Kharijite in 661.

Muawiya, poised for leadership from his base in Syria, became caliph. His was the first caliphate to end with the explicit designation of a successor, his son Yazid. The institution of dynastic succession for leadership over the numerical majority of the Muslim community, while not entirely uncontroversial, signified a decisive answer to Shi'i claims about Muhammad's direct descendants (Ali had married the prophet's daughter, Fatima, so her children and their descendants were the most direct hereditary line going back to Muhammad) having the right to lead, and entrenched the Sunni/Shi'i divide.
*believe Muhammad named Ali as successor*Do not believe Muhammad named succesor
*Muhammad's family has sole claim to legitimate leadership*the Prophet's companions have authoritative leadership
*rely on authoritative teaching of Muhammad's decedants*rely on consensus (Arabic, ijma) of religions and religious scholars

Study Questions:
     1.    In what ways can it be said that Sunni Islam developed out of controversy?
     2.    Who was Abu Bakr? What was his relationship to Muhammad?
     3.    Why did Umar’s death solidify the divide between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims?
     4.    Describe the relationship between political instability and Islamic sects.


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