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Religion Library: Sunni Islam


Written by: Nancy Khalek

There is no centralized doctrinal council or concentrated spiritual authority for all of Islamic society. Processes that led up to the formalization of Islamic law, the shariah, were therefore multi-faceted. There are four schools of Sunni law that survived the vicissitudes of history and still exist today. (Though there are other Sunni schools of law, they are followed by very few people and are relatively unknown.) These four madhahib (schools of law) are named for four great teachers whose methodologies and approach to hadith and practice were most extensively expounded upon after their deaths by generations of students and scholars. All four of these agree about basic doctrine, but differ somewhat in terms of the execution of certain ritual aspects of Islam, and in their approaches to the interpretation of sources. They all consider one another, however, equally valid. The four remaining schools of Sunni law and their eponymous founders are:

  1. The Hanafi School, named after Abu Hanifa (d. 767).  He was born in Kufa (modern-day Iraq) around 702. Today, many Muslims of West and Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Balkans, Iraq, and Turkey are Hanafis.
  2. The Maliki School, named after Malik ibn Anas (d. 796) Malik's ideas were deeply rooted in Medina, and they place an even greater emphasis on the practice of the Companions of Muhammad and their descendants. Many Muslims in Africa adhere to the Maliki school, with some significant exceptions, including Egypt.
  3. The Shafi‘i School, named after Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi‘i (d. 820) who was a student of Malik's. He taught in Iraq and Egypt. Many Muslims all over the world, including Indonesia, Egypt, Malaysia, Singapore, Somalia, the Levant, India, Sri Lanka, and Yemen follow this school.
  4. The Hanbali School, named after Ahmad bin Hanbal (d. 855), who was born in Baghdad. He was a student of al-Shafi‘i and was also an important figure in early Muslim theological disputes, which led to his persecution by the Abbasid caliph al-Ma'mun. 

Study Questions:
     1.    Why are there no specific “founders” of Islam?
     2.    Why were scholars important to the creation of Sunnism?
     3.    Contrast the four madhahib of Sunnism.


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