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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Today, Sunnis comprise the vast majority of the world's Muslims, but among that massive geographical and demographic scope, a spectrum of practices and applications of Islamic culture and law characterize Islamic societies now, as they have done throughout history. Some have wondered whether it is more apt to characterize this plurality of practice as "Islams" as opposed to a single "Islam." This impulse, however, while seeking to acknowledge diversity in tradition, implies that Islam is unique in manifesting varied practices across cultures. 

photo courtesy of criminalintent via C.C. License at FlickrAnother method of explaining the adaptability of Islamic practice to myriad societies is to view it as a mechanism for facilitating the rapid growth and lengthy evolution of Islam in general. In the contemporary political context, sectarian division has recently been foregrounded in international conflicts in the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere.  Islamic practice and ideology seem, in places as diverse as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and Switzerland, to be at a crossroads, at the intersection of tradition and modernity. Issues such as observance of Islamic dress, including the headscarf/hijab in France and Iran, the construction of minarets in Europe, and the institution of shariah courts for civil proceedings in England are but a few examples of the controversies and issues afoot in the Islamic world today.  These and other cultural issues are inexplicably embedded in modern identity, characterized by more global conceptions of politics, economics, and ethnicity.

Study Questions:
     1.    When was the “Golden Age” of Islam? Why was it called this?
     2.    Should Islam be viewed as monolithic? Why or why not?
     3.    How has contemporary culture made it difficult for Sunnis to find unity throughout the world?


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