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Religion Library: Sunni Islam


Written by: Nancy Khalek

Their authors and dates, according to both the Islamic (hijri year, also noted as A.H., or Anno Hegirae,) and the Gregorian calendar, are as follows (the Islamic calendar begins in the 7th century):

  1. Muhammad b. Isma‘il al-Bukhari, who died in 256/869-70.
  2. Muslim b. Hajjaj al-Nishapuri, who died in 261/874-5.
  3. Abu Dawud Suleyman b. Ash‘ath al-Sijistani, who died in 275/888-9.
  4. Muhammad b. Isa al-Tirmidhi, who died in 279/892-3.
  5. Abu 'Abd al-Rahman al-Nasa'i, who died in 303/915-16.
  6. Ibn Majah al-Qazwini, who died in 273/886-7.

Al-Bukhari's and Muslim's collections are among the most popular, though Sunnis accept the validity of all six compilations.

Because so much of the development of Sunnism was connected to the Companions and their transmission of hadith material, the boundaries and shape of early Sunnism over the course of the first three centuries of Islam reflected an emerging vision of who the key players were in the formative period of Islamic life. Intertwined with the conflicts and controversies among the first generation of Muslims concerning the leadership of the community was the question of which Companions to prefer over others in the transmission of hadith.

Both Ali and those who opposed his leadership counted, after all, among the Companions. Ali could not be dismissed in spite of the divisions his caliphate inspired.  For this reason, a distinct Sunni identity depended upon fashioning a view of history that bolstered the elections of Abu Bakr and Umar, and eventually of Uthman, while also accommodating the eventual ascension and acceptance of Ali. Following the establishment of the unprecedented dynastic succession policies of the Umayyad Empire at the hands of Ali's opponent Muawiya, himself a man of mixed reputation, this was no easy matter. One major solution to this protracted problem was the accommodation of Ali into a grouping of the first four caliphs who led the community after the death of Muhammad, called al-khulafaa al-rashidun, the "Rightly Guided Caliphs." This term became an enduring hallmark of Sunni Islam.

Study Questions:
     1.    How did the hadith literature help Sunni Islam emerge?
     2.    What was the role of authority within the hadith? Why was it important?
     3.    Who were the important successors to Muhammad? How were their teachings passed down?


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