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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Worship and Devotion in Daily Life

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Like all denominations of Islam, Sunni Islam requires five ritual prayers per day. Aside from obligatory prayer, another aspect of daily life that is characteristic of Sunni Islam is its inclusion of other, voluntary supplications, called duaa, which can accompany everyday actions. These supplications are often based on the sunna of Muhammad, and there are a great many of these supplications, often collected in volumes and arranged according to topic. Chapter headings in such books could include, for example, "supplications upon awaking from sleep," or "supplications upon entering a mosque," or "supplications at the start of a meal," or "supplications for visiting the sick." In this sense, even mundane actions may be imbued with a sense of ritual.

On a less formal basis, these types of religious formulae are an ever-present aspect of daily life. For example, even in exchanging simple pleasantries, the name of God is often invoked.  Many are familiar with the greeting "Assalaamu Alaykum," which means "peace be upon you." This is not specific to Sunnis, of course, but each Muslim region has its own particular conversational follow-ups. In Syria, for example, a common way of saying "thank you" is to say "Allah ya‘tik al-‘aafiya" which means "may God grant you forgiveness." In this sense, the way of thanking a person is quite literally to pray for them. In Egypt, one way to implore someone strongly is to say "Allah ya khallik," which means "may God preserve you." In English, these expressions seem archaic, but in fact these types of ritual exchanges are common across many cultures.  The old English expression "Pray tell" has a similar origin. In Islamic culture, this type of interweaving of supplication and everyday speech is quite common, and varies from region to region within the broader Sunni world.

It is difficult to make generalizations about quotidian activity in Sunni Islam because the Sunni world is so large and spans so many different cultures, from North Africa to Southeast Asia to Europe and the United States. Many scholars have argued that an important aspect of Islam's ability to spread rapidly and in so many diverse environments, in both the medieval and the modern periods, is its relative adaptability to many cultures. There is no single monolithic culture that characterizes Sunni Islam, so daily life in Indonesia looks somewhat different than, say, daily life in Saudi Arabia.

While Sunnis have certain tenets and laws in common, when it comes to daily life and things like food, dress, household arrangements, and leisure activities, the Sunni world is culturally diverse. One interesting aspect of modern times is how cross-cultural fertilization happens in the global society we now inhabit. Technology has changed the ways in which Muslims share knowledge and practice. Even computers are being incorporated into daily Muslim practice -- there are several applications for having prayer times calculated onto one's computer, with variations for different Sunni schools of law! In other words, the inclusion of the Sunna into everyday activities across the Sunni world is changing along with other practical changes in society. Much as contemporary Christian culture in the United States, for example, has shifted with generational and cultural changes, Sunni Islam is being adapted to daily life in innovative ways.


Study Questions:
     1.    How can the mundane become a manifestation of the sacred in daily life?
     2.    Why is God’s name invoked so frequently?
     3.    How has culture changed the daily life of Sunnism?

 

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