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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Sacred Narratives

Written by: Nancy Khalek

There are several genres of literature in the Sunni tradition that could qualify as sacred narratives. It is important to keep in mind that foundational narratives, such as the prophetic mission of Muhammad, the revelation of the Quran, the stories of biblical prophets, Koran: photo courtesy of mmechtley via C.C. License at Flickrcreation, and the like as contained in the Quran, are common to all sects of Islam. In the Sunni tradition, an historical narrative surrounding the institution of the caliphates and the elections of Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, and Uthman, also became important foundational narratives for the bolstering of Sunni legitimacy and political authority.

Early Islamic culture, deeply steeped in a long tradition of oral history in the Arabian Peninsula, preserved tales of battle days, genealogies, poetry, and glorious reputations of historical heroes; this tendency did not end with the advent of Islam. With the growth and institutionalization of Sunni political hierarchies, along with the transition to written culture, oral culture filtered into several literary and historical genres. Chief among these was biographical literature, or sira.

It soon became clear that the most important biography would be that of Muhammad himself, whose Sira (his biography came to be known simply as "The Sira" in a terminological sense) was crucial for the legitimization and clarification of his prophetic mission. The oldest extant biography of the Prophet was by a man named Ibn Ishaq, and was compiled (probably from earlier materials) around 150 years after Muhammad's death.  That version was later edited by Ibn Hisham in the 9th century.  Although the Prophet's biography came to be seen as the sine qua non of the biographical genre, there is evidence that there was also some amount of history-writing (historiography) as well as biographical writing before his life story was put into final form.  The narrative of Muhammad's life was central to the development of Sunni tradition because it preserved and narrated the life story of the founder of Islam.

Biography expanded enormously as a category. It would prove to be particularly important for Sunni Islam, which places so much emphasis on the legitimacy of the first three caliphs. In law and in the study of hadith, a study of the first generations of Muslims meant pinning down the essentials of their biographies in order to assess their legitimacy as transmitters of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad. Furthermore, the legitimacy and pious authority of the Companions, another tenet in Sunni Islam and one made poignant by the conflict with Shi‘ism, depended upon knowing and disseminating the biographies of these important men and women.


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