The organization and leadership of Sunni Islam has had a formative impact on Sunni identity. The clan-dominated and tribal structure of pre-Islamic Arabian society placed a great emphasis on family relationships and kinship. The initial distinguishing feature of Sunni Islam was that although the denomination eventually settled upon members of the prophet's clan as leaders for the Muslim community - in contrast to those who supported Ali as the rightful inherit or of the mantle of leadership - Sunnis elected a leader by consensus. This had an immediate impact on subsequent generations of the early Muslim community.
Although it began as a rather small group, the Muslim umma (community) grew rather quickly into the global community of Muslims. National controversies surrounding the establishment of dynastic rule from Syria, and later from Baghdad, likewise contributed to different conceptions of the Muslim community. Conversion to Islam, a phenomenon that grew enormously with time over the course of the second and third centuries of the Islamic era, influenced the concept of who was a part of the Muslim community.
There are many anecdotes regarding leadership from among non-Arab converts to Islam in the early Muslim world. One such anecdote consists of an interview between one 9th-century caliph and a legal scholar. In it, the caliph asks the scholar about who has been put in charge of the affairs of various regions of the Islamic world, from Syria to Yemen to North Africa. As the legal scholar responds, naming those leading the various regions, the caliph follows up by asking if the person was Arab or a non-Arab convert to Islam. In every region but one, the scholar answered that the regional leaders were converts to Islam. The caliph then responds by saying that non-Arabs were dominating the religion, which had begun among the Arabs. The scholar's pious response was that knowledge of religion should determine leadership, as opposed to tribal or ethnic affiliation. The point of the anecdote is that even in the early days of Islam, non-Muslim converts were asserting their rights and equal status as Muslims, in spite of the fact that they were not part of the originally Arab Muslim community.
In the later Middle Ages and into the early modern era, the notion of the Islamic community evolved with the political exigencies faced by various leaderships. The disintegration of the Islamic Empire began in the mid-8th century with the Abbasid revolution. Rival states, such as the Fatimids in Egypt, established in the mid-10th century, were established across geographical boundaries in what is usually referred to as the "Muslim Commonwealth." Some of these had distinct sectarian affiliations.
The Ottoman Empire, established in the high Middle Ages, was the last great Sunni empire. (It actually abolished the institution of the caliphate in the early 20th century.) By the late Middle Ages, however, the position of caliph was mainly honorific, as opposed to the title of a real political or spiritual authority. In spite of grand notions of universal community, which may pertain more to ideological identity than ethnic or political identity, throughout the history of Sunni Islam the concept of community has been fiercely local. This is not to say that there is no sense within Sunni Islam of a universal Muslim community. It is simply to say that when it comes to the business of daily practice and the structure of everyday family, social, and civic life, citizenship generally pertains to the structures and relationships of a particular time and place. It is for them to distinguish between citizenship and identity.
Nationalism, arising in different parts of the Islamic world in response to varied experiences of colonialism and reformist thought, introduced the concept of citizen to a particular Nation, which more often than not was also associated with an ethnic identity. Leading aristocrats, called notables, and officials of the Ottoman Empire who reported back to the Sultan, for example, became the foundation for burgeoning nationalisms in parts of the Arab world in the late 19th century.
For the purposes of Islamic law and practice, citizenship has more to do with the relationships between people and the state than with religious concerns.
Of course, in the modern era, the notion of community in general, let alone a religious community, has changed in myriad ways. New technologies, especially the Internet, mean that parts of the Islamic world that are far-flung can be in communication in real time. Ethnic identity becomes less meaningful when there are so many Muslim immigrant communities becoming established in parts of Europe and in the United States. Race is more and more beginning to be seen as a construct, as opposed to a defining aspect of identity. Politics and ideology have emerged as more important that geography: most recently, events stemming from controversial elections in Iran and in Eastern Europe have united various branches of the Muslim community, across denominations, and have linked the broader Muslim community to the wider non-Muslim world. In a sense, the concept of community itself is no longer what it used to be, regardless of the particular religious affiliation. It remains to be seen how the new global Muslim community will conceive of itself.
1. How are Sunni leaders elected?
2. At the time of Sunnism’s origins, why wasn’t Islamic faith essential to citizenship?
3. What is the role of race within contemporary Islamic society?