Schisms and Sects

The formative period of Sunni law had taken on distinct shape by the beginning of the 10th century C.E.  This is the period in which scholars began to compile guides, or handbooks, for the application of law. While the madhahib comprise their own methodological approaches, the shariah itself is a system that relies upon a vast corpus of legal and exegetical scholarship. It comprises criminal, family, and commercial law. Rights and responsibilities are either individual or communal, and a broad vision of civil society is contained within the elaboration of the shariah.

Strictly speaking, each school of law or madhhab (pl. madhahib) was not a sect, but a methodological approach to religious and legal interpretation. There was no compulsion in the school of thought to which one adhered. More often than not, people simply advocated the methodology of their given locality.

Many Sunnis did and still do advocate, however, that a person choose a madhhab and follow it consistently, in spite of the fact that other schools are deemed equally valid. Current incarnations of Sunni Islam, as is typical of modern reform movements, have their own, less rigid, views about the necessity of adhering to a madhhab consistently, if at all.

Six core beliefs of Islam
  1. Reality of one God
  2. Existence of angels of God
  3. Authority of the books of God
  4. Following the prophets of God
  5. Preparation for the Day of Judgment
  6. Supremacy of God’s will

Leaving aside the matter of legal differentiation for a moment, there were also other lines along which different groups of Sunnis arranged themselves when it came to more interior questions about Islam. The articles of faith, iman, are enumerated as belief in God, the Angels, the revealed books, the Messengers who brought those books, the final Day of Judgment, and the belief in God's knowledge and control over everything (al-qadaa wa al-qadar). Specific views about some of these articles of faith would become defining aspects of theological controversies between Sunnis and other denominations, as well as among Sunnis themselves.

One theological school was the Mu‘tazilite, sometimes referred to as the "school of speculative theology." It was based primarily in Iraq, in Basra and Baghdad, flourishing from the 8th to the 10th centuries. While less relevant for the overall development of Sunni theology, Mu‘tazilite theological views about the nature of God influenced Shi‘ism more profoundly, especially Twelver(-Shi'ism) or Imami Shi‘ism. Its followers are generally not accepted by Sunni scholars, allegedly due to its belief in the superiority of reason to tradition, and the tendency to generate less literal interpretations of particular, namely ambiguous, verses of the Quran. The nature of the scripture, however, was to be a controversial matter in another, somewhat puzzling, episode in early Islamic history.

photo courtesy of ~crystalina~ via C.C. License at FlickrThe Mihna was a sort of mini-inquisition that began in 833 C.E. The Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mun sought to impose his theological views on his subjects, particularly those views concerning the nature of the Quran. Although all sides could agree that the text of the scripture was the Word of God, they differed as to whether it was Created (i.e., it did not always co-exist with the eternal God, who is totally unified and un-partnered) or Uncreated (always existent and co-eternal with God). Al-Ma'mun's position was that only God could be eternal and that therefore the text was inviolable but could not be Uncreated. To enforce his position, al-Ma'mun persecuted his opponents, sometimes dismissing them from official posts, putting them in prison, or flogging them in public. The Mihna continued under subsequent caliphs and was ended in 861 by al-Ma'mun's nephew al-Mutawakkil.

It was generally thought that al-Ma'mun instituted the Mihna under the guidance of Mu‘tazilite advisors, though this is a simplified and polemical view. In the end, it was most likely begun as an attempt to garner and solidify caliphal power under the banner of theological opinions. After all, the Createdness of the Quran was a doctrine that was not the exclusive purview of Mu‘tazilites. Other groups also espoused this doctrine. Neither was al-Ma'mun exclusively supportive of Mu‘tazilites as such. His own beliefs are not easily ensconced in one camp or another, as regard the Quran or the issues of predestination and free will.

Ultimately, the prevailing Sunni theology was Ash‘ari theology, founded by Abu al-Hasan al-Asha‘ri who died in 936 C.E. This school's views were that ultimate comprehension of God's nature and the attributes of God were beyond human understanding. They also held that while humans had free will, only God had the power to create, to discern good from evil, or to determine morality from immorality. Only God's decree on such matters was possible, and people had simply to follow His edicts.  These views were not based on an aversion to intellectual critique, but on a belief in the ultimate superiority and complete otherness of God with respect to the realm of humans, who are by nature limited and inferior to God's perfection.

In this same period, a third approach to Islamic practice was Sufism, commonly referred to as Islamic Mysticism. To be a Sufi was not to be outside of the realm of law or theology, and Sufis could follow any of the aforementioned schools of law or theology.  In addition, Sufis attempted to follow a practice that brought the soul closer to God. This was manifested in a variety of practices and paths, which developed into different Sufi orders called tariqas. Tariqas originated with a particular teacher whose discipline and method for spiritual training were passed down to his or her students. Almost every Sufi order traces its lineage to teachings that originated with Muhammad.

Study Questions:
     1.     Should the schools of law be seen as sects within Sunnism? Why or why not?
     2.     Other than law, how did Sunnis distinguish themselves?
     3.     What was the Mihna?
     4.     From whom did Sunnism’s prevailing theology emerge? What does it teach?

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