Sunnism and Shi’ism, beginnings and historical developments.
What we call Shi’ism and Sunnism today did not exist in their current form right at their inception. They are movements that went through several phases throughout history until they became what they are today.
Bismillāhir Rahmānir Rahīm, As-salāmu ʿAlaykum wa rahmatullāhi wa barakātuh. Peace be upon you brothers and sisters.
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In this lesson, we will offer a general outlook into the history of Sunnism as well as a parallel history of Shi’ism. We will look at these two major sects of Islam were born and developed over time.
BODY OF TEXT
There are many ways to define what Sunnism and Shi’ism are. In the case of Shi’ism, the sect solidified over two centuries as various successive Imams worked to create a self-contained and systematic Islamic school of thought. The foundation that the Imams laid down were to be further codified by later Twelver Shia scholars.
What is understood as Shi’ism is a school which sees select members of the Prophet’s (s) family, starting with Imam Ali (as), as his only legitimate and divinely appointed successors. As successors, they were the only infallible source for divine guidance and Islam's interpretation.
Sunnism is a variegated tradition with many different, competing narratives of itself. If there is one thing that unites Sunnis today, it is the belief in the legitimacy of the first four caliphs, namely Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Imam Ali (as). It is the belief that these four caliphs and companions of the Prophet (s) were righteous and sources of Islamic guidance and knowledge.
Sunnis also believe that the majority, if not all the companions of the Prophet (s), as well as his wives, were righteous servants of God and authentic sources for transmitting and teaching knowledge about Islam.
What we call Sunnism today went through two major phases in history. The first phase is called proto-Sunnism, and the other is Sunnism which consolidated in the 11th century as an off-shoot of the Ahl al-Hadith movement.
Proto-Sunnism official began after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (s) in 632 AD. It was a movement of a select number of companions and their followers who assented to the legitimacy of the first three caliphs, namely Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman.
This was in opposition to a group of other companions who supported the claim of Imam Ali (as) as the only legitimate successor to the Prophet Muhammad (s). The early tensions began in four stages:
- The selection of Abu Bakr as the Caliph at Saqifah in opposition to the Prophet’s (s) appointment of Imam Ali (as) as his successor.
- The attack on the house of Fatima (as) where she, her family and close supporters were gathered in. Fatima (as) died of her injuries as a result of the sustained attack on her house by the supporters of the new Caliphate.
- The placing of Imam Ali (as) in house arrest by the powers that be.
- The two subsequent wars against Imam Ali (as) led by Ayesha and Muawiyah when he was caliph. This split the Muslim community into two groups, the supporters (Shia) of Imam Ali (as) and the supporters of Ayesha and Muawiyah. After the death of Imam Ali (as), the division was further deepened by Muawiyah’s command that all Mosques curse Imam Ali (as) during prayers, especially Friday Prayers.
The clearest break between the communities and solidification of what we know as proto-Shi’ism and proto-Sunnism is the event of Karbala. As we saw earlier, the event of Karbala pitted the Ahl al-Bayt (as) and their supporters against Yazid whom the mainstream community either directly supported or tacitly submitted to.
The Shia of the Ahl al-Bayt (as) had been oppressed before beginning with the death of the Prophet (s). However, the death of Imam al-Husayn (as) brought about about a new level of oppression where the Shia of the Ahl al-Bayt (as) and anyone who supported them were systematically hunted down, imprisoned, tortured and killed.
At this point, due to political tensions, Shi’ism and Sunnism had not developed distinct self-contained schools of thought.
It is during the times of Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (as) and his son Imam Jafar al-Sadiq (as) in the 8th century that Shi’ism grew into a self-contained legal, theological and ethical school. By self-contained I mean a school that in its religious world view could be clearly distinguished from others from all or most angles.
For example, the Shi’i view of daughters fully inheriting from their fathers became a distinguishing feature Shi'ism. It is at this point that the foundations of Shi’ism as a religious school of thought were completely solidified which eventually came to be known as 12ver Shi'ism.
Later scholars like Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Tusi (ra) (d. 1067) and Allamah al-Hilli (ra) (d. 1325) were to further refine the school and codify it in educational and institutional books.
Another example was the belief in the Qur’an as the created word of God, as opposed to mainstream proto-Sunnism which believed that the Qur’an was eternal.
Proto-Sunnism was still a disparate group with a very large number of different legal, theological and creedal schools.
Its state remained as such until the 11th century and when the war between the Seljuq Dynasty and the Ismaili Shias reached its peak. Ismaili Shias were a group of Shias who split off after Imam Jafar al-Sadiq (as) and followed Imam Jafar’s dead son, Ismail ibn Jafar.
As Ismaili Shias mounted their defensive attacks against the Seljuq Turks, the Turks, through the might of their political power, forced all disparate proto-Sunni groups to unite. Disunity among them put the risk of the Seljuq empire at risk against the Ismai'ili threat.
The Seljuq Turks established three platforms upon which the various proto-Sunni groups united on.
The first platform was the standardization of Sunni legal doctrine by emphasizing and promoting the 4 Sunni legal schools, namely the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali schools.
The second platform was through creed. In other words, people had to believe in the legitimacy of the first Four Caliphs, known as the Rashidun Caliphs, that is, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Imam Ali (as). The second belief was the belief that the Qur’an was the eternal word of God.
The final platform was the standardization of Sunnism based on the two major corpuses of hadith, namely Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. These books were to provide the newly created, self-contained movement of Sunnism, its sources of beliefs and laws. Deviance from these books was tantamount to deviance and for some, outright apostasy from Islam.
Shi’ism and Sunnism are therefore like buildings. The bricks were laid down at the inception of Islam, however, it is only over time that the building was built. For the Sunnis, the building was made in the 11th century, and for the Shias, during the 7th and 8th centuries by the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt (as).
Until Next Time, Thank you for watching. As-salāmu ʿAlaykum wa rahmatullāhi wa barakātuh
Twelver or Imami Shias
Shias who believe in the 12 Imams
people who believed in the first 6 Imams, but follow a different line of Imams after Imam Jafar al-Sadiq
The initial phases and building blocks of what we know as Sunnism today. Proto-Sunnism was a movement with many disparate groups that had contradicting views on law, theology and overall Islamic creed and doctrine. They were united only to the extent that they thought that the first two caliphs, Abu Bakr and Umar, were righteous
When did Shi’ism turn into an independent and self-contained school?
In the 7th-8th centuries under Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (as)
When did Sunnism as we know it today officially begin?
11th century during the Seljuq Dynasty
When did the initial split between Shia and Sunni begin?
After the death of the Prophet (s) and the usurpation of Imam Ali’s (as) caliphate
What are the founding text books of Sunnism?
Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim.
How and why is it that Sunnism as we know it today was created in the 11th century? What are the reasons?
Sunnism was established as a unifying body of people by the Seljuq Dynasty in response to threats from Ismaili Shias. They believed unity was the only way they could win the war that they themselves had begun against the Ismailis.
How do you define Sunnism today?
The belief in the legitimacy of the Four Righteous Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Imam Ali), the righteousness of the Prophet’s wives and the eternal nature of God’s words in the Qur’an.
salvation in Islam
eternity of the Qur’an
Wives of the Prophet
Imam Jafar al-Sadiq
Imam Muhammad al-Baqir
Muhammad ibn al-Hassan al-Tusi
companions of the Prophet