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Sunnī Islam

[This entry contains two subentries:

Historical Overview

Practiced by the majority of Muslims, Sunnī Islam is based primarily on the sunnah, the customary practice of the prophet Muḥammad. This practice is preserved in the ḥadīth (tradition), which consists of the accounts of what the Prophet said or did. The tradition and the Qurʿān are the main sources of Sunnī religious law. Also important is ijmāʿ, the consensus of the religious scholars which reflects the Sunnī emphasis on community and its collective wisdom, guided by the Qurʿān and the Sunnah. Sunnī Muslims have thus referred to themselves as ahl al-sunnah wa al-jamāʿah (people of the sunnah and the community).

Sunnī Islam, however, is not monolithic. It comprises several theological and legal schools, as well as a variety of attitudes and outlooks conditioned by historical setting, locale, and cultural circumstances. Sunnī Muslims do, however, share certain distinctive beliefs. They differ from the Shīʿah—the party of ʿAlī (the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law)—in denying that the Prophet designated ʿAlī to succeed him as leader of the Islamic community. ʿAlī, the fourth of the Rightly Guided Caliphs (al-khulafāʿ al-rāshidūn), like the first three, became a legitimate caliph through a form of public acclamation. Sunnīs also distinguished themselves from other Islamic sects whose views they believe constitute innovations (bidaʿ, singular form bidʿah), that is, departures from the beliefs of the community at large.

Sunnī Islam developed as a result of political and religious struggles within Islam that began early in its history. Among the most important events in these complex struggles was an army mutiny in 656 CE which resulted in the murder of the third caliph, ʿUthmān, a member of the Umayyad clan of the Quraysh tribe of Mecca. ʿAlī was proclaimed caliph, but ʿUthmān's kinsman, the Umayyad Muʿāwiyah, governor of Syria, demanded that ʿAlī bring to justice the murderers of ʿUthmān and refused to acknowledge him as caliph. During the inconclusive civil war between them, part of ʿAlī's army withdrew its support from him but remained opposed to Muʿāwiyah. This group formed the basis of the sect of “the Seceders” (al-Khawārij) with its various divisions. They were united in rejecting both ʿUthmān and ʿAlī as legitimate caliphs and confronted Muslims with pivotal theological questions that conditioned the development of sectarian thought. In 661, a Khārijite assassinated ʿAlī, and Muʿāwiyah was acknowledged caliph, founding the Umayyad caliphate which lasted until 750.

This period witnessed the polarization of religious attitudes that became formal doctrine. Dispute over such questions as the definition of true belief, the status of those who profess Islam and commit a great sin but remain unrepentant, and especially the question of the freedom of the will and predestination. These questions were discussed by Sunnī thinkers as they strove to formulate theologies consistent with the Qurʿān and the sunnah. In 750 the Umayyad caliphate was toppled by the ʿAbbāsids, descendants of the Prophet's uncle al-ʿAbbās. The new ʿAbbāsid caliphate lasted until 1258, when the Mongols brought it to an end. The Sunnī Umayyads, however, reestablished their power in Islamic Spain, until l037. The various Islamic powers that succeeded them in Spain remained predominantly Sunnī.

During the ʿAbbāsid period, Sunnī Islam came into its own. The four schools of Sunnī law, founded by Abū Ḥanīfah (d. 767), Mālik Ibn Anas (d. 797), al-Shāfiʿī (d. 820), and Ibn Ḥanbal (d. 855) became firmly established. The history of Sunnī Islam in this period is marked by Muslim reaction to excessive rationalism in theology and to developments in Shīʿism.

The rationalist school of speculative theology (kalām), the Muʿtazilī, which had its roots in the late Umayyad period, alienated the more conventional Muslims, for whom Muʿtazilī intellectualism missed the spirit of the Qurʿān. Things came to a head when the ʿAbbāsid caliph al-Maʿmūn (r. 813–833) supported the Muʿtazilah and attempted to impose their doctrine of the created Qurʿān; essentially, although the speech of God, the Qurʿān is not coeternal with the divine essence, but has an origination in time. This attempt which continued with his two successors, saw the persecution of dissidents, including Ibn Ḥanbal. A reaction to the Muʿtazilah set in, and it lost its political power and its dominance as a school of kalām and was gradually superseded by the school of al-Ashʿarī (d. 935), who used kalām to defend traditional Islamic belief. Not all Sunnī Muslims subscribed to Ashʿarism: some belonged to another school of Sunnī kalām, that of al-Māturīdī (d. 944); others, the followers of the influential religious thinker Ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328), disavowed kalām.

Shīʿism in the ʿAbbāsid period was dominated by two related groups, the Ismāʿīlīyah, or Seveners, and the IthnāʿAsharīyah, or Twelvers. Both maintained that the rightful Islamic leader, the imam, must be a descendant of Ḥusayn, son of ʿAlī and Fāṭimah, the prophet's daughter, and that this imam is endowed with special knowledge. They disagreed, however, on the identity of the rightful seventh imam. The Twelvers gained prestige and influence when the Shīʿī Būyid dynasty became the effective ruler in Baghdad (945–1055), although it continued to acknowledge the ʿAbbāsid caliph. The Ismāʿīlīyah established in 910 a counter-caliphate, the Fāṭimid, in North Africa, and conquered Egypt in 969 and made it their base. The tenth century witnessed a substantial growth of Shīʿī power. Sunnī power, however, was revived when the Seljuk Turks, who were Sunnīs, conquered Baghdad in 1055. They provided effective military opposition to the Fāṭimids in Syria and ideological opposition through the writings of such prominent Sunnī thinkers as al-Ghazālī (d. 1111). In 1171, Islam's great counter-crusader, Saladin (Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn, d. 1193) brought an end to the Fāṭimid caliphate.

Twelver Shiism fared better when Shah Ismāʿīl (d. 1523), founder of the Ṣafavid Persian state espoused it; Shiism retains its strong base in modern-day Iran. The Ṣafavids’ rival, the larger Ottoman empire, was, however, Sunnī.

Islam spread to India gradually. It arrived initially with the Umayyad expansion into northern India which was brought about by trade and peaceful conversion as well as by warfare. Under the tolerant policies of the Mughal emperor Akbar (d. 1605), especially toward his Hindu subjects, Islam took greater hold, partly because of his conciliatory policies toward his Hindu subjects. Through peaceful conversions, Indian Islam, predominantly Sunnī, spread eastward to Indonesia which is now the world's most populous Muslim country.



  • Coulson, Noel J.A History of Islamic Law. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1964. Readable, comprehensive general account.
  • Gimaret, Daniel. La doctrine d’al-Ashʿarī. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1990. The most authoritative work.
  • Fakhry, Majid. A History of Islamic Philosophy. 2d ed.New York: Columbia University Press, 1983. Includes expositions of prominent Sunnī thinkers such as al-Ghazālī.
  • Laoust, Henri. “La influence d’Ibn Taymīya.” In Islam: Past Influence and Present Challenge, edited by Alford T. Welch and Pierre Cachia, pp. 15–33. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1979.
  • Hourani, George F.Averroes on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy. London: Luzac and Co. The Introduction to the translation of Ibn Rushd's (Averroës's) Decisive Treatise discusses the religious situation in Islamic Spain.
  • MacDonald, Duncan B.Development of Muslim Theology: Jurisprudence and Constitutional Theory. London, 1903. A somewhat dated standard study, but still very useful.
  • Marmura, Michael E.“Ghazali and Ashʿarism Revisited.”Arabic Sciences and Philosophy: A Historical Journal12 (2002): 91–110.
  • Watt, W. Montgomery. The Formative Period of Islamic Thought. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 1973. A standard study, excellent in every way.
  • Wensinck, A.J.The Muslim Creed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932. A valuable study, though somewhat dated and not without its share of “Western” assumptions.

Michael E. Marmura

Modern Sunnī Thought

Any consideration of modern Sunnī thought has to take into account new Qurʿānic interpretations which started to appear at the end of the nineteenth century in the works of reformers who examined scriptures and early traditions in an effort to renew Islamic thought. Because all pioneering studies that aimed to carry weight for a Muslim audience referred to the Qurʿān, reformers Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849–1905) and Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā (1865–1935) presented their ideas as new commentary, first published in the monthly issues of the Egyptian journal al-Manār between 1903 and 1935 (later published separately in twelve volumes). Several such tafsīrs (exegetical studies) produced in twentieth-century Egypt were studied by Jacques Jomier, J. J. G. Jansen, and I. M. al-Sharqāwī; those by ʿĀʿishah ʿAbd al-Raḥmān (Bint al-Shāṭiʿ) and Sayyid Quṭb deserve to be mentioned as well. In the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent, Sayyid Aḥmad Khān ’s (1817–1898) commentary on the first seventeen sūrahs of the Qurʿān (published in seven volumes between 1880 and 1907) was the first modern reformist commentary. Khān 's critical work was studied by J. M. S. Baljon together with subsequent annotations. The two most noteworthy of which were those by Abū al-Kalām Āzād (1888–1958) and Ghulām Aḥmad Parvez (b. 1903).

Qurʿānic Commentaries and the Biography of Muḥammad.

In the 1940s, the Egyptian scholar Amīn al-Khūlī at the University of Cairo, along with his students Muḥammad Aḥmad Khalafallāh and ʿĀʿishah ʿAbd al-Raḥmān, initiated a new approach to the study of the Qurʿān, regarding it as a literary document to be studied with literary methods without the interference of theological doctrine. In 1947, Khalafallāh submitted his doctoral dissertation on the art of narration in the Qurʿān (in Arabic), in which he proved that the Qurʿān contains reinterpretations of earlier versions of scriptural stories. It met with strong resistance from al-Azhar authorities and could only be published in 1951, in a revised version. More recently, Naṣr ḤāmidAbū Zayd at the University of Cairo, and Mohammed Arkoun in Paris, carried out original research on the Qurʿān. See ʿABDUH, MUḥAMMAD; AḥMAD KHāN, SAYYID; ĀZāD, ABū AL- KALāM; KHALAFALLāH, MUḥAMMAD AḥMAD; QUṭB, SAYYID; and RIḍā, RASHīD.

Two Algerian scholars developed new approaches to the Qurʿān. One scholar, Malek Bennabi, concentrated on how to understand the Qurʿān as revelation and how to account for Muḥammad 's subjectivity in the revelatory process. Published in France in 1946, his book The QurʿanicPhenomenon appeared in English translation in 1988. The other scholar, Mohammed Arkoun (b. 1928), “read” the Qurʿān in light of modern semiotic theory. Arkoun in general redefined the problem of interpreting scriptural texts in modern terms in his book Lectures du Coran (1982) and several publications in French, some of which were translated into English. Arkoun 's publications distinguished themselves from the thousands of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Sunnī publications on the Qurʿān by asking new questions about the literary and historical aspects of scriptures and their hermeneutics.See ARKOUN, MOHAMMED.

In recent years, renewed attention has been paid to the sīrah literature, which deals with the biography of Muḥammad. Quite a few literary biographies of the person of Muḥammad emerged after World War I; the main Egyptian biographies were authored by E. S. Sabanegh in Muhammad: Le prophète (Paris and Rome, 1983). Al-Qummani studied the sociopolitical conditions of ancient Mecca in search of historical causes for the rise of the Islamic state under Muḥammad 's leadership. The question of the reliability of ḥadīths on the subject was part of the broader field of Muslim work on ḥadīth literature. While Western scholars denied the historical authenticity of at least part of this literature, several Muslim scholars recognized the historical problems involved; G. H. A. Juynboll in particular studied Muslim scholarship on the question of the historical authenticity of these texts.


Another field of major concern in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Sunnī thought was sharīʿah (the divine law). Whereas the writings of the great medieval fuqahāʿ (jurisprudents) continued to enjoy high prestige and were considered to be authoritative, Fazlur Rahman and other twentieth-century modernist reformers recognized that the fiqh (jurisprudence) treatises remained human formulations of what was considered divine law. Such formulations from the past necessitated careful verification against scriptural data, studious interpretations with the help of reason, and meticulous evaluations against present-day life situations and problems. Formulating sharīʿah in human terms, consequently, was an ongoing enterprise. Only Muʿammar al-Qadhdhāfī contended that sharīʿah should be based on the Qurʿān alone. Much thought was given to matters related to sharīʿah, as distinct from the civil codes enacted in nearly all Muslim countries, in the course of the twentieth century.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Muḥammad ʿAbduh admitted that fuqahāʿ could draw on the four recognized fiqh schools (madhhabs) for the study of what sharīʿah implied in specific cases. Approximately sixty years later, Maḥmūd Shaltūt added the Shīʿī Ithnā ʿAsharīyah madhhab. They maintained that combining different Qurʿānic texts with opinions drawn from different law schools ensured a “modernization” or liberalization of certain traditionally valid rules about polygamy, repudiation, and divorce.

The Caliphate and the Islamic State.

No less spectacular was the development of thought about the implications of sharīʿah for constitutional law and the organization of the state. The immediate cause of the revision of traditional doctrine was the formal abolition of the caliphate (which had already been reduced to a largely titular post) by the Turkish National Assembly, first in November 1922 and definitively in March 1924. In 1922–1923, Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā had already proposed a new concept of the caliphate as a parallel religious and political structure, which would encompass all Muslim countries. In 1925, the Egyptian scholar ʿAlī ʿAbd al-Rāziq published a study on Islam and the fundamentals of government (in Arabic); he used powerful arguments to deny that the institution of the caliphate had a Qurʿānic and Islamic foundation, and to combat the traditional idea that Islam required a particular form of state and government. He asserted that Muslims were free to choose the form of government they preferred in their countries, since political authority did not constitute a fundamental principle of Islam. This was, of course, meant to give Muslims responsibility for the particular ways in which they wanted to build their states. Since the author made a distinction between Muḥammad as a prophet and religious teacher of eternal truth and as a statesman in historical circumstances, he asserted that the religious character of Islam was distinct from its political character, implying a separation between religion and state. This went against established tradition and doctrine, and ʿAbd al-Rāziq 's book was banned by al-Azhar.

It should be noted that in the 1920s the question of the caliphate and the implications of its abolition by the Turkish government led to discussions throughout the Muslim world, particularly in the Near East and India. In Turkey, the Soviet Union, and a few other countries, there were jurists who favored a separation between sharīʿah and the state, that is, between state and religion. This position was later defended by Muḥammad Saʿīd al-ʿAshmāwī in Egypt, in his hugely controversial al-Islām al-siyāsī (Political Islam; Cairo, 1987).See ʿABD AL-RāZIQ, ʿALī.

The reaction came not only from al-Azhar, bastion of established Islam, but also from the circle of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt in 1928 and had spread to Syria, Palestine, and elsewhere over the following twenty years. The Muslim Brotherhood held that Islam prescribed an Islamic social order (al-niẓām al-Islāmī), which could only be developed in an Islamic state (al-dawlah al-Islāmīyah). Under the circumstances of the time (foreign rule, World War II, the establishment of the state of Israel), the vision of an Islamic state, to be established by force if necessary, gained ground among the Muslim Brothers.

The Muslim Brotherhood 's structural parallel in Pakistan was the Jamāʿat-i Islāmī, founded by Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī (1903–1979); his organization was intent on turning Pakistan into an Islamic state based on sharīʿah. While his Egyptian counterparts were persecuted under the Nasser regime between 1954 and 1970, Mawdūdī was able to describe in detail the encompassing Islamic order to be realized in the hoped-for Islamic state. To achieve it, an Islamic “revolution” (not necessarily of a violent nature), was required; this would guarantee the fundamental transformation of society, its Islamization. Even under Zia ul-Haq, who imposed this kind of Islamization in Pakistan, the hoped-for realization of sharīʿah in an Islamic social order did not take place. Ultimately, various Muslim states applied sharīʿah in widely differing ways, often combining religious prescriptions with secular regulations. See JAMāʿAT-I ISLāMī; MAWDūDī, SAYYID ABū AL-AʿLā; and MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD, subentry on MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD IN EGYPT.

Nationalism and Socialism.

A different kind of Sunnī thought developed from the attempt to reconcile certain prominent Western ideologies with Islam rather than to oppose everything Western with the idea of an Islamic order and an Islamic state. Was nationalism compatible with Islam? Until the Egyptian revolution of 1952 al-Azhar scorned all nationalist divisions among Muslims, maintaining the ideal of the political unity of all Muslims, notwithstanding the fact that several new nation-states with Muslim majorities were established. Insofar as Islamic sentiments supported the struggle for independence, there were no conflicts; the problem arose, however, when nationalist leaders created secular rather than Islamic states.

Was democracy compatible with Islam? Proponents of democracy argued that Islam possessed an embryonic democracy in the Qurʿānic concept of shūrā, an advisory council to the head of the state. It was also felt that democracy, with its insistence on the responsibility of the citizens and its legitimation of the state as representative of responsible citizens, was a necessity for the development of Muslim societies. Yet, most Muslim societies were governed on the lines of “Oriental despotism,” in which religion in fact legitimized the use of power from above. Adherents of an Islamic state affirmed that the democracy that Islam proposed was different from its Western counterpart. See DEMOCRACY.

Many discussions continued about the relationship between socialism and Islam; this also had an immediate political relevance, since some Muslim countries allowed an open market economy according to the capitalist model, whereas others followed varieties of the socialist model. The Syrian thinker Muṣṭafā al-Sibāʿī pleaded for an Islamic socialism in his 1959 book on the socialism of Islam, and was welcomed by Nasser and others—at the time Egypt and other Arab countries were moving to the left, but socialism was never adopted. There turned out to be several versions of Islamic socialism, one proposed by Sayyid Quṭb, who took a critical distance from the state. There were also variations of Arab socialism; even the Baʿth variety of the latter developed differently in Syria and Iraq. And if a revolution was to take place, should it be a socialist or an Islamic revolution? See SIBāʿī, MUṣṭAFā AL-; and Socialism and Islam. Within this plethora of ideas and questions, many Muslim thinkers stressed the idea of justice, and particularly the social justice of Islam as a unique feature worthy of emulation. Likewise, the status of women in Islam continued to be a subject of debate, even if initial progress on this front was far greater in leading Western societies.

Reason and Revelation.

Another area of thought cherished in Muslim circles was the more speculative realm of metaphysics and theology, for instance, the problem of the relationship between reason and revelation. Traditional doctrine held that the use and domain of reason was circumscribed by the data of revelation: in the end, reason was subordinated to revelation. The modernist Sunnī reformers Sayyid Aḥmad Khān and Muḥammad ʿAbduh, however, assumed a basic parallelism of reason and revelation, in the visible as well as in the invisible sphere. Both men were inspired by the Muslim philosophical heritage and impressed by the achievements of Western science and thought. Both gave reason a higher place than it occupied in traditional kalām (metaphysical theology); for both there was an essential harmony of reason, revelation, and moral conscience; both accepted sharīʿah as being basically identical to natural law; and for both Islam was a religion of progress. In fact, both acknowledged that human beings enjoyed great freedom as the authors of their actions and gave much attention to education in the broad sense of the word.

Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā, too, accepted a parallelism between reason and revelation, but he accorded the former a somewhat lesser status than did ʿAbduh. In his Islamic Reform (Berkeley, 1966), Malcolm Kerr recognized in ʿAbduh 's attempt a rational reform of Islam. Based on authentic sources, ʿAbduh displayed a visionary character, as well as a moral purpose. He called Rashīd Riḍā, however, an ideologist who tried to present a revivalist interpretation of Islam by restating old doctrines in modern terms.

In recent times, the need for rationality and intellectual rigor was increasingly felt as a counterweight to the superficialities of modern times. In Egypt, Muḥammad ʿImārah tried to reawaken the rationality of Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, Muḥammad ʿAbduh, and Rashīd Riḍā, whose works he reedited. Because of his study al-Islām wa al-sulṭah al-dīnīyah (Islam and Religious Authority; 2d ed., Beirut, 1980), ʿImārah gained undeniable notoriety; his study was quickly duplicated by other scholars. Similar rational concerns were alive with thinkers like Ḥasan Ḥanafī, who worked for a new tanwīr (enlightenment) in Arab-Muslim thought and who wanted to replace theology with anthropology. Muḥammad ʿĀbid al-Jābirī in Morocco and ʿAbd al-Majīd Sharfī in Tunisia, who studied in the West, were open to dialogue and to a common struggle for the causes of humanity. Throughout the twentieth century Muslim thought thus stressed the responsibility of men and women as people, and much more attention was given to the problem of human freedom than in earlier times.See ḤANAFī, HASAN.


An equally important field of study in modern Muslim Sunnī thought was that of history. As far as the Middle East was concerned, European imperialism, Western neocolonialism, exploitation by socialist bloc countries, the two World Wars, the following Cold War, the establishment of Israel, mutual rivalries, petrodollars, foreign military invasions, and other factors, all added to regional tensions throughout the Sunnī heartland. Some Muslim authors were fascinated by the rise and fall of nations and civilizations, with the lurking question of whether the West or Islam would dominate the world of the future.

In a similar vein, authors such as ʿAbbās Maḥmūd al-ʿAqqād and Muḥammad Kamāl Ibrāhīm Jaʿfar in Egypt, discussed the place of Islam in the ongoing history of religions. In Morocco, Mahdī Elmandjra identified the Anglo-Saxon assault on Arabian oil resources as a war of civilization (Première guerre civilisationnelle, Casablanca, 1992). Elsewhere, scholarly interests in religions other than Islam were more visible, as distinct from the apologetic and polemical spirit that pervaded so much writing on this subject and that prevented true dialogue between cultures and religions. Such a dialogue required, as a first condition, the free development of thought in Muslim countries, and this, unfortunately, was continually threatened by traditionalists who feared change. Nevertheless, key trends indicated that fresh examinations developed among Muslims living in the West, while a few isolated cases in Muslim countries appeared too. The tragic end of the independent Sudanese thinker Maḥmūd Muḥammad Ṭāhā (d. 1985) and the assassination of novelist Ṭāhir Jaout (d. 1993 at the hands of Algeria 's Groupe Islamique Armé) were warning signals.

Islamic Norms and Neonormativist Thought.

One of the striking features of late twentieth-century Muslim societies was the increased level of “conscientiousness” of Islam and Islamic norms and values. Against Western secular history, economics, education, and thought, Muslim scholars called for an Islamic view and methodology; an Islamic Declaration of Human Rights was proposed beside that of the United Nations ’ declaration. The growing concern with Islamic specificities, norms, and values led, at least in the Arab-Muslim world, to an increasing concentration on Islamic subjects: jihād and religious tolerance, dhimmīs and religious freedom, the status of woman in Islam as opposed to that in the West, and so forth.

Under the manifold pressures of the present, traditional concerns with Islam as a distinctive entity developed into what Yvonne Haddad called “neonormativist” thinking, as opposed to “acculturationist” thinking, which was open to historical and social forces and willing to change. Typical for neonormativist thinking was the exclusive concern with Islam as a total system embracing all aspects of life, religious as well as worldly (dīn wa dunyā). The human being was seen as vicegerent of God on earth, the Muslim community as fulfilling God 's plan with the world.

In this view, the Western world, its culture and religion, was seen as the historical enemy of the Muslim world and a threat to Islam. The Islamic identity itself was thus threatened by Western secular scholarship, secular methodology, secular education, and ongoing Western cultural and intellectual imperialism, which was seen as incapable of dialogue and of discerning any spiritual quality in things Islamic. Against this sombre image and perception of the West, Islam was perceived as eternal and perfect; Muslims could appropriate it, by zeal and commitment, by orienting themselves to the Qurʿānic view of reality. In this line of thought, Islam was presented as the sole subject of reflection, the absolute religion, accessible either through specific scriptural texts (as held by the fundamentalists) or through the coherent system of a rationalized Islam (as held by the ideologists). The versions of this absolute Islam varied according to political regimes and their oppositions, and on closer analysis they were largely conditioned by political forces.


Inevitably, Islam confronted Western secularism, as the number of Muslims living in Europe and the Americas increased. While respecting sharīʿah, the Muslim population in the West lived under non-Islamic laws devised and imposed by the “state”—and this necessitated a new ijtihād. If at first the exchange was theoretical and even an ideological exercise without any legal force, in the second half of the twentieth century, it evolved into a new dimension. Europeanized Muslims engaged in ijtihād to defend their faith within established secular norms. Sunnī Muslims, in particular, became more sophisticated in training scholars in legal sources to conduct ijtihād. Scholars like Mohammed Arkoun is a model of a contemporary Europeanized mujtahid who retained all of his Muslim faculties. Arkoun, Ṭariq Ramaḍan, and others were atypical, but as the traditional role of scholars who studied under religious scholars slowly changed, they were not so unique. Because Islam functioned without a clerical hierarchy, modernizing Muslims accepted that liberal movements permitted any believer to perform ijtihād and, in that sense, they interjected a vivacity in Sunnī Islam that had long flourished among Shīʿī. In fact, the very idea of ijtihād was so catching that in March 2004, the U.S. Institute of Peace convened a meeting on the subject in Washington, D.C., to better ascertain emerging trends. Conferences dealing with specific aspects of Islam and the “other” flourished both in the West and in the Muslim world.

While these recent efforts were a reaction to radical Salafī movements inspired by Osama bin Laden and the so-called al-Qaʿida ideology in the post 9 ⁄ 11 environment, at the dawn of the twenty-first century the Sunnī world was certainly divided between two delineated factions: the vast majority uphold traditional values and follow established doctrine, and the small minority reject accommodation with “Zionist-Crusaders.” The latter, conveniently grouped under the Salafī name, are not homogeneous. A tiny and marginalized few advocate violence—enshrined in messages from Bin Laden or his lieutenant the Egyptian Ayman al-Ẓawāhirī—whereas the rest call for a healthy distance from the major forces that have caught everyone and everything in the globalization vortex. For many ultra-conservative Sunnīs, identified as Salafīs, violence is a last resort to be used in a “final” stage of what must be personal transformation to purify Muslims and establish a purified (and ideal) Islamic state.

This ideal state is a long-standing quest. Within broadly-based forms of jurisprudence and orthodox theology, Sunnī Islam did not prevent the rise of unorthodox tendencies, despite self-imposed limitations on ijtihād. In the eighteenth century, Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb emerged to “purify” Islam of alleged non-Islamic accretions. Integral to his project was an attempt to base sharīʿah law solely on the Qurʿān and the sunnah and a rejection of qiyās and ijmāʿ. A second, unrelated group, the Aḥmadīyah, was established in India towards the end of the nineteenth century, under the leadership of Mirzā Ghulām Aḥmad (1835–1908) who claimed to be, simultaneously, the Christian Messiah, the Muslim Mahdī, an avatar of Krishna, as well as a reappearance of Muḥammad. Needless to say, the orthodox Muslim community rejected the Aḥmadīyah, insisting that it was heretical, although the group gained a modest following beyond India, mostly in Asia and Africa.

Both of these movements aimed to establish the ideal Islamic state even if there were other ways of thinking about Islam. Sunnī Islam, in particular, was a domain of personal experience, of communal norms and values, of creative effort in the sense of Muhammad Iqbal (1875–1938), or enlightenment in the sense of Mohammed Arkoun, who seeks to free Muslim thought from political conditioning. See IQBAL, MUHAMMAD. Reading the expressions of modern Sunnī thought and also works of literature, one becomes aware of the immense variety among Muslim thinkers and of the multiple interpretations permitted by Islam. And if more Muslims could express their thinking freely, this variety in Muslim thought would be still more visible than it is today. Contemporary Sunnī thinkers worked under great political, economic, and social pressures in Muslim lands that tended to practice authoritarianism, leaving the deprived populations to look to protest movements to end their misery.



  • ʿAbduh, Muhammad. The Theology of Unity. Translated from the Arabic by Ishaq Masaʿad and Kenneth Cragg. London, 1966. Modern theological treatise written by an outstanding Muslim modernist reformer, first published in Arabic in 1897.
  • Adams, Charles C.Islam and Modernism in Egypt. London, 1933. Classic introduction to the rise of Islamic modernist reform thought in Egypt.
  • Aḥmad, Azīz, Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan, 1857–1964. London, 1967. Excellent survey of Islamic modernist reform thought in the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent.
  • Aḥmad, Azīz, and G. E. von Grunebaum, eds.Muslim Self-Statement in India and Pakistan, 1857–1968. Wiesbaden, 1970. English translations of important texts that provide insight into modern Muslim thinking on Islam in the context of the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent.
  • Arkoun, Mohammed. Islam: To Reform or to Subvert, London, 2006.
  • Arkoun, Mohammed. Lectures du Coran. 2d ed.Tunis, 1991. Essential work that brings together various studies ranging from close readings of Qurʿānic sūrahs to an essay on Islam and politics.
  • Arkoun, Mohammed. Ouvertures sur l ’Islam. Paris, 1989. Fascinating essay on Islam and Islamic thought; essential for understanding Arkoun 's interpretive system.
  • Arkoun, Mohammed. The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought. London, 2002. A critique that aims to liberate reason from the grip of dogmatic postulates.
  • Arkoun, Mohammed, and Joseph Maïla. De Manhattan à Bagdad: Au-delà du Bien et du Mal. Paris2003. Discusses the extremely sensitive contemporary issue of evil and good.
  • Berner, Brad K.Jihad: Bin Laden in His Own Words—Declarations; Interviews and Speeches. New York, 2006. Useful compilation of declarations, interviews, and speeches.
  • Black, Antony. The History of Islamic Political Thought: From the Prophet to the Present. London, 2001. Offers an interpretation of political philosophy from early Islam to “fundamentalism.” Mentalities, cultural milieu, and political background of thinkers and statesmen are analyzed.
  • Boullata, Issa J.Trends and Issues in Contemporary Arab Thought. Albany, N.Y., 1990. Excellent survey of intellectual trends in the present-day Arab world, including thinking on Islam.
  • Cragg, Kenneth. The Pen and the Faith: Eight Modern Muslim Writers and the Qurʿān. London, 1985. Good introduction to the way in which some prominent authors relate themselves to the Qurʿān.
  • DeLong-Bas, Natana J.Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad. London, 2004. A revisionist analysis of the writings of Muḥammad bin ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (1702–1791) maintaining that his was a voice of reform.
  • Donohue, John J. and John L. Esposito, eds.Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspectives. New York, 1982. Presentation in English translation of important texts from the last hundred years; these provide insight into the broad range of modern Muslim thinking.
  • Enayat, Hamid. Modern Islamic Political Thought. London, 2005. Excellent updated introduction to both Sunnī and Shīʿī political thinking in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries.
  • Esposito, John L. and John O. Voll. Islam and Democracy. London, 1996. Islamic resurgence and democratization in Iran, Sudan, Algeria, and Malaysia are assessed to identify trends.
  • Gibb, H. A. R.Modern Trends in Islam. Chicago, 1947. Classic work on Muslim reformist thought up to World War II.
  • Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939. London, 1962. Classic study of many aspects of Arab thought until World War II.
  • Khatab, Sayed. The Political Thought of Sayyid Qutb: The Theory of Jahilīyah. London, 2006. Radical Islamist movements divide the world into Islamic and jāhilī camps. Khatab explores its development as a mature confrontational theory.
  • Rahman, Fazlur. Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition. Chicago, 1982. Excellent introduction to various trends of thought with regard to renewal of education and thought in Islam.

Jacques Waardenburg Updated by Joseph A. Kéchichian

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