Structure of the First Sunnī-Jamā‘ī Imamate (632-661 CE)
In Arabic, the word sunnī is an adjective related to the noun sunnah, which means custom or example. The word jamā‘ī, also a descriptive term, is related to the noun jamā‘ah, which can be translated as group or community. When we observe contemporary scholars, journalists, or politicians refer to Sunnī Muslims, more accurately they are talking about ahl as-sunnah wa al-jamā‘ah, “the people of custom and community.” The Sunnī-Jamā‘ī Imamate thus refers to the political and religious institution established after the death of Muhammad that contemporary SunnīMuslims recognize as authoritative and legitimate. Historically, Sunnī Muslims have emphasized the moral and ethical example set by Muhammad and his closest companions and the importance of group unity to protect the ummah from the chaos of internal discord.
The Sunnī Jamā‘ī Imamate necessarily departs from the utopian Medinan community due to the absence of the Prophet. At the center is Muhammad’s deputy and successor (khalīfah/caliph), who is also the commander of the faithful (amīr al-mu’minīn), and the leader of the ummah (imām). Unlike Muhammad, the caliph-imām is not the recipient of divine revelation, and he is not infallible in his personal moral conduct. However, his authority is unique: along with his responsibilities as administrative head of state and chief commander of the military, he is also the foremost arbiter in the discernment of sharī‘ah and responsible for the implementation of Islamic law. In this system, the relationship between God and the ummah is defined by mīthāq (“covenant,” Q 7:172 mentioned above), which is the foundation of dīn, the religious tradition (Islam) inaugurated by the covenant. The members of the community have sworn an oath of allegiance (bay‘ah) to the caliph-imām which ratifies his authority. A check on the power of the caliph-imām resides in the hands of certain members of the community known as ahl al-hall wa al-‘aqd (literally “the people qualified to unbind and bind”). In theory, the ahl al-hall wa al-‘aqd are representatives within the ummah who act on behalf of all Muslims in appointing and deposing a caliph-imām. In practice, throughout the history of Islamic civilization, “they have consisted of the persons who wielded political power in the capital, acting in association with urban notables and prominent religious scholars.” Image #2 in the image resource bank illustrates the fundamental organization of the Sunnī Jamā‘ī Imamate and how its key elements relate to one another.
Professor of Iranian and Central Asian History, and of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations
Outreach Coordinator, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Chicago
1. What are the two kinds of rulership identified above that are critical to understanding Islamic civilization from the classical period to the fall of the Ottoman empire? Where or from whom do leaders derive their authority in each model?
2. What was the significance of the Muslim victory over the Quraysh?
3. What caused the split between the Sunni and Shi’ite factions?