The New International Encyclopædia/Sunnites

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SUNNITES, sŭn′ī̇ts (from Ar. sunnah, custom, legal usage, tradition, from sanna, to establish a usage or law). The orthodox sect in Islam; politically it may be described as the Centre, in contrast to extreme theories concerning the headship of the Church. The term arose in distinction to several tendencies which early asserted themselves, but especially differentiates that section which denies the claim of the Shiites (q.v.) for the peculiar authority of Ali, as the sole legitimate successor of Mohammed. (See Mohammedan Sects.) These Shiites fast developed their peculiar theological and constitutional theories, and so drove their opponents to an understanding of their own position; as they were content with tradition and with things as they were, they called themselves Sunnites, or Traditionalists. The differences rapidly developed into those of a political and ethnic character, the Shiites being found in the lands which wore opposed to the Ommiads (q.v.), as Arabia, where independence was characteristic, and in Persia, which only by force of arms had submitted to Islam. But the decision between the two parties was by no means immediately reached. The fall of the Ommiads was brought about by Persian Shiite influences (750), although the new Abbasside dynasty which was installed soon threw in its lot with the Sunnites. In general the geographic centre of the Arab power, Mesopotamia and Syria, remained in the control of this party. But the Shiites maintained the contest. The latter as liberalists and theosophists possessed a strong following, especially among the cultured, and they often enjoyed immunity under free-thinking caliphs. The Empire was honeycombed with Shiite secret societies like the Assassins (q.v.), and Shiite dynasties arose in Egypt and at Bagdad. (See Shiites.) But by 1100 Sunnism was master in Southwestern Asia. This party was able to maintain itself during the Mongol invasions, and with the favor of the Ottoman Turks it remains as the predominant body in Islam. At the present time orthodoxy outnumbers all its opponents by ten to one, and commands not only the whole Turkish Empire, but the millions of Moslems in Africa, India, China, Malaysia and the Philippines, non-Turkish Arabia, and Northern Africa (Morocco being practically Sunnite).

Within this conservative and orthodox body, apart from outer foes, there early developed all kinds of theological strife. Rationalistic and liberal parties developed, which opposed, one after another, the original principles of Islam, such as its views of God, and of heaven and hell, its doctrines of predestination and of the literal authority of the Koran. On the other hand, the crass views of the fanatical mob opposed anything like philosophy, even though orthodox. Traditionalism was not fitted to meet the dialectic methods of its opponents, who had learned from the ancient schools of culture, and was ignorant of the use of philosophy in self-defense. But the champion of orthodoxy arose in Al-Ashari (born 882). A member originally of the Mutazilite sect, which had gone to the extreme of rationalizing upon the faith and the Koran (see Mohammedan Sects), he was led to the consciousness of this inconsistency, and openly abjured that heresy, henceforth devoting himself to the formulation of a scholastic philosophy in support of orthodoxy. This school encountered for long the opposition of the liberals and the ignorant, but about 1050 Ashari's triumph became evident. His philosophy was continued and popularized by Al-Gazali (q.v.), who established the pietistic principle of Sufiism, which may be compared to the Christian emotional principle of faith. Since Ashari and Gazali no commanding theologian has arisen and no further philosophic advance has been made in Islam.

With reference to the head of Islam, Sunnism still as ever lacks a definite principle. Since 1658 the Ottoman Sultan has claimed the caliphate, although he possesses but fictions of the traditional requirements, and he holds his power by force and through the agreement of the Faithful. Hence Sunnism is not bound to the dynasty at Constantinople, and many of its thoughtful minds would regard the fall of the Ottoman power in the light of redemption for the Church. Contrary, therefore, to the original theocratic constitution of Mohammed there has arisen a division between the spiritual and the political forces. Political power is wielded by the Sultan, but the spiritual rule is in the hands of the Ulema (q.v.) of Constantinople, a close corporation of lawyer-theologians. Its chief, the Sheik-ul-Islam, is appointed by the Sultan, but only out of that body, and he possesses large independent powers which the Sultan dare not invade. He is the chief spiritual person in orthodox Islam.

Within the Sunnite body exist four different schools of law, those respectively of the Hanbalites, the Hanifites, the Shafiites, and the Malikites (so named after their respective founders). The first code is confined to the Wahabites (see Wahabis); the second to Upper Egypt and North Africa; the third prevails in Lower Egypt, Southern India, and Malaysia; the fourth is followed by the Turks and by the Moslems of Central and Northern Asia. These schools arose in the second and third centuries of the Hejira and represent so many different compositions between tradition and progressive law. They are at peace with one another now, and divide orthodox Islam among themselves, each people being allowed to live by its law, and each lawyer electing his choice. But in the Ottoman Empire there exists the contrast between this canon law and the secular law. The latter proceeds from the authority of the Sultan or is the ancient secular law of the land; the other, the law of the Church, is confined mostly to domestic matters, and it is one of the grievances of the orthodox that the legal authority of the Church is thus put into abeyance by the secular arm. Here again the analogy may be drawn with the dispute which has prevailed in European Christendom between the canon and the civil law. Therefore, both in its past history and in its present condition, Sunnism is by no means to be regarded as a homogeneous body or practice. For literature, see Mohammedanism; Mohammedan Sects.