Although originally political in nature, the differences between
Sunni and Shia interpretations rapidly took on theological overtones.
In principle, a Sunni approaches God directly: there is no clerical
hierarchy. Some duly appointed religious figures, such as imams,
however, exert considerable social and political power. Imams
usually are men of importance in their communities, but they need
not have any formal training. Committees of socially prominent
worshipers usually are responsible for managing major mosque-owned
lands. In most Arab countries, the administration of waqfs (religious
endowments) has come under the influence of the state. Qadis (judges)
and imams are appointed by the government.
The Muslim year has two religious festivals: Id al Adha, a sacrificial
festival held on the tenth day of Dhu al Hijjah, the twelfth,
or pilgrimage, month; and Id al Fitr, the festival of breaking
the fast, which celebrates the end of Ramadan on the first day
of Shawwal, the tenth month. To Sunnis these are the most important
festivals of the year. Each lasts three or four days, during which
time people put on their best clothes and visit, congratulate,
and bestow gifts on each other. In addition, cemeteries are visited.
Id al Fitr is celebrated more festively because it marks the end
of Ramadan. Celebrations also take place, although less extensively,
on the Prophet's birthday, which falls on the twelfth day of Rabi
al Awwal, the third month.
With regard to legal matters, Sunni Islam has four orthodox schools
that give different weight in legal opinions to prescriptions
in the Quran, to the hadith, to the consensus of legal scholars,
to analogy (to similar situations at the time of the Prophet),
and to reason or opinion. Named for their founders, the earliest
Muslim legal schools were those of Abd Allah Malik ibn Anas (ca.
715-95) and An Numan ibn Thabit Abu Hanifa (ca. 700-67). The Maliki
school was centered in Medina, and the lawbook of Malik ibn Anas
is the earliest surviving Muslim legal text, containing a systematic
consensus of Medina legal opinions. The Hanafi school in Iraq
stressed individual opinion in making legal decisions. Muhammad
ibn Idris ash Shafii (767-820), a member of the tribe of Quraysh
and a distant relative of the Prophet, studied under Malik ibn
Anas in Medina. He followed a somewhat eclectic legal path, laying
down the rules for analogy that were later adopted by other legal
schools. The last of the four major Sunni legal schools, that
of Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Hanbal (780-855), was centered in Baghdad.
The Hanbali school, which became prominent in Arabia as a result
of Wahhabi (see Glossary) influence, gave great emphasis to the
hadith as a source of Muslim law but rejected innovations and
rationalistic explanations of the Quran and the traditions (see
Wahhabi Islam and the Gulf , this ch.).
Data as of January 1993