Ahl Sunnah and Islamic History
Written by © Atabek Shukurov
Proofread by Sonia Nisa
"We are the rightly guided Ahl Sunnah and every other sect is deviant", this is a common statement, one will hear throughout their lifetime from fellow Muslim brothers and sisters of different sects and beliefs, but let us analyse this.
My article is about the problems that we, together as the Muslim community, face in present times. It concerns some of the ominous circumstances of our time that threaten not only the collaboration of Muslims but also, perhaps the local communities, initiating division between families and sourcing enmity amongst us all. We face today an unprecedented set of problems, primarily relating to the terminologies. In most scenarios, there is no actual substance or evidence sponsoring these terminologies but its negative impact on the individual Muslims, is immense. When you research and investigate the root cause, you will find nothing but mere names that have been fabricated by individuals. Unfortunately, most of these individuals may not even have reached to the level of, "a beginner student of knowledge". Therefore, in this article, I will discuss the term "Ahl Sunnah" in significant detail. I will travel through our historic periods to run an in-depth investigation with clear coherent evidence, to distinguish between the true sect who initiated this label and the phony groups; the impersonators of this title throughout history.
Meaning of Ahl Sunnah
To commence the discussion, let us first examine the phrase 'Ahl Sunnah". "Ahl", in the Arabic language has a few similar meanings: "family, a person worthy, a person deserving, people of and group of". I will go into an in-depth explanation of the word "Ahl" and its usage.
If I say, "Ahl al-Ikram", it will mean "a person whom deserves respect and glorification".
If I say, "Ahl Kufa", it means "a person or people of the city of Kufa".
Alternatively, saying, "Ahl al-Batil" means "a person or people of falsehood". (Al-Qamus Al-Muhit, 963, M. Al-Fairuzabadi d 1414 AD, Muassasah Risalah, 8th edition 2005)
The word, "Sunnah" literally means, "habit" or "way" (regardless if it is a physical or non-physical habit, a good or a bad habit). Therefore, if I say "Sunnah al-Fasaqah" it will mean, 'the habit of an unrighteous people''. Henceforth, based on the linguistic analysis, "Ahl al-Sunnah" literally means, "people of a certain habit or way". (Muktar Al-Sihah, p 133, M. Al-Razi d 1267, Maktabah Lubnan 1986)
On the other hand, in the contemporary Muslim world, the term "Ahl al-Sunnah" potentially has several meanings and is utilised in many different contexts. For example, within the historical context, the term is used to specify a certain group of people, whereas in a theological context, it is used to convey a completely different meaning. Regardless, the meaning of this term, either from a historical or theological context will differ based on its time and place. We understand that the meaning or understanding of "Ahl Sunnah" in the subcontinent differentiates, to that of in Saudi Arabia. However, the meaning in Saudi Arabia during the period of the Ottoman Empire (thirteenth to the twentieth century) is completely distinct to its meaning during the post-Ottoman period (post mid-twentieth century). In my opinion, to investigate and research this subject into intricate details, we necessitate a full volume of work. However, I will briefly address this issue in my article and will hope that it will open a door or light a candle, for the enthusiastic researchers, who may devote their time and effort to collate information and produce a relevant authentic book on this issue. I too, if given the chance and time will endeavour to produce a book on Ahl Sunnah after successfully completing my current projects insha'Allah (If God wills).
We know that the word "Sunnah" is mentioned in the Quran in several different places, in the original linguistic meaning it means "the habit or way", (as I mentioned above). For example, In the Quran, God explains His habit when dealing with oppressive people:
And We had certainly sent [messengers] before you, [O Muhammad], among the sects of the former peoples. And no messenger would come to them except that they ridiculed him. Thus do We insert denial into the hearts of the criminals. They will not believe in it, while there has already occurred the precedent of the former peoples. (15; 10-13)
In another verse, God; The Most High, uses it to mean the way or path of certain group of people:
Many examples have passed on before you, so proceed throughout the earth and observe how was the end of those who denied. (3;137)
Again, we find the term is used in accordance with the original linguistic meaning in the statements of our Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. For example:
It was narrated from Aishah (RA) that:
The Messenger of Allahﷺ said: "Marriage is my way (in opposing to living an unmarried life) and he who dislikes my way, he is not with me". (Bukhari, p 1292, Dar Ibn Kathir, 2002, Muslim, p 1233, Dar Taybah, 2006)
It was narrated from Jareer bin Abdullah RA that:
"Anyone who sets a good way (a noble habit), he gets a reward of him doing it and the reward of anyone who does it. Anyone who sets a bad way (a negative habit), he gets its sin and the sin of anyone who later perpetuates the sin". (Bukhari, p 1808, Dar Ibn Kathir, 2002, Muslim, p 631, Dar Taybah, 2006)
The above hadiths indicate and certify that there were no groups under the name of "Ahl Sunnah" during the time of our Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Henceforth, in my opinion, I believe it is inappropriate to attempt to establish a group under this terminology, which is used in the Quran and Hadith. This may, perhaps, be the very reason behind the frictions against Hazrat Ali (RA) or for the followers who emanated shortly after him. (I will discuss this point further, later on, within the article).
In modern day Islam and Muslim communities, we have an immense misconception that the title or the terminology "Ahl Sunnah" refers to a group of people who follow the way of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. There is no Muslim group or sect, who believe that their group (the one they follow) opposes the path of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. For example, the "Ibadi" group (A group claiming to pre-date Sunni and Shia denominations, dominant in Oman today) deny that Ahl Sunnah are the people who follow Prophet Muhammad ﷺ but they (Ibadis) do not follow him either. In our modern day Islam, every single school of thought or sect of Islam believe and claim that they are the only genuine followers who follow Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. One can testify this bitter truth for themselves by just questioning a Ja'farite, Zaidi or even an Ismaili and ask them, whether they follow the way of the Prophet (peace be upon him) or oppose his way? So, my dear Sunni reader, do not be another naïve follower of slogans!
Going back to my previous discussion on the word Ahl Sunnah, from historical evidences, I can say that this word was initiated to silent Imam Ali (RA) or his followers who were using the term "Ahl Bait" as a proof. Unfortunately, it was very difficult to confront the term of "Ahl Bait" except, only if one could come up with another surpassing term. Therefore, the transgressors fashioned a new slogan to say: "Oh, so do you prefer bait (household) of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ or the Sunnah (path) of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ?" I, too, must admit, this slogan has had a huge impact on the general public. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ had already predicted this forthcoming and had once narrated: "The destruction of my nation is by kids from the Umayyad tribe". (Bukhari, p 1748, Dar Ibn Kathir, 2002)
In my opinion, the term "Sunnah" was not initiated or used to mean a school of thought, but it was misused to silent the people who are using the argument of, "how do you oppose Ahl Bait of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ?" Based on that, I would say, this word of "Sunnah" in this context, holds no stance. This is merely because Imam Ali (RA) or his followers did not say, "We do not follow the path of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ". I believe it was all just deception and melodrama triggered by the Umayyads and their followers in order to conceal their lies and propaganda so they can oppress Imam Ali (RA) and his descendants. For the same exactly reason the word of ''Ahl Bayt'' was replaced by the word ''Sunnah'' in the famous Hadith where the Prophet ﷺ said; ''I left with you two thing! You won't be misguided if you grab on them; Book of God and Ahl Bait''. (Mustadrak, v 1 p 171, Dar Al-Kutub Al-Ilmiyyah, 2002, Muslim, p 631, Dar Taybah, 2006, Sunan Tirmidhi, v 6 p 124, Dar Al-Gharb Al-Islami, 1996)
As time passed, the term "Sunnah" lost its linguistic meaning and essence. Instead, it became a label for the rewardable acts which are attributed to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Perhaps, the best example to understand this scenario is to look at the linguistic meaning of the word "mobile", which had a completely different meaning ("Able to move or be moved freely or easily") a few decades ago. However, in our time, the linguistic meaning of the word mobile is rarely understood. I say, exactly the same has happened with the use of the word "Sunnah".
During the second and third generations (after the Prophet ﷺ), the word Sunnah became like a weapon by the hands of both politicians and religious scholars. The politicians used it to kill anyone who they disapproved, such as Ju'd bin Dirham. Whilst, on the other hand, the religious scholars would use this word against anyone who would disapprove them (Al-Ibanah, by Ibn Battah Al-Akburi, v 1 p 456, Dar Al-Ra'yah, 1994, Sharh Usul I'tiqad Ahl Sunnah, Hibatullah bin Hasan p 66, Maktab Dar Al-Basirah, 2001) . Furthermore, the religious scholars and leaders have created a few additional labels and meanings to this word Sunnah, to glorify themselves and denigrate others. A good example; the religious scholars have derived the word "Ahl Ra'y" (please see definition below) which they then used with great pleasure against the ones who would reject their narrations. To the extent that for several centuries the term "Ahl Sunnah" became an antonym of "Ahl Ra'y". There were two further labels that became popular and widespread; one is "Ahl Hawa" which means people of ego and innovation and the second one is "Sahib al-Quran" which was used to refer to the mild innovators.
Brief explanation of terms
"Ahl Ra'y", are the people of intellect; who trust the rational reasoning above the trust of the memories of the narrators. The best example of one of them is Imam Abu Hanifa (RA) and his non-Hadithi oriented students such as Imam Zufar bin Hudail (Imam Abu Hanifa's senior student).
"Ahl Hawa" is referred to the disobedient ones, who only do what suites them and are known of ignoring evidences and proofs. With in-depth investigation, you will learn that the religious scholars give this label to the ones who are sometimes very "God fearing" and "righteous". We realise, either there is an unknown hidden agenda behind this label or it is something we continue to ignore. For example, Ibrahim bin Sayyar, Jahm bin Safwan and Ju'd bin Dirham; all three were God fearing personalities of noble demeanour, but yet they were all given this title of "Ahl Hawa".
"Sahib/Haleef al-Quran" are the people who class the Quran as a main guide and the remainder of evidences are just subsidiary proof. For them, anything that is in accordance with Quran is true and anything that contradicts the Quran is false. A principle they adhere to is; the word of God can abrogate everything regardless of the number of scholars who may have followed it, but nothing can abrogate the word of God. The best example for this category is Imam Ali (RA) and his grandson Imam Zaid bin al-Sajjad (RA). Imam Ali (RA) was asked, "Did you receive anything else apart from the Quran from the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ?" He responded, "Nothing besides our understanding of the Quran, which we have derived by contemplating and this paper in my scabbard". (Bukhari, p 40, Dar Ibn Kathir, 2002)
We know that the descendants of Imam Ali (RA) had inherited some books full of guidance and knowledge. After Ali al-Sajjad, these books were passed onto Muhammad al-Baqir. From history, we have come to know, that once Imam Zaid had asked his elder brother Muhammad Al-Baqir to read these books but Al-Baqir forgot his request. Thereafter, Imam Zaid (RA) spent adequate time reading and contemplating upon the Quran and derived immense knowledge from it. Later on, when Muhammad al-Baqir remembered to lend Imam Zaid the books, he said; ''I don't need it anymore as I have all its knowledge. Al-Baqir, then, opened the book and started testing Zaid. Hence-after, he was highly impressed by the knowledge of his younger brother and said; ''You are the most similar among us to our grandfather Ali!''. In addition, we know from research that Imam Zaid surpassed in knowledge, in comparison to Muhammad al-Baqir. Al-Baqir has admired Imam Zaid's superiority in knowledge, and since he was addressed with the title "Haleef/Sahib al-Quran" (Al-Aqd Al-Thamin by Abdullah b Hamza d 1217 AD, p 93, Muassasah Zaid b Ali Thaqafiyyah, 2001, Tayseer Al-Matalib by Yahya b Husain d 1032 AD p 154, Muassasah Zaid b Ali Thaqafiyyah, 2002).
During the second Abbasid era, the term "Ahl Sunnah" was the main equipment of Abbasid politicians, who used to dominate the masses and to gain support against Buwaihi kings, who were Ja'fari-Shi'a, at the time (Al-Muntadham, Jawzi (1995), 14:155; Al-Bidayah wa Al-Nihaya,Kathir (1990), 8:100). Within the religious academic field, "Ahl Sunnah" was the term given to those people who became known for accepting the narrations of non-Ahl Bait (people not from the family of the Prophet ﷺ), opposing the "anti-Sunni" people who were known for only accepting the narrations of Ahl Bait. The narrations of Ahl Bait almost became the main reason for one to be categorised as "Ahl Sunnah" or "anti-Ahl Sunnah". Initially, the Ahl Sunnah were followers of Imam Malik (RA) and Imam Shafi'I (RA) and on the other hand, were followers of Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (RA). The Hanafis for some reason were kept in a strange cage; they were not exactly accepted by the other three schools of thought but nor were they rejected completely. We can see it in the labels which are used by Ahmad and his followers against followers of Abu Hanifa. Also, can be seen in the statement of the Shafei scholar of Hadith Al-Daraqurtni (d 995 AD) the head of Sunnah when he labelled Abu Yusuf by calling him ''A one eyed among blind people'' (Tarikh Baghdad, by Khateeb Baghdadi d 1070 AD, v 16 p 381, Dar Al-Gharb Al-Islami, 2001). ''A one eyed'' because he was the main hadithi inclined scholar among Hanafis. One of the Hadithi orientated theologian used to call Muhammad Al-Samnani one of the Hanafi scholars as ''A believer of family of Pharoah'' comparing the hanafis to the family of oppressive emperor Pharoah, and comparing this Ash'ari Hanafi scholar to the Egyptian follower of Moses PBUH who is mentioned in Quran (40; 28).
Later on, during the Ottoman era the label of "Ahl Sunnah" was predominantly referred to four schools of Jurisprudence: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i and Hanbali and two schools of Theology; Maturidi and Ash'ari. These schools flourished in their teachings and were accepted by Western Muslims who would follow the topmost institutes such as Qurawiyeen, Al-Azhar and Central and Eastern Muslim institutions too. However, a minority proportion of the Hanbali scholars in Shaam (Syria) and Najd (Central region in Saudi Arabia) upheld certain anthropomorphic beliefs, according to the Maturidi and Ash'ari Sunni schools. Nevertheless, these Hanbali scholars claimed to be the real "Ahl Sunnah" followers and classified the other four schools as the deviated Sunnis.
Towards the end of the Ottoman era (twentieth century), the label "Ahl Sunnah" changed to mean several other groups and sects. To the extent that till date we have the different teachings of different sects and groups of people claiming to be Ahl Sunnah. Below, is a brief summary of the different labels and who they are classified by as "Ahl Sunnah":
Maturidi/Ash'ari - are classified as Ahl Sunnah according to the Qurawiyeen, Al-Azhar, the affiliated institutes and their followers.
Hanbali/Salafi - according to Jame'a Islamiyyah, Umm al-Qura and their followers.
Barelvi - according to the followers of Imam Ahmad Ridha-khan and their affiliates.
Deobandi/Salafi - according to Deoband and their followers.
All of the above categories - are classified as Ahl Sunnah according to Ja'fari, Zaidi, Ibadi schools and their followers.
The most ironic predicament is that every individual is endeavouring to embrace himself or herself under this label "Ahl Sunnah", like this is the Ark of Noah and those under it will be the only ones saved. To the extent, that these so called "Ahl Sunnah" Muslim groups or individuals cannot even communicate with each other on an academic or professional basis without deviating into verbal abuse or physical aggression. Contemporary Muslims who attribute themselves to the term ''Ahl Sunnah'' are not similar to any of the groups of the past who carried the same name. For example, among the contemporary Sunni we have mixture of everything. I mean, there is a big list of beliefs which was sign for the schools such as Kharijite, Mu'tazilite, Ismailite, Rafidhite, and many other schools of the past.
"I, Atabek Shukurov, follow Imam Abu Hanifa (RA) in Jurisprudence and accord Imam Abu Mansur al-Maturidi in Theology". I am guaranteed that during the time of Imam Abu Hanifa (RA), the people who carried the label "Ahl Sunnah" (the unofficial way) would have sentenced Imam Abu Hanifa (RA) to death over his "apostasy". We know Imam Abu Hanifa (RA) was sentenced to jail by the prideful phony members of Ahl Sunnah. Later on, during the time of Imam Abu Mansur al Maturidi (RA), the label "Ahl Sunnah" was not official so he considered himself Hanafi in both Jurisprudence (Fiqh) and Theology (Aqeedah). The "unofficial Ahl Sunnah" labelled Imam Abu Mansur (RA) as Mutakallim. Therefore, based on that, my following would be rendered anti-sunni, if I lived during the time of Imam Abu Hanifa (RA) or Imam Abu Mansur (RA).
We can conclude, that this term "Ahl Sunnah" never held any certain foundation in classical Islam. We realise that the term was misused throughout Islamic history amongst different sects and denominations. The official claimants of this term are to be unknown and have changed numerously throughout history. Henceforth, from this research, it demonstrates that really, I can only address myself as a member of "Ahl Sunnah", according to the definition of the Ottoman era (thirteenth to the twentieth century) but not prior to that nor thereafter. Consequently, from this, we can say that the path of unity and tolerance is much stronger than demonstrating hate and aggression towards our fellow Muslim brothers and sisters over ambiguous labels and names.