Islam 2425

at a definitive version of the text intended to
stop the violent polemics which the two differ
ent approaches to text created, due to the diver
ging views on Islam and its social structure.
Sources for the contention were founded on
issues of Arabic grammar. Two schools arose:
the Bassora school and the Baghdad school. This
implied two different ways to expound the
revealed Word: one more closed, the other more
open. Utman, to avoid disputes, opted for the
more conservative system.
In the Koran, the order of chapters does not
follow the chronological sequence of their reve
lation. Except for the first Surah, Al Fatiha
(the opening) that is Meccan, all the initial
Surahs are from the Medina period, in that they
essentially define the social organization of Islam
and its ethical and juridical principles. Some
scholars affirm that the historical sequence of
the Surahs is inverted because they have been
ordered beginning with the longer ones and
ending with the shorter ones. Others affirm that
this has to be interpreted as an accent on the
Medina Surahs those that refer to a specificity
of Islam, the primacy of the community over the
individual, a primacy that is historically defined
in Medina and becomes the social archetype of
the Muslim world.
In effect, Islamic identity is founded not only
on the historically defined experience of the
Medina community, but also, and essentially,
on the prophetic function. The Prophet
Muhammad embodies two roles in Islam. He is
the messenger of God, whose Word he receives
to transmit to the community, and he also repre
sents the image of the perfect man (insan kamil),
symbol of charismatic authority that is
expressed through history, and therefore in a
social construction consequent to the sacred
experience of revelation. He is the archetype,
the model which should inspire every Muslim
The first historical experience of Islam is
that of Medina: it represents the collective
memory for the entire Muslim world. In this
way history becomes tradition (Sunna) and cre
ates an individual and collective model for the
whole community. From the outset, this pas
sage in history involves a structural crux: if an
initial historical experience is to be reproduced
perpetually, Islam can no longer be empowered
by history. Therefore, with the death of its
Prophet, profound disagreements arose regard
ing Islams developments throughout history;
the controversy between Sunnis and Shiites
has its roots in the function of the Prophet.
For the Sunnis, the cycle of prophecy con
cludes definitively with Muhammads death.
To subscribe to a historical perspective means
to reproduce the founding elements of Islam,
the categories and the interpretive patterns ela
borated by the Prophet, since they are consid
ered sufficient to preserve the social and
religious elements of a community.
For the Shiites, on the contrary, the cycle of
prophecy does not end, but continues through
out history. Islam has to be experienced perma
nently, in order to preserve a vital link between
the sacred and the historical experience of its
community. In the Shiite tradition, such con
tinuity is made possible by prophetic descent,
by the genealogical filiations which have their
beginnings with Ali, cousin and son in law of
the Prophet: in fact, the Shiite faith witness
mentions Muhammad alongside Ali.
These deep differences in the interpretive
grid configure the Islamic universe into differ
ent dimensions and into contrasting anthropo
logical and juridical patterns. In Islam, two
perceptions of the connection between society
and religious identity have developed. They
correspond to different ways of interpreting
the concept of authority. For the Shiites, the
collective memory of Islam is kept alive, since
the prophetic descent ensures the continuity of
interpretation. The caliph is the principal fig
ure of authority because it is he who maintains
the interpretation of the Koran; the prophetic
tradition does not conclude with the death of
Muhammad, but it is continually enriched
through the succession of the imams, inter
preters of Islam in its historical development.
For the Sunnis, on the contrary, the historical
cycle of interpretation concludes with the death
of the Prophet in 632; Muslim society disposes
of a definitively fixed pattern that can and must
only repeat itself in following cycles of history.
Such deep disagreements produced a politi
cal and a theological divorce, since according
to the Shiite perspective the caliphate had
been usurped by the Sunnis. While Sunni Isla
mic theology is based upon a series of dogmas,
Shiite Islamic theology is founded on the com
bination of the spiritual dimension and its