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Originally political, the differences between Sunni and Shia interpretations rapidly took on theological and metaphysical overtones. In principle a Sunni approaches God directly; there is no clerical hierarchy. Some duly appointed religious figures, however, exert considerable social and political power. Imams usually are men of importance in their communities but they need not have any formal training; among the beduins, for example, any tribal member may lead communal prayers.

Committees of socially prominent worshipers usually run the major mosque-owned land and gifts. In Iraq, as in many other 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 on the tenth of Dhu al Hijjah, the twelfth month; and Id al Fitr, the festival of breaking the fast, which celebrates the end of Ramadan on the first of Shawwal, the tenth month. To Sunnis these are the most important festivals of the year. Each lasts three or four days, during which people put on their best clothes, visit, congratulate, and bestow gifts on each other.

In addition, cemeteries are visited. Id al Fitr is celebrated more joyfully, as it marks the end of the hardships of Ramadan. Celebrations also take place, though less extensively, on the Prophet's birthday, which falls on the twelfth of Rabi al Awwal, the third month, and on the first of Muharram, the beginning of the new year.

With regard to legal matters, Sunni Islam has four orthodox schools that give different weight in legal opinions to prescriptions in the Quran, the hadith or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, the consensus of legal scholars, analogy (to similar situations at the time of the Prophet), and reason or opinion. Named for their founders, the Hanafi school of Imam Abu Hanifa, born in Kufa, Iraq about A.D.700, is the major school of Iraqi Sunni Arabs. It makes considerable use of reason or opinion in legal decisions.

The dominant school for Iraqi Sunni Kurds is that of Imam Abu Abd Allah Muhammad Shafii of the Quraysh tribe of the Prophet, born in A.D.767 and brought up in Mecca. He later taught in both Baghdad and Cairo and followed a somewhat eclectic legal path, laying down the rules for analogy that were later adopted by other legal schools. The other two legal schools in Islam, the Maliki and the Hanbali, lack a significant number of adherents in Iraq.

Data as of May 1988; Source: Library of Congress Country Studies

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