Sunni Islam

Sunni Muslims are the larger of the two main branches of IslamSunni Islam is also referred to as Sunnism or as Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l-Jamā‘h (أهل السنة والجماعة) (people of the example (of Muhammad) and the community). The word Sunni comes from the word Sunnah (سنة ), which means “example” and refers particularly to the the words and actions or “model” or example of the Prophet Muhammad. They represent the branch of Islam that accepted the caliphate of Abu Bakr due to him being chosen by Shurah, or consultation. Abu Bakr, as leader of the community, was regarded as first among equals rather than as possessing extraordinary spiritual authority or a unique ability to determine what was the correct Muslim view. Rather, Sunnis use consensus or Ijma’ to determine what is Islamically acceptable.

The main difference between Sunni and Shi’a Islam lies in where authority is located. For Sunnis, authority is shared by all within the community (even if certain individuals have, in practice, claimed special authority) while for Shi’a, authority resides in the descendants of Muhammad, and in their representatives. Sunni Muslims may follow one of several law schools, and may also identify with various movements or schools, including Sufi Islam which possess their own distinctive traditions. The notion of a single Sunni political entity resembling the early caliphate, in which Islam governs all aspects of life, remains an ideal for many Muslims although historically the Sunni world sub-divided into various political units, and in the modern world there are many different types of government in Sunni-majority states, including a secular system in Turkey, a more or less absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia and democracies in, for example, Indonesia and Malaysia. Some Sunni Muslims stress Islam’s universal claims to be the best path for all humanity (Quran 3: 85-6). Others stress that while Islam’s message of obedience to God is intended for all people, God has also revealed other paths to various peoples, so mutual exchange and dialogue enriches everyone’s understanding of God’s will for humanity (Quran 5: 48-49). See the Qur’an

Moscow Cathedral Mosque Prospekt Mira Ramadan Sky

Moscow Cathedral Mosque


Demographers attempting to calculate the proportion of the world’s Muslim population who adhere to each of the main traditions face several challenges. For instance, there is no Sunni–Shi’a breakdown available for many countries, and the CIA World Factbook gives a Sunni–Shi’a breakdown only for countries where Shi’a are a significant minority. When no breakdown is given, all the country’s Muslims have been enrolled, provisionally, in the Sunni column. Thus, the exact percentage of the world’s Muslim population that adheres to the various Shi’a sects, as opposed to the majority Sunni groups, is indeterminate.

Using various sources, an estimate of anywhere from a low of 7.5 percent to a high of 15 percent Shi’ite can be made. Sunnis are commonly cited as representing 90 percent of all Muslims.

Distribution of Sunni and Shia populations.

Distribution of Sunni and Shia populations.

Origins of the Sunni-Shi’a divide

The original disagreement between those who became known as Sunni, and the Shi’a (or party) was over how the community should be governed after Muhammad’s death. The Sunni maintained that while Muhammad had not appointed a successor, there was a mechanism in place to determine how the community ought to be governed, namely the mechanism of shura, or consultation (see Q. 42: 38 and 3: 159). Determining by the process of ijma’, or consensus, that the Revelation from God was now complete and that the human task was one of interpretation, the majority decided to establish the caliphate to lead the community. The caliph, the first of whom was Abu Bakr was first-among-equals, although he symbolically represented the unity of faith and practice and of the community itself. He did not, however—at least in theory—have any more right than any other Muslim to adjudicate what was and what was not a bonafide Islamic practice or belief. The majority, deciding that they were corporately the guardians and interpreters of the Qur’an and sunnah (tradition of Muhammad) established what at bottom was an egalitarian, non-hierarchical system. A minority did not accept the legitimacy of the caliphate, maintaining that Muhammad had appointed Ali, his cousin and son-in-law as his successor. Later, Ali became the fourth Sunni caliph but effectively lost power to the first Umayyad caliph, Muawiyah. His son, Husayn, was tragically killed at the Battle of Karbala in 680 C.E. during the reign of the second Umayyad caliph, Yazid I, a despised figure among Shi’a. Shi’a prefer to refer to their leader, a male descendant of Ali, as “Imam” and believe that the Imam continues to be inspired, protected from sin and from fallibility.

Approximate distribution of the four main Sunni legal schools

Approximate distribution of the four main Sunni legal schools

Sunni schools of law (Madhhab)

Main articles: Islamic Schools and Branches and Schools of Islamic Theology 

Islamic law is known as the Shari’ah. The Shari’ah is based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and those who ascribe to different interpretations of the law pray in the same mosques with no hostility between them.

The four major Sunni schools of law, and the scholars for whom they are named, known as the four Imams, are as follows (The four Imams are often described as “founders” of the schools. However, the schools were effectively founded by their disciples and followers and did not really exist until after their deaths.):

  • Hanafi School (named after Abu Hanifa)

Hanafites Abu Hanifa (d. 767), was the founder of the Hanafi school. He was born in Iraq. His school is considered to have more reason and logic than the other schools. Muslims of Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Turkey follow this school.

  • Maliki School (named after Malik ibn Anas)

Malikites Malik ibn Abbas(d. 795) developed his ideas in Medina, where he apparently knew one of the last surviving companions of the Prophet. His doctrine is recorded in the Muwatta which has been adopted by most Muslims of Africa except in Lower Egypt, Zanzibar and South Africa. The Maliki legal school is the branch of Sunni that dominates in nearly all of Africa, except Egypt, the ‘Horn’ area and the East Coast countries.

  • Shafi’i School (named after Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi`i)

Shafi’ites Al-Shafi’i (d. 820) was considered a moderate in most areas. He taught in Iraq and then in Egypt. Present Muslims in Indonesia, Lower Egypt, Malaysia, and Yemen follow this school. He placed great emphasis on the Sunna of the Prophet, as embodied in the Hadith, as a source of the sharia. Scholars have argued that it was Shafi’i who first attributed special significance to the Sunna of the Prophet as opposed to that of the early Muslim rulers and other prominent Muslims.

  • Hanbali School (named after Ahmad bin Hanbal)

Hanbalites Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855) was born in Baghdad. He learned extensively from al-Shafi’i. Despite persecution during the period of Mutazalite domination, he held to the doctrine that the Qur’an was uncreated (which the Mutazalites rejected). This school of law is followed exclusively in Saudi Arabia.

These four schools are somewhat different from each other, but Sunni Muslims generally consider them all equally valid. There are other Sunni schools of law, although many are followed by only small numbers of people and are relatively unknown due to the popularity of the four major schools; also many have died out or were not sufficiently recorded by their followers to survive. Fear that constantly adding to the law could result in distortion or in misuse or in the intrusion of human content resulted in the work of the four Imams gaining recognition as comprehensive and definitive, closing the so-called “gate of ijtihad.” Subsequently, the task of jurists was to interpret the existing corpus of law, taken to be a divinely revealed code that required no supplement. The notion that lawmaking is a purely divine task leaves both rulers and jurists with the task of interpretation, not of legislation. Innovation (bida) in matters of law or religion is considered to be heresy, while taqlid (imitation) is a virtue. Some Sunnis—inspired among by, among others, Muhammad Iqbal regard all fiqh as interpretation, and argue that even the opinions of the four Imams and of the greatest scholars of the past should not be binding on succeeding generations, since even better interpretations might be possible. In this view, the sources of the law are divine and infallible but anything written about them are the product of fallible people.

Diversity in unity

Interpreting the Shari’ah to derive specific rulings (such as how to pray) is known as fiqh, which literally means understanding. A madhhab is a particular tradition of interpreting fiqh. These schools focus on specific evidence (Shafi’i and Hanbali) or general principles (Hanafi and Maliki) derived from specific evidences. The schools were initiated by eminent Muslim scholars in the first four centuries of Islam. As these schools represent clearly spelled out methodologies for interpreting the Shari’ah, there has been little change in the methodology per se. However, as the social and economic environment changes, new fiqh rulings are being made. For example, when tobacco appeared it was declared as “disliked” because of its smell. When medical information showed that smoking was dangerous, that ruling was changed to “forbidden.” Current fiqh issues include things like downloading pirated software and cloning. The consensus is that the Shari’ah does not change but fiqh rulings change all the time. Differences in what can and can not be consumed as halal (for example, all seafood for Malikis but only fish for Hanafis) as well as some divergence of opinion in other areas exist. The prayer ritual differs slightly across the schools. However, it is generally considered that the four schools agree on all major issues and that where they differ, they offer probable interpretations of God’s will. Difference (Ikhtilaf) is widley held to be positive, based on the oft-cited hadith, “difference of opinion in the community is a token of divine mercy.”

There may be scholars representing all four madhhabs living in larger Muslim communities, and it is up to those who consult them to decide which school they prefer. Each of the four schools give priority to different tools, or usul, in interpteting the law. For example, Hanbalis are reluctant to rely on anything other than an explicit reference in the Qur’an or hadith (sunnah) which in practice leave a lot of scope for local practice, while Hanafis are probablt the most open to the use of maslaha—that is, what seems to be in the public interest based on the exercise of reason. Local custom was recognized by Muhammad. It allows rulers and governments to regulate such matters as what side of the road people drive on, who qualifies for a license, for example. Hanafi himself allowed the use of any language during prayer (which includes recitation of the opening chapter of the Qur’an), although this was later restricted to those who did not know Arabic. His original ruling was based on the opinion that what mattered was the “meaning” of the Qur’an, which can be communicated in “translation” as well as in Arabic.

Many Sunnis advocate that a Muslim should choose a single madhhab and follow it in all matters. However, rulings from another madhhab are considered acceptable as dispensations (rukhsa) in exceptional circumstances. Some Sunnis however do not follow any madhhab, indeed some Salafis reject strict adherence to any particular school of thought, preferring to use the Qur’an and the sunnah alone as the primary sources of Islamic law. (The term salafi refers to Muslims for whom the practice of Islam has become corrupt and they advocate a return to what they believe to be the pure, original Islam of the earliest generations of Muslims. Sufis are often the target of their criticisms.)

Other schools

In addition, two smaller schools are recognized by many Sunnis, namely, the Zahiri school associated with Dawud ibn Khalaf (d 884) and the Ibadi (predominant in Oman. The Zahiri’s reject use of analogy (qiyas), preferring the literal meaning of a passage.

The Shi’a legal school of Jafari is sometimes cited as a fifth Madhhab in order to minimize differences and to assert the notion of a single Islamic community in which diversity exists in unity. Sunnis point to the coexistence of different legal schools to emphasize that Islamic Law allows for difference of opinion, and is not totally inflexible.

Sunni theological traditions

Some Islamic scholars faced questions that they felt were not specifically answered in the Qur’an, especially questions with regard to philosophical conundra like the nature of God, the possibility of human free will, or the eternal existence of the Qur’an. Various schools of theology and philosophy developed to answer these questions, each claiming to be true to the Qur’an and the Muslim tradition (sunnah). There were the following dominant traditions:

  • Ash’ari, founded by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari (873–935). This theology was embraced by Muslim scholars such as al-Ghazali.
    • Ash’ariyyah theology stresses divine revelation over human reason. Ethics, they say, cannot be derived from human reason: God’s commands, as revealed in the Qur’an and the practice of Muhammad and his companions (the sunnah, as recorded in the traditions, or hadith), are the source of all morality.
    • Regarding the nature of God and the divine attributes, the Ash’ari rejected the Mu’tazilite position that all Qur’anic references to God as having physical attributes (that is, a body) were metaphorical. Ash’aris insisted that these attributes were “true,” since the Qur’an could not be in error, but that they were not to be understood as implying a crude anthropomorphism.
    • Ash’aris tend to stress divine omnipotence over human free will. They believe that the Qur’an is eternal and uncreated. Opponents represented this as compromising the oneness of God, since it posited the existence of two separate, etwrnbal entities, God and God’s Book. This was related to the issue as to whether God’s qualities, or attributes (sifa) (such as God’s mercy, power, knowledge) had some sort of distinctive existence within God, since God’s mercy and God’s knowledge were different. For some, this also compromised God’s oneness. For others, it represented plurality within a single divine being.
  • Maturidiyyah, founded by Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (d. 944). Maturidiyyah was a minority tradition until it was accepted by the Turkish tribes of Central Asia (previously they had been Ashari and followers of the Shafi school, it was only later on migration into Anatolia that they became Hanafi and followers of the Maturidi creed). One of the tribes, the Seljuk Turks, migrated to Turkey, where later the Ottoman Empire was established. Their preferred school of law achieved a new prominence throughout their whole empire although it continued to be followed almost exclusively by followers of the Hanafi school while followers of the Shafi, Maliki, and Hanbali schools within the empire followed the Ashari school. Thus, wherever can be found Hanafi followers, there can be found the Maturidi creed.
    • Maturidiyyah argue that knowledge of God’s existence can be derived through reason.
  • Athariyyah (meaning Textualist) or Hanbali. No specific founder, but Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal played a key historic role in keeping this school alive.
    • This school differs with the Ash’ariyyah in understanding the names and attributes of God, but rather affirms all of God’s names and attributes as they are found in the Qur’an and Sunnah (prophetic traditions), with the disclaimer that the “how” of the attribute is not known. They say that God is as He described Himself “in a way befitting of His majesty.” Thus, regarding verses where God is described as having a yad (hand) or wajh (face), the textualists say that God is exactly as He described himself in a way befitting of His majesty, without inquiring as to the “how” of these attributes.
    • The Athariyyah still believe that God does not resemble His creation in any way, as this is also found in the texts. Thus, in the Athari creed, it is still prohibited to imagine an image of God in any way. The Athariyyah say that the yad” (hand) of God is “unlike any other yad” (since God does not resemble His creation in any way) and prohibit imagining what God would be like, even though this attribute of a yad is still affirmed.
    • The Asgarites used the formula, “billa kayfa” (without asking how), arguing that if the Qur’an says that God hears and sees and sits on a throne, this should be accepted without “going beyond His description, nor removing from Him any of His attributes.”

Politics in Sunni Islam

Main article:Political Aspects of Islam

See also: Jihad, Jihad with Different Aspects and Love, Tolerance, and Jihad In The Life Of The Prophet Muhammad

In early Sunni practice, the caliph was appointed or selected because of his virtue then acclaimed by the whole community. After 661, the caliphate became more or less hereditary. Not all Sunni Muslims accepted the hereditary or dynastic principle because it did not guarantee that the caliph was a good man. This raised the question whether rebellion against an immoral or unjust caliph was justified. Those known as Murji’a argued that in order to preserve the unity of the community, even an apparently bad ruler should be obeyed. Only God knows what is truly in a person’s heart, they argued. Others, including the Kharijites, held that only a good, pious Muslim should rule and that opposition to and rebellion against an immoral, unjust or impious ruler was wholly justified, indeed a religious duty. This party repudiated the authority of the Sunnah, claiming to bide only by the Qur’an. They assassinated those who they believed ceased to be truly Muslim, including Ali.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, many Muslims have argued that the principles of shura and ijma’ are inherently democratic, and that instead of investing authority in one individual an assembly should be elected to collectively interpret Islam. A minority argue that the initial combination of religion and state in the person of the Prophet, perpetuated in the caliphate, was purely circumstantial and that politics and religion can be separated and Islamic societies can function as secular states, although laws would reflect Muslim values as a matter of democratic principle in any Muslim majority state.

Sunni view of hadith

Main article: Hadith, Categories of Hadith and Hadith Studies

See also: The Companions and The Tabi‘Un

Hadith collections

Hadith collections

The Qur’an was codified as a “text” by Sahabah (Companions of the Prophet) in approximately 650 C.E., and is accepted by all Muslims as containing all of the revelations that Muhammad received. However, there were many matters of belief and daily life that were not directly prescribed in the Qur’an, but were simply the practice of the community. Later generations sought out oral traditions regarding the early history of Islam, and the practice of Muhammad and his first followers, and wrote them down so that they might be preserved. These recorded oral traditions are called hadith. Muslim scholars sifted through the hadith and evaluated the chain of narration of each tradition, scrutinizing the trustworthiness of the narrators and judging the strength of each hadith accordingly. Most Sunni accept the hadith collections of Bukhari and Muslim as the most authentic (sahih, or correct), and grant a lesser status to the collections of other recorders. These two books (Bukhari and Muslim) are strict in their accuracy and are, therefore, recognized by all Sunni Muslims. There are, however, six collections of hadith that are held in particular reverence by Sunni Muslims:

There are also other collections of hadith which, although less well-known, still contain many authentic hadith and are frequently used by specialists. Examples of these collections include:

  • Muwatta of Imam Malik
  • Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal
  • Sahih Ibn Khuzaima
  • Sahih Ibn Hibban
  • Mustadrak of Al Haakim
  • Musannaf of Abd al-Razzaq

Traditions, however, are classed according to their reliability, and only those considered most sound can be used as the basis of law. A number of criteria were used to evaluate traditions, as it was openly admitted that fraudulent material existed, invented to claim legitimacy for different opinions. Much effort was invested in determining a chain of narration, or isnad, that traced the saying back to a companion of Muhammad and the moral character of each link was also examined, since only those narrators with a reputation for honesty and piety could be trusted. This interest gave impetus to the science of biography in Islamic society. In addition, content that was obviously contrary to the spirit, ethics or teachings of Islam, or that attributed qualities to Muhammad (such as predicting future events) that he did not claim, was suspect. Many Muslims, however, regard the content of the hadith collections as subject to ongoing scrutiny, while in comparison there is no uncertainty about the status of the content of the Qur’an. There are also 40 hadith, known as Qudsi hadith which are considered to be “revelation,” while the rest of the sayings of Muhammad are regarded as inspired but not as revealed. (Although the term “unrehearsed revelation” is used of the hadith, the classical view is that there was a clear distinction between the two types of material, that is, passages revealed to Muhammad as scripture, and his own utterances.) A great deal of scholarship of the hadith by Muslims as well as by non-Muslims has identified evidence of party and personal bias, including gender-related bias, within the collections.

Contemporary movements in Sunni Islam

Main article: Islamic Revival

In addition to the existence of the different legal schools, Sunni Muslims may identity with a formal movement, including Sufi orders. Many formally organized movements exist, often with the aim of improving the quality of Muslim life, renewing Muslim piety or of bringing about political reforms. During colonial rule, many Islamic systems were either side-lined or dismantled and replaced with Western systems in such areas as the law, education and government. Many Sunni Muslims advocate a restoration of Islamic law and of authentic Islamic government and there is a wide variety of opinion on how these are to be understood. Generally, those known as salafi or salafists want to return to past practice, at least as they understand this. For some, this includes the restoration of the universal caliphate and the abolition of separate Islamic nation-states. Others, who are referred to as liberal or progressive, advocate the establishment of democratic systems consistent with Islamic values. One of the most influential movements, the al-Muwahhadun (Unitarians, usually known as the Wahhabis) was founded by Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab whose followers rose to power in Saudi Arabia. Al-Wahhab embraced the Hanbali school to the exclusion of the other three. This movement opposes Sufi Islam as a corrupt, syncretistic practice and is openly antagonistic towards Shi’a, who are not officially recognized in Saudi Arabia. Two other important movement are the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hasan al-Banna and Jamaati-i-Islam, founded by Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi. They emply constitutional means to pursue their agenda, sponsoring candidates and achieving some electoral success. Members of Jamaati have held cabinet posts in both Pakistan and Bangladesh. While the Brotherhood is officially banned in several countries, members have been elected as independents and in Egypt represent the largest opposition party. Both aim to establish their version of the bonafide Islamic state and combine pietism with politics. Mosques, schools, educational institutions and other religious and political foundations may be affiliated. In contrast, the Tablighi Jamaat, founded by Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhalawi forbids members from discussing politics and concentrates on inner renewal.

Radical Muslims, a small minority represented by such organizations as Islamic Jihad and Al-Qaeda, use extra-constitutional means including terrorist activities, to pursue their agenda which is also anti-Western. (The West is understood as engaged in an economic and military crusade against the Muslim world and is blamed for shoring up un-Islamic regimes to further its own interests.)

Shi’a-Sunni relations

Main article: Shia–Sunni Relations 

Most Shi’a blame Sunnis for the murder of Ali and Husayn. Shi’a have often lived as members of a small minority in Sunni majority states. The principle of taqiya (concealment) allows a Shi’a to conceal their religious identity in order to avoid persecution. Historically, there have been many attempts to reconcile Shi’a and Sunni Islam. One example was the establishment of the Abbasid caliphate. Caliph al-Mamum used the title “Imam” to attempt to attract Shi’a support. On the other hand, the Shi’a Fatimids in Egypt, who called themselves Caliph-Imams, did so to challenge the legitimacy of the Abbasids. Another effort at reconciliation took place in the thirteenth century when Sunni and Shi’a dynasties faced a common threat in the form of the Mongols. Incidents of civil unrest caused by clashes between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims have occurred historically. However, some argue that communal differences were deliberately exaggerated by the colonial powers, who dealt separately with each community in order to establish interests on a divide and rule basis. These interests could then be brought into opposition to each other, with the colonial power acting as arbitrator in order to claim that colonial rule was necessary if peace was to be maintained. There are places in the world where members of both traditions pray side by side. There are also places in the world where hostility exists. Some Sufi orders attract members from both traditions, acting as a bridge between them.

Sunni mysticism

Main article: Sufism

There has also been a rich tradition of mysticism within Sunni Islam, which has most prominently manifested itself in the principal orders of Sunni Sufism. Historically, Sufism became “an incredibly important part of Islam” and “one of the most widespread and omnipresent aspects of Muslim life” in Islamic civilization from the early medieval period onwards, when it began to permeate nearly all major aspects of Sunni Islamic life in regions stretching from India and Iraq to Senegal. Sufism continued to remain a crucial part of daily Islamic life until the twentieth century, when its historical influence upon Islamic civilization began to be combated by the rise of Salafism and Wahhabism . Islamic scholar Timothy Winter has remarked: “[In] classical, mainstream, medieval Sunni Islam … [the idea of] ‘orthodox Islam’ would not … [have been possible] without Sufism,” and that the classical belief in Sufism being an essential component of Islam has only weakened in some quarters of the Islamic world “a generation or two ago” with the rise of Salafism. In the modern world, the classical interpretation of Sunni orthodoxy, which sees in Sufism an essential dimension of Islam alongside the disciplines of jurisprudence and theology, is represented by institutions such as Al-Azhar University and Zaytuna College, with Al-Azhar’s current Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb defining “Sunni orthodoxy” as being a follower “of any of the four schools of [legal] thought (Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki or Hanbali) and … [also] of the Sufism of Imam Junayd of Baghdad in doctrines, manners and [spiritual] purification.”

In the eleventh-century, Sufism, which had previously been a less “codified” trend in Islamic piety, began to be “ordered and crystallized” into orders which have continued until the present day. All these orders were founded by a major Sunni Islamic saint, and some of the largest and most widespread included the Qadiriyya (after Abdul-Qadir Gilani [d. 1166]), the Rifa’iyya (after Ahmed al-Rifa’i [d. 1182]), the Chishtiyya (after Moinuddin Chishti [d. 1236]), the Shadiliyya (after Abul Hasan ash-Shadhili [d. 1258]), and the Naqshbandiyya (after Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari [d. 1389]). Contrary to popular perception in the West, however, neither the founders of these orders nor their followers ever considered themselves to be anything other than orthodox Sunni Muslims, and in fact all of these orders were attached to one of the four orthodox legal schools of Sunni Islam. Thus, the Qadiriyya order was Hanbali, with its founder, Abdul-Qadir Gilani, being a renowned Hanbali jurist; the Chishtiyya was Hanafi; the Shadiliyya order was Maliki; and the Naqshbandiyya order was Hanafi. Thus, “many of the most eminent defenders of Islamic orthodoxy, such as Abdul-Qadir Gilani, Ghazali, and the Sultan Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn (Saladin) were connected with Sufism.”

The contemporary Salafi and Wahhabi strands of Sunnis, however, do not accept the traditional stance on mystical practices.

See also: What is Sufism?

Adapted from New World Encyclopedia