Sunni Islam

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The Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, is a major centre of Sunni Islamic learning in the world.

Sunni Islam (play /ˈsni/ or /ˈsʊni/) is the largest branch of Islam and are referred to in Arabic as ʾAhlu-s-Sunnati wa-l-Jamāʿah (Arabic: أهل السنة والجماعة‎), "people of the tradition of Muhammad and the consensus of the Ummah" or ʾAhlu-s-Sunnah (Arabic: أهل السنة‎). For short, in English, they are known as Sunni Muslims, Sunnis, Sunnites or simply Muslims.

Sunni Islam is sometimes referred to as the orthodox version of the religion.[1][2] The word "Sunni" comes from the term Sunnah (Arabic: سنة‎), which refers to the sayings and actions of Muhammad that are recorded in hadiths (collections of narrations regarding Muhammad).[3]

The primary hadiths Al-Kutub Al-Sittah (the six books), in conjunction with the Quran, form the basis of all jurisprudence methodologies within Sunni Islam. Laws are derived from the text of the Quran and the hadith, in addition to using methods of juristic reasoning (like qiyas) and consensus (ijma). There are a multitude of scholarly opinions in each field; however, these can be summarised as either derived from the four major schools of thought (Madh'hab) or from an expert scholar who exercises independent derivation of Islamic Law (ijtihad). Both are considered valid as differences of opinion (which were present at the time of the early Muslims, the Salaf).



Sunnī (Classical Arabic: سُنِّي /ˈsunniː/) is a broad term derived from sunnah (سُنَّة /ˈsunna/, pl. سُنَن sunan /ˈsunæn/), means "habit" or "usual practice".[4] The Muslim usage of this term refers to the sayings and living habits of Muhammad. In its full form, this branch of Islam is referred to as "Ahl al-Sunnah wa Jama'ah" (literally, "People of the Sunah and the Community"). People claiming to follow the Sunnah who can demonstrate that they have no action or belief against the prophetic Sunnah can consider themselves to be Sunni Muslims.


Umayyad Caliphate at its greatest extent

After the death of Muhammad, Sunni Muslims accepted Abu Bakr as the first caliph. However many years later, a new sect known as Shiism was founded. Those who accepted Abu Bakr were known as the Ahlus Sunnah wa`l Jamah, in order to differentiate them from the new sect of Shiism (see History of Shi'a Islam).

According to Sunni Muslims, the first four caliphs were known as the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs. The first was Abu Bakr Siddique, followed by the second, Umar ibn al-Khattāb. Uthman ibn Affan and Ali ibn Abi Talib also were called by the same title.[5]

The rulers succeeding these first four did not receive this title by consensus, and eventually a monarchy succeeded thereafter until the Caliphate was brought back under various empires throughout history.

After the first four caliphs, the Caliphate was upheld as a political system by dynasties such as the Umayyads, the Abbasids, and the Ottomans, this was also upheld for relatively short periods of time by other competing dynasties in al-Andalus, North Africa and Egypt. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abolished the system of the Ottoman Caliphate after Abdülmecid II was officially deposed and expelled from Turkey, whereby the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1924 upon secular principles. To this day, the Ottoman Empire is regarded as the last major Islamic Caliphate.

Companions and summary

Sunnis believe that the companions were the best of the Muslims, based on hadiths such as this one: It was narrated from ‘Abd-Allah ibn Mas’ud that Muhammad said: "The best of the people are my generation, then those who come after them, then those who come after them." Support for this view is also found in verses of Quran such as this one in Surah Tawba verse 100 (9:100) "Those who believed, and went into exile and fought for God's cause with their property and their persons, as well as those who sheltered and helped them,- these shall be friends, one of another."

Sunnis believe that the companions were true believers since it was the companions who were given the task of compiling the Quran. Furthermore, narrations that were narrated by the companions are a great source of knowledge for Muslims and a great source on the Sunnah i.e. example of Muhammad.

Estimates of the world Sunni population varies from over 75% to 90% of all Muslims.[6]

Schools of law

Distribution of Sunni, Shia, and Ibadi branches of Islam

There are several intellectual traditions within the field of Islamic law. These varied traditions reflect differing viewpoints on some laws and obligations within Islamic law. While one school of thought may see a certain act as a religious obligation, another may see the same act as optional. These schools of thought aren't regarded as sects; rather, they represent differing viewpoints on issues that are not considered the core of Islamic belief.

Historians have differed regarding the exact delineation of the schools based on the underlying principles they follow. Many traditional scholars saw Sunni Islam in two groups: Ahl al-Ra'i, or people of opinions, due to their emphasis on scholarly judgment and reason; and Ahl al-Hadith, or people of traditions, due to their emphasis on restricting juristic thought to only what is found in scripture.[7] Ibn Khaldun defined the Sunni schools as three: the Hanafi school representing opinions, the Zahiri school representing scripture, and a broader, middle school encompassing the Shafi'i, Maliki and Hanbali schools.[8]


Abu Hanifah (699 — 767 CE / 80 — 148 AH) was the founder of the Hanafi school. He was born in the year 699 CE in Kufa, Iraq[9][10] in a family of Afghan-Persian / Persian ancestry.[11][12] Sunni Muslims of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Mauritius, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Muslim areas of Southern Russia, the Caucasus, most of the Muslim areas of the Balkans and Turkey and parts of Egypt, all follow this school of jurisprudence.


The Mosque of Uqba also known as the Great Mosque of Kairouan was, in particular during the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, an important center of Islamic learning with an emphasis on the Maliki Madh'hab.[13] The Mosque of Uqba is located in the city of Kairouan in Tunisia.

Imam Malik ibn Anas (c. 711 – 795[[Anno Domini|CE / 93 AH – 179 AH ) developed his Islamic jurisprudence in the holy city of Medina. His collection of narrated Hadeeth are recorded in the Muwatta from which much of the fiqh of his school of fiqh was developed. His Madh'hab was adopted by most North African and West African countries such as upper Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Mauritania and Sudan along with parts of the Persian Gulf. The Maliki school of jurisprudence is the official state Madh'hab of Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. He was one of the teachers of Imam Al-Shafi‘i as well as Imam Abū Ḥanīfa eldest student, Muhammad al-Shaybani. One of greatest historical centers of Maliki teaching, especially during the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries, is the Mosque of Uqba also known as the Great Mosque of Kairouan (in Tunisia).[13][14]


Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi`i (767 — 820 CE / 150 — 204 AH) was a student of Malik. He taught in Iraq and then in Egypt. Al-Shafi'i placed great emphasis on the Sunnah of Muhammad, as embodied in the Hadith, as a source of the Shari'ah.

The Shafi'i madhab today is the dominant school of jurisprudence in Yemen, Lower Egypt, Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, the North Caucasus, Kurdistan (East Turkey, North west Iran, North Iraq, Northern Syria), Maldives, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Indonesia.

It is also practised by large communities in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia (in the Hejaz and Asir), the United Arab Emirates, Palestine, the Swahili Coast, Mauritius, Singapore, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan (by Chechens) and Indian states of Kerala (most of the Mappilas), Karnataka (Bhatkal, Mangalore and Coorg districts), Maharashtra (by Konkani Muslims), Tamil Nadu, Lakshadweep Islands.


Ahmad bin Hanbal (780 — 855 CE / 164 — 241 AH) was the namesake of the Hanbali school of thought in fiqh. He was born in Baghdad and learned extensively from the great Imam al-Shafi'i whilst studying under him. Imam Ahmed was known for challenging the ruling Mu'tazila caliphate at the time - Ibn Hanbal was famously called before the Inquisition or "Mihna" of the Abassid Caliph al-Ma'mun. Al-Ma'mun wanted to assert the religious authority of the Caliph by pressuring scholars to adopt the Mu'tazila view that the Qur'an was created rather than uncreated. According to Sunni tradition, Imam ibn Hanbal was among the scholars to resist the Caliph's interference and the Mu'tazila doctrine of a created Qur'an and championed the creed or aqidah of Ahlus Sunnah wa'l Jamah. The Hanbali school of jurisprudence is followed predominantly in the Arabian Peninsula as well as parts of Europe and the Americas. The methodology focuses primarily on sound textual evidence and scholarly consensus (Ijma) in deriving fiqh. The majority of Hanbali scholars, as well as many from the other schools of thought, follow the Athari methodology and creed in Aqidah which adopts the middle path of accepting the texts of Qur'an and Hadeeth without extensive philosophical interpretation or denial. This regarded by them as being the way of the early generations of Muslims (the salaf) and those that followed them (the Tabi‘un), and so on, where the key points of Islamic belief are established and any attributes regarding Allah are accepted as they are without delving into possible rational and philosophical explanations, thus keeping far from anthropomorphism, complete denial or speculative interpretation.

Differences in the Schools

Interpreting Islamic law by deriving specific rulings - such as how to pray - is known as fiqh, commonly termed jurisprudence. A madh'hab is a particular tradition of interpreting this jurisprudence. These schools possess different focuses, such as specific evidence (Shafi'i and Hanbali) or general principles (Hanafi and Maliki) derived from specific evidences. As these schools represent clearly spelled out methodologies for interpreting Islamic law, there has been little change in the methodology with regard to each school. All four madh'habs are recognised viable legal schools and are not seen as in error in contrast to one another, each school has their evidences and differences are respected as being Ikhtilaf; this is because all the schools are united upon the usul (base) issues but generally differ on furu' (branches).

As the social and economic environment changes, new rulings are derived - this is known as Ijtihad - this can be from a Mujtahid who specialises in one or more Madh'habs. For example, when tobacco appeared, it was considered disliked because of its smell. When medical information showed that smoking was dangerous, most jurists took the view that it is forbidden. Current issues include social topics such as downloading pirated software and scientific issues such as cloning.

The Six pillars of Iman

Sunni Islam has six articles of faith known as the six pillars of iman that all Sunni Muslims are united upon in belief, along with the 105 key points of creed mentioned in "Aṭ-Ṭaḥāwī's Islamic Theology".[15]

Sunni theological traditions

Some Islamic scholars faced questions that they felt were not explicitly answered in the Qur'an and Sunnah, especially questions with regard to philosophical conundra such as the nature of God, the existence 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). Among Sunni Muslims, various schools of thought in theology began to be born out of the sciences of kalam in opposition to the textualists who stood by affirming texts without delving into philosophical speculation as they saw it as an innovation in Islam. The following were the four dominant traditions that grew however the key beliefs of the Sunni Islam are all agreed upon (being the six pillars of Iman) and codified in the treatise on Aqeedah by Imam Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Tahawi in his Aqeedat Tahawiyyah.


Founded by Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (died 944). Maturidiyyah was a minority tradition until it was accepted by the Turkish tribes of Central Asia (previously they had been Ash'ari and followers of the Shafi'i school,[citation needed] it was only later on migration into Anatolia that they became Hanafi and followers of the Maturidi creed[citation needed]). One of the tribes, the Seljuk Turks, migrated to Turkey, where later the Ottoman Empire was established.[16] 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 and Maliki schools within the empire followed the Ash'ari and Athari schools of thought. Thus, wherever can be found Hanafi followers, there can be found the Maturidi creed. Maturidis argue that the knowledge of God's existence can be derived through pure reason.


Founded by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari (873–935). This theological school of Aqeedah was embraced by plenty of Muslim scholars and developed in parts of the Islamic world throughout history, Imam al-Ghazali wrote on the creed discussing it and agreeing upon some of its principles.[17] Ash'ari historically and today has the greatest backing of the Muslim Scholars.

Ash'ari theology stresses divine revelation over human reason. Contrary to the Mu'tazilites, they say that ethics cannot be derived from human reason, but that God's commands, as revealed in the Qur'an and the Sunnah (the practices of Muhammad and his companions as recorded in the traditions, or hadith), are the sole source of all morality and ethics.

Regarding the nature of God and the divine attributes, the Ash'ari rejected the Mu'tazili position that all Qur'anic references to God as having real attributes were not metaphorical. The Ash'aris insisted that these attributes were as they "best befit him". The Arabic language is a wide language in which one word can have 15 different meanings, so the Ash'aris endeavor to find the meaning that best befits Allah and is not contradicted by the Qur'an. Therefore when Allah states in the Holy Qur'an, "He who does not resemble any of this creation," this clearly means Allah can't be attributed with body parts because he created body parts. This is one way which differentiates these Muslims from most Christians and Jews. Ash'aris tend to stress divine omnipotence over human free will and they believe that the Qur'an is eternal and uncreated.


Athari (Arabic: أثري), or "textualism", is derived from the Arabic word athar, literally meaning "remnant", and also referring to "narrations". Their disciples are called the Atharis or al-Atharia. The Atharis are considered to be one of four Sunni schools of Aqidah.

The Athari methodology of textual interpretation is to avoid delving into any extensive theological speculation. They believe in Allah and his attributes in the exact fashion that they were mentioned in the Quran, the Sunnah, and by the Sahabah. They do not attempt to further interpret the aforementioned texts by giving a literal meaning like in Ẓāhirīya (literalism) or the Tashbih (simile or likening), nor through tahrif (distortion), nor ta`weel (allegory or metaphor), nor ta'teel (denial). They avoid entering into deep rational philosophical discussions of matters relating to Islamic beliefs that are not supported by the Quran, the Sunnah or the understanding of the Sahabah with specific wording; rather, their discussion and presentation of beliefs revolves entirely around textual evidences found in these three main sources, while remaining cautious to avoid taking the path of the Ẓāhirīs (literalists) either. The Atharis believe this to be the methodology adhered to by the first three generations of Muslims (i.e. the Salaf), therefore making it the school of Sunni Aqidah that they believe is adhering to the truth and keeping to the balanced middle path of Islam.

Sunni view of hadith

The Qur'an as it exists today in book form was compiled by Muhammad's companions (Sahaba) within a handful of months of his death, and is accepted by all Muslim denominations. However, there were many matters of belief and daily life that were not directly prescribed in the Qur'an, but were actions that were observed by Muhammad and the early Muslim community. Later generations sought out oral traditions regarding the early history of Islam, and the practices 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 have through the ages sifted through the hadith and evaluated the chain of narrations of each tradition, scrutinizing the trustworthiness of the narrators and judging the strength of each hadith accordingly.

Al-Kutub Al-Sittah

Al-Kutub al-Sittah translates as "the Six Books". Most Sunni Muslims accept the hadith collections of Bukhari and Muslim as the most authentic (sahih, or correct), and while accepting all hadiths verified as authentic, grant a slightly lesser status to the collections of other recorders. There are, however, four other collections of hadith that are also held in particular reverence by Sunni Muslims, making a total of six:

There are also other collections of hadith which also contain many authentic hadith and are frequently used by scholars and specialists. Examples of these collections include:


  1. ^ Gale Encyclopedia of the Mideast & N. Africa. "The largest branch in Islam, sometimes referred to as "orthodox Islam"; its full name is ahl al-Sunna wa aljamaʿa (the people of Sunna and consensus), and it represents about 90 percent of the world Muslim population." 
  2. ^ "Sunni and Shia Islam". Library of Congress Country Studies. Retrieved December 17, 2011. 
  3. ^ "Sunna". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2010-12-17. "the body of Islamic custom and practice based on Muhammad's words and deeds" 
  4. ^ Sunnah, Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement
  5. ^ Tore Kjeilen. "Lexic". Lexic Retrieved 2011-06-05. 
  6. ^ See:
  7. ^ Murtada Mutahhari, The Role of Ijtihad in Legislation, Al-Tawhid volume IV, No.2, Publisher: Islamic Thought Foundation
  8. ^ Meinhaj Hussain, A New Medina, The Legal System, Grande Strategy, January 5th, 2012
  9. ^ Josef W. Meri, Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia, 1 edition, (Routledge: 2005), p.5
  10. ^ Hisham M. Ramadan, Understanding Islamic Law: From Classical to Contemporary, (AltaMira Press: 2006), p.26
  11. ^ S. H. Nasr(1975), "The religious sciences", in R.N. Frye, the Cambridge History of Iran, Volume 4, Cambridge University Press. pg 474: "Abū Ḥanīfah, who is often called the "grand imam"(al-Imam al-'Azam) was Persian
  12. ^ Cyril Glasse, "The New Encyclopedia of Islam", Published by Rowman & Littlefield, 2008. pg 23: "Abu Hanifah, a Persian, was one of the great jurists of Islam and one of the historic Sunni Mujtahids"
  13. ^ a b Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and Riad Nourallah, The future of Islam, Routledge, 2002, page 199
  14. ^ Ira Marvin Lapidus, A history of Islamic societies, Cambridge University Press, 2002, page 308
  15. ^ "Sunni Islam Afterlife and Salvation". 
  16. ^ "Maturidiyyah". Philtar. Retrieved 2006-04-01. 
  17. ^ J. B. Schlubach. "Fethullah Gülen and Al-Ghazzali on Tolerance". Retrieved 2010-01-07. 

Further reading

External links