Sunni Islam

Sunni Islam is the largest denomination of Islam, followed by 87–90% of the world's Muslims, characterized by a greater emphasis upon the prophet, the sahabah, and customs deduced thereof. Its name comes from the word Sunnah, referring to the behaviour of the Islamic prophet Prophet Muhammad. The differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims arose from a disagreement over the succession to Muhammad and subsequently acquired broader political significance, as well as theological and juridical dimensions. According to Sunni traditions, Muhammad designated his successor as Abu Bakr by commanding him to lead prayers when he was ill. The Muslim community later corroborated this by electing him as the first caliph. This contrasts with the Shia view, which holds that Muhammad announced his son-in-law and cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor, most notably at Ghadir Khumm. Political tensions between Sunnis and Shias continued with varying intensity throughout Islamic history and have been exacerbated in recent times by ethnic conflicts and the rise of Wahhabism.
The adherents of Sunni Islam are referred to in Arabic as ahl as-sunnah wa l-jamāʻah or ahl as-Sunnah for short. In English, its doctrines and practices are sometimes called Sunnism, while adherents are known as Sunni Muslims, Sunnis, Sunnites and Ahlus Sunnah. Sunni Islam is sometimes referred to as "orthodox Islam", though some scholars view this translation as inappropriate.
The Quran, together with hadith and binding juristic consensus, form the basis of all traditional jurisprudence within Sunni Islam. Sharia rulings are derived from these basic sources, in conjunction with analogical reasoning, consideration of public welfare and juristic discretion, using the principles of jurisprudence developed by the traditional legal schools. In matters of creed, the Sunni tradition upholds the six pillars of iman and comprises the Ash'ari and Maturidi schools of rationalistic theology as well as the textualist school known as traditionalist theology.


, also commonly referred to as Sunnīism, is a term derived from the word , meaning "", "usual practice", "custom", "tradition". In Arabic, the word is an adjective literally meaning "pertaining to the Sunnah". The Muslim use of this term refers to the sayings and living habits of the prophet Muhammad. In Arabic, this branch of Islam is referred to as ahl as-sunnah wa l-jamāʻah, "the people of the sunnah and the community", which is commonly shortened to ahl as-sunnah.


One common mistake is to assume that Sunni Islam represents a normative Islam that emerged during the period after Muhammad's death, and that Sufism and Shi'ism developed out of Sunni Islam. This perception is partly due to the reliance on highly ideological sources that have been accepted as reliable historical works, and also because the vast majority of the population is Sunni. Both Sunnism and Shiaism are the end products of several centuries of competition between ideologies. Both sects used each other to further cement their own identities and doctrines.
The first four caliphs are known among Sunnis as the Rashidun or "Rightly-Guided Ones". Sunni recognition includes the aforementioned Abu Bakr as the first, Umar as the second, Uthman as the third, and Ali as the fourth. Sunnis recognised different rulers as the caliph, though they did not include anyone in the list of the rightly guided ones or Rashidun after the murder of Ali, until the caliphate was constitutionally abolished in Turkey on 3 March 1924.

Transition of caliphate into dynastic monarchy of Banu Umayya

The seeds of metamorphosis of caliphate into kingship were sown, as the second caliph Umar had feared, as early as the regime of the third caliph Uthman, who appointed many of his kinsmen from his clan Banu Umayya, including Marwan and Walid bin Uqba on important government positions, becoming the main cause of turmoil resulting in his murder and the ensuing infighting during Ali's time and rebellion by Muawiya, another of Uthman's kinsman. This ultimately resulted in the establishment of firm dynastic rule of Banu Umayya after Husain, the younger son of Ali from Fatima, was killed at the Battle of Karbala. The rise to power of Banu Umayya, the Meccan tribe of elites who had vehemently opposed Muhammad under the leadership of Abu Sufyan, Muawiya's father, right up to the conquest of Mecca by Muhammad, as his successors with the accession of Uthman to caliphate, replaced the egalitarian society formed as a result of Muhammad's revolution to a society stratified between haves and have-nots as a result of nepotism, and in the words of El-Hibri through "the use of religious charity revenues to subsidise family interests, which Uthman justified as "al-sila"." Ali, during his rather brief regime after Uthman maintained austere life style and tried hard to bring back the egalitarian system and supremacy of law over the ruler idealised in Muhammad's message, but faced continued opposition, and wars one after another by Aisha-Talhah-Zubair, by Muawiya and finally by the Kharjites. After he was murdered his followers immediately elected Hasan ibn Ali his elder son from Fatima to succeed him. Hasan, however, shortly afterwards signed a treaty with Muawiaya relinquishing power in favour of the latter, with a condition inter alia, that one of the two who will outlive the other will be the caliph, and that this caliph will not appoint a successor but will leave the matter of selection of the caliph to the public. Subsequently, Hasan was poisoned to death and Muawiya enjoyed unchallenged power. Not honouring his treaty with Hasan he however nominated his son Yazid to succeed him. Upon Muawiya's death, Yazid asked Husain the younger brother of Hasan, Ali's son and Muhammad's grandson, to give his allegiance to Yazid, which he plainly refused. His caravan was cordoned by Yazid's army at Karbala and he was killed with all his male companions – total 72 people, in a day long battle after which Yazid established himself as a sovereign, though strong public uprising erupted after his death against his dynasty to avenge the massacre of Karbala, but Banu Umayya were able to quickly suppress them all and ruled the Muslim world, till they were finally overthrown by Banu Abbas.

Caliphate and the dynastic monarchy of Banu Abbas

The rule of and "caliphate" of Banu Umayya came to an end at the hands of Banu Abbas a branch of Banu Hashim, the tribe of Muhammad, only to usher another dynastic monarchy styled as caliphate from 750 CE. This period is seen formative in Sunni Islam as the founders of the four schools viz, Abu Hanifa, Malik bin Anas, Shafi'i and Ahmad bin Hambal all practised during this time, so also did Jafar al Sadiq who elaborated the doctrine of imamate, the basis for the Shi'a religious thought. There was no clearly accepted formula for determining succession in the Abbasid caliphate. Two or three sons or other relatives of the dying caliph emerged as candidates to the throne, each supported by his own party of supporters. A trial of strength ensued and the most powerful party won and expected favours of the caliph they supported once he ascended the throne. The caliphate of this dynasty ended with the death of the Caliph al-Ma'mun in 833 CE, when the period of Turkish domination began.

Sunni Islam in the contemporary era

The fall, at the end of World War I of the Ottoman Empire, the biggest Sunni empire for six centuries, brought the caliphate to an end. This resulted in Sunni protests in far off places including the Khilafat Movement in India, which was later on upon gaining independence from Britain divided into Sunni dominated Pakistan and secular India. Pakistan, the most populous Sunni state at its birth, however later got partitioned into Pakistan and Bangladesh. The demise of Ottoman caliphate also resulted in the emergence of Saudi Arabia, a dynastic absolute monarchy with the support of the British and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism. This was followed by a considerable rise in Wahhabism, Salafism and Jihadism under the influence of the preaching of Ibn Taymiyyah a self proclaimed advocate of the traditions of Ahmad bin Hanbal. The expediencies of cold war resulted in encouragement of Afghan refugees in Pakistan to be radicalised, trained and armed to fight the communist regime backed by USSR forces in Afghanistan giving birth to Taliban. The Taliban wrestled power from the communists in Afghanistan and formed a government under the leadership of Mohammed Omar, who was addressed as the Emir of the faithful, an honorific way of addressing the caliph. The Taliban regime was recognised by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia till after 9/11, perpetrated by Osama bin Laden – a Saudi national by birth and harboured by the Taliban – took place, resulting in a war on terror launched against the Taliban.
The sequence of events of the 20th century has led to resentment in some quarters of the Sunni community due to the loss of pre-eminence in several previously Sunni-dominated regions such as the Levant, Mesopotamia, the Balkans, the North Caucasus and the Indian sub continent. The latest attempt by a section of Salafis to re-establish a Sunni caliphate was seen in the emergence of the militant group ISIL, whose leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is known among his followers as caliph and Amir-al-maumineen, "The Commander of the Faithful". Jihadism is however being opposed from within the Muslim community in all quarters of the world as evidenced by turnout of almost 2% of the Muslim population in London protesting against ISIL.
Following the puritan approach of Ibn Kathir, Muhammad Abduh and Muhammad Rashid Rida, many contemporary tafsir downplay the earlier significance of Biblical material. Half of the Arab commentaries reject Isra'iliyyat in general, while Turkish tafsir usually partly allow referring to Biblical material. Nevertheless, most non-Arabic commentators regard them as useless or not applicable. A direct reference to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict could not be found. It remains unclear whether the refusal of Isra'iliyyat is motivated by political discourse or by traditionalist thought alone. The usage of tafsir'ilmi is another notable characteristic of modern Sunni tafsir. Tafsir'ilmi stands for alleged scientific miracles found in the Qur'an. In short, the idea is that the Qur'an contains knowledge about subjects an author of the 7th century could not possibly have. Such interpretations are popular among many commentators. However, some scholars, such as the Commentators of Al-Azhar University, reject this approach, arguing the Qur'an is a text for religious guidance, not for science and scientific theories that may be disproved later; thus tafsir'ilmi might lead to interpreting Qur'anic passages as falsehoods. Modern trends of Islamic interpretation are usually seen as adjusting to a modern audience and purifying Islam from alleged alterings, some of which are believed to be intentional corruptions brought into Islam to undermine and corrupt its message.


Sunnis believe the companions of Prophet Muhammad to be reliable transmitters of Islam, since God and Muhammad accepted their integrity. Medieval sources even prohibit cursing or vilifying them. This belief is based upon prophetic traditions such as one narrated by Abdullah, son of Masud, in which 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 the Quran, according to Sunnis. Therefore, narratives of companions are also reliably taken into account for knowledge of the Islamic faith. Sunnis also believe that the companions were true believers since it was the companions who were given the task of compiling the Quran.
Sunni Islam does not have a formal hierarchy. Leaders are informal, and gain influence through study to become a scholar of Islamic law or Islamic theology. Both religious and political leadership are in principle open to all Muslims. According to the Islamic Center of Columbia, South Carolina, anyone with the intelligence and the will can become an Islamic scholar. During Midday Mosque services on Fridays, the congregation will choose a well-educated person to lead the service, known as a Khateeb.
A study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2010 and released January 2011 found that there are 1.62 billion Muslims around the world, and it is estimated over 85–90% are Sunni.


Schools of law

There are many intellectual traditions within the field of Islamic law, often referred to as legal schools. These varied traditions reflect differing viewpoints on some laws and obligations within Islamic law. While one school may see a certain act as a religious obligation, another may see the same act as optional. These schools 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 reason," due to their emphasis on scholarly judgment and discourse; and Ahl al-Hadith, or "people of traditions," due to their emphasis on restricting juristic thought to only what is found in scripture. Ibn Khaldun defined the Sunni schools as three: the Hanafi school representing reason, the Ẓāhirīte school representing tradition, and a broader, middle school encompassing the Shafi'ite, Malikite and Hanbalite schools.
During the Middle Ages, the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt delineated the acceptable Sunni schools as only Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i and Hanbali, excluding the Ẓāhirī school. The Ottoman Empire later reaffirmed the official status of four schools as a reaction to the Shiite character of their ideological and political archrival, the Persian Safavids, though former Prime Minister of Sudan Al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, as well as the Amman Message issued by King Abdullah II of Jordan, recognize the Ẓāhirī and keep the number of Sunni schools at five.

Differences in the schools

Interpreting Islamic law by deriving specific rulings – such as how to pray – is commonly known as Islamic jurisprudence. The schools of law all have their own particular tradition of interpreting this jurisprudence. 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. While conflict between the schools was often violent in the past, the four Sunni schools recognize each other's validity and they have interacted in legal debate over the centuries.

Pillars of ''iman''

All the branches of Sunni Islam testify to six principal articles of faith known as the six pillars of iman, which are believed to be essential. These are
  1. Belief in the Oneness of God
  2. Belief in the Angels of God
  3. Belief in the Divine Revelations
  4. Belief in the Prophets of God
  5. Belief in Resurrection after Death and the Day of Judgment and
  6. Belief in Preordainment
These six articles are common that present-day Sunnis agree on, from those who adhere to traditional Sunnism to those who adhere to latter-day movements. Additionally, classical Sunni Islam also outlined numerous other cardinal doctrines from the eighth-century onwards, such as the Creed of Tahawi. However, none of these creeds gained the importance attributed to the Nicene Creed in Christianity. But while most of the tenets outlined in the classical creeds are accepted by all Sunnis, some of these doctrines have been rejected by the aforementioned movements as lacking strictly scriptural precedent. Traditionally, these other important Sunni articles of faith have included the following :
Some Islamic scholars faced questions that they felt were not explicitly answered in the Quran and the 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 Quran. Various schools of theology and philosophy developed to answer these questions, each claiming to be true to the Quran and the Muslim tradition. 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 three dominant schools of theology that grew. All three of these are accepted by Muslims around the globe, and are considered within "Islamic orthodoxy". The key beliefs of classical Sunni Islam are all agreed upon and codified in the treatise on Aqeedah by Imam Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Tahawi in his Aqeedat Tahawiyyah.


Founded by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari. This theological school of Aqeedah was embraced by many Muslim scholars and developed in parts of the Islamic world throughout history; al-Ghazali wrote on the creed discussing it and agreeing upon some of its principles.
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 Quran and the Sunnah, 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 Quranic references to God as having real attributes were metaphorical. The Ash'aris insisted that these attributes were as they "best befit His Majesty". 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 God and is not contradicted by the Quran. Therefore, when God states in the Quran, "He who does not resemble any of His creation," this clearly means that God cannot be attributed with body parts because He created body parts. Ash'aris tend to stress divine omnipotence over human free will and they believe that the Quran is eternal and uncreated.


Founded by Abu Mansur al-Maturidi, the Maturidiyyah was the major tradition in Central Asia based on Hanafi-law. It is more influenced by Persian interpretations of Islam and less on the traditions established within Arabian culture. In contrast to the traditionalistic approach, Maturidism allows to reject hadiths based on reason alone. Nevertheless, revelation remains important to inform humans about that is beyond their intellectual limits, such as the concept of an afterlife. Ethics on the other hand, do not need prophecy or revelation, but can be understood by reason alone. 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 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.


Traditionalist theology is a movement of Islamic scholars who reject rationalistic Islamic theology in favor of strict textualism in interpreting the Quran and sunnah. The name derives from "tradition" in its technical sense as translation of the Arabic word hadith. It is also sometimes referred to as athari as by several other names.
Adherents of traditionalist theology believe that the zahir meaning of the Qur'an and the hadith have sole authority in matters of belief and law; and that the use of rational disputation is forbidden even if it verifies the truth. They engage in a literal reading of the Qur'an, as opposed to one engaged in ta'wil. They do not attempt to conceptualize the meanings of the Qur'an rationally, and believe that their realities should be consigned to God alone. In essence, the text of the Qur'an and Hadith is accepted without asking "how" or "Bi-la kaifa".
Traditionalist theology emerged among scholars of hadith who eventually coalesced into a movement called ahl al-hadith under the leadership of Ahmad ibn Hanbal. In matters of faith, they were pitted against Mu'tazilites and other theological currents, condemning many points of their doctrine as well as the rationalistic methods they used in defending them. In the tenth century al-Ash'ari and al-Maturidi found a middle ground between Mu'tazilite rationalism and Hanbalite literalism, using the rationalistic methods championed by Mu'tazilites to defend most tenets of the traditionalist doctrine. Although the mainly Hanbali scholars who rejected this synthesis were in the minority, their emotive, narrative-based approach to faith remained influential among the urban masses in some areas, particularly in Abbasid Baghdad.
While Ash'arism and Maturidism are often called the Sunni "orthodoxy", traditionalist theology has thrived alongside it, laying rival claims to be the orthodox Sunni faith. In the modern era it has had a disproportionate impact on Islamic theology, having been appropriated by Wahhabi and other traditionalist Salafi currents and spread well beyond the confines of the Hanbali school of law.

Sunni mysticism

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: " classical, mainstream, medieval Sunni Islam... 'orthodox Islam' would not... 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 thought and... of the Sufism of Imam Junayd of Baghdad in doctrines, manners and 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, the Rifa'iyya, the Chishtiyya, the Shadiliyya, and the Naqshbandiyya. 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 were connected with Sufism."
The contemporary Salafi and Wahhabi strands of Sunnis, however, do not accept the traditional stance on mystical practices.

Sunni view of ''hadith''

The Quran as it exists today in book form was compiled by Muhammad's companions within a handful of months of his death, and is accepted by all sects of Islam. However, there were many matters of belief and daily life that were not directly prescribed in the Quran, 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.

''Kutub al-Sittah''

Kutub al-Sittah are six books containing collections of hadiths. Sunni Muslims accept the hadith collections of Bukhari and Muslim as the most authentic, 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: