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Sunni Islam (// or //) is the largest branch of Islam; its adherents are referred to in Arabic as ahl as-sunnah wa l-jamāʻah (Arabic: أهل السنة والجماعة), "people of the tradition of Muhammad and the consensus of the Ummah" or ahl as-sunnah (أهل السنة) for short. In English, its theological study or doctrine is called Sunnism, while adherents are known as Sunni Muslims, Sunnis, and Sunnites. Sunni Islam is the world's second largest religious body, after Christianity  and largest religious denomination for any religion in the world. Sunni Islam is sometimes referred to as the orthodox version of the religion. The word "Sunni" is believed to come from the term Sunnah (Arabic: سنة), which refers to the sayings and actions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad as recorded in hadiths.
The primary collections consisting of Kutub al-Sittah accepted by Sunni orthodoxy, in conjunction with the Quran and binding consensus, form the basis of all jurisprudence within Sunni Islam. Laws are derived from these basic sources; in addition, Sunni Islam's juristic schools recognize differing methods to derive verdicts such as analogical reason, consideration of public welfare and juristic discretion.
Sunnī (Classical Arabic: سُنِّي /ˈsunniː/) also commonly referred to as Sunnīīsm is a broad term derived from sunnah (سُنَّة /ˈsunna/, plural سُنَن sunan /ˈsunan/) meaning "habit", "usual practice", "custom", "tradition". The Muslim usage of this term refers to the sayings and living habits of the prophet Muhammad. In its full form, this branch of Islam is referred to as "Ahl al-Sunnah" (literally, "People of the Sunah and the Community"). People claiming to follow the Sunnah (tradition of the prophet) who can demonstrate that they have no action or belief against the prophetic Sunnah can consider themselves to be Sunni Muslims. One who espouses political Sunnite beliefs or specialises in Sunnism is sometimes called a Sunnist.
After the death of Muhammad, Muslims who accepted Abu Bakr as the first Caliph became known as Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama'ah or "the people of tradition and unification" in order to differentiate them from the Shia, who rejected Abu Bakr's authority in favor of Ali, whom Sunnis accepted as the fourth Caliph rather than the first.
The first four caliphs are known among Sunnis as the Rashidun or "Rightly-Guided Ones". Sunni recognition included as the first was the aforementioned Abu Bakr; as, the second, `Umar; as the third, `Uthman ibn Affan; and as the fourth, as mentioned above, `Ali.
After the first four caliphs, the Caliphate was upheld as a political system by dynasties such as the Abbasids, the Ottomans, and the Mughal Empire of South Asia. It was also upheld for relatively short periods of time by other competing dynasties in Spain, North Africa and Egypt.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abolished the system of the Ottoman Caliphate after Abdülmecid II was deposed and expelled from what was once the Ottoman Empire, whereby the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 upon secular principles.
Sunnis believe that the companions of Muhammad were the best of the Muslims. This belief is based on 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. Sunnis also 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 (ahadith) are considered by Sunnis to be a second source of knowledge of the Muslim faith. 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 that the Sunni population is between 75% and 90%.
Islam does not have a formal hierarchy or clergy. Leaders are informal, and gain influence through study to become a scholar of Islamic law, called Sharia. According to the Islamic Center of Columbia, South Carolina, anyone with the intelligence and will can become a scholar. During Midday Mosque services on Fridays, the congregation will choose a well educated person to lead the service, known as an Imam (one who leads). 
Schools of law
There are several 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. Historically, the schools were often engaged in violent conflict with one another, though today 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 arch rival, 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 Muslim 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, today the schools recognize one another as viable legal methods rather than sources of error or heresy in contrast to one another. Each school has its evidences, and differences of opinion are generally respected.
As the social and economic environment changes, new rulings are derived. 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".
- Reality of the one true God (see Tawhid)
- Existence of the angels of God
- Authority of the books of God which are Books of Abraham, the Torah, the Psalms, the Bible, and the Quran
- Following the prophets of God
- Preparation for and belief in the Day of Judgment
- Supremacy of God's will, i.e. belief in predestination good or bad is from God alone
Some Islamic scholars faced questions that they felt were not explicitly answered in the Quran 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 Quran. Various schools of theology and philosophy developed to answer these questions, each claiming to be true to the Quran 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 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 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, 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 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.
Founded by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari (873–935). This theological school of Aqeedah was embraced by many 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.
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 (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 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 Allah and is not contradicted by the Quran. Therefore when Allah states in the Quran, "He who does not resemble any of His creation," this clearly means that Allah 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.
Athari (Classical 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 three 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 Aqeedah that they believe is adhering to the truth and keeping to the balanced middle path of Islam.
The codifier of the Athari Aqeedah was the great Islamic Classical Scholar Ahmad ibn Hanbal who today is perhaps better known for his School of Jurisprudence than his school of Aqeedah. Prominent proponents of Classical Atharism today include, among others, Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Mauritanian scholar Sheikh Muhammad Al-Hassan Ad-Dedew.
Sunni view of hadith
The Quran as it exists today in book form was compiled by Muhammad's companions (Sahabah) 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 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 are six books containing collections of hadiths. 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:
- Sahih al-Bukhari of Muhammad al-Bukhari
- Sahih Muslim of Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj
- Sunan al-Sughra of Al-Nasa'i
- Sunan Abu Dawud of Abu Dawood
- Jami' at-Tirmidhi of Al-Tirmidhi
- Sunan Ibn Majah of Ibn Majah
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:
- Musannaf of Abd al-Razzaq of ‘Abd ar-Razzaq as-San‘ani
- Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal
- Mustadrak of Al Haakim
- Muwatta of Imam Malik
- Sahih Ibn Hibbaan
- Sahih Ibn Khuzaymah of Ibn Khuzaymah
- Sunan al-Darimi of Al-Darimi
- Source for distribution is the CIA World Factbook, Shiite/Sunnite distribution collected from other sources. Shiites may be underrepresented in some countries where they do not appear in official statistics.
- Connie R. Green, Sandra Brenneman Oldendorf, Religious Diversity and Children's Literature: Strategies and Resources, Information Age Publishing, 2011, p. 156.
- 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."
- "Sunni and Shia Islam". Library of Congress Country Studies. Retrieved December 17, 2011.
- "Sunna". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2010-12-17. "the body of Islamic custom and practice based on Muhammad's words and deeds"
- Sunnah, Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement
- Kairwan Through the Ages - Page 57, Touhami Negra - 2011
- Tore Kjeilen. "Lexic Orient.com". Lexic Orient.com. Retrieved 2011-06-05.
- Quran, 9:100
- "Region: Middle East-North Africa". The Future of the Global Muslim Population - Executive Summary. Pew Research Center. Retrieved 3 April 2013.
- Eastern Europe Russia and Central Asia "some 80% of the worlds Muslims are Sunni"
- "Religions". The World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Retrieved 8 December 2011. "Sunni Islam accounts for over 75% of the world's Muslim population"
- Sue Hellett;U.S. should focus on sanctions against Iran "Sunnis make up over 75 percent of the world’s Muslim population"
- Iran, Israel and the United States "Sunni, accounts for over 75% of the Islamic population"
- A dictionary of modern politics "probably 80% of the worlds Muslims are Sunni"
- "Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World's Muslim Population". Pew Research Center. October 7, 2009. Retrieved 2010-08-24. "Of the total Muslim population, 10-13% are Shia Muslims and 87-90% are Sunni Muslims."
- "Quick guide: Sunnis and Shias". BBC News. 2011-12-06. Retrieved December 18, 2011. "The great majority of Muslims are Sunnis - estimates suggest the figure is somewhere between 85% and 90%."
- "Tension between Sunnis, Shiites emerging in USA". USA Today. 2007-09-24. Retrieved December 18, 2011. "Among the world's estimated 1.4 billion Muslims, about 85% are Sunni and about 15% are Shiite."
- Sunni Islam: Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guide "Sunni Islam is the dominant division of the global Muslim community, and throughout history it has made up a substantial majority (85 to 90 percent) of that community."
- Masjid al-Muslimiin. "Organizational Structure Of Islam," The Islamic Center of Columbia (South Carolina). Accessed 07 December 2013.
- Chibli Mallat, Introduction to Middle Eastern Law, pg. 116. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. ISBN 9780199230495
- Murtada Mutahhari, The Role of Ijtihad in Legislation, Al-Tawhid volume IV, No.2, Publisher: Islamic Thought Foundation
- Meinhaj Hussain, A New Medina, The Legal System, Grande Strategy, January 5th, 2012
- Ignác Goldziher, The Zahiris, pg. 5. Trns. Wolfgang Behn, intro. Camilla Adang.Volume three of Brill Classics in Islam. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2008. ISBN 9789004162419
- "Law, Islamic". Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 13 March 2012.
- Hassan Ahmed Ibrahim, "An Overview of al-Sadiq al-Madhi's Islamic Discourse." Taken from The Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Islamic Thought, pg. 172. Ed. Ibrahim Abu-Rabi'. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008. ISBN 9781405178488
- The Three Points of The Amman Message V.1
- Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and Riad Nourallah, The future of Islam, Routledge, 2002, page 199
- "Sunni Islam Afterlife and Salvation".
- "Maturidiyyah". Philtar. Retrieved 2006-04-01.
- J. B. Schlubach. "Fethullah Gülen and Al-Ghazzali on Tolerance". Retrieved 2010-01-07.
- Branon Wheeler, Applying the Canon in Islam: The Authorization and Maintenance of Interpretive Reasoning in Ḥanafī Scholarship, SUNY Press, 1996.
|Wikisource has the text of the 1905 New International Encyclopedia article Sunnites.|
- International Quran
- Books relating to belief of ahl as-Sunnat
- Ahl as-sunnat belief
- Translation and Detailed Commentary on Quran
- SunniPath – Study Islam Online