Sunni Islam

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Sunni Islam (/ˈsni/ or /ˈsʊni/) is a denomination of Islam which holds that the Islamic prophet Muhammad's proper successor as Caliph was his father-in-law Abu Bakr. Sunni Islam primarily contrasts with Shia Islam, which holds that Muhammad's son-in-law and cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, not Abu Bakr, was his proper successor.

Sunni Islam is by far the largest denomination of Islam. As of 2009, Sunni Muslims constituted 87-90% of the world's Muslim population.[1] 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 largest religious body, followed by Roman Catholicism.[2][3] Sunni Islam is sometimes referred to as "orthodox Islam".[4][5][6] 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 the hadith.[7]

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 legal verdicts such as analogical reason, consideration of public welfare and juristic discretion.


Sunnī (Classical Arabic: سُنِّي /ˈsunniː/), also commonly referred to as Sunnīism, is a broad term derived from sunnah (سُنَّة /ˈsunna/, plural سُنَن sunan /ˈsunan/) meaning "habit", "usual practice",[8] "custom", "tradition". The Muslim use 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 wal Jamaah" (literally, "People of the Sunnah 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.[9] Some regions that are heavily Sunni-populated have been coined with derived neological terms such as Sunnistan or Sunni belt and a demonym for an inhabitant of this roughly defined geo-cultural region is a Sunnistani.[10][11] Derogatory epithets such as nasibi and Bakri also exist.[12]


Main article: Caliphate
The Rashidun Caliphate during its greatest extent

After the death of Prophet 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 Shi'a, 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 includes the aforementioned Abu Bakr as the first, Umar who established the Islamic calendar as the second, Uthman as the third, and Ali as the fourth.[13]

Mosque of the Prophet in Medina. The Green Dome is the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad and of Abu Bakr and Umar.

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.[citation needed]


Countries with more than 5% Muslim population.[14] Sunni              Shia              Ibadi     

Sunnis believe that the companions of Muhammad were the best of Muslims. 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.[15] 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[16] found that there are 1.62 billion Muslims around the world, and it is estimated over 75–90% are Sunni.[17]

Organizational structure[edit]

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 an Islamic 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).[18]

Schools of law[edit]

Distribution of Sunni, Shia, Ibadi and Ahmadi branches of Islam

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,[19] 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.[20] 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.[21][22]

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.[23] 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,[19] 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.[24][25]

Differences in the schools[edit]

The Great Mosque of Kairouan (also known as the Mosque of Uqba) was, in particular during the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, an important center of Islamic learning with an emphasis on the Maliki Madh'hab.[26] It is located in the city of Kairouan in Tunisia

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,[19] 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.

Six pillars of iman[edit]

Main articles: Iman (concept) and Islamic theology

Sunni Islam has six articles of faith known as the six pillars of iman that all Sunni Muslims are united on in belief,[27] along with the 105 key points of creed mentioned in "Aṭ-Ṭaḥāwī's Islamic Theology".[citation needed]

  • 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 Gospel, 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

Theological traditions[edit]

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 (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.


Main article: Maturidi

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.[28] 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.[discuss][citation needed]


Main article: Ash'ari

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; the Imam al-Ghazali wrote on the creed discussing it and agreeing upon some of its principles.[29]

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 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.


Main article: Athari

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 or literal interpretation is to avoid delving into any extensive theological speculation. They believe in God 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 an altered meaning like 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 non-Atharis 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 classical Islamic scholar Ahmad ibn Hanbal[30] 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.[31][32]

Sunni view of hadith[edit]

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 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[edit]

Kutub al-Sittah are six books containing collections of hadiths. 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:


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  14. ^ 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.
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  25. ^ The Three Points of The Amman Message V.1
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  28. ^ "Maturidiyyah". Philtar. Retrieved 2006-04-01. 
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  30. ^ Islamic schools and branches
  31. ^ "Suhaib! Where do You Stand? What Kind of Muslim Are You?"
  32. ^ Unity in Action: Shaykh al-Qaradawi Defends the Creed of al-Azhar University

Further reading[edit]

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