Sunni Islam

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

Sunni Islam (play /ˈsni/ or /ˈsʊni/) is the largest branch of Islam;.[1][2] Sunni Muslims are referred to in Arabic as ʾAhl ūs-Sunnah wa āl-Ǧamāʿah (Arabic: أهل السنة والجماعة‎, "people of the tradition [of Muhammad] and the community") or ʾAhl ūs-Sunnah (Arabic: أهل السنة‎) for short; in English, they are known as Sunni Muslims, Sunnis or Sunnites.

Sunni Islam is sometimes referred to as the orthodox version of the religion.[3] 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).[4] Sunni Muslims generally consider Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim to be entirely authentic and accurate hadiths.



Sunnī (Classical Arabic: سُنِّي /ˈsunniː/) is a broad term derived from sunnah (سُنَّة /ˈsunna/, pl. سُنَن sunan /ˈsunæn/), means "habit" or "usual practice".[5] 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 "Ahlu s-Sunnah Wa Al-Jama'ah" (literally, "People of the Tradition and the Congregation"). Anyone claiming to follow the Sunnah who can demonstrate that they have no action or belief against the Prophetic Sunnah can consider themself to be a Sunni Muslim. However, it should be noted that Shi'a Muslims also hold that they follow the Sunnah.

Schools of law (Madh'hab)

Islamic law is known as the Sharī'ah. The Sharī'ah is based on the Qur'an and the Sunnah. The Madh'hab translates to "way", and different Madhaheb (plural of Madh'hab) reflect different opinions on some laws and obligations of the sharia, for example when one Madh'hab sees a certain act as an obligation, while the other does not. It has to be clear that each one of these schools consider the others to be fully valid and accepted.

Below are the most famous four:

Hanafi School

Abu Hanifah (died 767), was the founder of the Hanafi school and student of Ja'far al-Sadiq. He was born in the year 702 CE in Kufa, Iraq[6][7] in an Afghan-Persian family.[citation needed] Muslims of Bangladesh, 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 Iraq, all follow this school of jurisprudence.

Maliki School

Malik ibn Anas (died 795) Student of the imam Abu Hanifah's eldest student, Muhammad, Malik ibn Anas developed his ideas in Medina. His doctrine is recorded in the Muwatta which has been adopted by most North African and West African countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Mali, Nigeria and others except Egypt, Horn of Africa and Sudan. Also, the Maliki madhab is the official state madhhab of Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. He was one of the teachers of Imam al-Shafi'i. 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).[8][9]

Shafi'i school

Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi`i (died 820 CE) was a student of Malik. He taught in Iraq and then in Egypt. Muslims in Indonesia, Lower Egypt, Malaysia, Southern Philippines, Brunei, Singapore, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Coastal Maharashtra/Konkan and Kerala in India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Palestine, Yemen and Kurds in the Kurdish regions follow the Shafi'i school. Al-Shafi'i placed great emphasis on the Sunnah of Muhammad, as embodied in the Hadith, as a source of the Shari'ah.

Hanbali School

Ahmad bin Hanbal (died 855), the namesake of the Hanbali school, was born in Baghdad. He learned extensively from al-Shafi'i. This school of jurisprudence is followed predominantly in the Arabian Peninsula.


The followers of these four schools follow the same basic belief system but differ from one another in terms of practice and execution of rituals, and in juristic interpretation of "divine principles" (or Shariah) as envisaged in Quran and Hadith. However Sunni Muslims consider them all equally valid.

There are other Sunni schools of law. However, 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.

Interpreting the Shari'ah to derive specific rulings (such as how to pray) is known as fiqh, which literally means understanding. A madh'hab 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 started by eminent Muslim scholars in the first four centuries of Islam. As these schools represent clearly spelled out methodologies for interpreting the Shari'aa, 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.

A madh'hab is not to be confused with a religious sect. There may be scholars representing all four madh'habs living in larger Muslim communities, and it is up to those who consult them to decide which school they prefer.


Distribution of Sunni, Shia and Ibadi branches of Islam

Estimates of the world Sunni population varies from 75% to 90% of all muslims.[10][11] The remaining belong to various other denominations.[1][12]

Sunni theological traditions

Some Islamic scholars faced questions that they felt were not explicitly answered in the Qur'an, especially questions with regard to philosophical conundra like 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 Sunnites, the following were the dominant traditions:

  • 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. The Atharis are considered to be one of three Sunni schools of Aqidah: Athari, Ashari, and Maturidi.
    • The Athari methodology of textual interpretation is to avoid delving into 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.

Due to the emphasis of the Hanbali school of thought on textualism, Muslims who are Hanbali usually prefer the Athari methodology in Aqidah. However, Atharis are not exclusively Hanbali, many Muslims from other schools of thought adhere to the Athari school of Aqidah also.

The Atharis are also called sometimes the Salafis. And their theological system of Aqidah is most of the time called Aqidat al-Salaf (or in fewer occasions: Aqidat As-hab al-Hadith).

  • Ash'ari, founded by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari (873–935). This theological system of Aqidah was embraced by plenty of Muslim scholars such as Imam al-Ghazali.[13]
    • 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'tazilite position that all Qur'anic references to God as having physical attributes were metaphorical.[14] The Ash'aris insisted that these attributes were "true", since the Qur'an could not be inclusive of an error, but that they were not to be understood as implying anthropomorphism or any materialistic bodily nature.
    • Ash'aris tend to stress divine omnipotence over human free will.
    • Ash'aris believe that the Qur'an is eternal and uncreated.
  • 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 Hanafis 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.[15] 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 school. 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.

Sunni view of hadith

The Qur'an as it exists today in book form was compiled by Muhammad's companions (Sahaba) in approximately 650 CE, 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.

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:

See also


  1. ^ a b "Islam Today". Islam: Empire of Faith. PBS. Retrieved 2010-12-17. 
  2. ^ "Sunnite". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2010-12-17. 
  3. ^ "Sunni and Shia Islam". Library of Congress Country Studies. Retrieved 2010-12-17. 
  4. ^ "Sunna". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2010-12-17. "the body of Islamic custom and practice based on Muhammad's words and deeds" 
  5. ^ Sunnah, Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement
  6. ^ Josef W. Meri, Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia, 1 edition, (Routledge: 2005), p.5
  7. ^ Hisham M. Ramadan, Understanding Islamic Law: From Classical to Contemporary, (AltaMira Press: 2006), p.26
  8. ^ Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and Riad Nourallah, The future of Islam, Routledge, 2002, page 199
  9. ^ Ira Marvin Lapidus, A history of Islamic societies, Cambridge University Press, 2002, page 308
  10. ^
  11. ^ "Islām". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2010-08-26. 
  12. ^ Miller, Tracy, ed (October 2009) (PDF). Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World's Muslim Population. Pew Research Center. Retrieved 2010-08-26. 
  13. ^ J. B. Schlubach. "Fethullah Gülen and Al-Ghazzali on Tolerance". Retrieved 2010-01-07. 
  14. ^ Bülent Þenay. "Ash'ariyyah Theology, Ashariyyah". BELIEVE Religious Information Source. Retrieved 2006-04-01. 
  15. ^ "Maturidiyyah". Philtar. Retrieved 2006-04-01. 

Further reading

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