Sunni Islam

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

(Redirected from Sunni)
Jump to: navigation, search
Part of the series on


History of Islam
Beliefs and practices

Oneness of God
Profession of Faith
Prayer · Fasting
Pilgrimage · Charity

Major figures

Muhammad · Ali · Abu Bakr
Companions of Muhammad
Household of Muhammad · Prophets of Islam

Texts & law

Qur'an · Hadith · Sharia
Biographies of Muhammad

Branches of Islam

Sunni · Shi'a · Sufi

Sociopolitical aspects

Art · Architecture
Cities · Calendar
Science · Philosophy
Religious leaders
Women in Islam
Political Islam · Jihad

See also

Vocabulary of Islam
Index of articles on Islam

There are several branches of Islam. The majority of Muslims belong to Sunni Islam.


Historical Background of Sunni-Shi'a Split

The principal issue upon which Islam's first major sectarian split occurred centers on the question of leadership. According to Sunni thought, Muhammad died without appointing a successor to lead the Muslim community. After an initial period of confusion, a gathering of Muslims at Saqifah accepted Abu Bakr, Muhammad's father-in-law, as the first Caliph. Sunnis consider Abu Bakr to have been Muhammad's closest friend. Accounts of this meeting are highly contentious. Sunnis believe this process was conducted in a fair and proper manner and accept Abu Bakr as a righteous and rightful Caliph. The second major sect, the Shia, believe that the Prophet had appointed his son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor years earlier during an announcement at Ghadir Khom. Shi'a regard the election of Abu Bakr as illegitimate and accuse the companions involved of ulterior motives ranging from enmity towards Ali to outright hypocrisy. Though both Sunnis and Shias believe that Muhammad delivered a major speech at Ghadir Khom, Sunnis interpret any references to Ali as mere praise, and do not view them as constituting his appointment as a successor. (Some secular historians, notably Wilferd Madelung, would regard the whole incident as possible invention.)

Thirty years after Muhammad's death, the Islamic community plunged into a civil war, called the Fitna. Many Muslims (among them some of Muhammad's widows and companions) believed that Uthman, the third Caliph, was favoring his kin and abusing his power. Discontented Muslim soldiers from garrisons in Iraq and Egypt surrounded Uthman's house in Medina and demanded that he repent or resign. The Caliph temporized, fighting broke out, and Uthman was killed as he sat reading the Qur'an. Though Ali was appointed Caliph upon Uthman's death, he was opposed by Muawiyah, the governor of Syria and a relative of Uthman's. Muawiyah claimed that because Ali had taken no action to apprehend Uthman's killers, Ali was complicit in his murder. Muawiyah consolidated his own power and refused to accept Ali's authority until Uthman's assassins were brought to justice. Ali was not able to resolve the crisis before he was assassinated by a rebel faction, and Muawiyah claimed the Caliphate upon his death. Muawiyah's rise to power marked the beginning of the Umayyad dynasty, and he managed to bring most of the Muslim community (ummah) under his authority and put an end to the civil war.

The Fitna led to the emergence of three distinct Islamic sects:

  • Sunnis - Sunnis regard the first four caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman, and Ali) as Rightly Guided Caliphs, that is, Caliphs who followed the tradition of the Prophet in terms of their lifestyles and styles of governance. According to Sunni Muslim tradition, though Caliphs that followed Ali were mostly legitimate and entitled to obedience, most departed from the standards laid down by the prophet. Sunnis regard Muawiyah as a legitimate Caliph, but not a Rightly Guided one. Though most Sunnis acknowledge that Ali had the stronger claim in his dispute with Muawiyah, Sunni authorities usually refrain from questioning the sincerity of Muawiya's intentions and generally give him the benefit of the doubt.
  • Shi'a - Shi'a generally reject all caliphates except that of Ali. In contrast to Sunnis, Shi'a regard Muawiyah as a conniving usurper who used Uthman's murder as an excuse to seize power. Some Sunnis, particularly the Wahhabis, do not accept the Shi'a as Muslims.
  • Khwarij, or Kharijites - The Khwarij were initially loyal to Ali, but turned against him in response to his decision to accept arbitration as a means of resolving the dispute with Muawiya. The Khwarij declared that all the partisans involved in the Fitna had become disbelievers and could only redeem themselves by repenting and renouncing their role in the dispute. The Khawarij killed Ali as part of a string of assassination attempts that targeted Ali, Muawiyah, and Amr ibn al-As, Muawiya's governor of Egypt (Ali's assassin was the only one who succeeded). Because the Khwarij had a very narrow view of what constitutes kufr (acts that invalidate one's Islam), they quickly split up into sects within themselves, each accusing one another of having fallen into disbelief. Though one branch of the Khwarij survives in Yemen and Oman as the Ibadi denomination of Islam, Khwarij doctrine has been largely rejected and relegated to the history books.

Other divisions have arisen since the Fitna of the 7th century C.E. Some groups are now extinct. Of the existing groups, Sunni Muslims do not accept members of the Nation of Islam, Ahmadiyya, and Zikri as fellow Muslims.

Sunni Islam worldwide

See Demographics of Islam. Present calculations indicate that some 90% of the world's Muslims are Sunni and approximately 10% are Shi'a, but the Shi'a are certainly undercounted. Further work is needed before these statistics are defensible.

It should be noted that Sunni-Shi'a adherent counts are quite controversial. Sunni tend to see Shi'a as a small and insignificant sect, and champion a low adherent count for Shi'a; the Shi'a see this as discrimination and claim larger figures.

Sunni schools of law (madhab)

There are four Sunni schools of law:

A madhab is a particular tradition of interpreting Islamic law, or shari'a. The schools were started by eminent Muslim scholars in the first four centuries of Islam. Most Sunnis believe that there are no living jurists of the stature of the founders of the four madhabs. Contemporary scholars can comment on the traditions, but they cannot start new ones. This belief is called "the closing of the gate of ijtihad".

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

Some Sunni Muslims say that one should choose a madhab and then follow all of its rulings. Other Sunnis say that it is acceptable to mix madhabs, to accept one madhab's ruling regarding one issue, and accept another madhab's ruling regarding a different issue.

Some modern Sunni, whether liberals or Salifis, reject some or all of the intricate structure of hadith and shari'a erected over the centuries. Some Salafis reject traditional jurisprudence and others follow the Hanbali school of thought.

Sunni theological traditions (kalam)

Muslims of the centuries following Muhammad had to face many questions that were not specifically answered in the Qur'an, especially questions with regard to philosophical conundrums like the nature of God, the possibility 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). There were the following dominant traditions:

  • Mu'tazilah was the school established in Iraq by Wasil bin 'Ata (699-749), a student of the distinguished scholar Hasan al-Basri (642-728). The Mu'tazilites rose to prominence in 750 C.E., under the new Abbasid dynasty of caliphs. One caliph, al-Ma'mun, declared Mu'tazilah doctrine to be the state creed, and persecuted dissenters. This completely alienated the Sunni Muslim clergy, the ulema, and Mu'tazilism fell into disrepute after the death of al-Ma'mun. There are no current Sunni adherents of Mu'tazilism, though their texts are still read and preserved as important to understanding the history of Sunni theology. The Shi'a follow a Mu'tazili tradition.
    • The Mu'tazilites were heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, and attempted to establish religion and ethics on the basis of reason alone. While they accepted the authority of the Qur'an, they argued that it should be accepted because it was reasonable. They understood many Quranic passages metaphorically, particularly those implying that God has a human body. They stressed human free will, and taught that the Qur'an was created in time, existing only from the moment it was revealed to Muhammad.
  • Ash'ariyyah, founded by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari (873-935). The dominant theology, and the tradition embraced by al-Ghazali, a Muslim jurist and mystic whom many Sunnis follow and revere.
    • Ash'ariyyah theology stresses divine revelation over human reason. Ethics, they say, cannot be derived from human reason: God's commands, as revealed in the Qur'an and the practice of Muhammad and his companions (the sunnah, as recorded in the traditions, or hadith), are the source of all morality.
    • Regarding the nature of God and the divine attributes, the Ash'ari rejected the Mu'tazilite position that all Quranic references to God as having physical attributes (that is, a body) were metaphorical. Ash'aris insisted that these attributes were "true", since the Qur'an could not be in error, but that they were not to be understood as implying a crude anthropomorphism.
    • Ash'aris tend to stress divine omnipotence over human free will. They believe that the Qur'an is eternal and uncreated.
  • Maturidiyyah, founded by Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (d.944). Maturidiyyah was a minority tradition until it was accepted by the Turkish tribes of Central Asia (previously they had been Ashari and followers of the Shafi school, it was only later on migration into Anatolia that they became Hanafi and followers of the Maturidi creed). One of the those 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 Maliki and Hanbali schools followed the Ashari school. Thus, wherever can be found Hanafi followers, there can be found the Maturidi creed).
    • Maturidiyyah argue that knowledge of God's existence can be derived through reason alone, thus following the Mu'tazilites.
  • Athariyyah (meaning Textualist) or Hanbali, no specific founder, but Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal played a key historic role in keeping this school alive.
    • This school does not employ logic in understanding the names and attributes of God, but rather affirms all of God's names and attributes as they are found in the Qur'an and Sunnah (prophetic traditions), with the disclaimer that the "how" of the attribute is not known. They say that God is as He described Himself "in a way befitting of His majesty." Thus, regarding verses where God is described as having a "yad" (hand) or "wajh" (face), the textualists say that God is exactly as He described himself in a way befitting of His majesty, without inquiring as to the "how" of these attributes.
    • The Athariyyah still believe that God does not resemble His creation in any way, as this is also found in the texts. Thus, in the Athari creed, it is still prohibited to imagine an image of God in any way. The Athariyyah say that the "yad" (hand) of God is "unlike any other yad" (since God does not resemble His creation in any way) and prohibit imagining what God would like, even though this attribute of a "yad" is still affirmed.

Sunni view of hadith

The Qur'an as we have it today was written down in approximately 650 C.E., 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 simply the practice of the community. Later generations sought out oral traditions regarding the early history of Islam, and the practice 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 sifted through the hadith and evaluated the chain of narration of each tradition, scrutinizing the trustworthiness of the narrators and judging the strength of each hadith accordingly. Most Sunni accept the hadith collections of Bukhari and Muslim as the most authentic (sahih, or correct), and grant a lesser status to the collections of other recorders. There are however, six collections of hadith that are held in particular reverence by Sunni Muslims:

  • The Sahih al-Bukhari
  • The Sahih Muslim
  • Sunan Abu Dawud
  • Sunan ibn Majah
  • Sunan at-Tirmidhi
  • Sunan an-Nisai

There are also other collections of hadith which, although less well-known, still contain authentic hadith and are frequently used by specialists:

  • Sahih ibn Khuzama
  • Muwatta of Imam Malik
  • Musnad of Ahmed ibn Hanbal
  • Musnad of Umar ibn Abdul Aziz

Current trends in Sunni thought and practice

External links

Articles and instruction:


Internet radio:

Personal tools