Sunnites, Sunni

Ahl-i Sunnah

{soo' - nights}

General Information

The term Sunnites refers to the great majority of the world's Muslims, distinguishing them as the ahl al - sunna wal - jamaa ("the people of the sunna and the community") from the Shiites. Sunnites are, by this definition, Muslims who strictly follow the sunna (practices) of the Prophet Muhammad and preserve the unity and integrity of the community. Anyone who stands within the mainstream of the Islamic tradition and acts in accordance with generally accepted practices of the community is, therefore, a Sunni. Most Muslims see the sunna as complementary to the Koran insofar as it explains certain points and elaborates some Koranic principles by offering details necessary for the practice of Islamic law.

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Willem A Bijlefeld

I Al Faruqi and L Lamya, The Cultural Atlas of Islam (1986); J L Esposito, Islam and Politics (1984); I M Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies (1988).

Sunni Islam

General Information

Sunni Islam was defined during the early Abbasid period (beginning in AD 750), and it included the followers of four legal schools (the Malikis, Hanafis, Shafi'is, and Hanbalis). In contrast to the Shias, the Sunnis believed that leadership was in the hands of the Muslim community at large. The consensus of historical communities, not the decisions of political authorities, led to the establishment of the four legal schools. In theory a Muslim could choose whichever school of Islamic thought he or she wished to follow and could change this choice at will. The respect and popularity that the religious scholars enjoyed made them the effective brokers of social power and pitched them against the political authorities.

After the first four caliphs, the religious and political authorities in Islam were never again united under one institution. Their usual coexistence was underscored by a mutual recognition of their separate spheres of influence and their respective duties and responsibilities. Often, however, the two powers collided, and invariably any social opposition to the elite political order had religious undertones.

Ahmad S. Dallal

Sunni Islam

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The Sunni tradition is one of the two main sectarian divisions in Islam (the other being Shi'a). A number of important principles govern the Sunni tradition.

  1. The Prophet and his revelation are of foremost authority.
  2. In order for the Qur'an to be used as a basis for sound judgement for subjects under dispute it is necessary to take sound hadiths into account.
  3. Qur'anic verses should be interpreted in the context of the whole of the Qur'an.
  4. In understanding the Qur'an rational thinking is subordinate to revelation. If the Qur'an or the Sunnah of the Prophet offers a clear judgement on anything, the Muslim is obliged to follow this judgement. If there is no clear judgement about anything in the Qur'an, then it is necessary to make a rational opinion (known as Ijtihad) which is consistent with Qur'anic teaching.
  5. The first four caliphs were the legitimate rulers of the early community.
  6. Faith and deeds are inseparable.
  7. Everything occurs according to the divine plan.
  8. Allah will be seen in the life after death.

The Sunni tradition also emphasises the importance of religion in the formation of public policy. This emphasis has, according to Sunni-Muslim scholars, given rise to two interrelated processes: the supremacy of the Shari'a and the sovereignty of the Islamic community. According to the Sunni tradition, if Islam is a legalistically oriented religion, concerned with the organization of human society, it follows that religious teaching must concern itself with matters of marriage and divorce, inheritance and ownership, commercial transactions and contractual dealings, government, banking, investment, credits, debts and so on. The proper execution of these contractual matters according to the principles of the shari'a based on the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet constitutes an important part of the way to salvation.


Islam is divided between the minority Shia tradition and the majority Sunni tradition. The minority group regard the Prophet's Son in law, Ali, and his descendants as divinely authorised to rule the Muslim community. The majority group believed that the caliph should be appointed through the consensus of the community.

The Muslim community's encounter with other cultures, coupled with further divisions in the community itself, brought home the need to formulate the principles of faith within a rational framework. In the 10th century much of the contents of the Muslim community's theology was put into a set of propositions known as Sunni (orthodox) theology. The word Sunni derives from the sunnah, or example, of the Prophet, and indicates the orthodoxy of the majority community as opposed to the peripheral positions of schismatics who by definition must be in error.

A further response to schisms involved developing a trend of accommodation and synthesis. The principle of accommodation made it possible for diverse schools of thought to coexist and recognize each other. Thus, the two principal theological schools of al-Ashari and al-Maturidi accepted each other as orthodox while opposing minority traditions such as Mu'tazilah, Kharijites and Shi'a. The legal framework of the Sunni tradition was provided by the Hanafi, Shafi'i, Maliki and Hanbali schools.

The political leadership of the Sunni community, and therefore the symbol of orthodoxy has been the caliphate. After the first four caliphs the community came under the authority of the Ummayads, who set up their capital in Damascus. The period of the Ummayad caliphs (661-750) saw the conquest of North Africa and Spain. In 732 Muslim armies reached as far as Toulouse in the south-west of France. In the East, Muslim armies arrived in Afghanistan and the region that is present-day Pakistan. In 750 the Ummayad caliph was overthrown in rebellion led by the 'Abbasids, who were to form the next caliphate. Remnants of the Ummayad family, however, were able to establish themselves in Muslim Spain, where they ruled until 1031.

The 'Abbasids established their capital in Baghdad in 750. From then until the 10th century both the Muslim empire and the power of the 'Abbasids continued to grow. However, from the 10th century the empire began to fragment. A rival caliphate, the Fatimids, was established in North Africa. The Mongol invasions and the capture of Baghdad in 1258 brought to an end the caliphate in Iraq. An 'Abbasid caliphate was established in Cairo, but this was without any real political power.

The caliphate was taken over when the Ottomans invaded Egypt in 1517. The defeat of the Ottoman empire after the first world war, and the creation of a secular state in Turkey (which had been at the heart of the Ottoman empire) brought the caliphate to an end. For the first half of the twentieth century many regions of the Islamic world have sought to free themselves from European colonial rule. In the absence of the caliphate a pan-Islamic identity has been sought through organisations such as the Muslim World League and the Islamic Conference. Internal divisions have, however, impeded any real scope for Islamic unity.


See Islam.


Today Ahl-i Sunna/Sunnism is the madhhab of 90% of all Muslims.

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Bülent Şenay
Overview of World Religions Project

General Essay on Sunni Islam

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The Sunni tradition is known in Arabic as the Ahl-i Sunnah (the People of Sunnah), a term which according to the earliest classical sources emerged in the ninth century. The word "Sunnah" means custom, method, path or example and refers particularl y to the example of the prophet Muhammad as found in the Hadith. Thus, the Ahl-i Sunnah are those who follow the tradition of the prophet and his companions in understanding the Islamic faith.

During the early centuries following the death of the Prophet Islamic scholars sought to consolidate and systematize Islamic belief and practice. One of the challenges confronting Muslim scholars was how to determine which of the many thousands of hadith attributed to the Prophet and his companions were authentic. In the ninth century, two scholars, Muhammad b. Isma'il Bukhari (d.870) and Muslim b. al Hajjaj (d. 875), collected and sifted through the vast numbers of traditions in order to compile dictionaries containing the authentic traditions of the Prophet. Basing their decisions on the reliability of the particular transmitters, al Bukhari and al Hajjaj reduced the massive number of traditions to several thousand. In the tenth century these collections were given canonical status by the Muslim community.

In addition to these two collections, four further collections of hadith were compiled by lesser known scholars. While regarded as authentic and canonical by the Ummah, these do not have quite the same status as those of al Bukhari and al Hajjaj.

A second area of Islamic life developed at this time was the Shari 'ah, the regulations and principles upon which Islamic law is based. The four orthodox schools of law - Hanafiyyah, Malikiyyah, Shafi'iyyah and Hanbaliyyah - elaborated the rules of procedure by which particular laws could be determined. These rules were based on the Qur'an and the Sunnah and two legal principles known as qiyas and ijma'. Qiyas is the attempt through analogical reasoning to determine how the principles of the Qur'an and the Sunnah could be applied to a situation not clearly addressed through these sources. An example of such a ruling is the extension of the Qur'anic decree against market activities during the Friday congregational prayers to a general prohibition of all business activities at this time.

Ijma', meaning consensus, was based on the principle that when no clear guidance was given by the Qur'an or the Sunnah on a principle of law the consensus of the community would be sought. All four schools accept these principles as the basis of the Shari 'ah and regard each other as orthodox. They differ with regard to the particular importance each school attaches to qiyas and ijma' relative to the Qur'an and the Sunnah.

Concomitant with the systematization of the Shari'ah was the establishment of theological orthodoxy. The encounter with non-Islamic beliefs and the emergence of deviant theological views within the community itself provided the impetus for the formation of an orthodox theology. The first major challenge to Islam from within came from the Kharijiyyah, who claimed that good works as well as the profession of faith were necessary to be a true Muslim. Those who sinned without repenting forfeited their right to belong to the community of believers. Such was their strength of feeling on this issue that they violently persecuted those who disagreed with him.

The issue of the relationship between faith and works was taken up by a second group, the Mu'tazilah, who argued that the non-repentant sinner occupied a middle state between belief and non-belief. Although endeavouring to defend Islam against Hellenistic philosophy, the Mu'tazilah drew upon Hellenistic ideas in formulating their understanding of God and the relationship between God and humanity. For the Mu'tazilah, all anthropomorphic language about God was to be interpreted as purely metaphorical. Furthermore, in order to preserve the doctrine of human freedom and responsibility, God's action was interpreted in terms of necessity and duty rather than freedom. It was the denial of God's absolute freedom that was a source of concern to mainstrea m Islamic thinkers.

In reaction to the Mu'tazilah doctrine, two theological schools emerged in the tenth century: Ash'ariyyah and Maturidiyyah. Both schools endeavoured to elevate revelation and reduce reason as the means by which humanity acquires a knowledge of God. By arguing that there were certain truths about the nature of God which were not accessible to human reason alone these schools sought to restore the doctrine of divine omnipotence.

The establishment of broadly based forms of jurisprudential and theological orthodoxy during its early history has not prevented the emergence of anti-orthodox tendencies in more recent times. In the eighteenth century a group known as Wahhabiyyah emerged with the purpose of "purifying" Islam of non-Islamic accretions such as the worship of the saints. Integral to this project was the attempt to base Islamic law solely on the Qur'an and the Sunnah through the rejection of qiyas and ijma' as elements within the Shari 'ah. A second, unrelated group, Ahmadiyyah, was founded in India towards the end of the nineteenth century. Its leader, Mirza Ghulam Ahamd, claimed to be the Christian Messiah, the Mahdi, an avatar of Krishna and a reappearance of Muhammad. In spite of being declared heretical by the orthodox Muslim community this group has spread beyond India into other parts of Asia and from there to Europe and Africa.

Bülent Şenay
Overview of World Religions Project


Al-Azmeh, Aziz (ed.) Islamic Law: Social and Historical Contexts. London: Routledge, 1988.

Clarke, Peter. West Africa and Islam: a Study of Religious Development from the 8th to the 20th Century. E. Arnold, 1982.

Enayat, Hamid. Modern Islamic Political Thought: The Response of the Shi'i and Sunni Muslims to the Twentieth Century. New York: Macmillan, 1982.

Gibb, H.A.R. Islam: A Historical Survey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Hasan, A. The Early Development of Islamic Jurisprudence. Islamabad: Islamic Research Institute, 1970.

Hodgson, Marshall G.S. The Venture of Islam. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1974.

Martin, Richard C. Islam: A Cultural Perspective. Prentice Hall, 1982.

Rahman, Fazlur. Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Rippin, Andrew. Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. Vol 1: The Formative Period. London: Routledge, 1990.

Watt, W.M. The Formative Period of Islamic Thought. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1973.

Wolfson, H.A. The Philosophy of the Kalam. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.

The four accepted legal schools of Sunnis are:

These four schools are somewhat different from each other, but Sunni Muslims generally consider them all equally valid.

Sunni-Shi'i Relationships

Shi'a Viewpoint

One of the most important socio-political issues in life is that of leadership, its quality, authority and method of appointment. The Qur`an and the prophetic teachings emphasize obedience to Allah, His Prophet and the upright 'people of authority'. No Muslim disagrees with this. It is only with the method of legitimizing a 'person of authority' that differences occur and around which the Sunni and Shi'i theologies diverge.

During the early centuries of Islam the terms Sunni and Shi'i meant different things at different times, as did many other names designating various schools of thought. It was not until the eleventh and twelfth centuries that the current pattern of usage stabilized.

Sunni essentially means one who follows the Sunnah, which is the desired aim of every sincere Muslim. It has come to mean, however, those Muslims who follow the Sunnah and Jama'ah, that is, the way of Muhammad and the consensual majority of Muslims. The term was first adopted by a faction of Muslims who had accepted Abbasid rule, stressing the importance of its continuity with the Marwani past. It was well over a century after Muhammad that the term Sunni began to be widely used to distinguish between the largest common group (which is the literal meaning of Jama'ah) and the Shi'i, that is, those who were loyal to `Ali's party. It also implied those who strictly and exclusively referred to the Hadith as opposed to engaging in theological and philosophical discourse as a means of gaining guidance. In latter-day usage Sunni has become synonymous with 'orthodox', though it would be more accurate to employ the term Jama'ah to signify the popular mainstream.

In the early years after the Prophet's death the term Shi`i meant 'follower' or 'partisan', with particular reference to `Ali. The Shi'as believe that the Prophet had categorically appointed `Ali Ibn Abi Talib as his successor at the gathering of Ghadir Khum. `Ali in turn nominated as his successor his eldest son Hasan, who then nominated his brother Husayn and so on through another ten generations of the Prophet's descendants. Although the Sunnis all acknowledge the event at Ghadir Khum, they take the Prophet's message as merely an acknowledgement of `Ali's merit rather than a definite political appointment.

In the end, however, the successor to the Prophet was elected by a group of Medinan elders (while the Prophet was being buried). The first Muslim ruler (later to be called Caliph) was Abu Bakr, the Prophet's father-in-law and a close and loyal Companion. Though `Ali and his followers made occasional protests, they did not contest or revolt against the early Caliphs. `Ali himself remained loyal to the cause of Islam and served wherever and whenever he could alongside his predecessors. Upon the demise of the third Caliph, however, `Ali was elected the fourth.


The general Sunni stance on leadership was that peace under an unjust ruler was better than anarchy under a just one. For the Shi`i, justice in the government of human affairs could not grow if the ruler did not reflect the Prophet. The ruler had the status of a prophetic figure who, in the Prophet's absence, should be the ultimate spiritual and temporal authority. The prophetic mantle was taken up by the Sufis in the person of their Shaykhs or teachers. This fact is significant because while most Sufis were Sunni, the necessity for enlightened leadership reflects the essential nature of transmission of knowledge and guidance. Hence the Shi`is turned to their Imams.

Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri


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Unfortunately, we are not aware of any additional scholarly texts on this subject which have yet been translated into English. We know that a number of Arabic scholars have written wonderful texts in Arabic, and look for the day when we will be able to add higher quality texts to this presentation.

Also, see:
Islam, Muhammad
Koran, Qur'an
Pillars of Faith
Testament of Abraham
Revelation - Hadiths from Book 1 of al-Bukhari
Belief - Hadiths from Book 2 of al-Bukhari
Knowledge - Hadiths from Book 3 of al-Bukhari
Times of the Prayers - Hadiths from Book 10 of al-Bukhari
Shortening the Prayers (At-Taqseer) - Hadiths from Book 20 of al-Bukhari
Pilgrimmage (Hajj) - Hadiths from Book 26 of al-Bukhari
Fighting for the Cause of Allah (Jihad) - Hadiths of Book 52 of al-Bukhari
ONENESS, UNIQUENESS OF ALLAH (TAWHEED) - Hadiths of Book 93 of al-Bukhari
Hanafiyyah School Theology (Sunni)
Malikiyyah School Theology (Sunni)
Shafi'iyyah School Theology (Sunni)
Hanbaliyyah School Theology (Sunni)
Maturidiyyah Theology (Sunni)
Ash'ariyyah Theology (Sunni)
Mutazilah Theology
Ja'fari Theology (Shia)
Nusayriyyah Theology (Shia)
Zaydiyyah Theology (Shia)
Imams (Shia)
Qarmatiyyah (Shia)
Ishmael, Ismail
Early Islamic History Outline
Kaaba, Black Stone
Sunnites, Sunni
Shiites, Shia
Sahih, al-Bukhari
Abu Bakr
Fatimids (Shia)
Ismailis (Shia)
Islamic Calendar
Interactive Muslim Calendar

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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