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Sunni Islam

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Prophethood & Messengership
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Rightly Guided Caliphs

Abu BakrUmar ibn al-Khattab
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Schools of Law (Shariah)


Schools of Theology


Modern Movements


Hadith Collections

Sahih BukhariSahih Muslim
Al-Sunan al-Sughra
Sunan Abu Dawood
Sunan al-Tirmidhi
Sunan ibn MajaAl-Muwatta
Sunan al-Darami

Sunni Islam is the largest denomination of Islam. Sunni Islam is also referred to as Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l-Jamā‘ah (Arabic: أهل السنة والجماعة‎ "people of the example (of Muhammad) and the community") or Ahl as-Sunnah (Arabic: أهل السنة‎) for short. The word Sunni comes from the word Sunnah (Arabic: سنة‎), which means the words and actions[1] or example of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

Sunni schools of law (Madhhab)

Islamic law is known as the Sharī‘ah. The Sharī‘ah is based on the Qur'an and the Sunnah, and those who respective founders are:

  • Hanafi School (founded by Abu Hanifa)

Abu Hanifa (d. 767), was the founder of the Hanafi school. He was born circa 702 in Kufa, Iraq.[2][3] Muslims of Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Muslim areas Southern Russia, The Caucasus, parts of The Balkans,Iraq and Turkey follow this school.

  • Maliki School (founded by Malik ibn Anas)

Malik ibn Anas(d. 795) developed his ideas in Medina, where he knew some of the last surviving companions of the Prophet or their immediate descendents. His doctrine is recorded in the Muwatta which has been adopted by most Muslims of Africa except in Lower Egypt, Zanzibar and South Africa. The Maliki legal school is the branch of Sunni that dominates most of the Muslim areas of Africa, except Egypt and the Horn of Africa.

  • Shafi'i School (founded by Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi`i)

Al-Shafi‘i (d. 820) He taught in Iraq and then in Egypt. Muslims in Indonesia, Lower Egypt, Malaysia, Singapore, Somalia, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kerala, India, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Yemen and Kurds in the Kurdish regions follow this school. Al-Shafi'i placed great emphasis on the Sunnah of the Prophet, as embodied in the Hadith, as a source of the Shari'ah.

  • Hanbali School (founded by Ahmad bin Hanbal)

Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855) was born in Baghdad. He learned extensively from al-Shafi'i. Despite persecution, he held to the doctrine that the Qur'an was uncreated. This school of law is followed primarily 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 principals" (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 madhhab 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 madhhab is not to be confused with a religious sect. There may be scholars representing all four madhhabs living in larger Muslim communities, and it is up to those who consult them to decide which school they prefer.

Many Sunnis advocate that a Muslim should choose a single madhhab and follow it in all matters. However, rulings from another madhhab are considered acceptable as dispensations (rukhsa) in exceptional circumstances. Some Sunnis, however, do not follow any madhhab,. Indeed, some Salafis and Ahle Hadith reject strict adherence to any particular school of thought, preferring to use the Qur'an and the Sunnah as the primary sources of Islamic law or the ruling by any of the jurists if it is in accordance with Quran and Hadith.

Allah says in the Quran, Obey Allah and obey the messenger. Hence, according to Sunni Islam Quran and the authentic teachings of Muhammad (the last and final Messenger of Allah, previously Moses, Jesus, David, Solomon, Noah etc.) supersede all schools of thoughts.

Sunni theological traditions

Some Islamic scholars faced questions that they thought were not specifically 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:

  • Ash'ari, founded by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari (873–935). This theology was embraced by Muslim scholars such as al-Ghazali.
    • 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 Qur'anic references to God as having physical attributes (that is, a body) were metaphorical.[4] 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 tribes, the Seljuk Turks, migrated to Turkey, where later the Ottoman Empire was established.[5] 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 within the empire 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.
  • 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 differs with the Ash'ariyyah 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 be like, even though this attribute of a yad is still affirmed.
    • This is the opinion of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who said: "The hadiths (regarding the attributes of Allah) should be left as they are... We affirm them, and we do not make any similitude for them. This is what has been agreed upon by the scholars."[6]

Sunni schools of thought in South Asia

There are three major schools of thought prevalent in South Asia.

  • Barelvi school of thought.
  • Deobandi school of thought.
  • Ahle Hadith

The Barelvis This movement was promoted in the Indian subcontinent between the 1800s and 1900s by Ahmad Reza Khan, earning followers and opponents. The name Barelvi came into use to label the followers of Ahmad Raza Khan.

Barelvi (Sunni) belief stipulates that Muhammad had "knowledge of the unseen" and of the deeds of all Muslims, and also had been given knowledge of all creations by Allah. Along with being a bashar or human, he is also believed to be a noor or "light".

During Mawlid (the birthday of Muhammad) special recitations (Naats) that have been written by scholars such as Ahmed Raza Khan are recited. The salat o salam with Durood and Hamd o Naat is recited after Fajr and Jumuah prayers and a brief version is attached in front of the adhan. The Miraj, Shaberat or Shab-e-Barat, Urs of the saints and Gyarvi Sharif of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani is celebrated.

They also visit the mausoleums and graves of saints and prophets and beseech them for their intercession with Allah. Some even prostate at the graves, beg from the saint or prophet and consider them capable of solving all their problems.

Deobandis Deobandi thought has five main principles, which are:

1. Tawhid: Abrahamic monotheism; no one shares his attributes. 2. Sunna: Following the methodology of Muhammad. 3. Ḥubbus-Sahaba: Following the methodology of companions of Muhammad. 4. Taqlid wal-Ittibā: Giving preference to the jurisprudence of one of the earliest jurists of Islam over that of later jurists. 5. Jihād fī Sabīlil-Lāh: Doing Jihād (Striving for the good, in the name of God).

Deobandis do not consider Muhammad as 'noor'. They reject the celebration of Mawlid (in accordance with the teachings of the Naqshbandi Sufi, Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi), Gyarvi Sharif, Urs of the saints etc. as innovations (Bidaa). Beseeching the saints and prophets for intercession with Allah is considered Shirk (making partners with Allah) by the Deobandis.

Ahle Hadith

Ahle Hadith (ahl-e hadīs or ahl-i hadith) is an islamic school of thought within Ahle Sunnah-wa-AlJamaa (Sunni Islam), found predominately in the Middle East and South Asia, in particular, Pakistan and India. The term Ahl-e Hadith is often used interchangeably with the Salafism. They reject Taqlid and condemn Bidah

Unlike the Ahl-al-rai, literally "the people of rhetorical theology," the Ahl-e hadith, "the people of prophetic narrations" are not bound by taqlid (blind following of one school of jurisprudence), but consider themselves free to seek guidance in matters of religious faith and practices from the authentic traditions (hadith) which, together with the Quran, are in their opinion the principal worthy guide for Muslims. Ahle Hadith revere and respect all the great jurists, imams, and scholars, and do not out-rightly reject the rulings of any of the four principal jurists of Ahle Sunnah. However, they believe in following their rulings only if they are in accordance with Quran and Sahih Hadith.

Sunni hadith

The Qur'an as we have it today was compiled by Muhammad's companions (Sahaba) in approximately 650, 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 the prophet and 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, 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, although less well-known, are still thought to contain many authentic hadith and are frequently used by specialists. Examples of these collections include:

  • Muwatta of Imam Malik
  • Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal
  • Sahih Ibn Khuzaima
  • Sahih Ibn Hibban
  • Mustadrak of Al Haakim
  • Musannaf of Abd al-Razzaq


Distribution of Sunni and Shia populations

There are many challenges to demographers attempting to calculate the proportion of the world's Muslim population who adhere to Sunni and Shi'a Islam. Using various sources, estimates of the proportion of Muslims adhering to Sunni Islam range anywhere from 85% to 90% worldwide depending on the sources.


  1. Sunna - Definitions from
  2. Josef W. Meri, Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia, 1 edition, (Routledge: 2005), p.5
  3. Hisham M. Ramadan, Understanding Islamic Law: From Classical to Contemporary, (AltaMira Press: 2006), p.26
  4. Bülent Þenay. "Ash'ariyyah Theology, Ashariyyah". BELIEVE Religious Information Source. Retrieved 2006-04-01. 
  5. "Maturidiyyah". Philtar. Retrieved 2006-04-01. 
  6. Reported by ibn al-Jawzi in Manaaqib Imam Ahmad, pg. 155-156.
This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Sunni Islam. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.