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Sunni Islam is the largest branch of Islam, comprising at least 85% of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. Sunnis are also referred to as Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l-Jamā‘ah ( "people of the tradition (of Muhammad) and the community") or Ahl as-Sunnah ( ) for short. The word Sunni comes from the word Sunnah ( ), which means the words and actions or example of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad.

Sunni 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. There are four of these schools: Abu Hanifah (d. 767), was the founder of the Hanafi school. He was born circa 702 in Kufamarker, Iraqmarker. Muslims of Bangladeshmarker, Pakistanmarker, Indiamarker, Afghanistanmarker, Central Asia, Muslim areas Southern Russia, The Caucasus, parts of The Balkans, Iraqmarker and Turkeymarker follow this school. Malik ibn Anas(d. 795) developed his ideas in Medinamarker, where he knew some of the last surviving companions of Muhammad 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. Al-Shafi‘i (d. 820) was a student of Malik. He taught in Iraq and then in Egyptmarker. Muslims in Indonesiamarker, Lower Egypt, Malaysiamarker, Singaporemarker, Somaliamarker, Jordanmarker, Lebanonmarker, Syriamarker, Kerala, Indiamarker, Sri Lankamarker, Palestine, Yemenmarker and Kurds in the Kurdish regionsmarker follow this school. Al-Shafi'i placed great emphasis on the Sunnah of Muhammad, as embodied in the Hadith, as a source of the Shari'ah. Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855) was born in Baghdadmarker. 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 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.

Many Sunnis advocate that a Muslim should choose a single madh'hab and follow it in all matters. However, rulings from another madh'hab are considered acceptable as long a preconditions of the actions are within the same school . Some counterparts of Sunnis, however, do not follow any madh'hab,. Indeed, some Salafis or Ahle Hadith also known as wahabis reject strict adherence, while often being loosely connected, to one of the four particular schools 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. In fact, such debates about the balance taqleed or ijtihad have been going on a long time in Islam. Generally Hanbalis have favored the opinion to keep the doors of ijtihad open while the other three have preferred taqleed.

Sunni theological traditions

Some Islamic scholars faced questions that they felt 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. 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 Anatoliamarker that they became Hanafi and followers of the Maturidi creed ). One of the tribes, the Seljuk Turks, migrated to Turkeymarker, 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, and Maliki 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.

  • Athari, no precise founder of this school of creed within Islam,but Ahmad ibn Hanbal is often pointed to as an early champion of the Athari creed. This became a serious issue within the Muslim World during the Mu'tazili controversy over the belief of the Qur'an being created, rather than being the speech of Allah. Others are cited as earlier proponents, such as, Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 778) was a Follower from Kufamarker who held what would later become the Athari creed.
    • The Athari methodology of textual interpretation is to avoid delving into extensive theological speculation. They believe in Allah and his characteristics in the 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 the Ẓāhirīs nor through tahreef (distortion), ta‘weel (figurative interpretation), tamtheel (making a likeness), tashbeeh (resemblance), nor ta’teel (denial). They avoid entering into philosophical and rational 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 sources, without taking the path of the literalists either, the Ẓāhirīs. 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 the closest to the truth.
    • Due to the emphasis of the Hanbali school of thought on textualism, Muslims who are Hanbali usually prefer the Athari in Aqidah. However atharis are not exclusively Hanbali, many muslims form the other four schools of thought, including Hanafis, adhere to the Athari school of Aqidah also.

Sunni view of hadith

The Qur'an as it exists 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 Muhammad 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 also contain many authentic hadith and are frequently used by specialists. Examples of these collections include:


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. Sunni denomination, claiming 1.36 billion followers.

See also


  1. From the article on Sunni Islam in Oxford Islamic Studies Online
  2. Sunna - Definitions from
  3. Josef W. Meri, Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia, 1 edition, (Routledge: 2005), p.5
  4. Hisham M. Ramadan, Understanding Islamic Law: From Classical to Contemporary, (AltaMira Press: 2006), p.26
  5. Objection to Following Another Madhab Answered [1]

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