The sunnites

21.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

The Sunnites comprise the most common movement within Islam.

The supporters of Sunni Islam have traditional views on the interpretation of Scripture and Muslim customs. The name is derived from “ahl as-sunnah wa l-jamaah,” which literally translates as “following the path of the Prophet Muhammad”. The movement emphasizes the importance of the community and the value of the commandments of the Prophet and his assistants in resolving life situations.

The Sunni religion has been shaped over centuries and overcame many conflicts as it formed and developed its principles.

The sunnites

History of sunni islam

During the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the rule of the three Rashidun Caliphates (Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman), the community (Ummah) remained united. After Caliph Uthman was assassinated in 656, the rift began, exacerbated during Ali’s confrontation with the leader of the Umayyad dynasty, Muawiya.

The expansion of the caliphate at the expense of other peoples led to the development of sectarian and extreme movements and, eventually, to the division within the Islamic society. Active fighting led by Hassan al-Basri broke out against sectarianism.  The Caliph systematized the “moderate” beliefs of Sunnites, and criticized the methods of the Umayyad government, opposing their tyranny.

It was he who first used the term “ahl as-sunnah” to define the single pure faith and the moderate path of Shias. Officially, this name was introduced by Ibn Sirin and became associated with the faithful majority of Muslims. The unifying term “ahl as-sunnah wa l-jamaah” began to spread among the predominant number of believers who followed the path of Muhammad and his companions.

Sunni Muslims have managed to preserve the unity of the umma. They have been able to confront the sectarians in attempts to pervert Islamic teachings and add new elements to it that are contrary to the Scriptures. It is said that the Prophet predicted the division of the community into many sects and the salvation of a group of Muslims (Nagia), the members of which would become true Sunnites.

The theoretical basis of Islam among Sunnites was formed through a discussion with representatives of Shiism, Kharijism, Mu​tazilism and other philosophical schools. There is a difference between the Sunnites now as the teachings are preached by Asharism, Maturidism and Asaria (Salafi).

Features of sunni islam

Sunni teaches the obligatory following of the Prophet’s sunnah, his actions and statements, respect for tradition, and the participation of the ummah (community) in the choice of their leader (caliph).

The main signs of Sunni Islam are the recognition of:

  • the veracity of the six greatest Hadith collections—sources of the prophet Muhammad’s statements, actions and thoughts
  • four law schools — madhhabs (Maliki, Shafii, Hanafi and Hanbali)
  • three schools of Aqidah — a Muslim foundation of dogmas, ideas and representations (Athari, Ashari and Maturidi)
  • the rule of Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali (Rashidun Caliphates)

Unlike Shiism, Sunni Islam has more specific content and teaches believers to follow the life path of the Prophet Muhammad. Shia Muslims recognize succession only through Ali’s descendants as he was the community’s secular and spiritual head.

Hadiths are part of sunni islam

About two hundred years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, six major hadiths were created, each authored by a specific imam:

  • Sunan al-Sughra (al-Nasa’i)
  • Sunan Abu Dawood (Abu Dawood)
  • Jami al-Tirmidhi (al-Tirmidhi)
  • Sunan ibn Majah (Ibn Majah)
  • Sahih Bukhari (Imam Bukhari)
  • Sahih Muslim (Muslim b. al-Hajjaj)

The sacred texts were grouped in the 11th century by Islamic theologians, in particular by Ibn al-Qaisarani. The Sunnis consider the Hadiths in the collections of the imams al-Bukhari and Muslim to be absolutely reliable.

At the beginning of the development of Islam, the vast majority of hadiths, which are the basis of the Sunna, were transmitted orally. The Companions retold the words of the Prophet to the disciples or told them stories of his life. The disciples also transferred their knowledge to their pupils.

Madhhabs—sunni law schools

The Sunnis have great respect for the four schools (madhhabs), which combine theological and legal teachings. The believer has the right to choose one of them and to adhere to the madhhab, which corresponds to the Koran and the Sunnah:

  • Maliki
  • Shafi’i
  • Hanafi
  • Hanbali

Supporters of the first two madhhabs use the Koran and Sunnah as well as Qiyas (deductive analogy). They listen to the unanimous opinion of legal scholars and associates. Maliki madhhab uses the principle of Istislah (independent reasoning in the name of good), and Shafi’s—Istishab (“the judgement continues until there is evidence of a change of state”).

Hanafi madhhab is the most common law school. Its decision-making method is based on:

  • the Koran
  • the Sunnah
  • unanimous and individual opinions of the Prophet’s companions
  • Qiyas
  • Istihsan (rejection of a similar decision)
  • local custom

Hanbali is the smallest madhhab in terms of the number of its supporters. It preaches tolerance for rulers, even if they are wicked and sinful. The ancestor of the Zahiri madhhab, Dawud al-Zahiri, was the first to rely on a literal interpretation of the Koran and the Sunnah in the administration of justice. He denied the need to seek any secret meaning (batin) in the texts or the use of artistic techniques or reason in interpreting.

Dogmatic movements

Proponents of legal schools also belonged to one of the dogmatic movements of Sunni Islam.

  1. This is common among Shafiis and Malikis. After the 10th century, it received the status of the main school of kalam, concerning philosophical and religious discourses. It is meant to solve theological disputes between Maturidis and Atharis, supporters of free will (Qadarites) and fate (Jabarites), as well as dealing with the contradictions between nominalism and rationalism in understanding divine features. The Atharis rejected the Taqlid, the blind conformity to spiritual authority, without questioning the truth of their judgments.
  2. Its founder operated on the arguments of kalam and “the arguments of reason” in the polemics of representatives of Jahmi and Muʿtazila. His views are in many ways the same as Atharis’. The doctrines of both leaders (al-Maturidi and Abul-Hassan al-Ashari) are aimed at combating the heretical views of Muʿtazila.
  3. The Sunni School of Belief (Aqidah) is distinguished by its devotion to traditionalism and the usual interpretation of the main sources of faith (the Sunnah and the Koran). The school excludes indirectness. Atharis explain incomprehensible phrases with the idea that only God understands them correctly, and people have no right to be interested in their true meaning.

Imamate or caliphate?

According to the Sunni religion, the supreme power in the Islamic theocratic state must belong to caliphs elected or appointed from the Quraysh tribe to which the Prophet belonged. In contrast, the Shiites recognize the power of only clerics—imams who are descendants of Muhammad on the side of Caliph Ali, his cousin.

Despite the differences among Sunnites, they maintain a commonality of the people and faith in tradition. There are about 1.62 billion Muslims in the world, and 85-90% of them are Sunnites. The religious movement continues to develop and modernize. For example, the four madhhabs may merge soon, and the practice of ijtihad (free reasoning) will be allowed.