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.
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, Mutazilism and other philosophical schools. There is a difference between the Sunnites now as the teachings are preached by Asharism, Maturidism and Asaria (Salafi).
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:
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.
About two hundred years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, six major hadiths were created, each authored by a specific imam:
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.
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:
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:
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.
Proponents of legal schools also belonged to one of the dogmatic movements of Sunni Islam.
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.