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'Sunni Islam' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

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This article explains Sunni Islam as background to the Pathways of Faith theme. The article is reprinted from The Islamic World: Past and Present edited by John L. Esposito in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 , strong differences arose over the method of choosing the leader of the Muslim community. These disagreements ultimately resulted in the division of Muslims into two major groups—Sunni and Shi'i. Sunnis, who represent about 85 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, reject the views of Shi'is and members of other Islamic sects on the issue of religious authority after Muhammad's death.

Core Beliefs.

The term sunni comes from the word sunnah, which literally means “the trodden path” and refers to Islamic customs based on the exemplary behavior of Muhammad. In addition to the sunnah, which serves as an important source of guidance for all Muslims, Sunnis rely on ijma (the consensus, or agreement, of legal and religious scholars). The concept of consensus reflects the emphasis in Sunni Islam on community and its collective wisdom, instructed by the Qur'an and sunnah.

Sunni Islam encompasses diverse points of view based on historical setting, location, and culture as well as the ideas of various theological and legal schools. Nevertheless, Sunni Muslims share certain distinctive beliefs. They reject the claim of Shi'i Muslims that Muhammad designated Ali ibn Abi Talib, his son-in-law and cousin, as his successor and that only Ali's descendants have the legitimate right to lead the Islamic community. Sunnis assert that the Prophet did not name a successor. They accept the authority of the first four caliphs after Muhammad. Known as the Rashidun, or “rightly guided,” caliphs, these were accepted collectively by the Islamic community.

Early Struggles.

Sunni Islam developed as a result of political and religious struggles early in the history of Islam. An army revolt in 656 resulted in the murder of Uthman ibn Affan, the third caliph. Ali ibn Abi Talib became the leader of the Islamic community, but Mu'awiyah, who ruled in Syria and was related to the slain caliph, refused to acknowledge Ali. He demanded that Uthman's killers be brought to justice. Civil war erupted. Some of Ali's troops withdrew their loyalty from him, but they also continued to oppose Mu'awiyah. This group became known as Kharijis (seceders). They rejected both Uthman and Ali as legitimate caliphs, a position that led to difficult questions about Muslim belief and law and to the development of various sects within the Islamic community.

In 661 after a Khariji murdered Ali, Mu'awiyah became caliph. His reign marked the beginning of the Ummayad caliphate. During this time, disputes arose within the Islamic community over such issues as the definition of true belief, the status of those who profess Islam but commit a major sin, and whether human beings are truly free to choose their own actions or whether an all-knowing God predetermines all actions. These became basic questions for later Sunni thinkers who sought to formulate opinions that conformed to the Qur'an and the sunnah. In 750 the Umayyad caliphate fell to the Abbasids, who were descendants of the Prophet's uncle al-Abbas. During the Abbasid caliphate (750 – 1258), Sunni Islam became firmly established.

Four different schools of Sunni law emerged during Abbasid rule: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, and Hanbali. In addition to the Qur'an and sunnah, which is based on the hadith, Sunni Muslims sometimes use qiyas (reasoning through analogy) and ijma to form laws. The four schools of law differ in their reliance on qiyas and ijma. Sunnis consider all four schools to be authentic and acceptable to God, but most Sunnis generally follow the school that is prevalent locally.

During the early years of the Abbasid caliphate, Sunnis faced two challenges: the growing influence of rationalist thought and the rise to power of the Shi'is. The rationalists used reason as the basis for the establishment of religious truth. They taught that God created the Qur'an, meaning that it was not a part of his eternal essence, although it expresses his eternal will. They also held that people have free will to choose between good and evil. These beliefs, promoted by a group known as the Mu'tazilis, alienated traditional Muslims, who maintained that the Qur'an exists eternally and that God has absolute power over all people and events.In the early 800s, the caliph al-Ma'mun embraced Mu'tazili teachings and attempted to impose them on his subjects. He and his successors persecuted dissenters, including the respected theologian and legal scholar Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, provoking a reaction against rationalism. Within the next century, other schools of Islamic thought, which bridged the gap between a literal interpretation of the Qur'an and one based on reason, became prominent.

In the early 900s, the Shi'is gained considerable prestige and influence. The Fatimid dynasty established a caliphate in North Africa in 910 and took control of Egypt in 969 , making it their base of operations. A rival Shi'i dynasty, the Buyids, became the effective rulers of Baghdad in 945. The Sunnis recaptured their power in 1055, however, when the Seljuk Turks conquered Baghdad. The Sunnis also provided military opposition to the Fatimids in Syria and nonviolent opposition through the writings of such prominent Sunni thinkers as Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (died 1111 ). Saladin (died 1193 ), who was Islam's great defender against the crusaders, destroyed the Fatimid caliphate in 1171.

Scripture and Law.

During the 1700s, reform movements emerged in Sunni Islam, as Muslim scholars looked for ways to renew Islamic thought and life to meet the demands of changing times. These movements gained momentum over the next two centuries with the colonization of Islamic countries by European powers. Islamic reformers such as Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817 – 1898), Muhammad Abduh (1849 – 1905), and Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865 – 1935) published new interpretations of the Qu'ran. In the 1940s, Egyptian scholar Amin al-Khuli initiated a new approach to study of the sacred text, treating it as a literary document to be analyzed by literary methods. This approach, however, met with strong opposition from traditional Muslim authorities.

Two Algerian scholars also developed new approaches to the Qur'an. In his book The Qur'anic Phenomena, Malek Bennabi focuses on understanding the Qur'an as revelation and deals with the issue of a human being—who has personal views, experience, and background—receiving a divine message. Mohammed Arkoun uses modern theories of language and symbolism to interpret the Qur'an. Arkoun's work differs considerably from the thousands of modern Sunni publications on the Qur'an because it raises new questions about the literary and historical aspects of Islam's holy book and its interpretation.

In recent years, Sunnis have placed renewed emphasis on the sirah literature, which deals with the biography of Muhammad. Scholars have explored the sociopolitical conditions of the Prophet's era and the historical causes for the rise of the Islamic state. The reliability of the hadith has also come under scrutiny.

Sunni scholars have also addressed concerns regarding shari'ah. Although the writings of medieval jurists continue to be held in high regard, Muslim modernists have noted that their work represents a human attempt to understand divine law. As such, it should be open to review and revision. These reformers advocate a continuous reinterpretation of Islamic texts so that Muslims can develop institutions of education, law, and government suited to modern conditions.

Political Issues.

The role of shari'ah in matters of constitutional law and the organization of the state has become a central concern for Sunni Muslims. After the Turkish government abolished the caliphate in 1924, controversy arose regarding the proper form of an Islamic government. Egyptian scholar Ali Abd al-Raziq argued that the Qur'an did not bestow special legitimacy on the caliphate and refuted the traditional belief that Islam requires a particular form of state and government. In his writings, Abd al-Raziq made an important distinction between Muhammad the prophet and religious teacher and Muhammad the statesman, insisting that the political character of Islam is separate from its religious character.

Abd al-Raziq's ideas met with fierce resistance from traditional Muslim authorities. His book on Islam and government was banned, and some Muslim organizations rejected his teachings. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, claimed that Islam prescribes a religious social order that can develop only in an Islamic state. Historically, factions within the brotherhood advocated the use of violence, if necessary, to create such a state. Sayyid Abu al-Ala Mawdudi, founder of the Jamaat-i Islami party in South Asia, believed that an Islamic revolution—not necessarily of a violent nature—was necessary to reform existing society according to Islamic ideals. Today the various Islamic states apply shari'ah in widely different ways.

In modern times, Sunni Muslims have also attempted to reconcile some prominent Western ideas with Islam. During the early 1900s, the issue of nationalism prompted intense debate. Traditionally, the leaders of the Islamic community supported the struggle for independence from colonial rule but rejected nationalism as a threat to the political unity of all Muslims.

After World War II ended in 1945, the fight against European powers resulted in the founding of new nation-states with Muslim majorities. Sunni thinkers did not object when the leaders of such states established Islamic governments. But when these leaders adopted secular political systems, questions about the compatibility between Islam and democracy emerged. Supporters of democracy argued that the early Muslim concept of shura, an advisory council to the head of state, was a model of democracy. They also asserted that democracy, which insisted on the individual responsibility of its citizens, was a necessity for the development of Muslim societies. Those who supported the idea of an Islamic state argued that the democracy created under Islam is different from the Western model of democracy.

The relationship between socialism and Islam has prompted even more discussion. In 1959 Mustafa al-Sibai, a legal scholar and head of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, published a book in which he argued that socialism and Islam were compatible. His model of Islamic socialism combined the principles of equality, justice, and responsibility. He claimed that Islamic socialism would eliminate poverty and enable Muslim societies to prosper. Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and others in the Arab world embraced al-Sibai's ideas. But not all Islamic thinkers or activists agreed with the concept. Sayyid Qutb, a key figure in the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood during Nasser's regime, condemned the idea of Islamic socialism. He believed that Islam alone provided the solution to the social, economic, national, and moral problems created by capitalism and communism. Sunni thinkers continue to debate whether social change should follow socialist ideals or Islamic ideals.

The Past and Present.

Modern Sunni thought has increasingly concerned itself with questions of history. Muslim scholars consider the effects on the Middle East of various experiences and events. These include European imperialism, World War I and World War II, and the subsequent nonmilitary struggle between the United States and the former Soviet Union known as the Cold War. In addition, scholars explore the impact on the Middle East of the establishment of Israel, rivalries among Muslim countries, and the rapid economic changes resulting from the discovery of oil. Some Muslim authors study the rise and fall of nations and civilizations and explore questions surrounding the future, such as whether the West or Islam will dominate the world. Others consider the place of Islam in the ongoing history of religions and take a scholarly interest in faiths other than Islam.

One of the striking features in contemporary Islamic thought is the growing call for a distinctly Islamic perspective and approach to social needs. Those who support these views regard Islam as a total way of life, encompassing both religious and worldly matters. Although the United Nations has adopted and proclaimed a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, Muslim leaders have proposed a separate Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights. This growing concern with Islam has led to an increasing concentration on subjects such as jihad, religious tolerance, religious freedom, and the status of women. It has also contributed to a view that the Western world is an enemy of the Muslim world and a threat to Islam.

Yet other ways of thinking about Islam exist. For some Muslims, it is a domain of personal experience and of communal norms and values. For others, it is a realm of creative effort and enlightenment. Modern Sunni scholarship and literature reveals the immense variety among Muslim thinkers and the many interpretations permitted by Islam.


"Sunni Islam." In The Islamic World: Past and Present, edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #269: 'Sunni Islam' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", May 21, 2024


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