Sunni Islam is the largest branch of Islam, comprising up to 90% of the total Muslim population of the world. Sunni Muslims are referred to as Ahlus Sunnah wa Al-Jamā‘ah (Arabic: أهل السنة والجماعة "people of the tradition [of Muhammad] and the community") or Ahlus Sunnah (Arabic: أهل السنة) for short. Sunni Islam may be referred to as Orthodox Islam. The word "Sunni" comes from the term Sunnah (Arabic: سنة), which refers to the words and actions or example of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The Sunnis consider Sahih al-Bukhari to be the most important hadith.
The Sunni branch of Islam has four legal schools of thought or madh'hab, which are all accepted among one another. The Sunni branch accepts the first four caliphs as rightful successors of Muhammad and accepts hadiths narrated by the companions.
Sunni is a broad term derived from Sunnah (سنة [ˈsunna], plural سنن sunan [ˈsunæn]), which is an Arabic word that means "habit" or "usual practice". The Muslim usage of this term refers to the sayings and living habits of Muhammad. In its full form, this branch of Islam is referred to as "Ahlus-Sunnah Wa Al-Jama'ah" (literally, "People of the Sunnah and the congregation"). Anyone claiming to follow the Sunnah and can show that they have no action or belief against the Prophetic Sunnah can consider him or herself to be a Sunni Muslim.
Schools of law (Madh'hab)
Main article: 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. It has to be clear that each one of these schools consider the others to be fully valid and accepted.
Below are the most famous four:
Abu Hanifah (d. 767), was the founder of the Hanafi school and student of Ja'far al-Sadiq. He was born in the year 702 CE in Kufa, Iraq. Muslims of Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Muslim areas of Southern Russia, the Caucasus, most of the Muslim areas of the Balkans and Turkey and parts of Iraq, all follow this school of jurisprudence. It is also the dominant school of Muslims in the United Kingdom and Germany.
Malik ibn Anas (d. 795) Student of the imam Abu Hanifah's eldest student, Muhammad, Malik ibn Anas developed his ideas in Medina. His doctrine is recorded in the Muwatta which has been adopted by most North African and West African countries like Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Nigeria and others except Egypt, Horn of Africa and Sudan. Also, the Maliki madhab is the official state madhhab of Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. He was one of the teachers of Imam al-Shafi`i.
Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi`i (d. 820) was a student of Malik. He taught in Iraq and then in Egypt. Muslims in Indonesia, Lower Egypt, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kerala, India(Mappilas), Coastal Maharashtra,Konkan, India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Palestine, Yemen and Kurds in the Kurdish regions follow the Shafi'i 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 bin Hanbal (d. 855), the namesake of the Hanbali school, was born in Baghdad. He learned extensively from al-Shafi'i. This school of jusrisprudence is followed predominantly in the Arabian Peninsula.
Theology of the four Madhab
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 principles" (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.
According to Encyclopædia Britannica and the Pew Research Center, approximately nine out of ten or 90% of Muslims worldwide practice Sunni Islam. The remaining are Shia along with smaller groups such as Ahmadiyya and Kharijite.
Sunni theological traditions
Some Islamic scholars faced questions that they felt were not explicitly 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:
Athari (Arabic: أثري) , or "textualism" is derived from the Arabic word athar, meaning, literally "remnant" and also referring to "narrations". Their disciples are called the Atharis. The Atharis are considered to be one of three Sunni schools of Aqidah: Ashari, Maturidi, and Athari.
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.
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 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. 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.
Sunni view of hadith
The Qur'an as it exists today in book form was compiled by Muhammad's companions (Sahaba) in approximately 650 CE, 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 early Muslim community. Later generations sought out oral traditions regarding the early history of Islam, and the practices 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 have through the ages sifted through the hadith and evaluated the chain of narrations of each tradition, scrutinizing the trustworthiness of the narrators and judging the strength of each hadith accordingly.
Most Sunni Muslims accept the hadith collections of Bukhari and Muslim as the most authentic (sahih, or correct), and while accepting all hadiths verified as authentic, grant a slightly 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:
Sunan Abu Dawud
Sunan ibn Majah
There are also other collections of hadith which also contain many authentic hadith and are frequently used by scholars and specialists. Examples of these collections include:
Muwatta of Imam Malik
Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal
Sahih Ibn Khuzaymah
Sahih Ibn Hibbaan
Mustadrak of Al Haakim
Musannaf of Abd al-Razzaq