Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Sunni Islam

Sunni islam Zitouna mosque
People walk in the Zitouna mosque, the oldest and largest in Tunis, Tunisia. Photo FETHI BELAID / AFP

The majority of the world’s Muslims belong to the Sunni – as opposed to the Shia – sect. Sunnis are estimated to constitute 87-90 per cent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, with Shiites making up the rest.

Sunnism is sometimes described as ‘mainstream’ Islam, not only because of Sunnis’ numerical superiority but also because of the nature of Sunnism as an ‘orthodox’ doctrine and the way in which it emerged and evolved as a reaction to the Shia and other theological schools in Islam. These theological schools, such as the Mutazilis, were perceived by Sunnism’s pioneers as non-orthodox because they deviated from ‘the way of the majority’, a fundamental concept in Sunni doctrine.

What is Sunni Islam?

The word ‘Sunnism’ derives from sunnah, which meant ‘a well-trodden path’ in Arabic even before the rise of Islam. In the Islamic context, it refers to Prophet Muhammad’s example – what he said and did, from basic matters and daily affairs to major issues like his conduct in wars, social life and financial matters.

Many Sunni scholars give Sunnis the longer name of ahl al-sunnah wa al-jamaa, or ‘those who follow the prophet’s example and stick with the mainstream, united community’. This label can be seen as carrying an orthodox connotation related to the concept of unity around the prophet’s path as opposed to seceding in heterodox groups and sects. To conservatives among Sunni scholars, this label is also a form of opposition to bida (innovations that do not have roots in the prophet’s tradition; deviations from the sunnah).

In this article, the term ‘proto-Sunni’, as opposed to just ‘Sunni’, is used to denote traditional, early Sunnis who began to evolve as a distinct current around the 10th century. However, in a more complex, contemporary reality, there are numerous variations among the more than 1 billion people who identify as Sunni.

Historical Background

Sunnism vis-à-vis Shiism

Sunnis are commonly viewed as what they are not: Shiites. The Shiite sect emerged following Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632, in the context of the two famous Muslim civil wars (the first and second fitnas) that erupted amid a disagreement over the question of who would succeed the prophet as Muslims’ political and spiritual leader.

Shiites believe that the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, should have become the first Muslim caliph (successor), not the fourth as actually happened. They also believe that Ali’s descendants should have succeeded him. Meanwhile, those who would later be labelled ‘the Sunnis’ recognized the three caliphs who preceded Ali (the prophet’s companions Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab and Uthman ibn Affan) as legitimate successors to the prophet, although they do recognize Ali as the fourth caliph and a pious companion of the prophet’s.

The Early Science of Hadith

Sunni islam al-Azhar mosque
Worshippers sit, pray, and read from the Koran, Islam’s holy book, inside al-Azhar mosque, Egypt. Photo MOHAMED EL-SHAHED / AFP

Historians believe that proto-Sunnism as we know it today appeared and crystallized in the 9th and 10th centuries. Researchers associate the rise of Sunnism with the consolidation of structured Hadith (the prophet’s sayings as reported by transmitters) as a field of study and research for early Muslims, and the development of a coherent body of Hadith that would be collected – in the 9th century – in a number of volumes regarded by contemporary scholars and researchers as the ‘canonical Hadith collections’.

Prior to the founding of the formal science of Hadith, Muslims valued and transmitted Hadith but mostly orally. Ninth-century scholars enhanced the methodology of Hadith authentication.

A major milestone in how Sunnis regarded the importance of Hadith as a formal basis for Islamic law was reached through the work of jurist Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafei (767-820), the founder of one of the four schools of jurisprudence (fiqh). Al-Shafei considered Hadith to be the second most reliable source of Islamic law after the Koran.

Sunnis partially differ from Shiites over Hadith. Not all Hadith that the Sunnis recognize as authentic receive the same acceptance from Shiites. Understandably, Shiites primarily acknowledge the prophet’s sayings that were reported to Muslims by Ali ibn Abi Talib, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, and his descendants. Shiites, thus, have their own Hadith collections.

Ibn Hanbal’s Opposition to Mutazilis

The emergence of Sunnism is also associated with jurist Ahmed ibn Hanbal (780-855). Like Shafei, Ibn Hanbal founded one of the four traditional schools of Islamic jurisprudence. A pioneer in the study of Hadith, he dedicated himself to collecting the prophet’s sayings as reported by his companions, and to verifying their authenticity. In doing so, he travelled to several cities across the Muslim world.

He is mostly famous for his opposition to the Mutazilis, a group of theologians who were influenced by Hellenic, philosophical methods, and who championed aql (reasoning) as opposed to naql (strict adherence to tradition). In defence of tradition, Ibn Hanbal was subjected to flogging and persecution by the Muslim caliph al-Mamoun because he challenged the latter’s attempt to impose Mutazilis’ doctrine.

This period of Islamic history saw the rise of labels such as ‘ashab sunnah’ (sunnah folk).

Al-Ashari: the former Mutazili’s role in Sunnism’s evolution

Notwithstanding the role of scholars like Shafei and Ibn Hanbal in the evolution of Sunnism, the establishment of a core Sunni doctrine is attributed to Abu al-Hassan al-Ashari, a former Mutazili who ‘constructed an intellectual middle ground’ among traditionalists and Mutazilis, using the dialectical and philosophical skills that he acquired after breaking ranks with the theological school.

The Proto-Sunni Doctrine and Principles

Traditionally, proto-Sunnis are characterized by their adherence to a number of basic principles, such as their belief in Hadith and the concept of ‘consensus among Muslims’ as sources of Islamic law, in addition to the absence of a Sunni religious authority akin to the Roman Catholic Church and the pope for Catholic Christians, the Coptic Church and pope for Egypt’s Orthodox Christians or the 12 imams and the ulama for Twelver Shiites.

There are four traditional schools of fiqh (Islamic law or jurisprudence) that were founded by early Sunni scholars over the course of the 8th and 9th centuries: the Hanafi school, founded by Abu Hanifa al-Numan (699-767); the Maliki school, founded by Malik ibn Anas (715-795); the Shafei school of al-Shafei (767-820); and the Hanbali school, founded by Ibn Hanbal (780-855).

The disciples of each of the four scholars further developed their schools of jurisprudence after the founding fathers’ death. Traditional Sunni scholars see these four schools (also known as madhhabs) as four approaches to fiqh and four ways of ijtihad (individual reasoning, based on individual interpretations of the scripture).

According to traditional Sunni scholars, Islamic law should be derived from one of four sources: primarily from the Koran or from the prophet’s sunnah (which is in turn derived from Hadith) as a second-best option for questions that are not answered in the Koran. The third source of Islamic law is consensus that the Muslim scholars and community traditionally reached, especially in Islam’s early centuries. The fourth is qiyas (‘reasoning by strict analogy’).

Sunni madhhabs became limited to four by the 11th century. Prior to that, in the 10th century, more madhhabs were recognized as respectful approaches to the study of Islamic law.

On the Shiite front, the Jafari madhhab was founded by Jafar al-Sadiq. A descendant of Ali, al-Sadiq is regarded by Twelver Shiites as an imam. Sunnis regard him as a scholar but not an imam. There is also the Zaydi madhhab for Zaydi Shiites.

Modern-Day Sunnism

It is commonly said that ‘the gates of ijtihad were closed’ around the 11th century. No more structured schools of Islamic law were founded, and Sunni scholars instead focused on studying Islamic law through the four madhhabs that had already been established. Scholars would continuously issue fatwas (religious rulings) on matters that arose in Muslims’ everyday lives, but their rulings would be mainly based on the four existing approaches.

However, over the centuries that followed, a series of ‘reformers’ emerged among Muslim scholars, who called for the necessity of ‘opening the gates of ijtihad’. Interestingly, some of those ‘reformers’ were also conservative in a sense, with their causes revolving around what they viewed as a need to return to Islam’s authentic fundamentals and rejecting developments and bida that appeared over time and deviated from Islam’s path. A case in point is Ahmed ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328). Born to a family of Hanbali scholars, he called for ijtihad, but at the same time he opposed trends like Shiism, Sufism and philosophy, considering them to be ‘unauthentic’.

Another notable reformist was Egypt’s Muhammad Abdu (1849-1905), who lived at the time of the British occupation of the country. Regarded by observers as a ‘modernist’, Abdu also called for ijtihad and emphasized the importance of education. He aspired to reconciliation between Islam and the Western model, which he loved, according to historians. In notable fatwas that Abdu issued, he rejected polygamy and accepted Western institutions like insurance.

Today, Sunnism is by no means limited to the traditional proto-Sunni model that emerged and flourished in Islam’s early centuries. Sunni movements, institutions, independent thinkers and even ordinary Sunni individuals subscribe to various strands and schools of Sunni Islam – from secularism to political Islam, and from Wahhabism and Salafism to liberal and progressive visions of Islam. These are only examples of a long list of variations.