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Sunni Islam
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Sunni Islam

Sunni Islam (سنّة) is the largest denomination of Islam. Followers of the Sunni tradition are known as Sunnis or Sunnites.

It is widely believed among Sunnis that the name Sunni derives from the word Sunnah which represents the prophet Muhammad's manner of conduct. Some have argued that "Sunni" actually means or is derived from a word that means "a middle path" referring to the idea that Sunnism is a more neutral position than the perceivedly more extreme viewpoints of the Shias and the Kharijites.


In Islam, political disagreements have usually manifested themselves as religious disagreements; the earliest example of this is that 30 years after Muhammed's death, the Islamic community plunged into a civil war that gave rise to three sects. One proximal cause of this first civil war was that the Muslims of Iraq and Egypt resented the power of the third Caliph and his governors; another cause was business rivalries between factions of the mercantile aristocracy. After the Caliph was murdered, war broke out in full force between different groups, each fighting for power. The war ended with a new dynasty of Caliphs who ruled from Damascus.

One of the groups to evolve from this conflict was the Sunnis. They hold themselves as the followers of the sunna (practice) of the prophet Muhammad as related by his companions (the sahaba). Sunnis also maintain that the Islamic community (ummah) as a whole will always be guided. They were willing to recognize the authority of the Caliphs, who maintained rule by law and persuasion, and by force if necessary. The Sunnis became the largest division of Islam.

Two smaller groups also were created from this schism: The Shi'ites and the Kharijites (Khawarij), also known as the seceders. The Shi'ites believed that the only legitimate leadership rested in the lineage of Muhammed's cousin and son-in-law, 'Ali. The Shi'ites believed that the rest of the Muslim community committed a grave error by electing Abu Bakr and his two successors as leaders.

The third group that came into being, the Kharijites, or the Khawarij (seceders) originally supported the Shi'ite position that 'Ali was the only legitimate successor to Muhammad. They were disappointed that 'Ali did not declare war when Abu Bakr took the position of Caliph, believing that this was a betrayal to his God-given legacy. Ali was later assassinated by the Kharijites with a poisonous sword.


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Basis for theology

Sunnis base their religion on the Quran and the Sunnah, which is recorded in the books of Hadith. The Hadith collections of Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim are considered by Sunnis to be the most authentic and most important Hadith collections. In addition to these two books, Sunnis recognise four other Hadith books to be of sound authenticity (though not as high as Bukhari and Muslim), together they are called "The Six Books" or the Kutubi-Sittah.

The four Sunni schools of thought (madhahib), the Hanafi, the Maliki, the Shafi'i and the Hanbali apply slightly different reasoning when deducing Sharia, or Islamic law, from the Hadith, but they all mutually recognise each others' methods and conclusions (even where they differ) as logically sound and equally acceptable alternatives.

View on other groups

Sunnis are not unanimous in their view of the Shi'ites. However the Sunnis do not consider the difference between the Shi'ites and the Sunnis to be comparable to the difference between the different mazahib of Sunni Fiqh. A tiny minority maintains that Shias (specifically the Jafaryia or The Twelvers) can be considered a "fifth madhab" of Islam. A decree from the prestigious Al-Azhar university in Egypt supporting this later viewpoint was widely condemned by Sunni scholars the world over. Generally, most Sunnis consider Shia to be a misguided and heretical sect, but within the fold of Islam. However all three of established Sunni schools in South Asia, i.e the Berailvi, the Deobandi and the Wahhabi consider Shia to be apostates from Islam.

On the other hand, groups like the Nation of Islam, Ahmadiyya, and Ismailis are considered to be heretical by the majority of Sunnis, and thus outside the fold of Islam.

In 19th century Russia (Tatarstan and Central Asia) a new theology of Sunni Islam appeared, known as Jadidism or Euroislam. Its main quality was a tolerance to other religions.


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