The Meaning of Sunnism


  Sunni Spirituality  

Of all the branches of Islam, two are by far the largest: the Shi'ah or the Shi'ites, partisans of Hazrat Ali(may Allah be pleased with him); and the Ahl al-Sunnah wa'l-jama'ah , people who follow the prophetic practices and the majority, popularly known as the Sunnis. The Sunnis number about 80 % of the total Muslim population of the world. The Ahl al-Sunnah emphasizes the teachings of the Quran and the Sunnah (practices of the Prophet of Islam along with the collective judgment of the sahabah, or companions of the Prophet) as authoritative sources of Islamic legislation. The Sunnis stand fast by both the letter and the spirit of the Law emanating from these three sources.

Sunni means literally "one who is a traditionist." Actually, Ahl al-Sunnah, or "the people of the Sunnah," are so called because they follow strictly the Hadith, the traditions or sayings of Prophet, and the Sunnah, the practices of the Prophet. The most authentic collections of Hadith are believed by the Sunnis to be the Siah al-sittah (the Six Authentic Works, that is, the six canonical collections of authentic Hadith): the Sahih of Muslim, the Sahih of Bukhari, the Sunan of Ibn Mijah, the Sunan of Abu Da'ud, the Sunan of Nasa’i, and the Sahi of Tirmidhi. The Muwatta' of Imam Malik ibn Anas also is held in a very high esteem by the Sunnis, although it is not one of the six canonical works. 1 The inspiration for believing in the Sunnah of the Prophet is derived from his last sermon during the hajj al-wada' (farewell pilgrimage), in which the Prophet emphasized the importance of his sayings and practices saying, "I leave for you two things. You will not go astray if you held fast unto them: the Book of God and the Sunnah of His Messenger."

Sunni Beliefs

The Sunnis believe that the words and deeds of the Prophet, who is, according to the Quran (XXX, 21), the uswah hasahah (noble paradigm), must be followed in every walk of life, as they were followed by his sahabah (companions), tabi'un (followers of the companions), and atba' al-tabi'in (followers of the followers of the companions). "It is incumbent upon you," said the Prophet, "to follow my Sunnah and the sunnah of the righteous caliphs (al-khulafa' al-rashidun)."

The Sunnis are of the opinion that it was as a result of Divine Wisdom and Providence that all the male children of the Prophet died in his lifetime and that under Divine Inspiration he kept the question of his succession open, leaving it to the ummah (community of Islam) to decide the most competent person to become the leader of the ummah. As the Quran testifies: "The Prophet does not utter a word out of his caprice; it is but until a revelation that has come to him" (LIII, 3-4).

The Sunnis adhere to principles rather than personalities. They do not agree with the Ghadir Khumm (Pool of Khumm) account accepted by the Shi'ites, according to which, while the Prophet was going on his journey from the Hajj al-wada (farewell pilgrimage) to Mecca on the 18th Dhu'l Hijjah in the eleventh year of hijrah, he made the following proclamation: "He for whom I am the mawlā (master) should henceforth have 'Alī as his mawlā." Even if some of the Sunnis consider this Hadith to be authentic, they interpret mawlā to mean a "spiritual teacher" and to include all the pious and learned men of the community who are the successors of the Prophet. In fact, the Prophet did not confine himself to praising 'Ali; he had also praised Abū Bakr, 'Umar, and 'Uthmān at different times, paying them tributes as glowing as any recorded in the books of Hadīth and Sīrah (biography of the Prophet). Therefore, unlike Shī'ite Muslims, Sunni Muslims do not attribute a preemptive title of khilāfah (vicegerency or succession) to any particular individual; they insist that the right to choose the khalīfah (vicegerent or successor to the Prophet) belongs to the ummah. It was on this basis that, immediately after the death of the Prophet, the Anāar (those who had embraced Islam in Medina) and the Muhājirūn (those who had migrated from Mecca to Medina) met at a place in Medina called Saqifah Banū Sā'idah and, after some discussion, elected Abu Bakr as the first Khalāfah of Rasul Allāh (successor or vicegerent of the Messenger of God). According to the Sunni view, Abu Bakr merited this position. It was he who was chosen by the Prophet to accompany him on his hijrah (migration) from Mecca to Medina, and it was he who has been mentioned in the Quran: "God did indeed help him [the Prophet] when the unbelievers drove him out; he had no more than one companion [Abū Bakr]; the two were in the cave" (IX, 40).

The main features of the election of the khalīfah or caliph continued for the other three "rightly guided" (rāshidun) caliphs, 'Umar, 'Uthmān, and 'Alī. They were elected through the process of ijmā' (consensus of opinion) of the ashb hall wa'l-'aqd (people who loosen and bind, that is, those who possess knowledge of religious injunctions and law). Once ijmā' was reached, people offered their bay'ah (oath of allegiance) to their elected caliph. The caliph in turn had to make a covenant ('ahd) with the ummah to rule and lead them according to the principles of the Divine Law as laid down by the Quran and the Sunnah. The khalīfah for the ummah was only a democratically elected spiritual and temporal leader (imām) possessing no isamah (inerrancy). Thus, Abū Bakr al-Siddīq, 'Umar al-Fārūq, 'Uthmān al-Ghaniy, and 'AlI al-Murtada were elected as the consecutive successors of the Prophet and are called the khulafā' al-rashidūn (rightly guided caliphs).

These four caliphs ruled the Islamic state for a total period of about thirty years, exactly in accordance with the teachings of the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet-hence their title, "rightly guided."

In spite of the fact that the Sunnis follow the noble example of the sahabah and particularly those of the four rāshidūn caliphs, they do not attribute ismah to them, as is done by the Shī'ite in the case of their Imams. The Shī'ites believe that God prevents the prophets and the Imams from sin and that the Imams have the power of custodianship (wilāyah) over their followers.

The Sunnis believe that any sincere Muslim who strives to gain true knowledge of the Quran will be blessed by God, even if he comes from a very humble origin. They do not subscribe to the Shī'ite view that the true meaning of the Quran was available only to the Ahl al-bayt (members of the family of the Prophet) who were near and dear to him like 'Ali and 'Ali's eleven male lineal descendants, who are the Shi'ite Imams. The Sunnis, however, show great respect for the Ahl al-bayt and pray for them while uttering their names. All the sahabah are considered to be just ('ādil) by Sunni Muslims and by those who emphasize the truth of what has been reported in a prophetic hadith: "My sahabah are like guiding stars; if you follow them, you follow the path of guidance." The role of some of the sahabah in the battles of Jamal and Siffih and some other lapses committed by them are considered to be mere errors of ijtihād, despite the best of intentions.

Sunni Caliphates and Sultanates

The next period of the Sunni caliphate after the rāshidūn caliphs was that of the Umayyad Dynasty, which ruled in Damascus, Syria. During this period, the religion of Islam was adopted by many of the conquered peoples, and a mode of coexistence was worked out with several other religious communities not converted to Islam. In the year 92/711, Umayyad forces crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain (Al-Andalus), where Sunnism remained the dominating form of Islam. Much of Spain remained in Muslim hands until the Christian Reconquista in the eighth/fourteenth century. During the six centuries of Islamic rule in Spain, Sunni learning and piety characterized the life of the Islamic community, and culture in general flourished under the Spanish Muslims usually known as Moors. Spain served in fact as an important point of contact between Christianity and Islam, and some of the most important spiritual movements of Islam were associated with Andalusia.

In the year 132/750, the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus fell, to be replaced by another Sunni Arab dynasty, the Abbasids in the East; Umayyad rule in Spain was to survive for more than another two centuries. The Abbasid caliphs established their capital in Baghdad along the banks of the Tigris River in Mesopotamia. It was during the Abbasid caliphate that there emerged the four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence: the Hanafi, Malikī, Shafi'ī, and Hanbali schools, founded respectively by Imam Abū Hanifa (d. 150/ 767), Imam Malik ibn Anas (d. 179/ 795), Imam al-Shafi'ī (d. 204/ 820) and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 241/ 855).

The Sihah al-sittah, the six most authentic collections of Hadith of the Prophet, were also assembled during the Abbasid age. Instructions in traditional Islamic religious disciplines such as Islamic Law, Quranic studies, and studies of the prophetic traditions had previously gone on mainly in the schools maintained as parts of the mosques. It was during this period that the enlightened patrons of these disciplines established separate academies known as madrasahs.

With the invasion of the main Islamic lands by Mongols or Tartars, who had originated in eastern Siberia and had captured and sacked Baghdad in 656/1258, the Abbasid caliphate was destroyed. But, ironically, in just a few decades the Mongols who had conquered the Muslim lands were themselves conquered by Islam and became Muslims. Some embraced Shi'ism but many became Sunnis and supported Sunni schools of Law.

The Mamlūks, originally Turkish slaves, who were strict Sunni Muslims, ruled Egypt and Syria between 648/1250 and 922/ 1517. Great literary achievements in historical writing were made during the Mamlūk period. One scholar of the period, Jalaal al-Dīn al-Suyūṭ (849/1445-911/ 1505), wrote historical works on Islam and produced scholarly studies of the Quran from the Sunni perspective. These works became famous throughout the Muslim world.

The Mamlūks were succeeded by the Ottoman Turks, who in 816/1413 established, on the basis of their earlier sultanate, a Sunni Islamic empire that lasted until 1342/ 1924. Basing themselves mainly in Anatolia (modern Turkey), the Turks controlled Syria, Egypt, North Africa, and vast territory in Europe as far as Austria, and everywhere they spread the teachings of Sunnism.

The Sunni Mughals established their empire in India and ruled it between 933/ 1526 and 1274/ 1857. The Mughal rulers made Delhi their capital and built impressive royal palaces, mosques, and mausoleums, the best known of which is the Taj Mahal in Agra. However, the remarkable growth of Islam in India was due not so much to the efforts of the Sunni rulers as to the Sufis, whose piety influenced the Indian masses and brought a large number of people into the fold of Islam. From India, Muslim missionaries went to Malaysia and Indonesia, where Islam was accepted by the entire local population. Today, nearly all Muslims throughout Southeast Asia belong to the Sunni branch of Islam.

Sunni Islam has also seen a vital growth in Africa, south of the Sahara, where Islam had not penetrated in its initial spread across North Africa to Spain. The majority of the population of many West African and East African countries is Sunni Muslim.

Sunni Schools of Law

The four schools of Sunni Law derive their guidance from the Quran and the Sunnah as the primary sources, and ijmā' (consensus of opinion) and qiyās (analogical deduction) as the secondary sources. Qiyās, which plays an important role in the Hanafi school, the largest of the four Sunni schools, is used to provide answers to new problems by drawing analogy between the accepted interpretations of the two primary sources in relation to the problems already solved by them and the reasons underlying the new problem at hand.

These sources represent God's Will for regulating the conduct of the community of Islam and are also known as the Sharī'ah. The Sharī'ah signifies a composite source of teachings and practices based upon the interrelation between divine and human activity. It is considered a duty of every Sunni Muslim to spend his life according to the dictates of the Sharī'ah as interpreted by the 'ulama' (learned men) and the fuqaha' (jurists).

All Sunni schools provide for their adherents clear guidelines drawn from the light of the Quran and the Sunnah for all walks of life and every sphere of activity. For example, rules have been laid down for performing prayers, for formulating contracts of sale and purchase, for conduct of war, for dealing with non-Muslims, for marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.

Certain minor differences of opinion and interpretation exist among the four Sunni schools, but a Sunni Muslim may conform his practice of Islam to any one of them. Usually a person born in one school conforms to the practice of that same school. This is called taqlīd, or imitation. But there are at present a number of Sunni Muslims who belong to the Salafiyyah movement, which claims that it is sufficient to follow the Quran and the Sunnah and that there is no need to follow any of the four Imams. The puritanical movement of Shaykh Muḥammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhāb, popularly known as the Wahhabī movement, rejects the taqlīd of any of the four Imams and their schools of thought. Another group, named Ahl al-hadith, which is found in India and Pakistan, also follows the Quran and Hadith and not the four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence. It feels that the Quran and the Sunnah are sufficient to guide it upon the right path.

Sunni Beliefs and Practices

Like other Muslims, Sunnis offer five daily prayers, give zakāt (religious tax), fast in the month of Ramadan, and perform the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, if they are able to do so.

Sunnis attach great importance to the salat al-jum'ah (Friday prayer), which is offered in congregation at zuhr time (after midday) on Fridays. The salāt al-jum'ah is wājib (necessary) and must be performed by all male adults except those who are travelers or who have some handicaps which apply to other fard (obligatory) prayers. Women are not bound to offer this prayer in congregation, but they may join it if it does not upset their household duties.

Like other Muslims, Sunnis also believe in the seven articles of faith (imān): belief in the Oneness of God, the angels, the Sacred Scriptures, the messengers of God, the Last Day, destiny coming from God-whether good or bad, and resurrection after death. Sunnis believe that God has created the universe and that He is its absolute Controller and Regulator; that everything in the universe has a predetermined set course (al-qadar) and nothing can happen without God's willing it and knowing it; that God knows the present, the past, and the future of every creature and that the destiny of every creature is already known to Him (XXV, 2-XXXIII, 38); that God has given free will to every human being by the exercise of which he can choose between right and wrong; and that God will judge every human being on the Day of Judgment on the basis of his actions in this world. The Sunnis also believe that on the Day of Judgment no one except the Prophet, with God's permission, will be able to intercede (shafa'ah) on behalf of anyone else. In other words, no Imam, no khalih, no walī Allāh (saint) will have any power of intercession.

After the assassination of the caliph 'Uthmān and the unsatisfactory arbitration between 'Alī and Mu'āwiyah in relation to their claims to the caliphate, there emerged three schools: the Kharijites, the Murji'ites, and the Shi'ites. Every school developed a different notion of its collective identity and began to view the boundaries of right belief differently.

The Kharijites

The Kharijites believed that faith was demonstrated in righteous acts and that without making faith explicit in public behavior; one could not claim to be a Muslim. They also thought that sinful acts committed by any Muslim, including the khalīfah, breached one's confession of faith and one's claim to be a Muslim. They based their conclusion on certain pronouncements in the Quran in which infidelity is related to some major acts of moral transgression through the use of such phrases as "there is no faith in him, ""he does not belong to us," and "he has no place in Islam" to censure the conduct of the person who is guilty of such acts or to indicate the punishment of hell which is promised to him. The Khārijites argued that the caliph 'Uthmān had acted contrary to the mandate of the Sharī'ah: therefore, he and all those who committed grave sins should be expelled from the Islamic ummah. Initially they supported 'Alī in his struggle for the caliphate against Mu'āwiyah, but when 'Ali lost in the arbitration between him and Mu'awiyah on the matter of the caliphate, the Khārijites withdrew from his forces to form a separate sect.

The Murji'ites

In contrast to the Khārijites, the Murji'ites believed that mere affirmation of faith by professing the shahādah was enough to ensure salvation for a person in the next life. In other words, even if a Muslim commits a number of sins in his life, he will still not go to hell; but his place in the hereafter will be somewhat inferior to that of a more virtuous Muslim. The Murji'ites held that outward acts of faith and sin could not be judged except insofar as they affected the common good. They believed that commission of sin did not imply that the sinner should be expelled from the community. Consequently, they thought that the decision regarding the caliph 'Uthmān's or any Muslim's status as a believer or sinner must be left to God. In other words, it must be postponed until the Day of judgment.

The Murji'ites took their stand on the dictum in the Quran that bestows the glad tidings of heaven to everyone who possesses only the qualification of faith. With this moderate attitude, the Murji'ites found themselves largely in support of Mu'āwiyah and other Umayyad caliphs, although not without criticizing their alleged lack of piety.

The Khārijites were prone to thinking that the graver sins were fatal to faith and that committing them turned a Muslim into a kāfir (disbeliever). The Murji'ites, on the contrary, thought that to sin even in the extreme was not a matter of such importance as to destroy faith.

The Sunnis had all along emphasized the view held by the sahabah on this subject-the view that the commission of a major sin was neither the equivalent of kufr (disbelief), as the Khārijites thought, nor an insignificant matter, as the Murji'ites felt. In Sunni opinion, perpetration of a sin deserves divine reprobation and chastisement, and yet it is not unpardonable if God so wishes.

The Mu'tazilites

In the second/eighth century, Sunni Islam saw the emergence of a group called the Mu'tazilites. It was responsible for whetting the appetite of Muslims for speculative investigations. It adopted logic, philosophy, and rationalism to sharpen the tools of dialectical theology to defend Islam against Christianity, Manichaeism, and other forms of alien religious thought. The Mu'tazilites went into excesses in their beliefs, particularly in respect of tawḥīd (Oneness of God) and the creation of the Quran (khalq al-Qur'ān).

The beatific vision (seeing God in the hereafter) was another matter of controversy among them and other early Islamic schools of thought. The Quran says: "Some faces that Day will beam (in brightness and beauty) looking towards their Lord" (LXXV, 22-23). This verse implies that on the Last Day the faces of the loyal servants of God will be radiant with joy by looking at His Countenance. The same truth is emphasized by the hadīth, many of which assert that one of the boundless blessings that the faithful (mu'minūun) will receive in the hereafter is that they will see God Most High and that this will be the source of the greatest bliss and happiness for them. But the Mu'tazilites denied the possibility of beatific vision on the ground that it was not logically possible because only a thing that exists in material form or has color or surface can be seen by the human eye. They argued that since God has neither form nor substance nor is He contained in space and time, the question of seeing Him does not arise. The possibility of seeing God was rejected by the Mu'tazilites on rationalistic grounds, even though such a rejection meant refuting the relevant verse of the Quran.

Although the Mu'tazilites were Sunnis, such views were not accepted by the majority of Sunnis, who believed that since the Prophet has asserted authoritatively the possibility of the beatific vision in his sayings, and that the sahabah too had drawn no other inference from these ahādīth except that in the hereafter the faithful (mu'minūn) will be blessed with an unconcealed view of God, every Muslim must believe in the possibility of such vision.

Free Will and Determinism

Free will (qadar) and predestination (jabr) have constituted other areas of controversy among Sunnis. The Qadariyyah school (not to be confused with Qadiriyya) regarded everything that comes to pass in this world including men's actions as entirely independent of fate. The Jabriyyah school, on the contrary, regarded every such event and action as having been determined by fate. Fatalists as they were, the Jabriyyah provided no possibility for man to act as a free being but rather turned him practically into an inanimate object.

The majority of Sunnis, however, take a middle-of-the-road course in this question. They believe that all happenings and all human actions are the results of both divine and human wills acting in a delicate balance. They insist that the general run of Muslims should place their full faith in the sahābah (companions) and follow implicitly the path marked out by them in this as in other matters, because in the appreciation and understanding of religion and its principles it is not possible to excel the sahābah.

The Significance of al-Ghazzālī

In the fourth/eleventh century, the world of Islam saw the emergence of three trends in the intellectual sphere: the Sunni theologians believed that the study of theology was causing more harm to common people than good; others felt that religious knowledge was incompatible with secular knowledge; and ordinary Muslims regarded the study of science as irrelevant to their spiritual life. A genius was needed to bring about an intellectual synthesis of these mutually repellent trends. The world of Islam found such a genius in the person of Imam Abū Hamid al-Ghazzalī (450/1058505/1111), who was one of the greatest Sunni scholars. After carefully considering the works of Muslim philosophers such as Abu 'Alī Sīna (Avicenna) and al-Kindī as well as the works of Greek philosophers translated into Arabic, he came to the conclusion that they were not explaining, but were rather explaining away, Islamic beliefs. In criticizing them, al-Ghazzālī restricted the limits of human reason in apprehending Divine Truth. He strongly believed that Sufism alone could revive the religion through its emphasis upon spirituality.



Some of these collections have now been made available in European languages, such as the sahīh of al-Bukhārī and Mishāt al-masabīh. See Mishkāt al-masābīh, trans. J. Robson (4 vols; Lahore: M. Ashraf, 1963-65); K itāb jāmi' al-sahīh, trans. M. M. Khan (6 vols; Lahore: M. Ashraf, 1978-80).


By Abdurrahman Ibrahim Doi

Book Title: Islamic Spirituality: Manifestations. Contributors: Seyyed Hossein Nasr - editor. Publisher: Crossroad. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1991. Page Number: 221.