The Ahl as-Sunnat, with respect to fiqh (actions, 'ibadat), consists of four Madhhabs. The first one, the Hanafi Madhhab, was founded by al-Imam al-azam Abu Hanifa Numan ibn Thabit (rahmat-Allahi 'alaih). 'Hanif' means 'a person who believes correctly, who clings to Islam.' 'Abu Hanifa' means 'the father of true Muslims.' Al-Imam al-azam did not have a daughter named 'Hanifa.' The second of the four Madhhabs of the Ahl as-Sunnat is the Maliki Madhhab of Imam Malik ibn Anas (rahmat-Allahi 'alaih). The third one is the Shafi'i Madhhab of Imam Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi'i (rahmat-Allahi 'alaih). Hadrat Shafi', a Sahabi, was the grandfather of the Imam's grandfather. That was why he and his Madhhab were called Shafi'i. The fourth one is the Hanbali Madhhab of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (rahmat-Allahi 'alaih). [As is written in the preface of Radd al-mukhtar by Ibn 'Abidin, these four imams were born in the Hijri years 80, 90, 150 (767 Miladi) and 164 and passed away in 150, 179, 204 and 241, respectively.]
With respect to itiqad (beliefs), these four Madhhabs are not different from one another. All of them belong to the Ahl as-Sunnat and their beliefs and the basis of their religion are the same. These four Imams of the Muslims were great mujtahids recognized and believed by everybody. Yet they disagreed with one another in some small affairs with respect to actions (the Sharia).
The itiqad or iman of the four true, correct Madhhabs is the same. There is no difference between them in Islam. All of them hold the beliefs of the Ahl as-Sunnat. Those who do not believe in the beliefs of the Ahl as-Sunnat are called the people of bidat, i.e. the "la madhhabi." They call themselves "members of the fifth madhhab." These words of theirs are not true. There is no such thing as a "fifth madhhab." Today there is no way other than learning the knowledge pertaining to religion from the 'ilm al-hal books of one of these four Madhhabs. Everyone chooses the Madhhab that is easy for him to follow. He reads its books and learns it. He does everything compatibly with it, follows it, and becomes a member of it (taqlid). Because it is easy for a person to learn what he hears and sees from his parents, a Muslim usually belongs to the Madhhab of his parents. The Madhhabs being not one but four is a facility for Muslims. It is permissible to leave one Madhhab and join another, yet it will take years to study and learn the new one, and the work done for learning the former one will be of no use and may even cause confusion while doing many things. It is by no means permissible to leave one Madhhab because one dislikes it, for Islamic scholars said that it will be disbelief (kufr) to dislike the Salaf as-salihin or to say that they were ignorant.
Recently some people like Mawdudi of Pakistan and Sayyid Qutb and Rashid Rida of Egypt have appeared. They and those who have been deceived by reading their books say that the four Madhhabs should be united and that Islam should be made easy by selecting and gathering the rukhsas of the four Madhhabs. They defend this idea with their short minds and deficient knowledge. A glance over their books will show at once the fact that they know nothing about tafsir, hadith, usul or fiqh, and that they reveal their ignorance through their unsound logic and false writings.
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.