When our Master, the Prophet ('alaihi 's-salatu wa sallam) honored the Hereafter with his presence in the eleventh year of the Hegira, Hazrat Abu Bakr as-Siddiq (radi-Allahu 'anh) became the Khalifa, who, 13 years after the Hegira, passed away at the age of sixty-three. After him, Hazrat Umar al-Faruq (radi-Allahu 'anh) became the Khalifa. He was martyred at the age of sixty-three, in 23 of the Hegira. After him, Hazrat Uthman Dhu'n-Nurain (radi-Allahu 'anh) became the Khalifa. He was martyred at the age of eighty-two, in the year 35 after the Hegira. Then, Hazrat Ali (radi-Allahu ta'ala 'anh) became the Khalifa. He was martyred in 40 A.H. when he was sixty-three. These four Khalifas are called al-Khulafa' ar-rashidin.
The era of al-Khulafa ar-rashidin lasted thirty years. These thirty years, like the time of the Prophet ('alaihi 's-salam), passed in prosperity. After them, many bidats and wrong paths appeared among Muslims and many people dissented from the right way. Only those who believed and adapted themselves to the Sharia exactly as the Sahabat al-kiram (radi-Allahu ta'ala 'anhum ajmain) had done were saved. Their way is that of Ahl as-Sunnat wal-Jamaat.
This is the only correct way. The way which our Prophet ('alaihi 's-salam) and his companions followed was the way which is shown by the scholars of the Ahl al-Sunnah wa'l-jama'ah. The wrong ways were forgotten in the course of time, and most Muslim countries today follow this correct way. Of those which were not compatible with the Ahl as-Sunnat wal-Jamaat, there is only the Shiite group left. The Shiites claim, "The Caliphate was Hazrat Ali's (radi-Allahu 'anh) right and Abu Bakr and 'Umar (radi-Allahu ta'ala anhuma) deprived him of his right by force," and they slander most of the Sahabat al-kiram. [Today, those who are called Muslims and are known as the al-Ummat al-Muhammadiyya are almost entirely composed of the Ahl as-Sunnat, the Shiites and the Wahhabis].
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.