The term “Sunnism” itself reflects the later phrase “Ahl Al-Sunna” (the people of the custom of the Prophet Peace and blessing upon him)


One of Sunnism’s crucial components is a perspective, evolved over the course of the 1st to the early 3rd Islamic centuries, which privileged the early Muslim community and its unity as a pious ideal. This perspective also solidified the primacy of the Prophet’s Companions, especially Abu Bakr and Umar, and most importantly, emphasized adherence to the Prophet’s custom, his Sunna, as the path to proper Islamic worship and legitimate Muslim identity.

Umayyad caliphate at its greatest extent (750 CE): Public Domain Because Sunnism is a label for a set of beliefs and traditions within the broader tradition of Islam, there are no specific founders per se. There are, however, important individuals and crucial historical components of Sunnism that can be said to be foundational. The evolution of Sunnism was gradual; it was not a pre-formed ideology that issued abruptly. Like all sectarian delineations, it would also eventually contain its own subsets and divisions. The main centers of sectarian affiliation in the early period of Islam were, in fact, outside Arabia,
in Syria and Iraq, where the first ruling dynasties, the Umayyads and Abbasids respectively, had their capital cities. Abbasid Caliphate (green) at its greatest extent, c. 850:Public DomainAs such, the continued administrative and cultural legacies of both Byzantium and Persia affected the development of theological and political perspectives in the early Muslim world.

The medieval Muslim community was never a monolithic or simple collective group, and the elaboration of the historical perspective described above was neither simple nor instantaneous. The term “Sunnism” itself reflects the later phrase “ahl al-Sunna” (the people of the custom of the Prophet) and is the result, rather than generator, of any particular theological or political view. Over the 1st and 2nd centuries of Islam, which correspond to the 7th and 8th centuries of the Common Era, several groups whose existence turned out to be short lived nevertheless influenced what would, by the 3rd century A.H./9th century C.E. come to be known as Sunnism. One of the most decisive aspects of which groups and individual ulama (scholars) would become central to articulating the historical vision of Sunnism was the patronage and support of the Abbasid regime (8th-13th centuries C.E.), ruling from Baghdad.

As noted, a hallmark of Sunni Islam, which in basic tenets (the “five pillars” of shahadah, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and pilgrimage) is identical to any sect of Islam, is its vision of the primacy of the unity of the Muslim community (the umma) and its earliest leaders, notably the Prophet himself and his successors and Companions. Because this vision was necessarily constructed upon a framework of scholarship that revolved around hadith, scholars who specialized in hadith were crucial to the articulation of Sunnism. Early scholars, such as Ibn Sa‘d (d. 784) and Ibn Hanbal (d. 855), played a critical role in the
pre-Sunni (or, as it has been called, proto-Sunni) elaboration of approaches to Islamic doctrine and practice. The consolidation of hadith literature is therefore another foundational aspect of Sunnism.

There is no centralized doctrinal council or concentrated spiritual authority for all of Islamic society. Processes that led up to the formalization of Islamic law, the shariah, were therefore multi-faceted. There are four schools of Sunni law that survived the vicissitudes of history and still exist today. (Though there are other Sunni schools of law, they are followed by very few people and are relatively unknown.) These four madhahib (schools of law) are named for four great teachers whose methodologies and approach to hadith and practice were most extensively expounded upon after their deaths by generations of students and scholars. All four of these agree about basic doctrine, but differ somewhat in terms of the execution of certain ritual aspects of Islam, and in their approaches to the interpretation of sources. They all consider one another, however,
equally valid. The four remaining schools of Sunni law and their eponymous founders are:

The Hanafi School, named after Abu Hanifa (d. 767). He was born in Kufa (modern-day Iraq) around 702. Today, many Muslims of West and Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Balkans, Iraq, and Turkey are Hanafis.
The Maliki School, named after Malik ibn Anas (d. 796) Malik’s ideas were deeply rooted in Medina, and they place an even greater emphasis on the practice of the Companions of Muhammad and their descendants. Many Muslims in Africa adhere to the
Maliki school, with some significant exceptions, including Egypt.
The Shafi‘i School, named after Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi‘i (d. 820) who was a student of Malik’s. He taught in Iraq and Egypt. Many Muslims all over the world, including Indonesia, Egypt, Malaysia, Singapore, Somalia, the Levant, India, Sri
Lanka, and Yemen follow this school.
The Hanbali School, named after Ahmad bin Hanbal (d. 855), who was born in Baghdad. He was a student of al-Shafi‘i and was also an important figure in early Muslim theological disputes, which led to his persecution by the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun.

In India and its sub-continent the great Sunni personality was born named Imam Ahmed Raza Khan (Arabic Urdu: الإمام أحمد رضا خان بریلوی, Hindi: अहमद रज़ा खान), more commonly known as Imam Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi, Imam AhleSunnat ,Imam Ahmed Rida Khan Barelvi, or Ala-Hazrat (14 June 1856 CE or 10 Shawwal 1272 AH – 28 October 1921 CE or 25 Safar 1340 AH), was an Islamic scholar, jurist, ascetic, Sufi. He wrote on numerous topics, including law, religion, philosophy and the sciences. He was a prolific writer, religious poet, Sufi mystic, Mufti (jurist) producing nearly 1,000 works in his lifetime, including a tafsir of the Quran Al Kanzul Imaan.

Study Questions:
1.Why were scholars important to the creation of Sunnism?
2. Contrast the four madhahib of Sunnism.

SunnisJamaat e Ahle SunnahFour Madhahib of Sunnism

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One comment

  1. This must be added as part of the Ahlus Sunnah Wa Jamah…

    The ahlus sunnah wa jamaah – Sunni (90% of the world’s traditional muslims)

    The largest denomination of Muslims referred to as Ahl as Sunnah wa’l Jama’h or ‘people of the prophetic tradition and community’—

    with emphasis on emulating the life of the last Prophet, Muhammad ﷺ.

    To Ash’ari and Maturidi Schools: Sunni Orthodoxy on aqida of Imam Tahawi (105 points) included.

    These two schools of doctrine are followed by the bulk of Sunni Muslims and differ only in minor details.

    Ash’ari – This school is named after the followers of the 9th century scholar Abu al Hasan al Ash’ari (874–936 CE) and is widely accepted throughout the Sunni Muslim world. They believe that the characteristics of God are ultimately beyond human comprehension, and trust in the Revelation is essential, although the use of rationality is important.

    Maturidi -This school is named after the followers of the 9th century scholar Muhammad Abu Mansur al Maturidi (853–944 CE) and has a wide following in regions where Hanafi law is practiced. They have a slightly more pronounced reliance on human reason.

    Schools of Sunni Islamic Law/jurisprudence or mazhabs

    Hanafi (45%) Named after the followers of Imam Abu Hanifa (699–767 CE/ 89–157 AH) in Iraq.

    Shafi’i (28%) Named after the followers of Imam al Shafi’i (767–820 CE/ 150–204 AH) in Madinah

    Maliki (15%) Named after the followers of Imam Malik (711–795 CE/ 93–179 AH) in Madinah.

    Hanbali (2%) Named after the followers of Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (780–855 CE/ 164–241 AH) in Iraq

    The “Ahl as-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah” are the Ash’arites and Muturidis:

    (adherents of the theological systems of Imam Abu Mansur al-Maturidi and Imam Abul-Hasan al-Ash’ari –

    In matters of belief, they are followers of any of the four schools of thought (Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki or Hanbali)

    and

    are also the followers of the Sufism of Imam Junaid al-Baghdadi in doctrines, manners and [spiritual] purification.”

    Millions of Muslims who practice Islamic mysticism, it has been estimated that 25% of adult Sunni Muslims in 1900 CE participated in these brotherhoods as either murids (followers of the Sufi guide of a particular order) or mutabarrikin (supporters or affiliates of a particular Sufi order).

    Some Sufi orders-

    Naqshbandiyya Founded by Baha al Din Naqshband (d. 1389 CE) in Bukhara

    Chishtiyya Founded by the Persian saint Mu’in al Din Chishti (d. 1236 CE) Khurasan.

    Qadiriyya Founded by scholar and saint ‘Abd al Qadir al Jilani (1077–1166 CE) in Baghdad, Iraq.

    Tijaniyya Ahmad al Tijani (d. 1815 CE) who settled and taught in Fez, Morocco.

    Shadhiliyyah Founded by the Moroccan saint Abu’l-Hassan al Shadili (d. 1258 CE).

    Rifa’iyya Founded by Ahmad ibn ‘Ali al Rifa’i (d. 1182 CE) in southern Iraq.

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