Sunni Muslims are the largest denomination of Islam and are known as Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l-Jamā‘h or simply as Ahl as-Sunnah. The word Sunni comes from the word sunnah, which means the teachings and actions or examples of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad. Therefore, the term “Sunni” refers to those who follow or maintain the sunnah of the prophet Muhammad. In many countries, overwhelming majorities of Muslims are Sunnis, so that they simply refers to themselves as “Muslims” and do not use the Sunni label.
The Sunnis believe that Muhammad did not specifically appoint a successor to lead the Muslim ummah (community) before his death, and after an initial period of confusion, a group of his most prominent companions gathered and elected Abu Bakr Siddique, Muhammad’s close friend and a father-in-law, as the first caliph of Islam. Sunni Muslims regard the first four caliphs (Abu Bakr, `Umar ibn al-Khattāb, Uthman Ibn Affan and Ali ibn Abu Talib) as “al-Khulafā’ur-Rāshidūn” or “The Rightly Guided Caliphs”. Sunnis also believe that the position of caliph may be attained democratically, on gaining majority votes, but after the Rashidun, the position turned into a hereditary dynastic rule because of the divisions that started by the Umayyads and others. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, there has never been another caliph as widely recognized in the Muslim world.
SCHOOLS OF SUNNI JURISPRUDENCE
Madhhab is an Islamic term that refers to a school of thought or religious jurisprudence within Sunni Islam. Several of the Sahaba had a unique school of jurisprudence, but these schools were gradually consolidated or discarded so that there are currently four recognized schools. The differences between these schools of thought manifest in some practical and philosophical differences. Sunnis generally do not identify themselves with a particular school of thought, simply calling themselves “Muslims” or “Sunnis”, but the populations in certain regions will often – whether intentionally or unintentionally – follow the views of one school while respecting others.
The Hanafi school was founded by Abu Hanifa an-Nu‘man. It is followed by Muslims in the Levant, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Western Lower Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, the Balkans and by most of Russia’s Muslim community. There are movements within this school such as Barelvis and Deobandi. They are concentrated in South Asia and in most parts of India.
The Maliki school was founded by Malik ibn Anas. It is followed by Muslims in North Africa, Western Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, in parts of Saudi Arabia and in Upper Egypt. The Murabitun World Movement follows this school as well. In the past, it was also followed in parts of Europe under Islamic rule, particularly Islamic Spain and the Emirate of Sicily.
The Shafiʿi school was founded by Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafiʿi. It is followed by Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Eastern Lower Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Palestine, the Philippines, Singapore, Somalia, Thailand, Yemen, Kurdistan, and the Mappilas of Kerala and Konkani Muslims of India. It is the official school followed by the governments of Brunei and Malaysia.
The Hanbali school was founded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal. It is followed by Muslims in Qatar, most of Saudi Arabia and minority communities in Syria and Iraq. The majority of the Salafist movement claims to follow this school.
The Ẓāhirī school was founded by Dawud al-Zahiri. It is followed by minority communities in Morocco and Pakistan. In the past, it was also followed by the majority of Muslims in Mesopotamia, Portugal, the Balearic Islands, North Africa and parts of Spain.