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Sunni Islam


Doctrines The Sunni tradition is one of the two main sectarian divisions in Islam (the other being Shi'a). A number of important principles govern the Sunni tradition.
  1. The Prophet and his revelation are of foremost authority.
  2. In order for the Qur'an to be used as a basis for sound judgement for subjects under dispute it is necessary to take sound hadiths into account.
  3. Qur'anic verses should be interpreted in the context of the whole of the Qur'an.
  4. In understanding the Qur'an rational thinking is subordinate to revelation. If the Qur'an or the Sunnah of the Prophet offers a clear judgement on anything, the Muslim is obliged to follow this judgement. If there is no clear judgement about anything in the Qur'an, then it is necessary to make a rational opinion (known as Ijtihad) which is consistent with Qur'anic teaching.
  5. The first four caliphs were the legitimate rulers of the early community.
  6. Faith and deeds are inseparable.
  7. Everything occurs according to the divine plan.
  8. Allah will be seen in the life after death.

The Sunni tradition also emphasises the importance of religion in the formation of public policy. This emphasis has, according to Sunni-Muslim scholars, given rise to two interrelated processes: the supremacy of the Shari'a and the sovereignty of the Islamic community. According to the Sunni tradition, if Islam is a legalistically oriented religion, concerned with the organization of human society, it follows that religious teaching must concern itself with matters of marriage and divorce, inheritance and ownership, commercial transactions and contractual dealings, government, banking, investment, credits, debts and so on. The proper execution of these contractual matters according to the principles of the shari'a based on the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet constitutes an important part of the way to salvation.

History Islam is divided between the minority Shia tradition and the majority Sunni tradition. The minority group regard the Prophet's Son in law, Ali, and his descendants as divinely authorised to rule the Muslim community. The majority group believed that the caliph should be appointed through the consensus of the community.
The Muslim community's encounter with other cultures, coupled with further divisions in the community itself, brought home the need to formulate the principles of faith within a rational framework. In the 10th century much of the contents of the Muslim community's theology was put into a set of propositions known as Sunni (orthodox) theology. The word Sunni derives from the sunnah, or example, of the Prophet, and indicates the orthodoxy of the majority community as opposed to the peripheral positions of schismatics who by definition must be in error.
A further response to schisms involved developing a trend of accommodation and synthesis. The principle of accommodation made it possible for diverse schools of thought to coexist and recognize each other. Thus, the two principal theological schools of al-Ashari and al-Maturidi accepted each other as orthodox while opposing minority traditions such as Mu'tazilah, Kharijites and Shi'a. The legal framework of the Sunni tradition was provided by the Hanafi, Shafi'i, Maliki and Hanbali schools.
The political leadership of the Sunni community, and therefore the symbol of orthodoxy has been the caliphate. After the first four caliphs the community came under the authority of the Ummayads, who set up their capital in Damascus. The period of the Ummayad caliphs (661-750) saw the conquest of North Africa and Spain. In 732 Muslim armies reached as far as Toulouse in the south-west of France. In the East, Muslim armies arrived in Afghanistan and the region that is present-day Pakistan. In 750 the Ummayad caliph was overthrown in rebellion led by the 'Abbasids, who were to form the next caliphate. Remnants of the Ummayad family, however, were able to establish themselves in Muslim Spain, where they ruled until 1031.
The 'Abbasids established their capital in Baghdad in 750. From then until the 10th century both the Muslim empire and the power of the 'Abbasids continued to grow. However, from the 10th century the empire began to fragment. A rival caliphate, the Fatimids, was established in North Africa. The Mongol invasions and the capture of Baghdad in 1258 brought to an end the caliphate in Iraq. An 'Abbasid caliphate was established in Cairo, but this was without any real political power.
The caliphate was taken over when the Ottomans invaded Egypt in 1517. The defeat of the Ottoman empire after the first world war, and the creation of a secular state in Turkey (which had been at the heart of the Ottoman empire) brought the caliphate to an end. For the first half of the twentieth century many regions of the Islamic world have sought to free themselves from European colonial rule. In the absence of the caliphate a pan-Islamic identity has been sought through organisations such as the Muslim World League and the Islamic Conference. Internal divisions have, however, impeded any real scope for Islamic unity.

Symbols See Islam.

Adherents Today Ahl-i Sunna/Sunnism is the madhhab of 90% of all Muslims.

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