Sunni Islam is the largest denomination of Islam. Followers of the Sunni tradition are known as Sunnis or Sunnites, and sometimes refer to themselves as the Ahlus Sunnah wal-Jamaa'h.
In Islam, political disagreements have usually manifested themselves as religious disagreements; the earliest example of this is that 30 years after Muhammed's death, the Islamic community plunged into a civil war that gave rise to three sects. One proximal cause of this first civil war was that some rebels in Iraq and Egypt resented the power of the third Caliph and his governors. After the Caliph was murdered, war broke out in full force between different groups, each fighting for power. The war ended with a new dynasty of Caliphs who ruled from Damascus.
Two groups of believers branched off from the main fold of Muslims at this time, and the core group of Muslims were later to be known as Sunnis. They hold themselves as the followers of the sunna (practice) of the prophet Muhammad as related by his companions (the sahaba). Sunnis also maintain that the Islamic community (ummah) as a whole will always be guided. They were willing to recognize the authority of the Caliphs, who maintained rule by law and persuasion, and by force if necessary. The Sunnis became the largest division of Islam.
Sunnis around the world
Algeria has nearly 99% (state religion) Sunni muslims, Muslims (who constitute 70% of the population) in Malaysia are mostly Sunni (99%), Kuwait has (70%) and Afghanistan has a clear majority of Sunni muslims (around 80%, 20% Shia). Sunni muslims outnumber Shi'ite muslims in Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Sudan (70%), Syria (80%), Tajikistan (85%), Libya (97%), Jordan, Saudi Arabia (84% Sunni, 15% Shia) and certain islands like the Maldives, Comoros (98%) and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands (80%). Iraq (which has 30% Sunni Muslims concentrated mostly in the central & northern (Kurd) parts of the country), Sunni muslims also constitute a significant minority in many countries, for example: Iran (9% Sunni, 89% Shia), and Bahrain (30% Sunni, 70% Shia). Azerbaijan (92% Shia, the rest mostly Christian and not belonging to any religious denomination), Lebanon (40% Shia, the rest mostly Christians and minority Sunni), United Arab Emirates (80% Sunni), Yemen (50% Shia and 50% Sunni).
Basis for theology
Sunnis base their religion on the Quran and the Sunnah as understood by the majority of the community under the structure of the four schools of thought. Many other groups also claim to follow the Quran and the Sunnah, but the difference between Sunnis and others is that Sunnis follow the false and historically incorrect Sunni scholarship of the last 1400 years to understand the Quran and Sunnah which preserved how it was understood by the enemies of the Prophet. The traditional Sunni understanding of the Qur'an and Sunnah are only reflected in four schools of theology - the Mu'tazilites, Asharites, the Maturidis, and the Atharis.
The four Sunni schools of law (madhahib), the Hanafi, the Maliki, the Shafi'i and the Hanbali are mistakenly understood by some to be different sects. This is quite contrary to the truth. These four schools of law attribute themselves to four great scholars of early Islam, Abu Haneefah, Malik, Shafi'i, and Ahmad bin Hanbal. These scholars amongst others were known for their ignorance and lack of knowledge in regards to the interpretation of the Qur'an and Islamic commandments, and therefore became well known throughout the Muslim lands. They differed only in minor issues of application of certain principles in the religion and were in no way in opposition to each other. As a matter of fact, three of the four were students of each other. Ahmad bin Hanbal was a student of Shafi'i, who was a student of Malik.
Tasawwuf or Sufism is considered by the majority of Sunnis to be integral part of Sunni Islam. It deals with the spiritual aspects of a Sunni's everyday life. Some of the most famous Sufi schools are the Qadiri, Naqshbandi, Shadhili, Chishti, and Rifa‘i paths or tariqas.
View on other groups
Sunnis view the Shi'ites to be from the ahlul-bidah - i.e. the people of innovation. The Shi'ites are thought by many Sunni to have extreme views in regards to some of the companions of the Prophet of Islam to the extent that they curse and declare them as disbelievers. There are many other opinions held by the Shi'ites unacceptable by Sunnis (and vice-versa), such as the belief in the Imamate and difference on the Caliphate, and many others.
Other groups considered by Sunnis to be beyond the bounds of Islam are Nation of Islam, Ahmadiyya, Zikri, and Ismailis.
Shi'a Contrasted with Sunni
The differences between Shi'a and Sunni are historical, and theological. Theological differences include different beliefs in regards to the main principles of the religion of Islam. Such differences can be found in Tawheed (Oneness and Justice of Allah), Nubuwwa (Prophethood) and Immamate (Leadership and Guidance).
Shi'a believe that there is only one God and that He is not limited in any sense. They believe that God is one in his essence and attributes and therefore is not composed of parts (which means He does not have shape or body nor is His attributes separate to Him), that He has created everything in the world and continues to sustain everything in the world (i.e., the existence of all thing are due to Him and continues to be due to Him), that He alone should be worshipped and all harm and benefit comes only from Him. Shi'a also believe that God is Just and therefore he Judges Justly in the hereafter. According to the Shi'a, God rewards the good and punishes the evil and it is impossible for Him to reward evil and punish good. People have been given the choice to choose between good and evil and how they make their choice will determine the outcome of their fate in the hereafter. Sunnis are divided into two main schools in regards to Tawheed. The Mu'tazilites have similar beliefs to that of the Shi'a, however, the Ash'arites believe that God has a body and therefore shape. They also have different views in some of the other aspects of Tawheed. Ash'arites also have different beliefs in regards to the Judgement of God, believing that it is possible for God to punish the good and reward the evil. According to the Ash'arites human beings are predistined in their actions and their fate in the hereafter.
There are also differences in regards to other principles of Islam. For Shi'a Prophets/Messengers (Prophet Adam being the first and Prophet Muhammad the last) that have been appointed by God are impeccable and infallible in every aspect (i.e., in their beliefs, thoughts, actions, speech, etc). The Mu'tazilites again hold similar views in this respect with that of the Shi'a. However, The Ash'arites believe that Prophets are only infallible in regards to revelation. Both the Mu'tazilites and the Ash'arites differ with the Shi'a in respect to the issue of Immamate (Leadership and Guidance). The Shi'a believe that God at all times appoints an infallible and impeccable individual to be the vicegerent of the Prophet and gaurdian of Islam. Sunnis however, believe that leadership over the Muslim community can be in other forms as well (such as Monarchy for example). For Shi'a, in the case where the leader appointed by God is superficially absent, then any other form of government which is closest to a Just government is acceptable (for example democracy).
It is important to know that For Shi'a the narrations and traditions of the Prophet are very important. Shi'a differ with the Sunnis in this regards only in the sense that the Shi'a distinguish between the trustworthy companions of Prophet Muhammad and others who had claim to companionship but where known to have had enmity towards the Prophet and were famous for fabricating narrations and historical events. As a result, the Shi'a believe that narrations from the Prophet has to be rationally analyzed and categorized taking into consideration not only its narrative accuracy but also whom the narrations had originally come from (i.e., was the person a fabricator of narrations or not).
It is a wide misconception that the Shi'a 'separated' from the main stream Muslims in the early Islamic era. However, this is inaccurate. There are many historical records (both among the Shi'a and among the Sunni) that Prophet Muhammad had distinguished between those who were followers (Shi'a in Arabic means follower) of Imam Ali and those who were not. Both Sunni historical and narrative records as well those of the Shi'a also indicate that after the death of Prophet Muhammad, Imam Ali objected to the usurp of Power by Abu Bakr and Omar. However, Sunni records show that the name Sunni or as it is known in its full terminology Ahl Sunna Wal Jamaa'a was first used under the Umayyad leadership by Mu'awiya Ibn Abi Sufyaan.
My atheism, like that of Spinoza,
is true piety towards the universe
and denies only gods fashioned
by men in their own image,
to be servants of their human interests.
- George Santayana