Sunni Islam: Beliefs, History, and Practices

Dec 3


Yusha Sayyid

Yusha Sayyid

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Sunni Islam, the largest branch of Islam, has had a profound impact on the modern world through its diverse political systems, widespread demographics, and rich traditions. By delving into the origins, beliefs, practices, and contemporary challenges, we can better understand the role of Sunni Islam in shaping the global Islamic discourse and its influence on the lives of over a billion people.

Key Takeaways

  • Sunni Islam is an Islamic sect emphasizing community consensus in leadership and following four main schools of legal thought.
  • The Sunni majority comprises over 1.5 billion people,Sunni Islam: Beliefs, History, and Practices Articles with major influence across Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
  • Sunni practices are based on Prophet Muhammad’s teachings while relations between Sunnis and Shias have been historically fraught yet there is potential for unity today due to dialogue initiatives encouraging peace.

Sunni Islam: Origins and Core Beliefs

Illustration of the historical origins of Sunni Islam

Sunni Islam originated following Prophet Muhammad’s death, with the majority of the Muslim community backing Abu Bakr as the first caliph, under the impression that the prophet hadn’t named a successor. This marked the beginning of the Sunni caliphate, which emphasizes the importance of community consensus in leadership, in contrast to Shia Islam, which believes that the rightful successor should have been Ali, the prophet’s son-in-law.

Sunni Islam follows four main schools of legal thought, which provide diverse interpretations of Islamic law.

Abu Bakr and the First Caliphate

Choosing Abu Bakr as the first caliph signaled the birth of Sunni Islam and the formation of its distinct identity. Abu Bakr’s significance in the early Muslim community, being one of the first individuals to convert to Islam and chosen by the Prophet Muhammad as his companion on the Hijrah to Medina, contributed to his selection. Under Abu Bakr’s rule, central Arabia was brought under Muslim control and Islam was propagated further through conquest, solidifying the Muslim community’s foundations.

The choice of Abu Bakr as the first caliph highlights the importance of community consensus in leadership within Sunni Islam. While Shia Muslims hold that Ali and his lineage should have led the Islamic community, Sunni Muslims stress community involvement in leader selection, deeming Islam’s leadership to be dictated by the Muslim world’s prevailing political conditions.

Four Schools of Islamic Orthodoxy

Sunni Islam is guided by four schools of legal thought:

These schools provide diverse interpretations of Islamic law and contribute to the rich intellectual tradition of Sunni Islam.

The Hanafi school, credited to the 8th-century Kufan scholar Abu Hanifa, emphasizes the application of reason and analogy for interpreting Islamic law. In contrast, the Maliki school, established by Imam Malik bin Anas, emphasizes the customs and practices of the people of Medina, the consensus of scholars, and a balanced approach to Islamic law.

The Shafi’i school, established by Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i, is viewed as a conservative interpretation of Islamic law, promoting the application of analogy in its interpretation. The Hanbali school, characterized by a strict adherence to the literal interpretation of the Quran and Hadith, is notably influential in Saudi Arabia and certain regions of the Arabian Peninsula.

These four schools, each providing a unique perspective, enrich the complex fabric of Sunni Islam with its diverse practices and traditions.

The Sunni Majority: Demographics and Distribution

Illustration of global distribution of Sunni Muslims

Comprising around 87-90% of the global Muslim population, Sunni Muslims form the largest branch of Islam, exerting substantial influence across various regions. The global population of Sunni Muslims is estimated to be over 1.5 billion, with Sunni-majority countries spanning across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Egypt, Indonesia, and Bangladesh are among the countries with the highest population of Sunni Muslims.

Population Statistics

Comprising around 85-90% of the global Muslim population, Sunni Muslims form the largest branch of Islam, representing a diverse demographic spread. The total population of Muslims worldwide is estimated to be approximately 2 billion, with Sunni Muslims constituting the majority in countries such as:

  • Egypt
  • Indonesia
  • Bangladesh
  • Pakistan

Projections indicate that the Muslim population, including Sunni Muslims, is expected to experience an increase of 73% between 2010 and 2050, due to the comparatively youthful population and high fertility rates among Muslims.

The Sunni Muslim population has grown significantly over time and is expected to form 87-90% of the global Muslim population in the next two decades, maintaining its dominance among Muslims by 2030. This growth can be attributed to various factors, such as:

  • High fertility rates
  • A comparatively youthful population
  • Migration
  • Conversions

Key Regions with Sunni Influence

Sunni Islam is predominant in countries like:

  • Saudi Arabia
  • Egypt
  • Turkey
  • Indonesia

In these countries, Sunni Islam has left a substantial imprint on the culture and traditions. In Saudi Arabia, Sunni Islam significantly influences the country’s government and society, with the government backing a conservative version of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism and the constitution grounded in the Quran and Sunna.

In Egypt, Sunni Islam has significantly influenced the country’s culture and traditions, with almost every aspect of Egyptian life reflecting Islam. State religious institutions such as al-Azhar, the nation’s premier Sunni center of learning, play a leading role in forming religious customs and beliefs. Similarly, Sunni Islam has been the most widely practiced form of Islam in Turkey since its inception. This widespread influence of Sunni Islam has had a considerable impact on the sociopolitical landscape of these key regions.

Sunni Practices and Traditions

Photo of Sunni Muslims participating in a religious ritual

Sunni practices and traditions are based on the teachings of Prophet Muhammad and emphasize the importance of prayer and rituals. The essential rituals and practices of Sunni Islam encompass:

  • Salah (Prayer)
  • Zakat (Charity)
  • Sawm (Fasting)
  • Hajj (Pilgrimage)
  • Shahada (Declaration of Faith)
  • Perusal and examination of the Quran
  • Adherence to the Sunnah

Sunni Muslims, adherents of the Islamic faith, strive to follow the example of the Prophet Muhammad in these practices, believing that it leads to spiritual and moral growth.

The Role of Sunnah and Hadith

The Sunnah and Hadith, which comprise Prophet Muhammad’s sayings and actions, significantly guide Sunni beliefs and practices. The Sunnah refers to the teachings, actions, and approvals of Prophet Muhammad and is considered a source of guidance for Sunni Muslims in their daily lives. The Hadiths are the recorded sayings, actions, and approvals of Prophet Muhammad and are relied upon by Sunni Muslims to comprehend the teachings of Islam and to derive legal rulings.

Sunni scholars scrutinize and interpret Hadiths to ensure their authenticity and relevance to current concerns. These Hadiths provide comprehensive guidance on various aspects of life, including worship, ethics, family matters, and social interactions. Sunni practices and traditions are profoundly influenced by the Sunnah and Hadith, as they strive to follow the Prophet’s example in matters such as prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, and charity.

Prayer and Rituals

Prayer and rituals, such as the five daily prayers and fasting during Ramadan, are central to Sunni religious life. The five daily prayers in Sunni Islam are:

  • Fajr
  • Zuhr
  • Asr
  • Maghrib
  • Isha

These prayers are conducted at designated times throughout the day. The Adhan, or call to prayer, is performed by a muadhan (caller to prayer) in a melodious and rhythmic manner, announcing the time for each of the five daily prayers.

The ritual prayer in Sunni Islam, known as Salat, involves a series of physical and mental actions, including:

  • Ritual ablution
  • Standing
  • Bowing
  • Prostrating
  • Sitting

All while reciting verses from the Quran and other supplications. These prayers and rituals act as a continual reminder of the bond between the individual and their creator, nurturing a sense of discipline, humility, and gratitude in daily life.

Sunni-Shia Relations: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

Illustration depicting historical conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims

Sunni-Shia relations have been marked by historical conflicts and contemporary challenges, but there are also opportunities for unity. The Sunni-Shia divide is a schism within the Islamic community regarding the issue of leadership succession following the passing of Prophet Muhammad. Early conflicts, such as the Battle of Karbala, shaped the Sunni-Shia divide, but both sects share many common beliefs and practices. In recent times, the influence of Shia Iran has played a significant role in the dynamics of the Sunni-Shia relationship.

In modern times, sectarian violence and political rivalries have strained Sunni-Shia relations, but there are also efforts to promote unity and understanding.

Early Conflicts and the Battle of Karbala

Early conflicts, like the Battle of Karbala, significantly influenced the Sunni-Shia divide and can be seen as a precursor to a civil war. The battle occurred after the assassination of the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, and the departure of Imam Hussain from Medina to evade conflict. The battle resulted in the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, which is commemorated yearly by Shia Muslims and further exacerbated the rift between Sunni and Shia communities.

Despite these historical conflicts, Sunni and Shia Muslims share many mutual beliefs and practices, including:

  • belief in one God
  • daily devotions
  • giving to the needy
  • fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan
  • making the pilgrimage to Mecca

It is important to recognize that the majority of Sunni and Shia Muslims coexist peacefully, and the violent actions of sunni extremists, extremist groups, and shia militias do not represent the beliefs and practices of the majority.

Modern Challenges and Opportunities for Unity

In recent years, sectarian violence and political rivalries have strained Sunni-Shia relations. The rise of extremist groups such as the Islamic State has contributed to increased tensions and violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims, as these groups exploit sectarian divisions to further their own agenda. Additionally, the rivalry between Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shia-majority Iran has exacerbated the sectarian divide, with both nations vying for regional power and influence.

Despite these obstacles, efforts to foster unity and understanding between Sunni and Shia Muslims are underway. Many Muslim scholars and leaders from both sects have called for dialogue, tolerance, and cooperation to address common challenges and promote peace. Furthermore, numerous grassroots initiatives and interfaith dialogues have been organized to foster mutual understanding and respect between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Sunni Islam in the Modern World: Politics and Influence

Photo of a Sunni mosque with political significance

Sunni Islam holds a significant place in the modern world, with its teachings influencing various governments and political systems. From absolute monarchies like Saudi Arabia to democracies such as Turkey, the impact of Sunni Islam on governance and society is undeniable.

Sunni-majority countries frequently integrate Islamic principles into their legal systems and constitutions, influencing the sociopolitical landscape of these nations.

Sunni Governments and Political Systems

Sunni-majority countries possess a range of political systems, from absolute monarchies to democracies, each with different levels of Islamic influence. In countries like Saudi Arabia, Sunni Islam plays a significant role in the government and society, with the country’s official religion being Islam and the government supporting a conservative version of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. In contrast, Turkey, a parliamentary republic, has experienced periods of secularism and increased religious influence in its politics, reflecting the dynamic nature of Sunni Islam’s impact on governance.

Sunni Islamic principles provide a framework for governance and social order, shaping sociopolitical structures in these nations. These principles, derived from the Quran, the Hadith, and the consensus of Islamic scholars, influence various aspects of society, including family law, criminal justice, and governance. Sunni Islam emphasizes the concept of the caliphate, which is a political and religious leadership system based on the principles of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, and this system has historically played a significant role in shaping the sociopolitical structures of Sunni-majority countries.

Saudi Arabia's Role in Promoting Sunni Interests

As the cradle of Islam and a Sunni-majority country, Saudi Arabia assumes a leading role in advancing Sunni interests and influencing global Islamic discourse. The country, known as Sunni Saudi Arabia, has historically promoted a Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam, with the ulama (religious clerics) advocating for its teachings. In recent years, Saudi Arabia’s Islamic institutions have experienced reforms as the monarchy endeavors to shape the country’s future.

Saudi Arabia has had a substantial impact on international Islamic discourse through its religious establishments and regulations, consolidating spiritual authority and discourse under the direction of the royal palace. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has propagated its Islamic values and aided Muslim communities worldwide, thus contributing to the worldwide sway of Sunni Islam. The kingdom’s historical position as the birthplace of Islam has positioned it as a perceived leader of the Sunni Muslim world.


In conclusion, Sunni Islam has had a profound impact on the modern world, shaping the lives and societies of over a billion people. From its origins and core beliefs to its influence on contemporary political systems, understanding the rich history and traditions of Sunni Islam provides valuable insight into the dynamics of the global Muslim community. While challenges remain in the form of sectarian divisions and contemporary issues, the potential for unity and cooperation between Sunni and Shia Muslims offers hope for a more peaceful and tolerant future.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the main difference between Sunni and Shia Islam?

The fundamental distinction between Sunni and Shia Islam is that Sunnis believe in the consensus of the community to choose a caliph, while Shias argue that the rightful successor was Ali, the prophet's son-in-law, and his descendants.

What are the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence?

The four schools of Sunni jurisprudence are Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, and Hanbali, offering a range of interpretations of Islamic law.

What is the global distribution of Sunni Muslims?

Sunni Muslims make up the majority of Muslims globally, with their highest concentration in countries throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

What role does Saudi Arabia play in promoting Sunni interests?

As the birthplace of Islam and a predominantly Sunni-majority nation, Saudi Arabia exerts significant influence in promoting Sunni interests by propagating Wahhabism as a conservative version of Sunni Islam and influencing global Islamic discourse.