Historically, Sunni Islam has often been defined only in contrast with other denominations or schools of thought, such as Shia Islam, hanafiyah, Mu'tazila and others, considering itself to be the orthodox form of Islam. As such, a case is sometimes made that Sunni Islam is as old as Islam itself, or at least dates back to the first civil war in Islam from 656 to 661. However, in terms of doctrine and theology, and in the sense of considering itself a separate denomination, Sunni Islam is younger than that, making it somewhat misleading to talk about Sunnites in a 7th century context.
Sunni Islam was under the authority of the Caliph from Muhammad's death in 632 until the abolition of the caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1924. Since then, no central international authority exists; many countries have a Grand Mufti or other official who holds the highest religious authority in the country. However, during all of Islam's history, independent religious scholars - the ulama - have held great influence in religious matters. During the first centuries of Islam, when the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs were the worldly rulers of the Muslim world as well as the highest religious authorities of Sunni Islam, this led to some power struggles between the caliphate and the ulama. As the worldly power of the caliphate declined from the 9th and 10th century onwards, and as the religious law became more codified and exhaustive due to the efforts of the ulama, the caliphate's religious influence decreased as well.
There are many challenges to demographers attempting to calculate the proportion of the world's Muslim population who adhere to Sunni and Shi'a Islam. Using various sources, estimates of the proportion of Muslims adhering to Shi'a Islam range anywhere from 7.5% to a high of 10% depending on the sources.
The four major Sunni schools of law and their respective founders are:
Abu Hanifa (d. 767), was the founder of the Hanafi school. He was born circa 702 in Kufa, Iraq. Muslims of Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Muslim areas Southern Russia, The Caucasus, parts of The Balkans,Iraq and Turkey follow this school.
Malik ibn Anas(d. 795) developed his ideas in Medina, where he knew some of the last surviving companions of the Prophet or their immediate descendents. His doctrine is recorded in the Muwatta which has been adopted by most Muslims of Africa except in Lower Egypt, Zanzibar and South Africa. The Maliki legal school is the branch of Sunni that dominates most of the Muslim areas of Africa, except Egypt and the Horn of Africa.
Al-Shafi'i (d. 820) was considered a moderate in most areas. He taught in Iraq and then in Egypt. Muslims in Indonesia, Lower Egypt, Malaysia, Somalia, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Yemen follow this school. Al-Shafi'i placed great emphasis on the Sunnah of the Prophet, as embodied in the Hadith, as a source of the Shari'ah.
Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855) was born in Baghdad. He learned extensively from al-Shafi'i. Despite persecution, he held to the doctrine that the Qur'an was uncreated. This school of law is followed primarily in the Arabian Peninsula.
These four schools are somewhat different from each other, but Sunni Muslims generally consider them all equally valid. There are other Sunni schools of law. However, many are followed by only small numbers of people and are relatively unknown due to the popularity of the four major schools; also, many have died out or were not sufficiently recorded by their followers to survive.
Interpreting the Shari'ah to derive specific rulings (such as how to pray) is known as fiqh, which literally means understanding. A madhhab is a particular tradition of interpreting fiqh. These schools focus on specific evidence (Shafi'i and Hanbali) or general principles (Hanafi and Maliki) derived from specific evidences. The schools were started by eminent Muslim scholars in the first four centuries of Islam. As these schools represent clearly spelled out methodologies for interpreting the Shari'aa, there has been little change in the methodology per se. However, as the social and economic environment changes, new fiqh rulings are being made. For example, when tobacco appeared it was declared as 'disliked' because of its smell. When medical information showed that smoking was dangerous, that ruling was changed to 'forbidden'. Current fiqh issues include things. like downloading pirated software and cloning. The consensus is that the Shari'ah does not change but fiqh rulings change all the time.
A madhhab is not to be confused with a religious sect. There may be scholars representing all four madhhabs living in larger Muslim communities, and it is up to those who consult them to decide which school they prefer.
Many Sunnis advocate that a Muslim should choose a single madhhab and follow it in all matters. However, rulings from another madhhab are considered acceptable as dispensations (rukhsa) in exceptional circumstances. Some Sunnis, however, do not follow any madhhab,. Indeed, some Salafis reject strict adherence to any particular school of thought, preferring to use the Qur'an and the Sunnah alone as the primary sources of Islamic law.
There are also other collections of hadith which, although less well-known, are still thought to contain many authentic hadith and are frequently used by specialists. Examples of these collections include:
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