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Sunni Islam (Arabic سنّة) is the largest denomination of Islam. Followers of the Sunni tradition are known as Sunnis or Sunnites, and often refer to themselves as the Ahlus Sunnah wal-Jamaa'h. Sunni Muslims constitute 80-90% of the global Muslim population.

Historical Background of Sunni-Shiite Split

The principal issue upon which Islam's first major sectarian split occurred centers on the question of leadership. According to Sunni thought, the Prophet Muhammad died without appointing a successor to lead the Muslim community. After an initial period of confusion, a group of his most prominent companions gathered and elected Abu Bakr, the Prophet's close friend and father-in-law, as the first Caliph. Sunnis believe this process was conducted in a fair and proper manner and accept Abu Bakr as a righteous and rightful Caliph. The second major sect, the Shi'a, believe that the Prophet had appointed his son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor years earlier during an announcement at Ghadir Khom. Shi'a regard the election of Abu Bakr as illegitimate and accuse the companions involved of ulterior motives ranging from enmity towards 'Ali to outright hypocrisy. Though both Sunnis and Shias believe that the incident at Ghdier Khum occurred, Sunnis interpret the announcement as a form of praise for Ali and do not view it as having any injunctive effect insofar as the question of succession is concerned.

Thirty years after Muhammad's death, the Islamic community plunged into a civil war, called the Fitna. Many Muslims (among them some of Muhammad's widows and companions) believed that Uthman, the third Caliph, was favoring his kin and abusing his power. Discontented Muslim soldiers from garrisons in Iraq and Egypt surrounded Uthman's house in Medina and demanded that he repent or resign. The Caliph temporized, fighting broke out, and Uthman was killed as he sat reading the Qur'an. Though Ali was appointed Caliph upon Uthman's death, he was opposed by Muawiyah, the governor of Syria and a relative of Uthman's. Muawiyah claimed that because Ali had taken no action to apprehend Uthman's killers, Ali was complicit in his murder. Muawiyah consolidated his own power and refused to accept 'Ali's authority until Uthman's assassins were brought to justice. Ali was not able to resolve the crisis before he was assassinated by a rebel faction, and Muawiyah claimed the Caliphate upon his death. Muawiyah's rise to power marked the beginning of the Umayyad dynasty, and he managed to bring most of the Muslim community (ummah) under his authority and put an end to the civil war.

The Fitna led to the emergence of three distinct Islamic sects:

  • Sunnis - Sunnis regard the first four caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman, and Ali) as Rightly Guided Caliphs, that is, Caliphs who followed the tradition of the Prophet in terms of their lifestyles and styles of governance. According to Sunni Muslim tradition, though Caliphs that followed 'Ali were mostly legitimate and entitled to obedience, most departed from the standards laid down by the Prophet. Sunnis regard Muawiyah as a legitimate Caliph, but not a Rightly Guided one. Though most Sunnis acknowledge that 'Ali had the stronger claim in his dispute with Muawiyah, Sunni authorities usually refrain from questioning the sincerity of Muawiya's intentions and generally give him the benefit of the doubt. The Sunni are the majority group.
  • Shi'a - Shi'a generally reject all caliphates except that of Ali. In contrast to Sunnis, Shi'a regard Muawiyah as a conniving usurpur who used Uthman's murder as an excuse to make a power grab. Some Sunnis, particularly the Wahhabis, do not accept the Shias as Muslims.
  • Khwarij, or Kharijites - The Khwarij were initially loyal to 'Ali, but turned against him in response to his decision to accept arbitration as a means of resolving the dispute with Muawiya. The Khwarij declared that all the partisans involved in the Fitna had become disbelievers and could only redeem themselves by repenting and renouncing their role in the dispute. The Khawarij killed 'Ali as part of a string of assassination attempts that targeted 'Ali, Muawiyah, and Amr ibn al-As, Muawiya's governor of Egypt (Ali's assassin was the only one who succeeded). Because the Khwarij had a very narrow view of what constitutes kufr (acts that invalidate one's Islam), they quickly split up into sects within themselves, each accusing one another of having fallen into disbelief. Though one branch of the Khwarij survives in Yemen and Oman as the Ibadi denomination of Islam, Khwarij doctrine has been largely rejected and relegated to the history books.

Other divisions have arisen since the Fitna of the 7th century C.E. Some groups are now extinct. Of the existing groups, Sunni Muslims do not accept members of the Nation of Islam, Ahmadiyya, and Zikri as fellow Muslims.


  • Wikipedia. (2005). Sunni Islam. Retrieved on July 14. 2005.

Document Source

  • This page was originally sourced from Thelemapedia. Retrieved May 2009.