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Sunnis (from Ahl As Sunnah W'l Jama'h) form the largest group in the Islamic faith, accounting for approximately 85% of all Muslims globally, the Shia accounting for the majority of the remainder.

Schools of Thought

Sunni Muslims have four schools of jurisprudence (Madhab), which are not shared with the Shia sect. Though they have different interpretations of specific points of detail, such as particular aspects of Syariah, there is agreement on the major aspects of the faith. Sunni’s generally regard as schools as equally valid, and it is not generally a matter of friction between believers as to which school they follow.


The father of the Maliki school, Malik Ibn Anas (715 – 796AD), is perhaps the only one of the founding fathers of the schools of thought to have had a major political disagreement with government of the early Islamic empire, when he was flogged then paraded through the streets of the city by the Governor of Madinah for condemning divorces made under coercion by one party over the other. The father of the Shafi’i school was, in fact, a student of his. This school is the most widely followed in Africa, with the notable exception of Egypt and the Horn of Africa region. It is the second oldest school.

Notable teachings of the Maliki school:

  • Prayer is begun by starting directly with Al Fatiha (the opening chapter of the Qu’ran), without any initial supplications, as is done by almost all other Muslims.


Founded by Abu Hanifa, originally from modern day Iraq. This school of those is most widely followed in Central and South Asia, as well as Turkey and former Ottoman areas of South Eastern Europe. It is the oldest of the four schools. A few notable aspects of Hanafi doctrine are given below:

  • The Hanafi school teaches that "Faith neither increases nor decreases" and that "Actions are not a part of faith". Therefore a sinful Muslim is still just as much a Muslim as a law abiding one, though much less likely to be granted access to paradise. However they commit a serious offense by claiming that such sins are permitted within Islam.
  • Travelers are not permitted to alter the times of their prayers, as in other schools.
  • It is permissible to recite verses from the Qu’ran during prayer in languages other than Arabic, provided one does not know the Arabic language.


Founded by Ahmad Bin Hanbal (780 – 855AD), a student of Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi’i. This school is the youngest, and is mostly concentrated in the Arabian Peninsula, with the exception of Yemen, and Sunni areas around the Arabian Gulf. Notable teachings:

  • Hanbali teaching holds the opposite of Hanfi teaching, insisting that actions are NOT separate from faith.
  • Explicit statement that the Abrahamic God (Arabic: Allah) is entirely separate from his creation, rejecting a Pantheistic interpretation.


Founded by Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi’i (767 – 820 AD), who taught initially in what is now modern-day Iraq, but mostly in Egypt, and whom had Ahmad Bin Hanbal as one of his students. The Shafi’ite school is the second youngest of the Madhab, and is most widely followed in Egypt, the Levant, Yemen, the Horn of Africa and South East Asia, including Indonesia, the world’s most populous Islamic nation, with 0.25 billion people. This also makes it the second largest school. The Shafi’i school is considered to be one of the most moderate and tolerant of schools, particularly in Egypt and South East Asia where Islamic beliefs have been adopted without the destruction of underlying cultural and pre-existing religious customs and traditions.

Use of Hadeeth

All school founders made use of the Hadeeth in reaching their positions on matters of fiqh, and some of the schools made extensive contributions to the major hadeeth now in use, Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, considered the most reliable collections by Sunni theologians today. In addition, the following Hadeeth collections are also used. The Shia sect use an entirely different collection.

  • Al-Sunan al-Sughra
  • Sunan Abi Dawuud
  • Sunan al-Tirmidhi
  • Sunan Ibn Maja / Al-Muwatta

Differences With Shia Beliefs

Conflicts between Sunni and Shia sects stem from the dispute over the sucession following the death of Muhammed as head of the fledgling First Caliphate (also known as the “Rashidun Caliphate”). The Sunnis agreed that Abu Bakr should succeed to the throne, as chosen by a process of Shura (consultation), whereas the Shia position was that Ali, son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad was the rightful successor, by divine ordination. The Sunnis were victorious in this dispute.

Though Ali did become the 4th Caliph (and final ruler of the First Caliphate) Shias regard him as the First Imam (and rightful successor of Muhammad). Today Shias regard that the rightful leader of the ‘Ummah (the global Islamic community, equivalent to the concept Christendom for Christians) should be the Imamah, who is a direct descendant though Muhammed’s bloodline. Two main sub-sects within the Shia community differ over who this is at present.

The Sunni and Shia differ over the nature of the Mahdi, a figure whom will return to bring about a perfect and just Islamic society. Most Shia hold this will be the 12th Imam, Mohammed Al Mahdi, and will signal the beginning of the end of humankind. Sunnis believe it will be a bloodline descendant of Mohammed, but will not bring about the end. Shia religious practices includes many ceremonies and rituals equivalent to the Christian Passion Plays or Egyptian Mystery Rituals, whereas Sunni practice tends to be more “grounded”, focusing on adherence to Islamic teachings.

Shia beliefs permit the elevation of certain mortals to a quasi-divine plane, such as the 12th Imam and other people who hold a role similar to saints in Christianity or Akhu in Egyptian religion. Sunni religion technically has no equivalent of this, though in many regions (particularly in South East Asia and North Africa) the distinctions much less clear, and indeed shrines and celebrations to such people exist throughout Sunni areas of North Africa and South East Asia, and often attract enthusiastic crowds.

Current Sunni – Shia Relations

The sectarian bloodletting in Iraq that followed the invasion has greatly strained Sunni – Shia relations in general. However, for much of the 20th century, relations between the two were stable, as both Sunni states in the Middle East / North Africa and Shia Iran, but particularly Turkey, were undergoing rapid secularization. Religious conservatives of both Sunni and Shia loyalties therefore had a “common enemy”, and many Sunnis celebrated the 1979 overthrow of the secular Shah of Iran by the religious establishment, and the founding of a Shia Islamic Republic. However, underlying tensions already existed.

Those strains exploded soon after when secular but Sunni led Iraq came into direct conflict with the new Iranian government, and as secular Arab nationalism waned in importance following the collapse of the United Arab Republic.

In Pakistan at the same time, an Islamisation programme led by General Zia Ul Haqq. Many Shia felt that this drive was also a way to “Sunnify” the government agenda, and Syariah laws were built upon Sunni fiqh.

Malaysia, in the 1980’s embarked upon a much more modest and moderate drive to introduce Islamic principles to government, introducing Syariah family courts, again using Sunni fiqh. Malaysia ultimately went one step further, outlawing the public display of Shia religious practices and ideas, though the Malaysian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, making the enforceability of this law subject to question.

Iraq, with it’s potentially explosive 60/40 Shia/Sunni population split had long been a potential internal powder-keg of religious intolerance, and matters finally came to a head in the power vacuum following the invasion of Iraq by western powers in 2003. The ensuring sectarian bloodletting has taken Sunni – Shia relations to modern low, not helped by mutual accusations of “interference” in local affairs by both Iran (Shia) and Syria (Sunni).

Underlying tensions also exist in other areas, particularly Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, where an estimated 15% of the population are Shia, overwhelmingly in the east of the nation, leading the Saudi government to be cautious concerning Iranian political influence, so near it’s own sensitive regions.


  • Darul Arqam Singapore (Lecture)
  • PERKIM Malaysia (Lecture)
  • Al Jazeera English (Website)
  • Arabs Raise a Nervous Cry Over Iranian Militancy, NYT, 21/12/92
  • Neighbours cast a nervous eye on Iraq's future, Sunday Herald, 27/06/04
  • The Times News Archive
  • Oxford Reference Online