Sunni Islam

Mark Sedgwick



632:  The Prophet Muhammad died.

657:  The Battle of Siffin took place.

661:  The Umayyad Caliphate took place.

730s:  The teaching of Abu Hanifa al-Nuʿman ibn Thabit began.

750:  The Umayyad dynasty was replaced by the Abbasid dynasty.

840s:  Yaʻqub ibn ʼIshaq al-Kindi became prominent for his philosophy.

Late 900s:  Fragmentation of the Abbasid Caliphate began.

1095:  Abu Hamid al-Ghazali abandoned exoteric knowledge for the esoteric.

1258:  Baghdad was sacked by the Mongols.

1320s:  The Ottoman empire began to take shape.

1501:  The Shi’i Safavids established control of Persia.

1536:  The Franco-Ottoman alliance was established.

1545:  The Chief of Islam (shaykh al-Islam) was appointed by the Ottomans.

1630:  The first known Muslim immigrant arrived in America.

1744:  Muhammad ibn Abd a-Wahhab’s mission began.

Late 1700s:  The Ottomans revived title of Caliph.

1875:  Syed Ahmad Khan opened the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College.

1893:  The first mosque in America was opened by Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb.

1899:  Muhammad Abduh was appointed Grand Mufti of Egypt.

1922:  The Ottoman empire fell.

1928:  The Society of the Muslim Brothers was founded by Hassan al-Banna.

1930:  The All-India Muslim League started to press for a state for Muslims.

1932:  The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded.

1947:  Pakistan was separated from India.

1970s:  The modern Salafi movement began.

1973:  Pakistan became an Islamic republic.

1975:  The Lebanese Civil War began.

1979:  The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan took place.

2001:  The 9/11 attacks on the U.S. by al-Qaeda took place.

2013:  The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham was established.


Islam was established by the Prophet Muhammad (Muhammad ibn Abdullah, 570-632), and Sunni Islam then emerged as a distinct denomination in a two-stage process beginning soon after the death of the Prophet. First, a political disagreement about who should succeed the Prophet as leader of the Muslims and ruler of the territories that they had conquered divided the Muslims into two distinct groups. Second, understandings of Islam then developed separately and differently within these two groups over several centuries, and a distinct “Sunni” Islam came into being, as did a distinct “Shi’i” Islam.

The political split between Sunnis and Shi’a can be dated to the battle of Siffin in 657, twenty-five years after the death of the Prophet. At this battle, the fourth Caliph (successor to the Prophet), Ali ibn Abi Talib (601-61), the husband of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima (d. 632), fought with the governor of Syria, Muʿawiya ibn Abi Sufyan (602-680), a distant relative of the Prophet and the son of a powerful tribal leader. The battle ended in a truce, but after Ali’s murder in 661, Muʿawiya established himself as Caliph, and also established a family dynasty that controlled the Caliphate for almost a century, the Umayyad dynasty. The Umayyads, who built the Dome of the Rock [image at right], were opposed by the supporters of Ali’s family, who became known known as the Shi’a. Umayyad forces put down a rebellion led by Ali’s son Husayn (625-680), killing Husayn in the process. The Umayyads were a distinctly anti-Shi’i dynasty, then, and Muʿawiya can thus be seen as the political founder of Sunni Islam.

Muʿawiya was a soldier, not a theologian, and the theological founders of Sunni Islam were the scholars or ulama whose work became a standard reference under the Sunni dynasty that succeeded the Umayyads in 750, the Abbasids. The four most important of these early ulama were Abu Hanifa al-Nuʿman ibn Thabit (699-767), who started teaching in the 730s, and then Malik ibn Anas (died 795), Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafiʿi (767-820), and Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Hanbal (780-855). All of these four ulama taught the proper behavior of a Muslim, deriving rules for living (fiqh) from two sources, the Quran, which is understood to be the actual words of God, and the sunna, the practice of the Prophet, as recorded in the hadith (accounts of the Prophet’s sayings and actions). This emphasis on the sunna led to them and those like them being known as ahl al-sunna, the people of the sunna, the origin of the term “Sunni.” There are several Sunni hadith collections, of which the most important are by Muhammad al-Bukhari (810-870) and Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj (815-875), which have often been published with extensive commentaries [image at right]. While the Quran is the same for all Muslims, these hadith collections are distinctively Sunni.

Four slightly different understandings of the fiqh came to be associated with Abu Hanifa, Malik, al-Shafiʿi, and ibn Hanbal, giving rise to four slightly different versions of Sunni fiqh, known as madhhabs or “schools of law:” the Hanifi, the Maliki, the Shafiʿi, and the Hanbali (Melchert 1997). Despite differences in details, all of these accepted a common methodology, based most importantly on reference to the Quran and sunna. The four Sunni madhhabs, then, are equally Sunni. Following the Sharia (broad religious law) according to one of them became the essential theological distinction between a Sunni Muslim and a non-Sunni Muslim. Exactly which madhhab a Sunni Muslim followed was largely a question of geography: the Hanifi madhhab became the norm in the north east (Turkey to Central Asia and India), the Maliki in the west and south west (southern Egypt to Senegal), and the Shafiʿi in the south east (Indonesia) and parts of the Middle East (northern Egypt). The Hanbali madhhab did not establish any geographical dominance until more recently, but was still generally accepted. The theory developed that while the madhhabs differed from each other in details, all were in the end equally acceptable as formulations of Sunni Islam. They are not, then, separate denominations.

Sunni Islam, as formulated in the four Sunni madhhabs, became the religion of the majority of Muslims under the Abbasid Caliphate and then under the other Muslim-ruled states that succeeded the Abbasid Caliphate as it fragmented between the late tenth century and its extinction at the hands of the invading Mongols in 1258. Historically, the only important Muslim states to be ruled by Shi’i Muslims were the short-lived Fatimid empire based on Cairo from 969 to 1171, and the longer-lived Persian empire based in Iran from 1501, of which today’s Iran is the successor. Today, Sunni Muslims are the majority in all Muslim-majority states save Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain.

Three phases can be distinguished in the history of Sunni Islam. The first is the formative phase, coinciding with the lives of the founders of the four madhhabs discussed above, and lasting until about 900. The second is the mature phase, from about 900 until about 1800. During this phase, although there were occasional theological disputes and organizational developments in various parts of the Sunni Muslim world, the basic tenets of Sunni Islam changed little, partly because the Sunni world was so vast, 8,500 miles from Dakar in Senegal to Jakarta in Indonesia. It was hard for any one event or process to impact the whole of this area.

The third phase, from about 1800 onwards, is the modern phase, during which a variety of new factors and pressures did impact the whole of the Sunni world, and both theology and organization began to change rapidly. Most of the Muslim world shared the difficult experience of forcible incorporation into European empires. Senegal came under French control, Indonesia came under Dutch control, and many countries in between, notably in South Asia and (after the First World War) the Middle East, came under British control. Then, after the Second World War, all these countries shared the experience of decolonization, the Cold War, and postcolonialism. Today, all inhabit an increasingly globalized world. There are thus global trends and global movements, of which the most important, discussed below, are the emergence of new trends within Sunni Islam (liberal, Islamist, Jihadist, and “Salafi”).

There have always been Sunni Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries, and (especially since the 1960s) this has included America. Although the first known Muslim immigrant to America arrived in about 1630 (GhaneaBassiri 2010:9) and many African-born slaves who arrived later must have been Muslims, Islam was not really established in America until the twentieth century. The first known mosque in America, built in New York in 1893 by Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb (1846-1914), [image at right] soon closed (Abd-Allah 2006:17-18). It was after the Second World War that new patterns of global migration first brought significant numbers of Sunni Muslims to North America and Western Europe.


Like all Muslims, Sunni Muslims believe that there is one single true god, called Allah, who created the world and humanity, sent a series of prophets to tell people how to live their lives, and will judge all humans individually on the Day of Judgment, sending some to heaven and others to hell. They believe in a series of prophets culminating in Muhammad, and also believe that the Quran is the word of God.

Beyond this, Sunni Muslims believe in the importance of following the sunna as well as the Quran, and Sunni rituals and practices should, at least in principle, all have a basis in the Quran or sunna, normally the sunna, as the Quran deals more with general principles than with details. An alternative justification for a ritual or practice is ijma, the consensus of the Muslims, in practice the consensus of the Sunni ulama. This, as we will see below, has sometimes been challenged.

Despite the Sunni emphasis on following the Sharia, no-one will be saved at the Day of Judgment by their own faith and works alone: only the mercy of God, who is often referred to as “the Most Merciful” (al-rahman), will save people from “the fire,” as hell is generally termed.

Various beliefs concerning the relationship between God and creation are found within Sunni Islam. Some Sunni Muslims, especially Salafis and followers of the Hanbali madhhab, discourage speculation in these matters, but Sunni Muslim philosophers from Yaʻqub ibn ʼIshaq al-Kindi (801-866) onwards developed the work of Aristotle and (especially) Plato to understand the relationship between the Necessary Being, the soul, and existence. The greatest of these philosophers, Ibn Sina (980-1037) and Ibn Rushd (1126-98), became known in the Latin world as Avicenna and Averroes, and their work was foundational to Western scholastic philosophy (Akasoy and Giglioni 2013). This work was partly challenged by Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111), who, though himself trained as a scholar and philosopher, abandoned exoteric knowledge for the esoteric in 1095, and thereafter insisted on the primacy of revelation and the importance of personal piety and ascetic exercises. He wrote at length on knowledge, faith, conduct and ethics. The central concerns of most Sunni ulama, however, were more practical: the fiqh. Difficult questions relating to resolving possible impediments to particular acts of worship and variations in the division of inheritances occupied much thought and ink.

The political doctrines of Sunni Islam, in contrast, remained relatively underdeveloped until quite recently. In theory, the Caliph was understood to be the representative of God on earth (Black 2001), but in practice there was never a single Sunni Caliphate after 750, when the Abbasids defeated the Umayyads and took most, but not all, of their territories. The Umayyads continued to rule in Andalus (now in Spain and Portugal) and yet another dynasty, the Idrisids, soon established their independent rule over Morocco. Especially since the beginning of the fragmentation of the Abbasid Caliphate in the late tenth century, Sunni Muslims have generally lived under different local rulers. These have generally claimed religious legitimacy as supporters of Sunni Islam, but have not claimed or exercised authority over religious doctrine or practice, which has instead been exercised by the ulama. The ulama, in return, have generally taught that individual Muslims have a duty of loyalty to any ruler who does not actually take steps against Islam, a view embodied in the famous saying that “Sixty years of tyranny are better than one day of anarchy.” The Sunni ulama have generally supported Sunni rulers, and Sunni rulers have generally supported Sunni Islam.

Sunni political thought began to develop rapidly during the nineteenth century, however. Initially, the discovery of the thought of the Enlightenment and modern (nineteenth-century) natural science spurred the development of liberal and modernist theology that sought to harmonize Islam with the discoveries of natural science and the perspectives of the liberal political and social thought of the time (Hourani 1962). Liberal modernism was generally well-disposed towards the West, as a model or even as a ruling power. The leading Arab modernist, the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), liked to take his summer vacations in Europe (Sedgwick 2010), while the leading South Asian modernist, the Indian Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) [image at right], stressed his loyalty to the British Empire, joined the (British) Viceroy’s Council, and was rewarded with a knighthood.

Soon, however, Islam was combined with another nineteenth-century movement, nationalism, producing “nationalist” Islamism. The theory of nationalism is that each nation should have its own state, and nationalist Islamists see Muslims as constituting distinct nations. The All-India Muslim League thus started in 1930 to press for a separate state for India’s Muslims, an aim that was achieved in 1947 with the separation of Pakistan from India. Some 375,000,000 Sunni Muslims now live in Pakistan and Bangladesh, Muslim-majority states brought into existence by this combination of Islam and nationalism (Khan 2017; Riaz 2916).

A second form of “ideological” Islamism is the idea that states inhabited by Muslims should be “Islamic” states, that is, run according to the principles of Islam, not according to secular systems such as capitalism or socialism. Especially during the Cold War, socialism was popular in the Muslim world, partly because it presented an alternative to the capitalist systems left by the European colonial powers. There was only ever one officially Marxist-Leninist Muslim state, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), but Bangladesh became a People’s Republic, Algeria became a People’s Democratic Republic, and many Arab states adopted authoritarian state-socialist systems that were close to Soviet models, and allied themselves with the U.S.S.R. Alternative Islam-based ideologies were developed by intellectuals such as Abul A’la Maududi (1903-1979) in India and then Pakistan, and by Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949) [image at right] in Egypt (Kraemer 2010). These Islamist ideologies generally criticized both capitalism and socialism and promoted Islam as a “third way” that was not only superior to non-Islamic alternatives but also more culturally authentic.

As doctrines, both nationalist and ideological Islamism stress their objectives (a state for Muslims or an Islamic state, as the case may be) rather than the means for achieving those objectives, which are more a question of tactics than of doctrine. Most Islamists use standard political means, from student groups and daily newspapers to political parties and election campaigns, which vary according to their circumstances. One other means for achieving Islamist objectives, however, has recently become so widespread that it is almost a form of Islamism in its own right. This is “jihadism,” the idea that every individual Muslim is religiously obliged to take up arms in defense of Islam to achieve an Islamic, Muslim state. Jihadism is a contemporary development of a medieval doctrine that encouraged military service among Muslims fighting non-Muslims by declaring it a religious duty and promising salvation for “martyrs” who fell in battle. This doctrine had lost significance as Muslim states joined the international alliance system (the Sunni Ottoman empire established an alliance with France in 1536), established regular armies, and drafted men into them as enlisted soldiers. It was successfully revived, however, by non-state irregular forces, which modified it to suit their needs (Peters 1979).


The key rituals and practices of Sunni Islam are the standard rituals and practices of Islam (prayer, charity, fasting, and hajj) discussed in the WRSP entry on Islam. The Sunni version of these rituals and practices differs in minor details between the madhhabs, which differ collectively in other details from the Shi’i version, but no more. While the Shi’s have rituals and practices that the Sunnis do not have, the Sunnis do not have rituals and practices of any importance that the Shi’a do not have. Sunni Sufis follow standard Sunni rituals and practices, as well as Sufi rituals and practices, discussed in the WRSP entry on Sufism.

There are, however, certain minor rituals and practices that are distinctively Sunni. One of these is the careful avoidance of images,  especially images of humans and animals, which are thought to be forbidden by the sunna. For many centuries, Sunni visual art was primarily non-representational; art forms such as tile-work with geometric patterns thus became highly developed [image at right]. Photographs, film and video are now almost universally accepted, but residences are still often decorated with finely-calligraphed Quranic texts or painted images of uninhabited landscapes, and representational images are never found in mosques (Sedgwick 2006: 30-131, 134). Representation of the Prophet is understood as entirely forbidden. Many Shi’i Muslims, in contrast, do not consider images, including images of the Prophet, to be forbidden.


Sunni Islam is in theory led collectively by the ulama, but there are no collective structures to give practical expression to this collective leadership. In the absence of any central organization, the leadership of Sunni Islam has always been fragmented and decentralized. In recent years, international conferences bringing together members of the Sunni ulama from across the world are sometimes held, but these have had no real impact.

Although the Sunni ulama have no collective structures, however, they do have both institutions and specializations. The creation and transmission of religious knowledge was, until very recently, organized around the institution of the madrasa or school, supported by the waqf or foundation. There have been many types of madrasa, starting with village schools where children learn the Quran, and culminating in the major madrasas found in the major cities. Some of these major madrasas are famous across the Sunni world, as some major universities are famous across the West. Among them are the Qarawiyyin in Morocco [image at right] and the Azhar in Cairo, both of which are based in equally famous mosques. These madrasas and their students and staffs of researchers and teachers were independent, self-governing institutions financed by waqf, normally land and property that had been given by the rich and powerful in earlier ages for charitable purposes. As well as madrasas, waqf also supported public services from non-teaching mosques to hospitals, baths and soup kitchens. The administrators of waqf were normally themselves ulama, giving the ulama economic power in addition to religious and intellectual prestige, and buttressing their independence.

Another important institution was the law court. Many of those who had studied in the madrasas worked as judges or clerks, though not as lawyers, as the employment of an attorney was understood as a form of corruption: the duty of a judge was to ascertain the truth as well as to apply the law. Judges tried all varieties of cases, inheritance, contract, and sometimes also criminal cases. The judge, unlike the teacher, was not independent, as he depended on the civil power for the enforcement of his judgments. A judge did not himself command armed men.

As the judge and the clerk were the key specializations of the law court and the student and teacher were the key specializations of the madrasa, so the preacher and the imam were the key specializations of the mosque, which was sometimes an institution as well as a building. The preacher preached, and the imam [image at right] led the prayer, and in the great mosques of the great cities these were important and well-paid jobs. In smaller and rural mosques that were buildings more than institutions, in contrast, both preacher and imam were normally part-time amateurs who knew enough of the Quran to get by.

One further specialization of the Sunni ulama was the mufti. In principle, the job of the mufti was to provide learned and authoritative answers to difficult questions. These questions might in principle be asked by anyone, but in practice were often asked by a judge or a ruler. These answers or fatwas were purely advisory, unlike the judgements of a judge, but carried great weight and authority, as only the most learned and respected of the ulama were accepted as muftis. The fatwas of great muftis were often collected and studied by future generations of ulama. 

In addition to these institutions and specializations of the Sunni ulama, there were also Sufi institutions and specializations, of which the most important were the tariqa or order and the murshid or spiritual guide. These have their own WRSP entry.

All these Sunni ulama were in principle independent of the civil power, save that the judge was dependent on the civil power for the enforcement of his judgments, as has been noted. In practice, however, rulers often used their powers of patronage to influence the senior ulama, for example by giving the property to establish a waqf and then retaining control of the operation of that waqf. The Ottoman Empire (1320s to 1922) went beyond this, integrating the senior ulama into the machinery of state (İnalcık 1973). The emperor or Sultan appointed a chief judge who then appointed judges in various provinces, who then appointed their own deputies. The Ottoman judiciary was thus centralized under the control of the Ottoman state. From 1545, the Ottoman Sultan also appointed the mufti of Istanbul as “Chief of Islam” (Shaykh al-Islam), responsible in theory for the whole of the Ottoman ulama. From the late eighteenth century onwards, the Ottoman Sultans revived the use of the title Caliph, claiming universal authority over the whole of the Sunni world (Deringil 1991). In practice, the Ottoman Caliphs never exercised any real authority beyond their own empire, but the Ottoman model of state-controlled ulama was very influential, and state-controlled ulama later became almost the Sunni norm.

The organization of the ulama changed everywhere during the nineteenth century, as reforming states took even stronger measures to control the ulama. Among the most effective of these was the nationalization of waqf, which transformed the ulama from an independent power into employees of the state. The relative importance of the ulama also declined during this period as states introduced systems of national education that rivaled and replaced the madrasa, and systems of statute legislation and secular courts on Western models that rivaled and replaced the Sharia. Newspapers and journalists rivaled and replaced the ulama’s influence over public opinion. As the main job of the ulama came more and more to consist of preaching and collecting a modest government salary, the ambitious and talented abandoned the madrasa to study engineering, medicine, or secular law. Increasingly, influential new understandings of Islam came not from the ulama but from journalists and lay public intellectuals.

Of the great classic institutions of Sunni Islam, then, the mosque remains, often under state control. Waqf has generally vanished into the machinery of state, however, madrasas have generally been incorporated into state-run universities, and Sharia courts survive only in extremely unusual countries, most importantly Saudi Arabia, which was built during the 1930s and 1940s around understandings of Islam that rejected all institutions that had no basis in the sunna (Commins 2006]. Elsewhere, although following the Sharia remains a religious obligation for Sunni Muslims, criminal and commercial law, and sometimes also family law, follow much the same norms as in the West.

As the old ulama institutions lost their importance, new forms of organization took their place. Some early ones were liberal in orientation, while later ones were often inspired by nationalist or ideological Islamism. The Indian liberal Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, for example, founded a Muslim learned society on the Western model, the Scientific Society of Aligarh, in 1864, and then in 1875 established a modern-style educational institution for Muslims, the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, which opened on the birthday of Queen Victoria. In 1889, another Indian liberal modernist who stressed his loyalty to the British, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), founded the Ahmadiyya Movement. As time passed, this became more and more controversial among Sunni Muslims, as the followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad came to see him as the messiah, a new prophet, the metaphorical second coming of Jesus. The Ahmadiyya thus crossed one of Sunni Islam’s major red lines, and although it still describes itself as Muslim, is no longer part of Sunni Islam.

Among Islamist organizations, the All-India Muslim League, inspired by nationalist Islamism, has already been mentioned. It was dissolved in 1947 after achieving its purpose with the separation of Pakistan from India. Nationalist organizations are still found in other countries where majority-Muslim areas remain part of larger non-Muslim states. In Jammu and Kashmir, Muslim-majority parts of India that might logically have become part of Pakistan but did not, there is the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (founded 1976). In Patani, a Muslim-majority part of Buddhist-majority Thailand, there are a number of organizations, including the National Revolutionary Front (founded 1963). A similar pattern is followed in many other areas, including Muslim states such as Afghanistan when occupied by non-Muslim forces, as Afghanistan was after the Soviet invasion in 1979. Nationalist Islamist organizations are often engaged in violent conflict, including terrorism.

The most important ideological Islamist organization was the Society of the Muslim Brothers (MB), established in Egypt in 1928 by al-Banna, the Islamist intellectual who has already been mentioned. The MB, which has its own WRSP entry, was dedicated to religious, moral, and political reform, and was a mass organization of a type that had never been seen before in the Muslim world. At its height in the 1940s, it had perhaps 2,000,000 members in Egypt. Al-Banna established a unique organizational form, borrowing from military, paramilitary and party models, finally incorporating something very similar to the cell structure of the Communist Party, an organization with which the MB was in fierce competition.

Egyptian politics before, during and immediately after the Second World War were unstable and fast changing, and at times the MB was a new religious movement, at times a political party, and at times a militia. All three forms of activity have since been repeated by Sunni ideological Islamist groups. Some, like the Tablighi Jam’aat (established 1926) and the Fethulah Gülen Movement (established 1976) (both with their WRSP entries), focus on their own members and on preaching Islam, though they can also have political importance and be controversial. Others, like the Armed Islamic Group, which fought the Algerian state during the Algerian Civil War (1991-2002), or, later, Boko Haram (established 2009) and Islamic State (established 2013) (both with their own WRSP entries) focus on jihad, including the attempted overthrow of governments and the conquest of territory. Yet more organizations focus on winning elections: this category includes the MB in twenty-first century Egypt, which organized a political party and won one election before becoming controversial and being overthrown by a military coup. It also includes AK, a Turkish party that has now won several elections and is thought by some to have moved from its Islamist roots to being the vehicle of its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (born 1954) [image at right], and (less famously) PAS, the Malaysian Islamic Party, which has won and lost numerous state elections, though it has never done well in federal elections.

Very occasionally, ideological Islamism becomes the official ideology of a state, as when in 1973 Pakistan declared itself an “Islamic republic,” followed in 1983 by Sudan, which proclaimed the introduction of Sharia law, and in 1996 by Afghanistan, which declared itself an “Islamic emirate” or state. The meaning of this in practice varies considerably. Pakistan remains an imperfect electoral democracy on generally good terms with the United States, with some laws reflecting Islamic norms, for example banning the purchase of alcohol by Muslims (a law that is enforced patchily). Sudan became a military dictatorship hostile to the United States where rather more Islamic norms have been incorporated into statue law. As an Islamic emirate, the Afghan state remained weak, but harbored al-Qaeda and combined a model similar to the Saudi one with local autonomy which often followed ancient tribal custom more than Islam.


As we have seen, the ijma (consensus) of the ulama historically came second only to the Quran and sunna among the bases of Sunni Islam. This ijma is in theory the result of the interpretation of the Quran and sunna, but in practice it has often been thought that it is enough to show the existence of ijma, for example in the teachings of one of the madhhabs, without further reference to the texts in the Quran and sunna that in principle support the ijma. Some Sunni ulama have, however, challenged this, emphasizing the importance of the original sources. One of the most important of these was Taqi al-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328) a Hanbali who attacked many of the generally accepted views and practices of his time as bida (unacceptable innovation, the opposite of sunna) (Rapoport and Ahmed 2010). Even more important was Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), who led a puritan reformist movement in the Arabian Peninsula that condemned much ijma as bida (Crawford 2014). Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab is one of the major inspirations for the Salafi movement, an important contemporary Sunni movement that stresses the importance of returning to the pure practice of the salaf, the first generations of Muslims. Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s richest and most influential Muslim states, generally supports this view. Many Muslims, however, reject Salafism, and the competition between Salafi and non-Salafi interpretations of Islam is now the major doctrinal issue facing Sunni Islam. Salafi interpretations, especially in their Saudi form, are generally more restrictive, notably in regard to ritual and practice, to gender issues, and to social relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. Sometimes ideological Islamism has incorporated Salafi perspectives.

In addition to these doctrinal issues, some of the biggest issues confronting Sunni Islam today, especially in the Middle East, are political. Many Muslim states in the Middle East and North Africa have experienced painful sectarian conflicts comparable to the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) or Islamist-state conflicts comparable to the Algerian Civil War (1991-2002), including the Syrian Civil War (since 2011), which combines both varieties of conflict. These conflicts have directly engaged many Sunni Muslims, normally on one side during sectarian conflicts and on both sides in non-sectarian political conflicts. Sunni Muslims elsewhere have been indirectly engaged, as sympathizers or as horrified bystanders. There have also been smaller conflicts, violent and non-violent, involving ideological Islamists in Muslim states in the Middle East and North Africa that have avoided civil war, and also in Muslim states elsewhere in the world. In Egypt, for example, the political activities of the Muslim Brothers between 2011 and 2013 and the military repression that followed the 2013 coup sharply divided public opinion, while many self-declared “secular” Turks have been horrified by the ascendency of AK. In Indonesia a generally well-functioning democratic system has seen Jemaah Islamiyah carry out several terrorist operations.

These political issues within Sunni Islam are of greatest concern to most Sunni Muslims in the Middle East, but tensions between Islam and the West have also been of concern, especially for Muslims who travel or live in the West. Reactions to terrorist attacks which kill hundreds or even, on 9/11, thousands of people, make life uncomfortable for Western Muslims, as does an increasingly hostile political environment, represented in the United States by President Trump’s attempted “Muslim Ban” and in Europe by anti-Islamic rhetoric from populist nationalist parties [image at right]. So far, European legislation such as the ban in many countries on the niqab (the face-veil) has directly impacted relatively few Muslims, as it is only a minority (mostly Salafis) that believes the niqab to be required. Many Muslims who are not directly affected by such legislation, however, fear further measures that may adversely affect them.


Image #1: Dome of the Rock. Photo by Stacey Franco on Unsplash.
Image #2 Fath al-Bari, Commentary on the Sahih of al-Bukhari, by Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani.
Image #3 Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb.
Image #4: Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, KCSI.
Image #5: Hassan al-Banna.
Image #6: Tiles and stucco work in Morocco. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.
Image #7: Qarawiyyin mosque and madrasa in Fez, Morocco. Photo by Fabos.
Image #8: Turkish imam in 1707, by Jean-Baptiste Vanmour.
Image #9: Election campaign banner for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Gaziantep, Turkey. Photo by Adam Jones. CC BY-SA 2.0.
Image #10: Swiss poster promoting constitutional ban on minarets. Photo by Rytc. Creative Commons.


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Publication Date:
17 June 2019


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