Sunni Islam, one of the two main branches of Islam. Shia Islam is the other. Sunni Muslims constitute the vast majority in the world Islamic community (see Islam). The term sunna means the “way” or the “example” and refers to the example of the Prophet Muhammad. All Islamic groups and sects, however, accept the Sunna, along with the Qur'an (Koran), the sacred scriptures of Islam, as binding. Because it means the “way,” the term sunna may also be intended to distinguish mainstream Muslims from Shia Muslims, who follow a side path.
The two main branches of Islam differ primarily in their beliefs about the succession to Muhammad. Sunni Muslims believe that Muhammad intended that the Muslim community choose a successor, or caliph, by consensus to lead the theocracy (earthly kingdom under divine rule) he had set up. Shia Muslims, also known as Shias, believe that Muhammad chose his son-in-law, Ali, as his successor, and that only the descendents of Ali and his wife, Fatima, were entitled to rule the Muslim community. There are also differences between the two branches in interpretation of the Qur’an.
The doctrines of Sunni Islam were formed toward the end of the 9th century, and its theology was developed as a complete system during the 10th century. Both developments occurred, in large measure, as reactions to early schismatic movements, such as the Kharijites, Mutazilites, and Shias. The inclusive Sunni definition of a Muslim, for instance, was conceived in reaction to the narrow extremism of the Kharijites. The strong Sunni emphasis on God's power, will, and determination of human fate developed in reaction to the Mutazilite insistence on the absolute freedom of the human will. Sunni political doctrines emerged in the struggle against the legitimism espoused by the Shias in the dispute over the succession to Muhammad (see Caliphate). Various nuances of interpretation and different schools have developed within Sunni theology, the Sunni tendency having been to accommodate minor differences of opinion and to affirm the consensus of the community in doctrinal matters. Four schools of law also developed in the Sunni tradition: the Shafi'i, the Hanafi, the Maliki, and the Hanbali.
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