Understanding the branches of Islam: Sunni Islam

Briefing 15-02-2016

All Muslims share certain fundamental beliefs and practices. Nonetheless, over time, leadership disputes within the Muslim community have resulted in the formation of different branches, leading to the development of distinct religious identities within Islam. Sunni Islam is by far the largest branch of Islam: its followers make up 87 to 90% of the global Muslim population. The name 'Sunni Islam' derives from the term ahl al-sunna wa-l-jama'a ('people of the prophetic tradition and the community'). Sunni Islam claims to represent the Muslim consensus concerning the teachings and habits of the Prophet. It originated among those Muslims who, contrary to Shiites and Khawarij, denied that Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, had been chosen as Muhammad's only legitimate successor. In contrast to Shiite Islam, where disagreement over the legitimate leader led to further splits into several sub-branches, Sunni Islam avoided fundamental divisions, allowing, instead, for 'pluralism within a unitary system'. This briefing offers a short overview over the distinctive features of Sunni Islam, its main institutions and holy places and the main trends in Sunni Islam today. This paper may be read together with other EPRS publications entitled Understanding the branches of Islam (September 2015) and Understanding the branches of Islam: Shia Islam (January 2016), as well as Understanding Sharia (May 2015) and Relations between Islam and the State (June 2015).