From Early Beginnings to Modern-Day SunnismThe majority of the world’s Muslims belong to the Sunni – as opposed to the Shia – sect. Sunnis are estimated to constitute 87-90 per cent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, with Shiites making up the rest.Sunnism is sometimes described as ‘mainstream’ Islam, not only because of Sunnis’ numerical superiority but also because of the nature of Sunnism as an ‘orthodox’ doctrine and the way in which it emerged and evolved as a reaction to the Shia and other theological schools in Islam.
These theological schools, such as the Mutazilis, were perceived by Sunnism’s pioneers as non-orthodox because they deviated from ‘the way of the majority’, a fundamental concept in Sunni doctrine.
What is Sunni Islam?
The word ‘Sunnism’ derives from sunnah, which meant ‘a well-trodden path’ in Arabic even before the rise of Islam. In the Islamic context, it refers to Prophet Muhammad’s example – what he said and did, from basic matters and daily affairs to major issues like his conduct in wars, social life and financial matters.Many Sunni scholars give Sunnis the longer name of ahl al-sunnah wa al-jamaa, or ‘those who follow the prophet’s example and stick with the mainstream, united community’.
This label can be seen as carrying an orthodox connotation related to the concept of unity around the prophet’s path as opposed to seceding in heterodox groups and sects. To conservatives among Sunni scholars, this label is also a form of opposition to bida (innovations that do not have roots in the prophet’s tradition; deviations from the sunnah).In this article, the term ‘proto-Sunni’, as opposed to just ‘Sunni’, is used to denote traditional, early Sunnis who began to evolve as a distinct current around the 10th century. However, in a more complex, contemporary reality, there are numerous variations among the more than 1 billion people who identify as Sunni.