Followers of the sunna, the ‘trodden path’ or customary practice of the Prophet Muhammad, the Sunnis constitute the ‘orthodox’ majority of Islam. They are traditionally known as the ‘people of custom and community’ (ahl al-sunna wa al-jama‘a). Sunni Islam comprises numerous legal movements and theological schools, and has taken on various forms as it adapted itself to fit diverse historical, cultural and political contexts. However, at least two commonly held views can be identified, which distinguish it from Shi‘ism, the other main branch of Islam. First, Sunnis believe that religious authority comes down from the Prophet Muhammad and his companions (specifically, the four ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs’ who followed him: Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman and ‘Ali), rather than from the Prophet’s specific family line (i.e. only Muhammad and ‘Ali, as the Shi‘ites maintain). Second, by extension, they hold that any male Muslim who is of age and of good standing in the community can legitimately rule as caliph (khalifa, lit. ‘successor’ of the Prophet Muhammad). Sunnism arose out of early theologico-religious disputes regarding what makes a true Muslim and who is qualified to be the spiritual and secular leader of the community. It represents a consolidation of tradition in response to the many theoretical and practical innovations that emerged in Islam’s formative years, especially the Shi‘ite movement and the Mu‘tazilite inquisition (mihna) of the third/ninth century. Sunni Islam often casts itself as a ‘middle way’ in response to the difficult questions that beset the Muslim community. Perhaps because of its penchant for traditionalism, the Sunnis’ contributions to Islamic philosophy have come primarily in the form of philosophical theology (e.g. Ash‘arite thinkers such as al-Ghazali and Fakhr al- Din al-Razi and Hanbalites such as Ibn Taymiyya) and philosophical mysticism (e.g. Sufis such as Ibn al-‘Arabi).
   Further reading: Hodgson 1974; Watt 1962/85

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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