Sunni Islam

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Sunni Islam

"Islam" comes from the Arabic word meaning 'peace' and 'submission'. For Muslims around the world it is a way of life requiring absolute submission to the will of God. Islam dates from 622 C.E. and is based on the prophetic revelations of Muhammad. From its Middle Eastern roots Islam has spread around the world and, with over a billion followers, is the second largest of the world's religions, after Christianity. About 15 percent of Muslims live in the Arab world and another 25 percent in Africa. Substantial parts of Asia are predominantly Muslim, with Indonesia having the largest Muslim community. There are also significant Muslim populations in Europe and the Americas. The three main Islamic sects are the Sunni, who comprise about 90 percent of all Muslims, Shiʿites, and Sufis. In addition, there are numerous small sects and subsects, such as Ahmaddis, ʿAlawites, and Wahhabis, that differ in degrees of orthodoxy and practice.

Although they accept the divine status of the Jewish and Christian revelations, Muslims believe that Muhammad was the "Seal of the Prophets," the last of God's messengers. The word of God as revealed to Muhammad is recorded in the Holy Qurʾan, the infallible guide to Muslim conduct. Further guidance is provided by the sunna, the authoritative example of the Prophet, whose words and deeds are recorded in the hadith (literally 'tiding' or 'information'; more broadly 'every word, deed, and approval attributed to Muhammad'). "Sunni," derived from "sunna," describes allegiance to the ways of the Prophet. Within the Sunni tradition there are four schools of jurisprudence (Hanifis, Malikis, Shafis, Hanbalis) that differ in their interpretations and applications of religious law, including some minor issues related to food.

Role of Food in Religious Tradition

Prior to the advent of Muhammad, food practices among the Arab peoples of the Middle East were diverse. The establishment of common Islamic food laws united these diverse groups, at the same time differentiating the new religion from Judaism. In several places in the Qurʾan, Muhammad refers to the restrictive food laws of the Jews as a burden imposed on them for sins, noting that there were few food restrictions prior to the revelation of the Torah (4:160; 6:146). While he retained certain elements of Jewish food law, such as the prohibition on pork, Muhammad proclaimed food as a general beneficence, a gift from God to be enjoyed by His people without undue burden. "O ye who believe! Eat of the good things that We have provided you, and be grateful to Allah if it is Him ye worship" (2:172).

Islamic laws regarding food are found particularly in three Qurʾanic suras (chapters), The Cow (2), The Table (5), and Cattle (6), respectively. In addition, the sayings and actions of Muhammad, as recorded in the hadith, provide detailed guidance to acceptable food practices. Food is classified as lawful (halal ) or unlawful (haram ). Between these is the category of doubtful or suspect (mashbooh ). Halal signifies food that is acceptable in the sight of God; it includes all food that is not classified as haram or mashbooh : milk from cows, sheep, camels, and goats, honey, fish, vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, and grains. Most animals are halal : "Lawful unto you (for food) are all four-footed animals, with the exceptions named" (5:1). However, to be halal, meat must come from animals slaughtered ritually in a way (similar to Jewish practice) intended to spare them unnecessary suffering. The words "Bismillah. Allah Akbar" ("I begin with God's name: God is great") are pronounced over the animal as its throat is slit, allowing the blood to drain. In fact, kosher food is generally acceptable to Sunni Muslims: "The food of the People of the Book is lawful for you, and yours is lawful unto them" (5.5). Also, similar to kosher practice, in the marketplace meats and other products are certified halal by authoritative Islamic agencies and are stamped with a halal seal.

The opposite of halal is haram foodthat which is unacceptable. Pork is the preeminent example of a haram food, the only meat specifically forbidden in the Qurʾan. Blood, and that which dies naturally (carrion), as well as food over which any other name than God's has been invoked, are haram (5.3). Also prohibited in the hadith are flesh of the ass, carnivorous animals, such as the tiger, fox, dog, and leopard, which kill prey by using their paws, and birds of prey. Fish must be alive when taken from the sea or river, and only fish that have fins and scales are allowed, which excludes shellfish and eels. Shrimp are generally considered halal ; however there is some disagreement over this within the Hanafi school of jurisprudence. Land animals without ears, such as frogs and snakes, are prohibited. Foods contaminated by haram substances themselves become haram. Alcohol is haram, along with other mind-altering substances. However, there are several references to wine in the Qurʾan that illustrate changing attitudes toward alcohol: wine is acknowledged to have some benefit, but which is outweighed by harm (2:219); believers are exhorted not to pray while under the influence of intoxicants (4:43); and it is expressly prohibited as "an abomination of Satan's handiwork" (5:90). The latter, together with guidance found in the hadith, forms the basis for most modern interpretations, which view alcohol as both morally and socially unacceptable. Other intoxicants that cloud the mind are also forbidden, though this is a gray area. For example, the chewing of qat ("khat," Catha edulis ), a plant whose leaves contain a mild stimulant, is common in Yemen. Coffee consumption has also been controversial at times, though sixteenth-century attempts to ban it proved impossible to enforce. While coffee is a symbol of hospitality in some Arab countries, it may be avoided by devout Muslims. It is worth noting though that some Muslims, notably Sufis, interpret the Qurʾanic verses in other ways and do not prohibit wine. Wine drinking is also acceptable to 'Alawites, especially in a sacramental context.

If a person is uncertain whether a food is halal or haram, then it is mashbooh doubtful or suspectand should be avoided. Ingredients such as emulsifiers, gelatin, and enzymes used in processed foods fall into this category as the animal origin of the constituents may be unknown. Some food manufacturers and Islamic authorities produce lists of foods and ingredients classified as halal or haram as a guide to food choice.

There are regional, social, familial, and individual variations in the strictness with which food laws are adhered to. Some Chinese Muslims, for example, openly consume pork. Concern for one's health or obligations stemming from hospitality are reasons for transgressing normative food behaviors. "But if one is forced by necessity [to eat forbidden foods], without wilful disobedience, nor transgressing due limitsthen is he guiltless. For Allah is Oft-forgiving Most Merciful" (2:173).

Fasting and Feasting

Fasting (sawm ) is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and, as such, is an important religious duty. Muslim fasts require complete abstention from food and drink between the hours of sunrise and sunset. Fasting at different times of year may be obligatory (wajib ), recommended (mustahab ), discouraged (makruh ), or forbidden (muharam ). The main obligatory fast of the Muslim calendar is that of Ramadan, which lasts for the entire month. Also obligatory is fasting for kaffarahatonement for infractions of the Ramadan fastand fasts made in fulfillment of vows. Fasting is considered mustahab on all days of the year on which it has not been prohibited. It is specifically stressed for the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth of each month in imitation of the Prophet, and on Mondays and Thursdays. Ashura is a one-day fast held on the tenth day of Muhurram, instituted by Muhammad in imitation of the Jewish holiday Pesach (Passover), which marks the delivery of the children of Israel from the Pharoah. Although Ashura was replaced in the second year of Muhammad's dispensation by Ramadan, it remains as an optional fast.

It is makruh to single out Fridays and Saturdays (the Muslim and Jewish Sabbaths) for fasting or to fast on the day preceding Ramadan or on Naw Rouz. Fasting is muharam on the days of the ʿId al-Fitr and ʿId al-Adha festivals. To be valid, fasting must be undertaken with correct spiritual intent (niyyah ), which should be renewed each day. Fasting is incumbent on all sane adult Muslims, with exemptions made for pregnant, nursing, and menstruating women, for travelers, and for those in ill health. The exceptions are seen as evidence of the statement that Allah does not want to place an undue burden on His people (2:185). Deliberate infractions of the Ramadan fast are subject to either kaffarah (atonement) or qada (restitution), though unintentional lapses are not punished. Some differences exist between schools of jurisprudence as to the detailed practices and penalties associated with fasting. For example, Sunnis may break the fast if they suffer acute hunger; Shiʿites may not unless there is risk of illness.

Certain foods have a particular symbolic value because they recall the practices of Muhammad. Thus, fasts are traditionally broken with dates and water, followed by lentil soup and often a salad before the main course, which is more a matter of local custom.

Holidays and Festivals

During the Ramadan fast Muslims may consume more food than at other times of the year, for Ramadan is an essentially joyous occasion, a time for giving thanks to God. Feasting in the evening is common, and special foods are commonly prepared at family and community meals. Ramadan food specialities vary across Islamic cultures, for example, Syrian shakreeyeh (lamb in minty yogurt sauce), Turkish kaahk Ramazan (sourdough crescent rolls), and Moroccan harira (lamb and lentil stew).

At the close of Ramadan comes the three-day festival of ʿId al-Fitr, commonly known as "Sweet Id." The celebration is a way of thanking Allah for providing Muslims with the strength to have fasted successfully, and it is marked with feasting and gift-giving. It is characterized by the serving of sweet dishes, such as sawaiyan, a fine vermicelli boiled with milk and sugar. In Malaysia, ketupat, rice cooked in coconut leaves, and rendang, a spicy beef dish, are prepared especially for this occasion. ʿId al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice, occurs at the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca. It was previously a four-day festival, now much diminished, in which all adult male Muslims sacrificed a lamb, goat, or cow. Islamic prescriptions require that the sacrificial meat be divided into three equal portions: one for the family, one for friends, relatives, and neighbors, and one for charity. This is in remembrance of God's mercy in allowing Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead of his son, Ishmael. Ashura is a joyous occasion for Sunnis, though it is a solemn historical remembrance for Shiʿites.

See also Africa: North Africa; Asia, Central; Christianity; Fasting and Abstinence; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Holidays; Iberian Peninsula; Iran; Judaism; Middle East; Religion and Food.


All citations from the Qurʿan are taken from:

ʿAli, ʿAbdullah Yusuf. The Meaning of the Holy Qurʾan. 9th ed.

Beltsville, Md.: Amana, 1998.

Abbas, Ali, ed. A Shi ʿite Encyclopedia. Available on-line at:

Hussaini, Mohammed M. Islamic Dietary Concepts and Practice.

Chicago: Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, 1993.

Welch, Andrew T. "Islam." In A New Handbook of Living Religions, edited by John R. Hinnells, pp. 162235. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997.

Paul Fieldhouse

Sunni Islam

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The largest branch in Islam, sometimes referred to as "orthodox Islam"; its full name is ahl al-Sunna wa aljamaʿa (the people of Sunna and consensus), and it represents about 90 percent of the world Muslim population.

The Sunni movement can be identified in terms of its differences with the second largest division of Islam, the Shiʿite, with whom it shares the fundamental creed of Islam. After the death of the Prophet, the political issue of how leadership was to be chosen split the new community. The Shiʿa of Ali (literally, the party of Ali) insisted that the Prophet had intended for his cousin Ali to succeed him, while the majority of Muslims maintained that the caliph should be elected and did not have to belong to the Prophet's family. The Sunnis maintained that since the Prophet had not clearly designated a successor, his Sunna (example, custom), by which they were to abide (hence their name), mandated elections. Of course, the Shiʿa also consider the Sunna of the Prophet as binding and second only to the Qurʾan in authority, but they differ on the actual content of the Sunna in regard to the matter of the divinely appointed leaders from the Prophet's family (imams), who in their view are the legitimate rulers. In addition to the concept of divinely appointed leadership, the Sunnis also reject the notion of a mahdi (messiah) as an integral part of the creed, and they emphasize exoteric interpretation of the Qurʾan over the esoteric approach followed by the Shiʿa.

The Sunni Schools of Law

In addition to the Qurʾan and the Sunna as primary sources of Islamic law, Sunni jurists also admit ijma (consensus) and qiyas (personal parallel reasoning) as legitimate sources for legal judgment. Qiyas, the fourth source of law, is a form of ijtihad (exercising personal judgment in legal interpretation). All schools of law generally admit ijtihad, but with different definitions and restrictions. At first, raʾy (personal opinion issued without justification) was exercised, but its unrestricted use was deemed too arbitrary and it was eliminated in favor of qiyas, a form of reasoning that identifies an illah (ratio legis) parallel or similar to another already established by the Qurʾan or the Sunna.

Ijma, or consensus, constitutes the third source of law and it takes precedence over qiyas. There was disagreement among the Sunni schools of law as to the nature of consensus. While all jurists accept the consensus of the companions of the Prophet, the more liberal schools will also admit of the consensus of the schools of law at any given time. The more conservative schools will only accept a global community consensus, which cannot be easily achieved, so in effect the Sunni schools of law did build the legal system on the basis of juristic consensus. However, the right to dissent (ikhtilaf) was scrupulously maintained by all schools. In contrast, the Shiʿa eschew ijma in favor of the ijtihad of the imam or his representative. That the Sunnis consider the law to be a matter of consensus (whether juristic or communal) is underscored in their name, ahl al-Sunna wa al-jamaʿa.

Over time, the various Sunni schools of law coalesced into four major schools: the Hanafi (founded by Abu Hanifa, d. 767), the Maliki (founded by Malik ibn Anas, d. 795), the Shafiʿi (founded by Shafiʿi, d. 820) and the Hanbali school (founded by ibn Hanbal, d. 855). The most widespread is the Hanafi, which was favored by various Muslim governments, most notably by the Ottomans, since it was not as strict as the other schools in its acceptance and use of less rigorous tools of legal interpretation. The Hanafis can be found throughout the Muslim world, while the Malikis are mostly found in Egypt and North Africa, the Shafiʿis in Southeast Asia, and the Hanbalis in the Arabian Peninsula.

Historical and Modern Developments

Tensions between Sunnis and Shiʿa (especially with the sectarian movements derived from the Shiʿa, such as the Ismaʿilis) were very high in early Muslim history as Shiʿite groups tried to destabilize the Sunni caliphate and ensure leadership to the followers of the imams. The problems subsided after the decisive victory of the Ayyubids over the Shiʿite regimes of Egypt and the Near East in the late twelfth century and the subsequent coming to power of the Ottoman Turks, who had always been staunch Sunnis. Tension still exists between local Sunni and Shiʿite groups, although most of it is due more to ethnic and tribal strife than to religious divisions, as can be seen in Lebanon and Pakistan. However, the rise among the Sunnis of strict reform movements (such as the Wahhabi movement), which came to oppose any deviation from their interpretation of the Islamic creed, has exacerbated existing tensions with the Shiʿa in the Persian Gulf area and wherever Wahhabism has spread.

The theological and juristic views on which the four major Sunni schools agree are considered to form the core of orthodox Islam. Although some of these views have coalesced into dogma, others have been subject to changes of interpretation through the years. Specifically, the eventual reliance by Sunni jurists on taqlid (imitation or continuation of established past consensus) led to a reification of thought and law that gave rise to reform movements in the eighteenth century. Taking a stand against past consensus and building on the thought of the Hanbali ibn Taymiyya, the reform movements (the Wahhabis of Arabia, the Sanusis of North Africa, and the followers of Sirhindi in India), rejected ijma and emphasized ijtihad, considering themselves ghayr muqallidin (against imitation) and underscoring the need for new thought in Islamic law. Today, however, and after most Muslim countries have adopted the secular constitutions imposed on them by colonial powers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the major concern of the various contemporary Sunni Muslim movements is how to restore Islamic law and make it compatible with the demands of modern life.

see alsoislam; muwahhidun; sanusi order; shiʿism.


Kamali, Mohammad Hashim. Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence. Cambridge, U.K.: Islamic Texts Society, 1991.

Makdisi, George. Religion, Law, and Learning in Classical Islam. Aldershot, U.K.; Brookfield, VT: Variorum, 1991.

Rahman, Fazlur. Islam, 2d edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

tayeb el-hibri
updated by maysam j. al faruqi


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Sun·ni / ˈsoŏnē/ • n. (pl. same or -nis) one of the two main branches of Islam, commonly described as orthodox, and differing from Shia in its understanding of the Sunna and in its acceptance of the first three caliphs.Compare with Shia. ∎  a Muslim who adheres to this branch of Islam.DERIVATIVES: Sun·nite / soŏnīt/ adj. & n.


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Sunni one of the two main branches of Islam, commonly described as orthodox, and differing from Shia in its understanding of the Sunna and in its acceptance of the first three caliphs. The word is Arabic, and means literally, ‘custom, normative rule’.
Sunni Triangle a three-corned area of Iraq between Baghdad, Ramadi to the west, and Tikrit to the north, inhabited mainly by Sunni Muslims. It was a centre of support for Saddam Hussein (who was born near Tikrit), and after the overthrow of Saddam in 2003 became a focal point for armed insurgency.


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Sunni Traditionalist, orthodox branch of Islam, whose followers are called Ahl as-Sunnah (‘People of the Path’). It is followed by 90% of Muslims. Sunnis accept the Hadith, the body of orthodox teachings based on Muhammad's spoken words outside the Koran. The Sunni differ from the Shi'ite sect in that they accept the first four caliphs (religious leaders) as the true successors of Muhammad.

Sunni Islam

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Follower of the majority branch of Islam, based on the sunna and the community consensus it aroused. Sunnis are those who recognize the legitimacy of the first four caliphs succeeding Muhammad, and adhere to one of the four juridical Sunni schools (madhhab): Hanafi, Malik, Shafiʿi, and Hanbali. They make up about 85 percent of the world's Muslims, and the Shiʿa make up the remaining 15 percent.

SEE ALSO Muhammad;Sunna.


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Sunni orthodox Muslim, who accepts the Sunna (body of tradition) as of equal authority with the Koran. XVII — Arab. sunnī lawful, f. sunna form, way, course, rule.