The Sunnis are the largest branch of the Muslim community, at least 85 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. The name is derived from the Sunnah, the exemplary behavior of the Prophet Muhammad . All Muslims are guided by the Sunnah, but Sunnis stress it, as well as consensus (ijma; the full name of Sunnis is Ahl al-Sunnah wa'l-Ijma, people of the Sunnah and consensus). The other branch of Islam, the Shiis, are guided as well by the wisdom of Muhammad's descendants, but through his son-in-law Ali .
Sunni life is guided by four schools of legal thought—Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii, and Hanbali—each of which strives to develop practical applications of revelation and the Prophet's example.
Although Sunni Islam comprises a variety of theological and legal schools, attitudes, and outlooks conditioned by historical setting, locale, and culture, Sunnis around the world share some common points: acceptance of the legitimacy of the first four successors of Muhammad ( Abu Bakr , Umar , Uthman , and Ali), and the belief that other Islamic sects have introduced innovations (bidah), departing from majority belief.
Sunni Islamic institutions developed out of struggles in early Islam over leadership of the Muslim community. Political and religious positions, articulated by scholars, arose out of disputes over the definition of “true” belief, the status of those who profess Islam but commit a great sin, freedom, and determinism. Sunnis tend to reject excessive rationalism or intellectualism, focusing instead on the spirit and intent of the Quran.
Reform movements within Sunni Islam began to appear during the eighteenth century in the works of scholars seeking to revive the dynamism of Islamic thought and life in order to meet the demands of the modern world. These movements gained momentum with the imposition of European colonial control throughout the Muslim world. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries witnessed the revival of Quranic studies as well as renewed commitment to science and education as the path to independence and development within the context of Islamic values and identity. Sunni thought of the eighteenth through twentieth centuries has also reexamined traditional Islamic law. Many modern reformers believe that fiqh (jurisprudence), as a human interpretation of divine law, should be open to reinterpretation in accordance with present circumstances and community needs. Almost all twentieth-century Muslim countries are debating the role of Islamic law and civil codes in modern society and the implications for constitutional law and the organization of the state. Many Islamic thinkers reject the notion that Islam requires a particular form of state and government, looking instead to Quranic principles such as shura (consultation) for guidance. Some believe that religion and the state are intended to be separate entities, while others, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-i Islami, believe that an Islamic state is necessary to the development of an Islamic social order. Many thinkers have studied in the West and are open to dialogue with the West and commitment to a common struggle for the causes of humanity. They have examined the impact of European imperialism, Western neocolonialism, exploitation by socialist-bloc countries, the Cold War, the displacement of Palestinians, the lack of democracy in the Muslim world, and other crisis factors. Most Muslim thinkers today stress the importance of justice, especially social justice, in Islam. A Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights has been propounded, next to that of the United Nations. Increasing attention is also being given to subjects such as women and gender, the family, religious freedom, pluralism, the status of minorities, and religious tolerance. Islam is increasingly emphasized as a total way of life, encompassing both religious and worldly issues. Human beings are seen as God's stewards on earth, and the Muslim community is intended to reflect God's will. In this view, secularism is often rejected as being antithetical to religious values. Instead, Islam is presented as perfectly suited for human society, individually and collectively.