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Sunni Islam (Arabic سنّة) is the largest denomination of Islam. Followers of the Sunni tradition are known as Sunnis or Sunnites, and often refer to themselves as the Ahlus Sunnah wal-Jamaa'h. Sunni Muslims constitute 80-90% of the global Muslim population.

Historical Background of Sunni-Shiite Split

The principal issue upon which Islam's first major sectarian split occurred centers on the question of leadership. According to Sunni thought, the Prophet Muhammad died without appointing a successor to lead the Muslim community. After an initial period of confusion, a group of his most prominent companions gathered and elected Abu Bakr, the Prophet's close friend and father-in-law, as the first Caliph. Sunnis believe this process was conducted in a fair and proper manner and accept Abu Bakr as a righteous and rightful Caliph. The second major sect, the Shi'a, believe that the Prophet had appointed his son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor years earlier during an announcement at Ghadir Khom. Shi'a regard the election of Abu Bakr as illegitimate and accuse the companions involved of ulterior motives ranging from enmity towards 'Ali to outright hypocrisy. Though both Sunnis and Shias believe that the incident at Ghdier Khum occurred, Sunnis interpret the announcement as a form of praise for Ali and do not view it as having any injunctive effect insofar as the question of succession is concerned.

Thirty years after Muhammad's death, the Islamic community plunged into a civil war, called the Fitna. Many Muslims (among them some of Muhammad's widows and companions) believed that Uthman, the third Caliph, was favoring his kin and abusing his power. Discontented Muslim soldiers from garrisons in Iraq and Egypt surrounded Uthman's house in Medina and demanded that he repent or resign. The Caliph temporized, fighting broke out, and Uthman was killed as he sat reading the Qur'an. Though Ali was appointed Caliph upon Uthman's death, he was opposed by Muawiyah, the governor of Syria and a relative of Uthman's. Muawiyah claimed that because Ali had taken no action to apprehend Uthman's killers, Ali was complicit in his murder. Muawiyah consolidated his own power and refused to accept 'Ali's authority until Uthman's assassins were brought to justice. Ali was not able to resolve the crisis before he was assassinated by a rebel faction, and Muawiyah claimed the Caliphate upon his death. Muawiyah's rise to power marked the beginning of the Umayyad dynasty, and he managed to bring most of the Muslim community (ummah) under his authority and put an end to the civil war.

The Fitna led to the emergence of three distinct Islamic sects:

Other divisions have arisen since the Fitna of the 7th century C.E. Some groups are now extinct. Of the existing groups, Sunni Muslims do not accept members of the Nation of Islam, Ahmadiyya, and Zikri as fellow Muslims.


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