Educating Kids on the Different Sunni School of Thoughts

by Helmy Sa'at

The global ummah of today has a multiplicity of identities that is not just confined to citizenship. To put it simply, akin to the colours of the rainbow, under the umbrella of Islam, there exist different strands of Islamic thought. Although Islam spread far and wide, during the lifetime and after the passing of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, we have to contextualise the many different territories and communities that embraced Islam which also had its varied and distinct cultural identities.

As such, there existed differing and, even at times, opposing viewpoints and interpretations which informed and shaped certain understanding of the many facets of Islam until today, including its jurisprudence, Islamic principles and laws, according to the Quran and sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ. 

Peeling The Layers Of Islam, Then And Now

Let’s break it down: Islam has two major traditions encompassing the Sunni and the Shia. As the world’s fastest growing religion, it is estimated that there are close to 2 billion muslims, with approximately 1.5 billion muslims falling under the Sunni group. 

More importantly, Islam has never been homogeneous throughout the centuries. At the very core, the divine words of Allah, later to be compiled into the holy book, transmitted through the teachings of the Prophet ﷺ, together with the hadiths are the key and fundamental building blocks of Islam.

However, its understanding and interpretations quite simply were filtered through the lens of local customs and traditions of particular communities in various regions of the world. Therefore, Sunnis place great priority on ijma, or consensus, which allows absorptions of local customs and considerations, for instance, to be considered in decision making processes.

This partly paved the way for the rise of many distinct legal schools. Over the centuries, four major schools under the Sunni banner have edged out all others. They encapsulate the following: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali. 

Hanafi

The teachings of the Hanafi legal school, or mazhab, could be traced back to theologian Imām Abū Ḥanīfah (700 – 767 CE). Subsequently, it was further perpetuated by his disciples Abū Yūsuf and Muḥammad al-Shaybānī which later established itself as the pillar system of Islamic administration for the ʿAbbāsids and Ottomans. A distinct characteristic of the Hanafi school is the dependence on extensive systematic reasoning in the absence of precedent, or prior examples. In contemporary times, this strand of Sunni Islam flourishes in Central Asia, India, Pakistan and Turkey.

Maliki

Mazhab Maliki was founded in the 8th century and anchored in the teachings of imam Mālik ibn Anas (715 – 795 CE). It is open to analogical reasoning besides reflecting community practice of the Medina community in understanding and implementing legal Islamic principles based on the holy book and the hadith. This school of thought mainly thrives in northern and western Africa, Sudan and in some of the Persian Gulf states.

Shafi’i

The Shafi’i school blossoms in eastern Africa, parts of Arabia and Indonesia. It is based on the teachings of Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i (767 – 820 CE). Mazhab Shafi’i rejects reliance on traditional community practice which is substituted wholly by credible records of the hadith in addition to analogical reasoning instead.

Hanbali

Based on the teachings of Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (780 – 855 CE), it emphasises the authority of the Hadith besides the precedent set by the early generations of Muslims. This in turn results in suspicions over the tool of reasoning by analogy. Since the early 20th century the Ḥanbalī school was broadly disseminated via Saudi Arabia.

In conclusion, the existence of splintering within Islam, with the different Sunni school of thoughts, does not equate to disunity. Instead, it is an opportunity to remind our children, the future leaders of Islam, that diversity of thought and opinions contribute to a robust and dynamic engagement and discussions. 

Consider this as the first step to initiating a conversation leading to an interest in learning and sharing more about the history of Islam which has a continuous impact in our daily lives until today. It remains a continual process of growth and learning for the rest of our lives. This in itself is a form of jihad on an individual level and collectively as we guide the next generation to strive in deepening their knowledge and open their hearts and minds to accumulating knowledge of Islam which brings them closer to Allah. InshaAllah!