In the early decades of Muslim history, a fierce power struggle grew between a number of clans and tribes, resulting in the two major branches of Islam: Sunni and Shia. The Shia proudly trace their Imams back to Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad. The beginning of the split between Sunni and Shia occurred in 661 AD, when Ali was killed by a rival faction.
The Sunni, or the “People of the Tradition” (ahl as-sunnah), are those who come from the faction that defeated Ali. They chose Muhammad’s successor by consensus rather than from among his descendants. Through the centuries, the two branches have developed distinct political, theological, and legal traditions.
The Sunni faction gained the upper hand in most regions of the globe. Today, Sunnis are estimated to make up almost 90% of all Muslims, whereas Shias account for a little more than 10%, and live mostly in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and India.
Sunnis value the views and customs held by the orthodox majority rather than the minority. They developed ways of achieving consensus that enabled them to accept new customs and practices that did not come from the Quran. As an example, there are four major schools for interpreting the law (sharia): Hanafi, Shafi’ite, Malikite, and Hanabalite. Each dominates in their region, but they are all seen as equally orthodox.
All Sunnis agree on six shared beliefs: (1) the Oneness of Allah, (2) Angels, (3) the God-given Books, (4) Prophets, (5) the Day of Judgment, and (6) Predestination. Sunnis also agree about a wide range of other articles of faith, including: that Muhammad is the final prophet, that the Quran is eternal, that Muhammad will intercede for believers at the day of judgement, and that it is okay to venerate saints.
There are also three major and competing Sunni schools of theology: The Ash’ari stress the supremacy of revelation over human reason, the Maturidi value human reason and free will, and the Traditionalists stress that the Quran should be interpreted literally, even in the 21st century.
God is raising up movements to Christ in many regions of the world. While the largest movements among Sunnis are in North Africa and South and Southeast Asia, there are some very encouraging movements in most regions of the world, though many are still small.
There are various forms of Christian outreach throughout most Sunni regions, including resident witness, satellite TV, and internet ministries. Since the government and religious authorities are often closely aligned in Sunni countries, opposition to Christians and persecution of those who turn to follow Christ typically come from all sides: family, community, and the government.