The word Sunnism comes from the Arabic as-Sunna (a collection of six books of sayings « hadith » attributed to the Prophet). It is the main branch of Islam and recognizes the legitimity of the first four caliphs. It counts about 185 million adherents.

A true believer has the obligation to denounce all sects which do not recognize the legitimity of the four califes and has to be on his guard against all creeds which divide the faithful.

A Sunni Muslim should also live according to the rules laid down by the four legal schools: the Maliki, Shafi, Hanafi and Hanbali, which differ among each other on the relative importance given to the consensus about the views expressed in the « hadith » and the freedom of interpretation given to the juges (see below).

A Muslim is not judged according to his preference for a legal school but according to the legal school prevailing in the country where the judgement is given. For instance, a Shafi who commits an offence in Saudi Arabia will be judged according to Hanbali rules. If a Muslim has a dispute with a non-Muslim, he will be judged before a Muslim court.

The religious homogenity within Sunni Islam does not mean that local differences are leveled out: there is for instance an lively cult of saints in the Maghreb, extreme puritanism by the Wahabi on the Arabic Peninsula and animist practices by islamic brotherhoods in Sudan.

The Hanafi school, was founded in Baghdad in the 8th century but only became the dominant Sunni legal school under the Ottomans. It can be found in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. It is the most tolerant school concerning interpretation of the « hadith ».

The Maliki school, which is dominant in the Maghreb and Sudan, and the Shafi school, which is applied in Syria, Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait, and co-exists with other schools in Jordan and Egypt, both follow more strictly the letter of the texts.

The Hanbali school, in the form it was given by the puritanical Wahabi movement in the 18th century, is the official school in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It is the most fundamentalist of the four and wants the Sharia to be based exclusively on the Coran; it reduces as much as possible the use of the « hadith » and does not allow freedom of interpretation to judges.