In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sunni Islam

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • The Sunni Caliphate
  • Sunni Religious, Social, And Cultural Life And Thought

Islamic Studies Sunni Islam
Frederick Mathewson Denny
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0084


Sunni Islam is the dominant division of the global Muslim community, and throughout history it has made up a substantial majority (85 to 90 percent) of that community. In the early centuries, Sunni Islam developed distinctive legal institutions and theological discourses, as well as a form of government called the caliphate (Ar. khilafa).

General Overviews

Readers of typical college-level textbooks on Islam will not necessarily find many index entries on the subject of Sunnism, as compared with standard sectarian divisions (e.g., Wahhabism, Kharijites, and the varied Shiʿite divisions.) But because 85 to 90 percent of Muslims are Sunni, at least in a general sense, such texts are usually written with reference to a generic Sunni viewpoint. The following titles cover a wide range of topics, with varying ways of presenting them. The earliest textbooks in the listing (Cragg 2000, Gibb 1962, Nasr 2000, and Rahman 1979) are several decades old, but they endure as solid, balanced treatments (some with updates). A succeeding generation of scholars (Denny 2005, Endress 2002, Esposito 2005, and Rippin 2005), have been influenced by the earlier texts, but often with added attention to religious studies theory and methodology, as well as Islam as practiced by Muslims in diverse cultures, both past and present. Textbooks by rising scholars (e.g., Berkey 2003) often look at traditional sources through the lenses of fresh discourses.

  • Berkey, Jonathan P. The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600–1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    A sophisticated, accessible survey that presents clear analyses of how Sunnis have historically related to each other, as well as to Shiʿite and other minorities in the Muslim world.

  • Cragg, Kenneth. The Call of the Minaret. 3d ed. Oxford: Oneworld, 2000.

    First published by Oxford University Press in 1956, this classic work by a distinguished Christian cleric interprets Islam for non-Muslims in a most respectful and compassionate manner.

  • Denny, Frederick Mathewson. An Introduction to Islam. 3d ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.

    Explores Islam and Muslims across the tradition's rich and varied doctrinal, devotional, cultural, geographical, and historical dimensions.

  • Endress, Gerhard. Islam: An Historical Introduction. 2d ed. Translated by Carole Hillenbrand. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002.

    A solid survey guided by sophisticated historiography. Includes an appendix on languages, names, and the Muslim calendar, as well as a very extensive bibliography organized under many specific headings.

  • Esposito, John L. Islam: The Straight Path. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    A highly regarded textbook by a leading Islamic studies scholar. The book effectively addresses the basic topics necessary for a comprehensive introduction to Islam and its religious practices down through history, as well as providing a useful guide to Islam in the modern era. The third edition brings readers up to date on post-9/11 issues and developments in the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds.

  • Gibb, H. A. R. Mohammedanism: An Historical Survey. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.

    This is a standard work of modern Islamic studies in the West, notable for its economy and keen insight. Although Muslims do not approve of using the Prophet's name in a title in this way, it does reflect Sunni dominance with profound adherence to the Prophet's Sunna as well as the Qurʾan.

  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Ideals and Realities of Islam. Rev. ed. Chicago: Kazi Publications, 2000.

    First published in 1966, this book by one of the world's leading Shiʿite scholars presents Islam from the inside. It is an engaging, balanced discourse, with an illuminating final chapter comparing Sunnism and Shiʿism (including the latter's varieties).

  • Rahman, Fazlur. Islam. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

    An authoritative and absorbing advanced-level survey by a leading Sunni Muslim intellectual of the 20th century. A primary source, not just a textbook.

  • Rippin, Andrew. Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. 3d ed. London: Routledge, 2005.

    A rich historical survey, technically sophisticated yet very accessible and absorbing.

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