An explanation of the differences amongst the Sunni Muslims

A lot of people get confused by the multitude of sects and groups amongst the Muslims. There seem to be an endless number of labels that people add to the simple title Muslim. Having been through most of the groups, I feel qualified to shed some insight on these differences. This short post discusses the intra-Sunni differences.
Before I continue, I want to make two points. First, I openly acknowledge the differences between the Sunni and Shi’a sects. Anyone who do downplays the differences is either misinformed or ignoring major issues of belief, practice and spirituality.┬áSecond, I would advice my readers to read Differences in The Ummat and Siraat-e-Mustaqeem by Mufti Afzal Hoosen Elias.
Per the famous Hadith Jibreel, I am going to divide this analysis into three sections, namely Beliefs, Practice and Spirituality.
Beliefs – ‘Aqidah

The core beliefs of islam are very simple and can literally be explained in less than one minute. They are known as the six pillars of faith: Belief in Allah, the Angels, the Revealed Books, the Prophets, the Day of Judgement and the Good and Bad of the Divine Decree. Where Muslims differ is on the correct understanding of these six pillars of faith.
There are essentially two groups amongst these: those who accept a reason-based approach to theology as an extension to the Qur’an and those who reject the reason-based approach as an extension to the Qur’an. The former group consists of the Ash’ari and Maturidis. While technically separate, the differences are negligable and have coallessed into a single approach. The latter group is primarily the Atharis.
The dispute between the two is that the Atharis argue that the Ash’ari/Maturidi approach uses potentially flawed reason to do Tahreef (distortion) of verses of the Qur’an which apply to nature of Allah. The Ash’aris/Maturidis retort that the Athari approach of literalism when applied to Allah is mustahil (inconceivable).
Practice – Fiqh

The Qur’an has clear Islamic law, but it is primarily a book of guidance and beliefs. As such, the practices of Islam were taught by the Prophet Muhammad and were recorded in compiled works of ahadith (prophetic traditions). The books of ahadith were written by scholars for scholars and legal rulings cannot be properly deduced by the layman without years of prior study.
With the arrival of new circumstances that never affected the Muslims during the time of the Prophet, the Qawa’id al-Shari’ah (legal maxims and principles) were derived from the Qur’an and prophetic traditions to address these issues.
These principles and its conclusions coallessed into four primary maddhabs (schools of legal thought), namely the Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki and Hanbali schools. Centuries of development produced corpuses of legal rulings on a multitude of issues with acceptable variations. They share 75% of the same conclusions and the 25% of what they differ on are usually minor or negligable.
With regards to the maddhabs, there are essentially two approaches, with many shades of gray in between. Either to accept or reject Taqlid (following without knowing the evidence). Those who accept Taqlid argue in favor of following the conclusions of one of the four maddhabs. They argue that the layman does not have the ability to independently interpret Islamic law and there is no need to “reinvent the wheel” of the conclusions the legal scholars derived and agreed upon for generations. Those who reject Taqlid argue that there are undeniable mistakes in the conclusions of the maddhabs, and that the methodology of the four Imams themselves was to follow the truth, not blindly follow their teachers.
Spirituality – Tasawwuf

The final issue of dispute is the approach to purifying the heart, controlling the Nafs (ego), trusting God, accepting his decree, etc. In short, the spiritual aspects of the religion. The difference is over the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Tasawwuf (Sufism) and whether its practices are valid approaches to the above-stated goals. According to those who practice or support Tasawwuf, they argue that their practices are proven effective and were developed after generations of implementation and spiritual insight from Awliya’ (saints) who received instructions via Ilhaam (divine inspiration, distinct from prophetic revelation) or from person to person connecting directly back to the Prophet. Opponents of Tasawwuf argue that their practices are nothing more than sophisticated Bid’aat (invalid innovations) and that all practices can be directly or indirectly derived from the ahadith.
While this is more related to Fiqh, its important to note that the two approaches have different definitions of Bid’ah (invalid innovations in religion). One argues that a bid’ah is what has no explicit evidence from the Qur’an and Ahadith. The other argues that a bid’ah is what goes in opposition to or has no basis eminating from the Qur’an and Ahadith.

The differences listed above are intra-Sunni and thus do not constitute a distinct sect. The groups within the Sunnis are essentially different permutations of the positions on Beliefs, Practice and Spirituality. Its worth mentioning that nearly all groups conform to a reason-based extension to the Qur’an in matters of belief, to a strong degree of adherence to one of the our maddhabs, and to a general acceptance of a tariqah (schematized implementation of Sufism). The only group that rejects all three is known as Salafiyya, which does so in the name of returning to the pure roots of the religion. Yet other differences are based in different responses to political phenomena and as such have no theological bearing.
For the most part, most Sunni Muslims do not adhere to any labeled sect or group. Many do not even know that they are Sunnis, but only refer to themselves as Muslims. As I always say, if you were to blind-fold your average Muslim and put him in any masjid around the world, he would not know which group that masjid belonged to unless he asked very specific, pointed questions that rarely come up in casual conversation.