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Sects of Islam

An Overview of the Sects of Islam

How many sects of Islam are there? Well, most people know that there are two major sects: The Sunni and Shia (also spelled Shiite).

But, that’s only part of the answer. Because in actuality, there are many people who call themselves Muslim, but have varying beliefs.

Disclaimer: I am a Sunni Muslim. While my purpose is not to discuss and compare the different Muslim sects, I do think it’s important you (the reader) understand how I feel towards the other groups.

I believe that Sunni Islam is the only true interpretation of Islam. In fact, when I say “Islam”, I truly mean the belief system practiced by most of the Muslim world, that being Sunni Islam.

The purpose of this page is to simply lay out the different sects of Islam and give a very brief discussion of them all.

Sunni Islam

Sunni Islam is the predominant Islamic practice in the world. Almost 90% of the Muslim world are Sunni Muslims. The only countries with a majority Muslim population that are not also predominantly Sunni, are Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.

Sunni Muslims believe we follow the original teachings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Sunni Muslims also accept the chain of leadership established after the death of the Prophet by his companions and the subsequent dynasties.

Most Sunni Muslims follow one of four Schools of Thought (Madhaahib). These Schools of Thought are named after the scholars who founded them. Different parts of the Muslim world tend to follow one Madhhab or another:

  • Imam Abu Hanifa (Hanifite Madhhab – mostly in Indian sub-continent though has spread due to the Indian diaspora)
  • Imam Maalik (Maliki Madhhab – Mostly in West Africa)
  • Imam Shafi’ (Shaafi Madhhab – Mostly in East Africa and South East Asia)
  • Imam Hanbali (Hanbali Madhhab – Mostly in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates)

It should be noted, that while there are differences between the individual Schools of Thought, these are very minor and are usually a matter of interpretation of Hadiths and Quranic verses. People who follow the different Schools generally pray together, intermarry, and socialize without any issue.

Shia Islam

Shia Islam is the second major sect of Islam. Muslims who follow the Shia interpretation of Islam are called Shi’ites. Shi’ites make up between 10-15% of the Muslim world.

Most Shi’ites are found in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon. However, there are communities of Shi’ites throughout the world.

The Shia sect originated a few decades after the death of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). While most Muslims obeyed and accepted the Caliphates of Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman, there were some who felt Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son in law, Ali, was more deserving of leadership.

It was not until after the death of Uthman, the third Caliph of Islam, that all out war broke out between the two sides. Ali was eventually assassinated and his rival Muawiyyah established his rule and the Umayyah dynasty. The “Party of Ali” or the Shia of Ali disputed Muawwiyyah’s rule.

However tensions flared up again when Muawiyyah’s son, Yazid, ascended to power. Ali’s son, Hussayn, went out to challenge Yazid, but he along with much of his family was slaughtered at the field of Karbala. Husayn (may Allah be pleased with him) was the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, and his death represents one of the more shameful moments in Islam’s history.

From that point on, the Shia of Ali, or the Shia, began to slowly separate from the rest of the Muslim world. First geographically, and then theoligically as well.

Leadership disputes also led to the Shiites breaking into several sects. The major branches of Shia Islam are:

  • The Twelvers (believe there were 12 divine Imams, or leaders)
  • The Ismailis (sometimes also called the Seveners as they believe there were only 7 divine Imams)
  • The Zaidis (similar to the twelvers but disagree on one of the twelve divine Imams)

Other Groups

There are also many groups that do not belong to either the Sunni or Shia sects of Islam. These groups consider themselves Muslim, however there beliefs are considered heretical by Muslim scholars.

Please note, that I do not consider any of the following groups as Muslim or valid sects of Islam. I am only listing them to clarify the position held by most Muslims.

Ahmadiyya – This group came into being when a man named Mirzah Ghulam Ahmad claimed to be Jesus the Messiah. Some Ahmadiyya’s believe him to be a prophet also, though others dispute that. All Ahmadiyyas disapprove of armed Jihad in Islam. While they believe the Quran is complete as it is, they do believe Allah still sends divine messages to some men.

The Nation of Islam – This group came into being when a man named Fard Muhammad claimed to be Allah. He taught that African-Americans were God’s true chosen people and that white people were the devil. Followers of this group also believe Fard Muhammad’s student Elijah Muhammad was a prophet of Allah.

Bahai – This group was founded by a man named Bahaullah. Followers of Bahai believe that all religions are valid. They are generally considered a separate faith distinct from Islam and do not consider themselves Muslim.

See Also:

Prophets in Islam

Prophet Muhammad

Hadith

History of Islam

Malcolm X

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16 Responses to Sects of Islam

    • @ Ahmad,

      I do consider the Shia Muslim. I do not accept their interpretation of certain hadiths and verses of the Quran.

      Most of the learned Muslims I’ve known personally do not consider them Muslim. However, I’m very afraid to label someone a kafir (disbeliever) without full evidence.

      In short, I believe mainstream Islam, as espoused by the vast majority of Sunni Muslims, is true Islam.

      I’ll leave the rest up to the Most Wise.

      Here’s a link on some common misconceptions about Shiites.

  1. [...] As a Muslim, I must say his crowning achievement came in 1978 when he led his organization in what might be the largest mass conversion ever taken. On this day, Wallace Muhammad had everyone in his organization take the Shahadah (testimony of faith) bringing thousands of people out of the NOI mythology into true, orthodox, Sunni Islam. [...]

  2. Assalam u alikum. thank you so much for the information. please can you clarify where wahabi; ahli hadith and daubandi come in this. no offence to anyone. Im just a bit confused

    • Wa Alaikum Salaam,

      For the Wahhabi (they prefer to be called Salafi) read this article.

      Deobandi, I’m not sure of, but I believe they come from an area of Indo-Pak called Deoband. An Islamic school was established in that area, and from there the influence spread.

      From what I understand, Ahli Hadith are the same thing as Wahhabis and Salafis.

  3. I’m just wondering how you can decide who’s Muslim and who’s not. I’m a Sunni, but I’ve never understood the complete audacity of certain “learned” men and women who think they can decide what qualifies as Islam and what doesn’t. The Holy Prophet (pbuh) expressly forbade anyone from passing judgement on another person’s beliefs. If someone says they are a Muslim, then you have no right to say otherwise. It is between them and Allah. Do not come between Allah and his creations, for then you commit a grave sin.

    • No, I’m not committing a grave sin by saying the Ahmadiyyahs and the so-called Nation of Islam (really Nation of Kufr) and the Baha’i are not Muslim.

      The Ahmadiyyahs say a man who came after Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was a Prophet of Allah.

      The Nation of Islam (really Nation of Kufr) say the white man is the devil, that Allah is black, that he came to earth in 1930’s Detroit as a silk merchant, and that there is no heaven and hell except what we have here on earth.

      The Baha’i believe all faiths are true, including Christianity and Judaism and Hinduism and everything else.

      I have no idea what Islam you’re practicing, but these things clearly violate the SHAHADA! We’re not even going to talk about whether these groups pray or fast during Ramadan or make Hajj.

      Just because someone says they’re Muslim, that doesn’t make them Muslim. You are seriously misquoting the Messenger of Allah by saying that he forbade us from passing judgement (you really should quote that hadith anyway).

      If you’re tired of “learned” men saying things, I’m tired of ignorant Muslims defending the enemies of Islam who distort the word of Allah, lie on His Messenger and corrupt thousands if not millions of souls.

    • Asalaamu-allaikum Brothers, I fully support Brother Shameer’s comments, but to say you are a member of a sect that was started after the Caliphate is Biddah (please follow the rest of my comments):-
      To Brother Muttaqi, if anybody says that they follow a Sect or Silsillah that was formed after the Caliphate, who by the way followed the Path given to the Holy Prophet (saw) are committing Biddah. Here is the Truth;-

      Iqra!!
      [Yusufali 3:95] Say: “Allah speaketh the Truth: follow the religion of Abraham, the sane in faith (Hanifan), he was not of the Pagans.”
      [Yusufali 3:67] Abraham was not a Jew nor yet a Christian; but he was true in Faith (Hanifan), and bowed his will to Allah’s (Which is Islam), and he joined not gods with Allah.
      [Yusufali 4:125] Who can be better in religion than one who submits his whole self to Allah, does good, and follows the way of Abraham the true in Faith (Hanifan),? For Allah did take Abraham for a friend.
      [Yusufali 6:79] “For me, I have set my face, firmly and truly (Hanifan), towards Him Who created the heavens and the earth, and never shall I give partners to Allah.”
      [Yusufali 6:161] Say: “Verily, my Lord hath guided me to a way that is straight,- a religion of right, – the path (trod) by Abraham the true in Faith (Hanifan), and he (certainly) joined not gods with Allah.
      [Yusufali 10:105] “And further (thus): ‘set thy face towards religion with true piety (Hanifan), and never in any wise be of the Unbelievers;
      [Yusufali 16:120] Abraham was indeed a model, devoutly obedient to Allah, (and) true in Faith (Hanifan),, and he joined not gods with Allah:
      [Yusufali 16:123] So We have taught thee (Muhammad) the inspired (Message), “Follow the ways of Abraham the True in Faith (Hanifan), and he joined not gods with Allah.”
      [Yusufali 30:30] So set thou thy face (mankind) steadily and truly (Hanîfan), to the Faith (Al-Islam), (establish) Allah’s handiwork according to the pattern (Fitrah) on which He has made mankind: No change (let there be) in the work (wrought) by Allah: that is the standard Religion: but most among mankind understand not.
      [Yusufali 2:136] Say ye: “We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one and another of them: And we bow to Allah (in Islam).”
      It is recorded in the Musnad of Imam Ahmed bin Hanbal (ra) volume 5 page 266, that the Holy Prophet Muhammad (saw) said, “I have been sent with the religion (Al-Islam) which is pure (Hanif) and generous. This is Sahih.
      1. Your religion is Al-Islam, bowing to the will of Almighty Allah. 2. The Creed is Ad-Din-ul-Hanif, pure Islamic monotheism.
      3. You, a follower are Hanifan, religiously pure and morally upright, turning only to Allah. 4. Your people are the Hanafar.
      Insha-Allah.
      If you have something to say – SPEAK THE TRUTH OF THE QURAN – Ameen

      • DEAR BROTHER ADAM HASAN JAMAL, I THINK YOU ARE CONFUSED ABOUT THE WORD HANIF IMAM ABU HANIF WAS A SCHOLLAR LIKE MANY OTHERS TO HELP EXPLAIN DEEN TO PEOPLE LIKE ME AND YOU HE IS NOT MENTIONED IN THE QURAN LOOK UP THE MEANING OF HANIF THEN YOU WILL UNDERSTAND WHAT CONTEXT IT IS USED IN THE ABOVE AYATS ALLAH GUIDE US ALL

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