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 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 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)
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.