Overview

With the death of Mohammad in A.D. 632, Islam ceased to be a monolithic religion. Disagreements about succession were made manifest even before his funeral ceremony. By the next generation, a complete schism had occurred with two principle branches: Sunni and Shia. From there, as with other major world religions, further divisions occurred in the following centuries.

  • Sunni Muslims include 84%–90% of all Muslims. Sunni means “tradition,” and Sunnis regard themselves as those who emphasize following the traditions of Muhammad and of the first two generations of the community of Muslims that followed Muhammad.  A number of movements to reform Islam have originated mainly in the 20th century. Some are limited to one country and others have a broader influence. Most are Sunni movements, such as the Wahhabis, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Jama`at-i-Islami. The Wahhabi sect is a strict, conservative sect that tries to follow the original teaching of Mohammed. It was derived from Sunni Hanbalism via Ibn Taymiya/Taymiyya (d.1328). Later it spread from Mecca to Punjab, India via Ismail Hadji Maulvi-Mohammed and Sayd Ahmed. The Saudi Arabian government came to power as a result of a Wahhabi revolt. They emphasize tawheed, or the oneness of God. Within Saudi Arabia Wahhabis are considered Sunnis. Many of the Muslims in the World Trade Center plane crashes and the al-Qaeda were Wahhabis. Early Muslims tortured people and gouged out their eyes, so if an extremist is one who greatly deviates from the original teaching, peaceful liberal Muslims are at least as much “extremists” in Islam as the violent Wahhabis.

Among the Sunni sect there are four major schools of thought or sub-sects each follow a particular Islamic law. They are:

  1. The Hanafi school of thought: The founder is the Persian scholar Imam Abu Hanifah al-Nu’man ibn Thabit (AD: 699-767). His school of thought is practiced widely in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Balkans and Turkey. The majority of Sunni Muslims practice the Hanfi jurisprudence.
  2. The Shafi’i school of thought: The founder is Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Idris al-Shafi’i known as Imam Al-Shafi’i (AD: 767-820). Imam al-Shafi’i is also known as the “First Among Equals” for his exhaustive knowledge and systematic methodology to religious science. Adherents of this sect are mainly from the Middle East.
  3. The Maliki school of thought: The founder is Malik Bin Anas (AD: 711-795). Its adherents are mostly from North Africa, United Arab Emirates, and parts of Saudi Arabia.
  4. The Hanbali school of thought: The founder is Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (AD: 780–855). The Hanbali jurisprudence is considered very strict and conservative. The Hanbali school of jurisprudence is practiced mainly in Saudi Arabia, Qatar as well as in parts of Syria and Iraq
  • Shi`ite Muslims comprise 10%–16% of all Muslims. Shi`ites are the “party of `Ali,” who believe that Muhammad’s son-in-law `Ali was his designated successor (imam) and that the Muslim community should be headed by a designated descendent of Muhammad. Three main subgroups of Shi`ites are Twelvers (Ithna-`Asharis), Seveners (Isma`ilis), and Fivers (Zaydis). 
  • Sufis are Islamic mystics. Sufis go beyond external requirements of the religion to seek a personal experience of God through forms of meditation and spiritual growth. A number of Sufi orders, comparable to Christian monastic orders, exist. Most Sufis are also Sunni Muslims, although some are Shi`ite Muslims. Many conservative Sunni Muslims regard Sufism as a corruption of Islam, although most still regard Sufis as Muslims. 
  • Baha’is and Ahmadiyyas are 19th-century offshoots of Shi`ite and Sunni Islam, respectively. Bahai’s consider themselves the newest of the major world’s religions but recognize that historically they originated from Shi`ite Islam in the same way that Christianity originated from Judaism. Ahmadiyyas do regard themselves as Muslims. Most other Muslims, however, deny that either group is a legitimate form of Islam and regard members of both groups as heretics — people who have corrupted and abandoned Islamic belief and practice. 
  • DruzeAlevis, and Alawis are small, sectarian groups with unorthodox beliefs and practices that split off from Islam. Druze and Alevis do not regard themselves as Muslims and are not considered Muslims by other Muslims. `Alawis have various non-Islamic practices, but debate continues as to whether they should still be considered Muslims
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