Understanding the different branches of Islam

I have now attended two sessions of the City Lit course on “Global Political Islam’. Recently we have been looking at the various branches of the religious faith.

Virtually from the beginning of Islam, there has been a major split. Unlike the divisions in the Christian world, the differences are not about theology and belief but about authority and legitimacy. The schism in Islam dates from a dispute over the leadership (khalifa) of the Muslim community (ummah) following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in AD 632.

The majority favoured the succession of the Prophet’s societal leadership by his four companions in order of seniority, with Ali ibn Talib coming last, rejected the notion of birthright and insisted that the caliph be elected by the ummah itself. Those who held this opinion became known as the ‘people of the tradition’ (sunna) or Sunnis.

Those who supported the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Talib, as the rightful leader (caliph) became known as the Shi’atu ‘Ali (‘the party of ‘Ali’; later the Shi’a). The Shi’as held that only ‘Ali and his direct descendants (imams) could be the rightful leaders of the ummah. Sunni and Shia regard the other as herectics.

Both sects have a large number of sub-groups.

So the Sunni world is divided into four dominant schools of thought, each of which has its origin in a leader operating in the late 8th century/early 9th century.:

  • Shafi (about 30%) – mainly the Gulf
  • Hanafi (about 20%) – mainly South Asia
  • Hanbali (about 15%) – mainly the Middle East
  • Maliki (about 15%) – mainly Africa

The differences between these four schools are quite small. In terms of sources to interpret Sharia law, all agree on the primary sources (the Koran and the actions, speech and silence of the Prophet known as the Sunnah) and the secondary sources (the consensus of the companions of the Prophet and divine analogy), but there is disagreement between the schools on the additional sources (tradition, the consensus of the scholars, the consensus of the people of Medina, and the public interest known as maslaha).

The Wahabis of Saudi Arabia are a subsection of the Hanbali school.

Shias are divided into three main schools:

  • Twelvers (about 12%) – overwhelmingly Iran
  • Ismaili (about 2%)
  • Zaidi (about 0.5%)

Most Shia believe that the 12th iman went missing but that he is still in hiding and will come back as the Mahdi, the prophesied redeemer of Islam who will rule for several years before the Day of Judgment and will rid the world of evil. If this seems a bit like the belief of many Christians in the Second Coming of Christ, then Shia tradition envisages Christ as the aide of the Mahdi against the common enemy who is the Anti-Christ.

The Alawites of Syria are a subsection of the Twelvers.

Although many in the West are terrified of the threat to lives from Islamic fundamentalist movements like ISIS (which is an extreme part of the Sunni tradition), we need to understand that most of the victims of Islamic terrorist movements are in fact Muslims. This is not a war between Christianity and Islam, so much as a civil war within Islam, which is why it is so important that we have some comprehension of the different strands of Islam.

One Comment

  • neil

    Regardless of the sub-divisions, which are like a variety of wrapping paper around the same essential content, the common thread is Sharia, the Islamic law. These sub-groups of Islam are like different brand names, each with its own market share. But basically it’s the same product.

    The “conflict” is that secular laws, like those enshrined in the constitution of my country, the U.S., are founded on a tolerant, secular, egalitarian view of the world. Sharia, on the other hand, promotes violence – chopping off the hand, beheading, death by stoning, wife-beating, circumcision of infant boys; is misogynistic in assorted ways that diminish the dignity of women as human beings, and subjugates women; is intolerant – non-believers deserve death, apostates must be killed; eliminates free expression, a bedrock of liberal, progressive thought, and severely punishes those who dare to question or criticize the Koran or Mohammed.

    When Muslims live in a Muslim majority country, like Saudi Arabia, for example, they’re able to largely implement Sharia. When Muslims live in non-Muslim countries of Western Europe, for example, they try to supplant local laws and customs with Sharia, little by little, taking advantage of the open, tolerant ethos of the local population. Only in regions that have no tolerance for Islam, do Muslims remain subdued and quiet.

    So I agree the conflict isn’t between Christians and Muslims. Rather, in my view, it’s a head-on collision between modernity and outdated, ignorant notions. It’s between tolerance and intolerance. It’s between humanity aspiring toward being more civilized and a belief system that’s adamant about remaining locked at 1400 years ago – new evidence be damned.

    In this conflict, sparks may fly, but eventually modernity, good sense, progress will prevail because the arc of history tells us so. What ash and shattered pieces it leaves in its wake…only time will tell.


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