Decoding the sects of Islam

Does Islam have sects? I started pondering on this question last week, when someone new to Islam asked me how the official figure of 1.6 billion Muslims in the world panned out. While some scholars such as Dr. Zakir Naik may naively claim “Islam has no sects”, the truth is far from it as seen with the sectarian conflicts we are accustomed to nowadays. I also understand the viewpoint of such scholars in denying the fracture of Islam fearing a disappearance of the core essence of Islamic principles i.e unity of the ‘Ummah’ (Islamic community). The most obvious instance of this fracture is that between the Sunnis and Shias. 

The Sunni- Shia divide DID NOT exist during the time of the Prophet and only came about as a result of the ambiguity in choosing the Prophets successor as the leader of the ‘Ummah’ post his demise. While one group chose Abu Bakr Siddiq, the prophet’s closest friend, companion and father-in-law, another group that sheltered the prophet in Medina during his early years as a Prophet was of the opinion that only the prophet’s family should be rightful successors to the title of Caliph i.e leader of the Muslim people.  Ali, the prophet’s son-in-law and cousin was therefore put forward by the latter group and later constituted to form the Shia of today.

The division initially was only purely on the basis of allegiance and early Shia groups were no different that the Sunnis in terms of beliefs and Islamic theology. It can thus be argued that there was no division per se of Islam at the time. The actual rift we see today came about as a result of a sequence of events starting with the assassination of Ali by a fringe group known as the Khwajarites in 661 A.D to the murder of Ali’s son Husayn in 680 A.D by members of the then ruling Ummayad dynasty. Popular support grew for the family of the Prophet to take the mantle of leader and the Shias abolished the term Caliph and substituted it with a new title - Imam. 

Since then both the Sunnis and Shias have had various sub-sects form under them. On the Sunni side, the differences in the sects were purely on interpretation of understanding the Quranic  laws and social framework, while on the Shia side, the differences were more on the line of succession of their Imams.

In addition to this, over the past 1000 years, many new groups have emerged. Only a handful of those groups have survived to this day. 

During the course of my research, questions did arise on the method of classifying a group as a separate group vs. a sub sect under one of the Shia or Sunni sects. I therefore kept the following rules in mind for the best possible classification of Islamic sects possible (in my opinion anyway)-

  1. Groups that differed from the core characteristics of Islam, i.e the concept of one God and Mohammed‘s (pbuh) claim to prophet hood were automatically not classified as Islamic and hence not considered.
  2.  Groups that shared the same initial beliefs but later differed owing to separate successor claims were broad-based and taken as one group. For example- Nizari Shias and Dawoodi Shias have the same core beliefs and differ only on the succession of their imams and were hence classified under Ismailism. Similarly other groups were also broad-based where there were multiple sub-sects with common beliefs
The table below shows the 16 sects of Islam as seen today with details on their estimate populations and characteristics of their core beliefs
The 16 Sects of Islam as seen today (Source: Wikipedia, Pew Research) - Click to enlarge

-- Hanafism, Shafism and Malikism --

Founders: The 3 schools of thought were started by Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Shaafi and Imam Malik respectively and represent 60-70% of Muslims worldwide. (Not to be confused with the ‘Imam’ reference in Shia parlance)

How they are different from others: All three are classified as Sunni groups and their differences are in the minute details of interpreting Muslim jurisprudence. For instance – Time of certain prayers differs slightly between each of these groups based on the respective Imam’s understanding of the Sun’s position. Nevertheless, these 3 groups have seldom clashed and integrate into societies well. It should also be noted that Shaafism is predominately found in coastal regions of the world suggesting that it may have been the most common school of thought among Arab sailors in the middle ages.

Revered personalities other than the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh): None

Top 2 majority population regions: Hanafism (Pakistan and North India), Shaafism (Indonesia and South India), Malikism (Nigeria and Inner Egypt)

-- Hanbalism , Wahabbism and Qutbism --

Founders: Imam Hanbal, Abd-al –Wahabb , and Syed Qutb, are considered to be the founders of these three groups respectively. Together, they represent 6-7% of the Muslim population

How they are different from others: Traditionally, Hanbalism was grouped as the 4th school of Islamic thought, however with the emergence of terrorism recently and its link to Salafi ideology, they are classified separately with Wahabbism and Qutbism (even though all three are Sunni in nature). Seen as highly non-progressive, the Salafi ideology which is a mainstay with all 3 groups, hinges on the concept of removing ‘Bidah’ i.e innovation from Islam. Consequently, followers of these groups believe in strict adherence to the alleged ways of the Prophet often applying medieval concepts to modern scenarios. The Hanbalis are classified as Purist Salafis who practice strict adherence to Salafi Ideology but do not enforce it. The Wahabbists on the other hand are considered to be active Salafis often using Salafi ideology as a political tool to implement Shariah (Quranic law) and in some cases enforcing it. The most extreme form of Salafi ideology are the followers of Qutbism who consider Salafi ideology as a basis for waging Jihad (Holy War) against all non- believers.

Revered personalities other than the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh): None

Top 2 majority population regions:  Hanbalism (Saudi Arabia and Qatar), Wahabbism (Saudi Arabia and Egypt), Qutbism (ISIS and Libya)

-- Jafarism, Ismailism and Zaydism --

Founders: Imam Jafaar al Sadiq, Imam Ismail Jafaar and Imam Zayd respectively. They represent about 10-11% of the worldwide population of Muslims.

How they are different from others: All three are Shia groups and hence the differences lie mostly in the lineage of their Imams. Among the 3, the Jafaaris are the most populous group while the Zaydis are considered to be oldest of the 3 Shia groups and may well be ancestors of the group from Medina (Ansars) from which the first Shia group was formed

Revered personalities other than the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh):  Ali

Top 2 majority population regions: Jafaarism ( Iran and Iraq), Ismailism (Pakistan and India), Zaydism (Yemen and Saudi Arabia)

-- Sufism , Alwatism, Ahmediyya, Bahai and Druze --

Founders: Sufism is divided into multiple orders and hence has multiple founders. It represents 13-14% of the Muslim population.  Besides Sufism, the other groups contribute less than 1% of the overall Muslim population and in some cases have founders who are believed to be prophets who came after the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh)

How they are different from others: Sufism is a mystical form of Islam incorporating music and the arts into religion. They first gained prominence from missionary saints who spread the message of Islam through Africa and later Asia. Among the other groups, there is a commonality in that they all believe in prophets who came after Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) and other specific beliefs. For example, the Druze believes in reincarnation. All of these groups are considered non-Muslims in the eyes of most traditional Muslims

Revered personalities other than the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh):  Sufism (Multiple), Alwatism (Ali), Ahmediyya (Ghulam Ahmed), Bahai (Bahaullah) and Druze (Jethro)

Top 2 majority population regions:  Sufism (Pakistan and India), Alwatism (Syria and Turkey), Ahmediyya (India and UK), Bahai (Israel and United States) and Druze (Syria and Lebanon)

-- Quranism and Ibadism --

Founders: Quranism does not have a founder and is an ideology adapted by its adherents. Ibadism was founded by ibn Ibadi. Both these groups represent less than 1% of the world’s Muslim population

How they are different from others: Quranism is different in that they reject the hadith (Book of sayings and actions of the prophet) completely. Consequently, the norms of prayer and general Islamic philosophies come from an individualistic interpretation of the Quran. Popular Islamic practices such as Polygamy and circumcision for instance are not allowed as it is not mentioned in the Quran but only in the hadith.

Ibadism is a breakaway group who are considered to one of the first groups to distance themselves from mainstream Muslims. There are minor differences with the Sunni groups on prayer and other aspects. Some say they are descended from the Khwarajites who assassinated Ali, however there is no conclusive evidence on this.

Revered personalities other than the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh):  None

Top 2 majority population regions:  Quranism (Nigeria and Egypt), Ibadism (Oman and Algeria)

Figure B below shows how these sects tolerate new or foreign ideas and concept by measuring the perceived level of toleration to the population. It can be inferred that less than 1% of the Muslim population in the world today are classified as highly tolerant. For the most part Muslims are neutral with a small percentage (about 10%) bordering the non-tolerant zone leading to extremism.

Fig B: How tolerant are the sects of Islam to new ideas / philosophies - Click to enlarge
 Other things to note:
  1. It should be noted that many groups that are defined here as Islamic are not regarded as such by a majority of the Muslim population. They, however fulfill the primary requirements of Islamic belief and hence are classified as Muslims. For example, many Sunni Muslims who fall under Qutbism or Wahabbism generally do not recognize the Shia as Muslim. Similarly both Sunnis and Shias, do not identify with groups such as Sufis and Ahmediyyas brandishing them as heretics.
  2. Within each sub sect, there lies a very wide range in the ideology of how Islam should be practiced. This is indicated in the graph by the following symbol:
The red and green representing the two extremes. For example, Within the Hanafi school of thought, while the majorities are Muslims who integrate well with modern societies, there are a few such as the ‘Deobandis’ who practice a stricter form of Hanafism as seen in the case of the ‘Taliban’.


Unknown said...

Re: Ismailism - Main characteristic: H Prophet Muhammed (SAW) is considered to be the final messenger central to Islam

As an Ismaili (Dawoodi Bohra), I don't agree with your above assertion. We have always been taught that Muhammed Rasulullah (SAW) is 'khatam ul anbiyah wa mursaleen' - the final prophet and messenger.

Where did you get your facts of Ismailism from? You should correct this wrong and deeply hurting opinion.

Nash Zoltano said...

Hi Nasib52,

I am sorry if the post offended you in anyway..that was obviously not the intention. While you are correct about Dawoodi Bohras, I must point out that the classification is loosely based for the purpose of putting into 'boxes' the various similar sects under Ismailism. In the same way that all Salafis cannot be generalized to be radicals, I take it you will understand that not all Ismailis (like you) think of anyone other that the Prophet as the final messenger. There are infact a large section of Ismailis who hold equal reverence to Prophet individuals such as Aga Khan.

Unknown said...

Thank you for clarifying about Dawoodi Bohras' belief.

Aga Khan followers would also not agree with your opinion regarding holding equal reverence with Prophet Muhammed SAW.

I hope readers of your opinions are not serious researchers and/or take it as facts; especially regarding 'minority' branches/beliefs.

Nash Zoltano said...

I do know of many many Ismailis who hold people like Aga Khan and Ali with so much reverence that the distinction with the Prophet is almost absent. That said you are correct in that my usage of the word 'final' may not have been accurate and I have made amends to the same.

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