A Guide To Islamic Sects
The Commercial Appeal/September 23, 20001
The world's second-largest faith, Islam is hardly monolithic. Schisms,
focusing first on disagreements over who should lead the new faith and later
on matters of doctrine, began developing soon after the prophet Muhammad's
death in the year 632.
Here are some of the major sects within Islam, which has 1.3 billion
Accounting for at least 85 percent of the Islamic world, the Sunni
claim to be the direct continuation of the faith as defined by Muhammad. For
many years they acknowledged the religious authority of a ruling caliph, the
major point of contention with the breakaway Shiite movement. The Sunni
derive their name through reliance on the "Sunnah" or the observed sayings,
lifestyle and practices of Muhammad as recorded in a collection of writings
called the Hadith. The Sunni accept the "Sunnah" as a source of spiritual
wisdom, while the Shiite insist on the primacy of the Koran.
The smaller of the two principal branches of Islam, the Shiite
account for at least 10 percent of all Muslims. They originally were
followers of the fourth caliph, Ali, who was Muhammad's son-in-law through
the prophet's daughter Fatima. Ali claimed that Muhammad on his deathbed
selected Ali as leader of the faith, but Ali was murdered during the fifth
year of his reign. The Shiite formally broke away from Muslim leaders
recognized by the Sunni around 680. A principal belief of the Shiite is that
no caliph since Ali has been legitimate. The movement became popular among
disaffected non-Arab Muslims who feared they were held in lower esteem
within the faith.
Accounting for less than 1 percent of all Muslims, the Kharijis
were the first major schism within Islam. They broke away in 658 when they
rejected the use of arbitrators empowered to decide major issues within the
A secretive Islamic breakaway group concentrated in Lebanon around
Mt. Hermon and in the mountains near Beirut and Sidon. They refer to
themselves as the Mowahhidoon. Most Muslims consider the sect blasphemous
since it declared that God was manifested in human form as the Egyptian
caliph al Hakim Bi-amr Allah 1,000 years ago. They number at least 250,000.
The Druze do not accept new members, virtually never discuss their faith and
often pose as members of the dominant religion where they live.
A small branch of Islam that broke away from the Shiite in the
Ninth Century under the leadership of Ibn Nucair Namin Abdi. Almost
exclusively found on the Syrian coast plains, the Alawi have 1.5 million
members including Syrian President Hafez Assad.
A Shiite sect that believes the succession of spiritual
leadership should have continued through the sons of Muhammad Ibn Isma'il.
The Ismali believe that Islam has never been without a living Imam, even
though clearly recognized spiritual authority became increasingly rare as
Founded in Qadian, India, by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who died in
1908. Ahmadis believe their founder was a renovator of Islam, a position
most of the world's Muslims consider to be heretical. The group has many
These are the mystics within the Muslim faith, a religious order
that follows mystical interpretations of Islamic doctrines and practices.
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab began a campaign of
spiritual renewal in the smaller city states of Arabia in the mid- 1700s.
His extremely traditional group opposed all innovations within Islam, often
using violence to enforce its views. The group threatened to become the
first nation state in Arabia, prompting a crackdown by the Egyptian army in
1818. Today, Wahhabism is quite strong in Saudi Arabia. It demands
punishment for those who enjoy any form of music except the drum and severe
punishment up to death for drinking or sexual transgressions. It condemns as
unbelievers those who do not pray, a view that never previously existed in
mainstream Islam. Wahhabism has been an inspiration to Osama bin Laden.
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