Major Sects in Islam: Diversity and Beliefs Explored

Dec 3


Yusha Sayyid

Yusha Sayyid

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Islam, one of the world’s major religions, is often perceived as a monolithic entity. However, it is far from being a homogeneous faith. With a diverse array of beliefs, rituals, and interpretations, the Islamic world is a fascinating tapestry of sects and traditions.

Join us in this journey of discovery as we explore the rich history and complex dynamics of the major sects in Islam,Major Sects in Islam: Diversity and Beliefs Explored Articles from the well-known Sunni and Shia branches to the lesser-known Sufi, Ahmadiyya, and Ibadi sects, and even the rise of non-denominational Muslims.

Key Takeaways

  • This article explores the diversity of Islamic sects, including the Sunni-Shia schism and other less prominent denominations.
  • All Muslims are united by a common set of core beliefs and practices known as the Five Pillars of Islam.
  • Sectarian dynamics in the modern world involve a growing community embracing non-denominational values while navigating political landscapes shaped by extremist groups and Western intervention.

Exploring the Roots of Islamic Diversity

Illustration of the historical development of Islamic sects

Islamic sects started forming following the Prophet Muhammad’s death. Today, the two most widely practiced sects are Sunni and Shia Islam, with Sunni Muslims constituting approximately 90 percent of the global Muslim population. On the other hand, Shia Muslims represent about 10 to 15 percent of the Muslim population worldwide. The Sunni-Shia divide, as well as other less prominent sects, can be traced back to the political and religious succession disputes following the demise of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

Following the Prophet Muhammad’s death, the Muslim community faced the challenge of choosing a new leader. The resulting power struggle led to the emergence of the Sunni-Shia schism, with each group holding distinct beliefs about the rightful heir to Muhammad’s leadership. The Middle East, with its complex political and religious landscape, has been a fertile ground for the development of various Islamic sects throughout history.

Examining the variety among Islamic sects reveals each one’s unique history, beliefs, and practices, influenced by the interaction of political and religious elements. The subsequent sections will provide a detailed examination of the Sunni-Shia schism and other sects beyond these two principal branches of Islam.

The Sunni-Shia Schism: A Closer Look

Photo of a diverse group of Muslims praying

The Sunni-Shia divide, also referred to as the Sunni-Shia schism, originated from a disagreement over the legitimate successor to Prophet Muhammad. While both Sunni and Shia Muslims share a belief in the core tenets of Islam, they diverge in their understanding of religious authority and the rightful heir to the Prophet’s leadership.

The modern Islamic world, also known as the muslim world, continues to grapple with the political and religious implications of this schism, as sectarian tensions persist across the Middle East and South Asia.

Sunni Islam: Tradition and Majority

Sunni Islam is the largest denomination within the Islamic faith, accounting for approximately 85 percent of the global Muslim population. Sunni Muslims, including those in Sunni Saudi Arabia, adhere to the teachings of the Prophet and recognize the legitimacy of the first four caliphs, including Abu Bakr. The Salafi movement, which originates within Sunni Islam, can be further divided into three categories: the purists, who abstain from politics; the militant activists, who partake in politics; and the jihadists, who form a minority.

Sunni jurisprudence comprises four primary schools of thought:

  • Mālikī
  • Ḥanafī
  • Shāfiʿī
  • Ḥanbalī

Each school has its own unique approach to interpreting Islamic law, with varying levels of emphasis on the Quran, Hadith, and personal reasoning. Imam Nasar, a Sunni scholar, has asserted that creativity in Islam is subject to certain limitations so as not to conflict with Islamic principles.

Shia Islam: The Party of Ali

Shia Islam, the second-largest denomination of Islam, makes up approximately 10-15 percent of the total Muslim population. Contrary to Sunni beliefs, Shia Muslims consider ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, Muhammad’s cousin, and son-in-law, to be the first of the Imams and the rightful successor to Muhammad, rejecting the legitimacy of the first three Rāshidūn caliphs. The Ahl al-Bayt, or “People of the Household,” which includes Muhammad’s descendants, referred to as Imams, hold a unique spiritual and political authority within the Shia sect.

Shia Islam is further divided into three major sects: Twelvers, Ismailis, and Zaydis. Each sect has its own unique beliefs and practices, with Twelvers being the largest and most widely practiced among them. In addition to the Quran and Hadith, Shia Muslims also rely on the teachings of their Imams for religious guidance and interpretation. Ayatollahs, experienced Shia Islamic scholars, possess extensive interpretative authority and are looked to as a source of inspiration.

Sectarian Identities Beyond Sunni and Shia

Illustration of Sufi practitioners engaged in spiritual practices

While Sunni and Shia Islam are the most widely practiced sects, there are other branches of Islam that have their own unique beliefs and practices. These include Sufism, Ahmadiyya, and Ibadi Islam, among others. Each of these sects has developed its own interpretation of Islamic teachings, resulting in a diverse array of religious practices and beliefs.

Sufism: The Mystical Path

Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam that emphasizes a direct connection with God through spiritual practices. Sufis seek to discover the truth of divine love and knowledge through personal experience, often engaging in unique rituals and practices that set them apart from other Islamic sects.

Imam Rasab, a Sufi scholar, has stated that creativity in Islam is permissible as long as it adheres to the Sunnah and the Quran and does not conflict with Islamic principles.

Ahmadiyya, Ibadi, and Other Minor Sects

In addition to the established Sunni and Shia sects, there are several minor sects within the Islamic faith, such as Ahmadiyya and Ibadi Islam. Ahmadiyya, for example, was established in British India by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian in 1889. Meanwhile, Ibadi Islam is a subsect of Kharijite Islam that emerged in the 7th century CE. These sects have unique beliefs and practices that set them apart from the majority Sunni and Shia populations, further showcasing the diversity within the Islamic faith.

Navigating Sectarian Dynamics in the Modern World

Photo depicting a contemporary Islamic gathering with diverse attendees

In the current globalized context, the variety of Islamic sects continues to evolve and adapt. One notable trend is the rise of non-denominational Muslims, who do not identify with a specific Islamic sect. This growing group of individuals is particularly prominent in Central Asia, where religious devotion among Muslims tends to be relatively low.

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, the lines between sects are blurring, and many Muslims are embracing the notion of “just a Muslim” rather than adhering to any specific branch of the faith.

The Political Landscape and Sectarian Conflict

Long-standing sectarian conflicts and political rivalries have significantly influenced the Islamic world, frequently resulting in violence and instability. Historically, disputes over religious authority and political leadership have fueled tensions between various Islamic sects, such as the Sunni and Shia branches. In recent years, the continued influence of extremist groups like ISIS has further exacerbated these conflicts, contributing to the current volatile political landscape in the Middle East.

Western intervention in the Islamic world has also had a significant impact on sectarian conflicts. Some effects of this intervention include:

  • Heightened religious polarization
  • Increased probability of high-intensity conflict
  • Exacerbation of tensions through the utilization of sectarian identity by Western actors

However, it’s worth acknowledging that other factors, like the resurgence of political Islam and internal power struggles, also play a role in regional sectarian conflicts.

The Rise of Non-Denominational Muslims

Non-denominational Muslims represent a growing trend of individuals who do not adhere to a specific Islamic sect. This group of Muslims may prioritize certain values and principles, such as human dignity, human rights, and gender equality, over traditional interpretations of religious practices.

The high fertility rates of Muslim women and the overall growth of the Muslim population might also contribute to the increasing number of non-denominational Muslims. As the world becomes more interconnected, it is likely that this trend will continue to shape the landscape of the Islamic faith in the future.

Religious Practices Across Sects

Illustration comparing religious practices across different Islamic sects

Despite the varied beliefs and practices across different Islamic sects, certain core beliefs and rituals unite all Muslims. The Five Pillars of Islam form the basis of the Islamic faith. These pillars include:

  • Shahadah: the proclamation of faith
  • Salat: daily prayer
  • Sawm: fasting during Ramadan
  • Zakat: charity towards the poor and needy
  • Hajj: an annual pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime.

Core Beliefs and Unifying Rituals

Regardless of their sect, all Muslims base their religious practices on the Five Pillars of Islam. They represent the shared beliefs and rituals that unite the global Muslim community and provide a common framework for religious observance.

While the specific rituals and practices associated with each pillar may vary among different sects, the core principles remain the same, emphasizing the unity of the Islamic faith.

Sect-Specific Observances

Beyond shared rituals and beliefs, each Islamic sect has distinct observances that differentiate it from others. For example, Sunni Islam has several distinct religious practices that are exclusive to this sect, such as the practice of Al-Hijra (Islamic New Year) and the acknowledgment of Moses fasting in appreciation of Allah/God for freedom from oppression.

On the other hand, Shia Islam commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein during the month of Muharram and celebrates the birth anniversaries of the Imams as unique rituals and practices. These sect-specific observances serve to further distinguish each sect within the diverse world of Islam.

Islamic Jurisprudence and Interpretation of Sharia

Islamic jurisprudence involves the academic study of Islamic law and its daily life application, grounded in Quran and Sunnah interpretation. The interpretation of Sharia law, which is used to guide Muslims in their daily lives, varies between Sunni and Shia sects, with each group having its own unique approach to jurisprudence.

Sunni Jurisprudence: Four Schools of Thought

Sunni jurisprudence splits into four primary schools of thought:

  • Hanafi
  • Shafii
  • Maliki
  • Hanbali

Each school has its own unique approach to interpreting Islamic law, with varying levels of emphasis on the Quran, Hadith, and personal reasoning, all contributing to their religious knowledge.

The Hanafi school, for example, is the oldest and places a strong emphasis on personal opinion and reasoning. In contrast, the Shafi’i school represents a middle ground between the school of hadith and the school of juristic opinion, promoting the balancing of textual evidence with the principles of justice and equity.

Shia Jurisprudence: The Ja'fari School

Shia jurisprudence primarily follows the Ja’fari school, highlighting the authority of Imams in interpreting Islamic law. Twelvers, who adhere to Ja’fari jurisprudence, also recognize the authority of the Jurist (Marja’ al-Taqlid), who functions as a religious authority and source of emulation for the community.

The Imams are held to be the rightful successors of Prophet Muhammad and are viewed as the ultimate source of guidance in regards to religious interpretation and law.


In conclusion, the Islamic faith is a rich and diverse tapestry of sects and traditions, with each group offering its own unique perspective on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. From the well-known Sunni and Shia sects to the lesser-known Sufi, Ahmadiyya, and Ibadi branches, the diversity within Islam is a testament to the faith’s adaptability and enduring relevance in today’s complex world. As we continue to navigate the ever-evolving landscape of religious beliefs and practices, let us remember the importance of understanding and embracing the diversity that exists within the Islamic faith.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the 3 main sects of Islam?

The three main sects of Islam are Sunni, Shiite and Khawarij, with the Pew Research Center's 2009 demographic study identifying the latter as of mostly historical significance.

What are the 4 types of Muslims?

There are four main types of Muslims: Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and Barelvi. The Sunnis and Shia have various sub-sects based on their interpretation of the Quran and Ahadith, while Sufis and Barelvi mainly follow traditional Islamic practices.

What are the differences between the sects of Islam?

The major difference between the two major sects of Islam is that Shiites believe Muhammad's successor should be someone in his bloodline while Sunnis accept that a pious individual could be the successor.

Is Hanafi and Salafi the same?

No, Hanafi and Salafi are not the same. Hanafi is a Sunni Fiqh school, while Salafi is a school of theology influenced by the Hanbali doctrine.

What are the 4 schools of Islam in order?

The four main schools of Sunni Islamic law are Hanbali, Maliki, Hanafi and Shafi'i, named after their founders Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, Mālik ibn Anas, Abū Ḥanīfa al-Nuʿmān and Muḥammad ibn Idrīs al-Shāfiʿī, respectively.