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Religion Library: Islam

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka


In the view of the Shi'a, Ali was the first imam, Hasan was the second imam, and Husayn was the third imam. After the death of the fourth imam, Zayn al-Abidin in 713, Shiites disagreed on succession, with a small minority supporting his son Zayd as the fifth imam. They are known as the Zaydis, or the Fivers. The majority recognized Muhammad al-Baqir as the fifth imam, but suffered another split over the succession to the sixth imam, Jafar al-Sadiq. One group acknowledged Jafar's previously deceased son Ismail as the seventh imam, while another acknowledged Jafar's living son Musa al-Kazim as the seventh, and five more after him. The first group is known as the Seveners, or the Ismailis, and the second is known as the Twelvers, or the Ithna Ashari. Both groups believe in a Hidden Imam, Ismail in the case of the Seveners, and the twelfth imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, in the case of the Twelvers. Both groups believe that the Hidden Imam will return as a savior to restore peace and justice to the earth.


Shi’a recognized succession of Muhammad
First imam: Ali ibn Abi Talib
Second imam: Hasan ibn Ali
Third imam: Husayn ibn Ali

Fourth imam: Zayn al-Abidin

Fifth Imam: "Fivers" (Zaydis) recognize ZaydFifth Imam: Majority recognize
Muhammad al-Baqir (son of Zayn)
Sixth imam: Jafar al-Sadiq
"Seveners" (Ismailis) recognize: Ismael (dead son of Jafar)"Twelvers" (Ithna Ashari) recognize: Musa al-Kazim


The traditions of Sufism draw from both the Sunni and Shi'a branches. The Arabic word sufi means "one who wears wool." Sufism emerged in the decades following Muhammad's death, but gained political steam in reaction to the Umayyad dynasty, as many Muslims were critical of the materialism and of the caliphate. It was also a reaction to an increasing emphasis in Muslim society on rules for behavior. Some Muslims felt their society was becoming spiritually empty, and longed to experience the heightened spiritual state into which Muhammad entered when he received his revelations.

Belief in a "Hidden Imam"
Seveners (Ismailis)Twelvers (Ithna Ashari)
IsmailMuhammad al-Mahdi

Sufism grew slowly, its teachers slowly acquiring status and followers. Early Sufi Muslims renounced all worldly goods and wore coarse and uncomfortable woolen clothing. By the 9th century, the term had come to apply to Muslims who pursued spirituality through the discipline of mind and body. By the 12th century, established orders (Arabic, tariqahs) had formed, with a variety of responsibilities and functions.

The ultimate goal of Sufi practice is awareness of God's presence in the world and in the self. In their teaching and their mystical poetry, Sufis stress God's mercy, gentleness, and beauty. In their daily practice, they stress contemplation, spiritual development, and cultivation of the soul. Sufism has spread to all parts of the world, and attracts both Sunni and Shi'i Muslims, men and women, from all social classes. Sufis have played an important role in Islam as missionaries, and have made a major contribution to Islamic culture, especially through their poetry.

Study Questions:
1.     What are the two major sects of Islam? How did they come to be split?
2.     Describe the beliefs of Sunni Islam.
3.     Describe the beliefs of Shi’a Islam.
4.     What does Sufism teach? Why is it open to Muslims of both major sects?


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