A Primer On Islam: Groups, Sects and Shari’a (Lesson 2 of 6)

Welcome to this second lesson on my introduction to Islam. For the first lesson, I introduced some basic terms and concepts of Islam; this week I want to share the incredible diversity of Islam. In a nutshell, Islam is not one monolithic entity, but a living, breathing faith shaped by multiple contexts and a very rich history. Muslims do not ordinarily focus on these kind of distinctions (certainly not in the way Christians are apt to do with each other!), but these differences do affect the way Muslims interact with the world.

A Primer on Islam

Lesson Two

by Pastor Bob

Major Groups Within Islam, Sects and Related Traditions


Sunni Muslims: The majority of Muslims (85%).

  • Essentially “mainstream” Islam and very much a “lay” movement.
  • Tend to highly regard tradition and community consensus when making decisions.

Shi’a Muslims: The next largest group of Muslims.

  • Referred to as the Shi’ites. Found largely in Iran and Iraq.
  • Tend to rely more on inspired teachers who are related to Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali.
  • “Twelvers” refers to the majority of Shi’a Muslims who regard the twelve principle Imams. Iran is 90% “twelver” Shi’ites.


Sufi Muslims

  • Focused on mysticism, this group is comprised of both Sunni & Shi’a Muslims.


Isma’ilis or “Seveners”

  • They are “Seveners” because they acknowledge the seven principle Imams following the death of Muhammad.
  • A sub-group of Ismai’ilis follow their revered leader called the Agha Khan.
  • They are found all over the world, but particularly in the Indian sub-continent, and East Africa, as well as the UK and the United States.

Zaydis or “Fivers”

  • Considered the fifth Imam, Zayd, the last rightful Imam. Established in Yemen.


  • These traditions arose within an Islamic milieu and have some shared elements with Islam.  Some are more closely related to Islam, but all are distinctively their own religion and consider themselves as such.


  • One of the founders, and its namesake, Isma’il al Darazi (d. 1020) believed that the sixth Fatamid Caliph (and Ismai’ili Imam) al-Hakim, was Divine.
  • With al-Hakim’s mysterious disappearance in 1021, the Druze teach that he didn’t die.
  • This is a sub-group of the Isma’ilis and is very secretive.
  • Found today mainly in Lebanon, Israel and Syria.


  • Founded by Guru Nanak (b.1469) near Lahore Pakistan. Popular among the Punjabi people.
  • Blending of personal devotion of popular Hinduism (bhakti), the contemplative experience of mystical Islam (Sufism) and the controlled ritual practices of Tibetan Buddhism (Tantrism).
  • Sikhs in the U.S. are often confused with Muslims because of their distinctive dress, particularly the prescribed wearing of a turban by male Sikhs. Because of this confusion, Sikhs are experiencing the current prejudice and even violence aimed against Muslims. Sikhs are not Muslims, they are Sikhs and more profoundly, they are fellow human beings.


  • Founded by Mizra Ali Muhammed (the Bab) and Mizra Husayun Ali (Baha’u’lla) in 1844 in Iran.
  • An offshoot of the Babi sect of Persia who were “twelver” Shi’a Muslims.
  • Severely persecuted in Iran, they are headquartered in Haifa, Israel and have become quite popular in Europe and America due to their focus on world unity and peace.
  • God is seen as being manifested through nine religious leaders including Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad and Baha’u’llah.


Islamic Law (Shari’a) and its major schools


  • Islamic religious law, shari’a, is based upon the principles and regulations of the Qur’an and the Hadith (The written-down words and practices of Muhammad).
  • Islamic scholars interpreted these sources and created legal opinions based on these sources.
  • These legal opinions dictated all aspects of Muslim behavior, including worship, finances, social practices and public behavior.
  • After roughly three centuries following Muhammad’s death, the shari’a became codified largely under four Sunni legal schools and one Shi’a school. It then began to take on a sacred quality of its own.
  • Because of the multiplicity of schools of law and their legal opinions, there are always multiple ways of validly interpreting an action or crime and its consequences.
  • There is no monolithic “shari’a” but an ongoing adapting of laws with certain schools of law dominating certain regions. Today, Muslims struggle to apply the shari’a faithfully to their context and struggle with modernism and secularism.
  • Assessing shari’a:  Being such a broad-based concept and diverse in its practice, it is not surprising that shari’a is so little understood by non-Muslims.
  1. Shari’a is about the practical implementation of faith values in daily life.  This includes how a Muslim worships, what they eat, how they relate to each other, and importantly, because the Islamic empire grew so rapidly, how to relate to non-Muslims.  Muslims have lived side-by-side with non-Muslim neighbors for the last fourteen hundred years, both as majority and minority, and have figured out how to live within the principles of shari’a–even within modern communist countries antagonistic towards any religion.
  2. As shared in Lesson One of this primer: The vast majority of Muslim-Americans deeply appreciate the American Constitution-based legal system; contrary to wanting to supplant or supersede it, they find it complementary to living in accordance with the values of shari’a.


  • Founder: Abu Hanifa of Iraq (d. 767).
  • Emphasized Qur’an and use of qualified, private opinion and analogy in interpreting its meaning. If a literal application of a law seemed unjust, adaptation to the context is applied.
  • Roughly 35% of the world’s Muslims follow this legal tradition, mostly in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and countries that were formerly regions of the Ottoman Empire such as Turkey, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan & Syria).


  • Founded by Malik ibn Anas of Medina (d. 795).
  • Skeptical of private opinion in legal matters, he stressed a communal consensus of the law as dictated by the community’s understanding (Medina) of the practices of Muhammad.
  • Roughly 25% of Muslims follow this tradition found mainly in North and West Africa.


  • Founded by Muhammad al-Shaifi’i of Egypt (d. 820).
  • He sought the middle ground between an over dependence on the authority of reason or community. His focus was on the Qur’an and the Hadith with analogy and communal consensus as secondary.
  • One could say that he used the sources of Hanifa but interpreted like Malik.
  • Roughly 15% of Muslims, followers are found in parts of the Middle East, East Africa, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.


  • Founded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal of Baghdad (d. 855).
  • A literalist, he vigorously opposed rational and private interpretation as well as the use of analogy and communal consensus. Muslims are to follow the statements of the Qur’an and Hadith as literally as possible.
  • His thought has profoundly influenced fundamentalism within contemporary Islam.
  • Less than 5% of the world’s Muslims, it is most influential in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, particularly through Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.


  • Founded by Ja’farl-Sadiq (d. 765) the sixth imam of Shi’a Islam.
  • Out of the Shi’a emphasis for its religious leaders, this school emphasizes the personal interpretation (ijtihad).
  • It is found wherever there are Shi’ites: Iran, Pakistan, North India, and East Africa.

Pastor Bob is a pastor in San Diego.

More in this series:

A Primer on Islam: The Basics (Lesson 1 of 6)

A Primer on Islam: Historical Outline (Lesson 3 of 6)

A Primer on Islam: History Behind the News (Lesson 4 of 6)

A Primer on Islam: Muslims in Context (Lesson 5 of 6)

Primer on Islam: Muslims in North America (Lesson 6 of 6)

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  • charles

    great piece….

  • I liked the first installment so much I read all six. Excellent resource.

  • Wow, what an excellent primer. How much I don’t know. Looking forward to reading more.

  • Tana Schott via Facebook

    Already did. Will do it again.

  • Anne Young via Facebook

    like, like, share, share…
    even OFF-line (!))

  • Sikhism?

    In your section, “SOME MORE FAMILIAR SECTS AND SOME TRADITIONS RELATED TO ISLAM” could you do more to distinguish the fact that Sikhism is a religion in its own right, not a sect of Islam? From the way you’ve organized this, it’s not immediately clear you recognize this.

  • Pastor Bob

    Great comment. Sikhism would definitely be classified as a tradition related to Islam (and Hinduism and Buddhism), which is my main point, but is also a religion in its own right. Sikhs do not consider themselves Muslims and Muslims do not consider Sikhs to be Muslims. Unfortunately for Sikhs in the U.S., they are often misconstrued as Muslims and suffer the current prejudice and even violence aimed at Muslims.

  • Diana A.

    Me too!

  • Donald Rappe


  • Donald Rappe


  • Unfortunate that you decided to list Sikhism here under Islam. I am concerned especially because of the current charged atmosphere in the US where we are being targeted due to mistaken identity. Sikhs the only people that wear a turban in the US and support unshorn hair.

  • Want to add that the only similarity with Islam is the belief in ONE God (monotheism). Sikhs DO NOT believe in any of the tenets of Islam or Hinduism and is a distinct religion. You may call Sikhism an offshoot of Islam or Hinduism only if you are prepared to call Islam or Christianity an off-shoot of Judaism. Thanks.

  • Pastor Bob

    Thank you Daljeet. You likely missed my previous comment below, but I went ahead and changed the outline to hopefully bring greater clarity for future readers. You raise an excellent point about how each of our religions understand themselves and their relationships with other religions. Islam and Christianity are directly related to Judaism, but are distinct in their own right. Each tradition instinctively distances themselves from the other (much like sibblings), yet there are also similarities, shared figures and common purpose. My own purpose is not to collapse religions into one another, but to clarify their similarities and differences in order to bring mutual understanding. Thanks for your input.

  • Thanks Bob. Appreciate it.

  • Val P.

    I am amazed at so much history – that I didn’t know a thing about! I never read anything about the Muslim religion before. Thank you so much for this.

  • Diana A.

    Pastor Bob: If Christianity and Islam are related to Judaism (and I can definitely see that they are) how would you describe that relationship? I view Judaism as a parent religion to Christianity. Is this accurate or would you characterize it in a somewhat different fashion? I’m also not sure where Islam fits into “the family tree.” Thanks.

  • Pastor Bob

    Great question Diana. It’s complicated by the reality that each religion views the other religions differently. I deal with some of this complexity in my article, “What Do Christians Do With the Jews?” but it ultimately depends upon your perspective.

    Each religion views its own revelation as superseding the others. Islam, the historically newer tradition, understanding itself to embody the final revelation of God, just as Christianity understands itself as superseding Judaism (hence the “New Testament” and significantly, the Jewish scriptures become the “Old Testament”). Islam deals with Judaism and Christianity by understanding the major prophets in Judaism and Christianity as leading up to Mohammad, the final prophet. Christianity basically absorbs Judaism as a footnote to Christ (the new always trumps the old) and considers any other revelation as heretical. The Jews can’t be bothered because they live in a covenant relationship with God that precedes Christianity and Islam, and is less about a predefined set of beliefs and more about family and community.

    I hope this is somewhat helpful.

  • Diana A.

    It is. Thank you.

  • So, one of my friends is convinced that Muslims are, pretty much by definition, out to overthrow the US Constitutional system. I’d like to refer him to the bit you mentioned above, about the vast majority of American Muslims appreciating the US system. Do you have any kind of poll or article I can point him to? (He’s *so* not going to take a bunch of liberal, progressive Christians as a valid source.)