Schisms and Sects

When the prophet Muhammad died unexpectedly from illness in 632, divisions arose in the community about the question of succession. Some believed that the Prophet had named his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor, and Ali's descendants after him. Other believed that Muhammad had not named a successor, nor had he established a method of choosing his successor. These two groups eventually grew into the two main groups of Islam, the Shi'a and the Sunni. Shiites and Sunnis share many of the same religious beliefs. Both follow the Quran and observe the five Pillars of Islam. At its core, the distinction between the two groups lies in their beliefs about the proper succession of community leadership. Sunni Muslims accept the authority of the Prophet's companions, while Shi'i Muslims believe that members of the Prophet's family have the sole legitimate claim to leadership.

Shi'a Sunni
*believe Muhammad named Ali as successor *Do not believe Muhammad named successor
*Muhammad's family has sole claim to legitimate leadership *the Prophet's companions have authoritative leadership
*rely on authoritative teaching of Muhammad's descendants *rely on consensus (Arabic, ijma) of religions and religious scholars

The Sunnis are the larger of the two groups, representing about 85 percent of the world's current one billion or more Muslims. The word sunni derives from sunnah, which means "the trodden path." The sunnah is the body of custom and tradition regarding the exemplary behavior of the Prophet Muhammad, drawn mostly from the hadith, the collection of the traditions concerning Muhammad's life, sayings, and actions. Muhammad is considered the very model of Islamic conduct, inspired by God to live wisely in submission to God's will. The sunnah is a primary resource for Sunni Muslims in family law and in the ethical conduct of their lives. In addition, the Sunni rely on the consensus (Arabic, ijma) of legal and religious scholars, as opposed to the authoritative teaching of the descendants of Muhammad, as the Shi'a do. Sunni Islam is thus a tradition that emphasizes the community's role in providing wisdom about right belief and practice guided by the Quran and the sunnah.

Due to the large numbers of adherents, and the geographical and historical reach of Sunni Islam, the tradition necessarily incorporates a wide diversity of theological and legal views, and further diversity based in historical, geographical, and cultural differences. However, there are a number of historical points on which all Sunni Muslims share common ground. One of the most important of these is the rejection of the Shi'a claim that Muhammad chose Ali and his descendants as the sole legitimate heirs of the leadership of the global Muslim community.

Shrine of the Husavn ibn 'Ali, Grandson of Muhammad. Source: Public DomainThe Shi'a is the smaller of the two groups, currently representing about 15 percent of the world's Muslims. At the time of Muhammad's death, they were known as the shi'at Ali, or the partisans of Ali. Ali finally became caliph in 656, but was assassinated in 661. When Ali died, the Shi'a thought that Ali's son, Hasan ibn Ali should become caliph, but Ali's enemy Mu'awiyah became caliph instead. After Hasan died, the Shi'a supported his brother Husayn ibn Ali. Husayn and his family were massacred at Karbala in what is now modern Iraq by an Iraqi governor, a tragedy that became the defining moment for the Shi'a. It plays a critical role in Shi'i identity, ritual, and politics. It also won Muslims to the Shi'a cause, especially Muslims disaffected with the Umayyads, and non-Arab Muslims wanting to free themselves from Arab dominance.

The Shi'a prefer the title of imam to the title of caliph. In Sunni Islam, humans are in a direct relationship with God, and the caliph became simply the political leader of the Arab states that emerged after Muhammad's death. A Sunni imam is a prayer leader, but not an intercessor. On the other hand, the Shi'a believe that Islam includes intercession. The rightful successors of Muhammad, the imams, are both the religious and political authoritative leaders of the community, directly descended from the Prophet and divinely inspired. They intercede with God on behalf of Muslims.

Shi'a Sunni
Use title "imam" Use title "caliph"
Imam is intercessor Imam means "prayer leader" (not "intercessor")
Iman is descendant of Muhammad Imam is not a descendant
Imam is a religious and political leader Caliph is only a political leader

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 Zayd
Fifth 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)
Ismail Muhammad 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?

Back to Religion Library