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Islamic Sects. An Extremely Simplified Description

Updated on May 15, 2009

The Hajj to Mecca, Islam's holiest city

This is very much NOT an in-depth look at Islam...

Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is not a united or unified religion or belief system. Unlike either of the worlds other two major religions, however, there is a quantifiable date and an initial event that you might say “kicked off the start of Islam”.

A Very Brief History of the Beginning…

In the year 610 CE, the Prophet Mohammed received his first revelation from the Archangel Gabriel (or Jibrael in Arabic) while meditating in a cave during the month of Ramadan. By 622 CE, Islam as a cohesive religion was formed, with the words of God or Allah as given to Mohammed documented in a text known as the Quran. Experts agree that the majority of the scripture or Sura contained in the Quran is an amalgamation of tenets and beliefs many hundreds of years older than Islam as well as compilations of many men over the proceeding few hundred years.

In this regard, the Quran is very similar to the Bible.

So then, lots of centuries go by…during this time the Muslim Arabs take off on a quest for land, power and converts across Africa and Andalusia (modern day Spain). They are hugely successful until they reach the Frankish Kingdom (loosely, this was France, Belgium, Germany, Northern Italy and most other parts of modern day western Europe, as far north as Austria). In fact, they were so successful, they pushed through ancient Aquitaine as far as Burgundy (modern day southern France). Their forward advances towards world domination were stopped here, however, by The Lombards and Charles Martell, amongst others.

OK, back to the Sects…

The Sunni

Sunni Muslims are by far the majority. Approximately 90% of all Muslims in the world are Sunni. These are the mainstream, traditional Muslims who believe in a strict determinism. The defining belief of Sunni Muslims (and the source of their ancient rift with the Shia) is that the acceptable successors to Mohammed by the subsequent leaders of Islam or "caliphate" could and should be chosen from anyone suitable that was a member of Mohamed’s tribe, but not necessarily an heir or relative of Mohamed.

The Shia

The Shiite’s central belief is that after the assassinations of the fourth Caliph in 661 CE, the next successor to Mohamed should have been Ali, his brother in law. They split with the Sunni over the issue of succession shortly thereafter. According to Shiite doctrine, their spiritual and political leader is the Imam, who is said to be a direct blood descendant of Ali. The Shia and Sunni differ on matters of Quranic doctrine and the Shia even have their own cannon of the Hadith (the description of Mohamed’s words and deeds). Another primary difference is the belief in a justice system by the Shia that is inherited from the Mu’tazilits or “rationalists”.

So I guess a glib person might venture to say that the main rift in Islam is over meritocracy vs. nepotism…

but wait, there’s more…

The Sufi

Sufism officially developed in the 10th century CE as a type of mystical interpretation of Islam. The basic tenet was of Pantheism or a belief that God and the universe are one. Mainstream Muslims disagree with this idea and instead believe in God (Allah) as a separate being who created the universe.

There was a growing materialism that pervaded Islam around this time. Muslims had gained great power and acquired much wealth and land in a relatively short amount of time. As a result, many Muslims had grown rich and complacent and therefore somewhat laissez fare in their attitudes towards Islam. Sufism arose in part as a reaction to this newly developed way of life.

Sufi’s believe they may attain an inner, mystical knowledge of God through mediation, deprivation, fasting and prayer. In addition, the Sufi believe that the Quran could be interpreted in many ways which gave license to seek hidden, mystical meanings within its pages.

Today, Sufism is most prevalent in Pakistan, though Sufi’s are found all over the world. They are the rebels of Islam…the hippies or the “new agers” to use western terms. Much of what we have from Islam’s golden age of poetry and art was created by Sufi Muslims. The most well known example is Rumi, the Persian poet of the 11th century CE


Two hundred years after the rise of Sufism and four hundred years after Charles Martel stopped the Islamic Jihad into Europe at the Battle of Tours, Islam was suffering from another crisis of stagnation and devolution. In the 12th century CE, Muslims had begun to revert to idol and tomb worship and the austere monotheism of the previous centuries had seriously degraded. From this environment a peaceful revisionist movement known as Wahhabism took root.

The movement was named for Sheikh Muhammad ibn And al-Wahhab, a charismatic individual from the area around modern day Riyadh who, by the age of 10, had memorized the Quran and was leading prayers. Sheikh al-Wahhab had written many books on the subject of reformation based on the Quran by the time Wahhabism had become a full blown movement.

So maybe it could be said that Wahhabism is somewhat akin to the Lutheran movement that took place in Christianity, whereby the reformers attempted to get the religion back to what it was originally meant to be. And by “originally”, of course I mean before the Catholic Church started putting ritual before doctrine.

In Conclusion

There are a variety of sub-sects within each sect and adherents to different philosophies within those sub-sects. Much of it, in fact the majority, has common tenets such as the Five Pillars of Islam (profession of faith, prayers, alms for the poor, the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca and the observance of Ramadan). The differences, however minor they may appear to our modern minds, are the ancient wedge issues that have prevented unity in the Middle East for many centuries now.

It is naïve to think that these “minor” differences can be overcome by intervention from any one person or group from the West.

In my opinion, Islam is at a period in its history that Christianity was in around the time just before the Renaissance. Time does not move at the same pace for all peoples of the world, as hard as that is to comprehend. Just as Christianity has (in many ways) progressed, so will Islam…Masha'Allah!


A History of Islam by the History Channel

Charles de Steuben, Bataille de Poitiers, en octobre 732. Painted between 1834 and 1837, today Musée du château de Versailles, France.

A flag of Islam


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    • profile image


      3 years ago

      before british rule in india, only shia and sunnis were there. After the rule ended, ummah split into sects. Deobands scholars were present before british rule and even today. One will certainly find deobandi scholar in every part of the world and also Jamaat worker working according to Prophet Muhammad saw and Sahaba to strengthen imaan and ummah without criticising any sect and doing firqa parasti. Those who do not comment or criticise or oppose any sect simultaneously, following quran and sunnah, working with the aim of our prophet that every mankind should go to jannah is on the right path unless he/she has any aqeedah against quran, hadees or sahaba's view or performs any sin.

    • profile image

      Friendly Muslim 

      5 years ago

      It seems that some of what has been stated could mislead people who have little knowledge of Islam. My analysis is not exhaustive. Many have already raised points on the error regarding Ali (the fourth Caliph) etc. Moreover it's been 4 years that the article was posted and so I believe much of what follows might have dawned upon the author already.

      This part might be misleading particularly:

      "Experts agree that the majority of the scripture or Sura contained in the Quran is an amalgamation of tenets and beliefs many hundreds of years older than Islam as well as compilations of many men over the proceeding [sic.] few hundred years."

      Sura or Surah, by the way, is a chapter and the Qur'an has 114 chapters (Surahs).

      Firstly, Islam didn't "originate" in the Arabian Peninsula nor did Muhammad invent the religion. On the contrary, Muslims believe that all the Prophets (Abraham, Moses and Jesus included) were sent by God for the guidance of humans from time to time with the foremost mission of calling people to the worship of one true God-called "Allah" in Arabic-without associating any partners.

      "Muslim", by the way, is an Arabic word which means "one who surrenders". In the theological context it means "one who surrenders to the will of Allah". Obviously, Muslims believe that all Prophets were Muslim. So, in proclaiming the word of God, Muhammad was only reviving the message of earlier Prophets.

      Therefore, it becomes absolutely clear why the Qur'an seems to be an "amalgamation" of the beliefs of earlier people. Simply because of the fact that all the Prophets essentially taught the same basic tenets. So, if, for example, the Qur'an said,"Be kind to your parents" or “Don't associate partners with God” and if earlier people said similar things then it wouldn't be fair to accuse Muhammad of plagiarism. On the contrary it might very well be taken as a sign of his truthfulness.

      Also, Muslims believe that, unlike the Bible, the Qur'an-- the whole of it, word for word-- is from Allah (the only God Muslims worship), the Lord of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them all). It is not like the Bible because, it has not, over the years, been corrupted. However, it is true that many differing groups interpret the verses of the Qur'an to support their own particular viewpoint, sometimes claiming things that come nowhere close to what Islam actually teaches. So, for example, many who've misunderstood Islam would take some, rather "violent" verses, which are otherwise wartime instructions, and present them as the general teachings of Islam and vice versa. That goes for Muslims and non-muslims alike.

      Islam is a complete way of life and hence has instruction on every aspect of it; food, clothing, worship, marriage, divorce, marital relations, inheritance, education, economy, warfare, peace, treaties, weapons, environment etc. So, while the Qur'an has to have verses on rewards and mercy etc., it must not be surprising to find verses related to punishment and penalty.

      It is also interesting to note that apart from the Qur'an Muslims also have something called the “Hadith”. Put simply, Hadith (also referred to as “Sunnah” sometimes) is a collection of texts that document the sayings, actions and approvals of Muhammad. Muslims started writing these hadith down quite early so as to preserve the original message of Islam. As is evident, often times, it acts as an explanation of the verses of the Qur'an by illustrating how the Prophet acted upon a certain command in the Quran or how handled a particular situation . Not surprisingly, Muslims consider the Hadith along with the Qur'an to be the primary source of their creed and legal rulings.

      So, to sum it up, the Qur'an is the uncorrupted word of God. Unlike the Bible it doesn't have multiple authors. It is also not the word of Muhammad.

      Also to believe that the present form the Christianity has taken should be a model for Muslims to follow is something that I would disagree with. Muslims will be better off if they follow in the footsteps of all Prophets especially the last of them-Muhammad- and implement their message in their lives without giving in to pressure from the secular or "modernist" forces. Of course by that I don’t mean that they should shun all material and intellectual progress that has been made ever since the Prophet died.

      For anyone who wants to know more about Islam, I think this is a booklet they should begin with. It's called "A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam." Download it for free here

    • Mathew James profile image

      Mathew James 

      5 years ago

      Islam started out as a beautiful woven sweater that protected those who wore it. But over the years this perfect sweater has become worn out and torn. The perfect threads that wove the sweater together are becoming loose and broken. Its pieces are becoming divided. This sweater needs to be repaired. It needs to be sewn back together into one fabric.

    • profile image

      TJ - Karachi 

      6 years ago

      I appologies first to comment on this forum, because neither I can explain my thought in english, not I have command on Islamic History (though Alhamdo-Lillah I am Muslim). However, what I have heard from my elders, is that: Everything Allah create in the universe is Muslim, say it be Human, Galaxies, Sun, Moon, Stars, Planets and other Creations (we know them or not) because every-creation prayer ALLAH. It is us who distinguish them from each other with different regions, sects and groups. This is unfortunate for them who do not observe the Sun-Rising from East every-day till the time Allah wants. Every-thing in this universe is programmed by Allah, and cannot deviate from the task assigned. All prophets brought the message of ONENESS OF ALLAH, who is our creator.

      It is sad to notice, that the most beautiful and powerful creation of Allah (the human-being) do not feel Allah. Lets not talk about the dividing factors - just talk about gathering the humanity and creating a loving & peaceful world - where every-one respect the other and his/her believes.

      Islam teaches us to respect every-one and his/her believes. Let people chose themselves the path and destiny by their own judgement. Hate is not the tradition of Islam. We beleive in tolerance and love, that our Allah has teach us through all prophets, 4 books, and the reflects from the lives of all prophets.

      Please think about our children - what world are we leaving for them to live-in. The greatness is in forgiveness not in revenge - otherwise we all will keep killing ourselves, and there will be no difference in Human and Animal. Let us and our children look beautiful with variety of languages, accents, cloths, cultures, welcoming-style, etc. etc.


    • profile image


      6 years ago

      The rightouis path is following the Quran n the Sunnah meaning teaching n practice of our beloved prophet peace be upon him which his tribe, caliph like Abu Bakr, Omar n Utham n his nephew Ali who was the fourth caliph all did, they never divided themselves into sects, they all called them self MUSLIMS, today's generation ppl are dividing Islam into sects such as shia, Sufi n Wahhabi which is permissible becuz there dividing from the Sunnah that the prophet PBUH left for us to follow n practice after his death that's why the prophet mentions there will be 73 sects in Islam n only one will go to heaven the one that follows the Quran and my Sunnah ! 

    • profile image

      6 years ago

      sufi'sm is BIG in somalia

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Assalmu Alaikum brothers & sisters! Reading this article this I finds it very much bias! Again I've seen the truth manifested since Ahmadiyya is not mention here means you have already confirmed it indirectly they are the 1 one out of the 73 that are on the right path! As you all Know in the history of mankind a reformer never came and joined the mainstreams, but the choosen servants of God follows him to form a community! You the author of this article should research very well before you attempt to wright a single article about islam or islamic sects.

    • Taalib Pugh1 profile image

      Theodore Pugh 

      6 years ago from Wilkes Barre Pa

      Hi Thanks! I appreciate your effort of showing how some of the muslim groups came to be, but maybe you should try to research, and write on how Islam came to be, especially its belief system. You should take a look at its foundation, and bases. I wrote an article here in hubpages in the same category, based on it's foundation. How about you take a look at it, it's called "Tawheed First" please take a look read, comment, or even vote if you want. I think you will find it very interesting, if not you'll still be giving a new fellow hubber some support. Thanks again.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      salam to All,

      i wish if i was in the position to explain what i want to cuz English is my 5th lang but i will ask u one Q definitely ,

      Q is? every body is agree with the hadhieth that is,

      I am the city of knowledge and Ali is the gate.

      according to that hadhieth most of sufism roots are from Ali and i Guess Qadri's roots go to Abu Bakr Sadeeq.

      but again if u ask anyone from Turkey abt Imam mehdi they claim he will rise from turkey , Iran claim , Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan , Tajikistan and many countries claim the same , so lets get agree with that Islam will have 73 sectors, just like other major religions does.

      correct me if im wrong plz.

      we can share here with smile why we pick the rude way to share or discuss.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      this article is anything but informative and very misleading..please if you have taken your time to analyze one of the world's most influential belief systems then you might as well get the most important points at least partially correct...Ali WASN'T the brother in law of the prophet he was his SON IN LAW and cousin...this is unanimously accepted by all sects of Islam..

    • hummingbird211 profile image


      7 years ago from Delhi,India

      Very Informative article. Thanks for putting it up here.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Ahmadis hold the whole truth of islam

    • profile image

      qasim sattar 

      8 years ago

      none of u have any idea about the real sects of islam. many misguidance in this article. suffism is not a sect they stress on "right of humans" in islam. 90% are not sunnis. ahmedis are not the part of muslim. and and and,, if don't agree then mail on i am challenfing all of u to discus this topic. u r just fool especially mehtab

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Sorry, but you have a number of facts mistaken.

      The Shia believe that Ali was to be the immediate successor to the Prophet (SAW), your article states that:

      'The Shiite’s central belief is that after the assassinations of the fourth Caliph in 661 CE, the next successor to Mohamed should have been Ali, his brother in law. They split with the Sunni over the issue of succession shortly thereafter'

      Ali was the fourth Caliph (as stated by the Sunnis), the Shia didn't believe he should have become Caliph after the death of the fourth one. In fact the Shia regard him as being the first Caliph or Imam (without regard for Abu Bakr, Umar or Uthman) as appointed by Muhammad (saw).

      Also, whilst Tasawwuf is prevalent in Pakistan, I think you'll find that most are in agreement that Sufism is primarily found in Egypt and the Sudan.

    • profile image

      summaiya soomro 

      8 years ago from karachi

      Nice hub! in every religion there are some sects, but as for Islam the main concept is believing in the oneness of ALLAH the Almighty and believing Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)as the last prophet also believing in the Quran and Sunnah and who ever have faith in these concepts is known to be a Muslim in Islam. either its shia, sunni, wahabi or sufi we all are muslims as far we believe and practice the Sunnah and the Quran.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      90% sunni?

      I'm sorry brother that's not accurate, with all my respect to all the brothers in all sects.

    • profile image

      al arabi 

      9 years ago

      salam!talking on sects and religion is not allow for non alims coz of many masail e sharia(questions of sharia) call some one kafir or non Muslim in every sect is different because of different interpretations of concepts or quran and sunnah!there are 12 groups of sufis and 1 of them is non muslim or actually not a real sufi who don't act upon concepts of sufism,where in general there should be 73 sects and 1 of them is righteous..confusing?coz in shias there are mainly three and then sub sects..and in sunnis there are also many!so who is the righteous?i am amazed by Capable woman coz she describe sufis as a different sect!oh the history of suffis are begins of time of THE HOLY PROPHET!and after that sufi followed the fiqa of Aima Arba(4 imam of ahly sunna-or suunis)and every reformer the mujadiad like IMAM JALALUD DIN SAYUTI in 4th hijra and imam mujadid al afsani SH,AHMAD AL HINDI in 10th,all of them were WELL KNOW sufis.And don't be surprised coz all of them were sunnis coz of similarity with aima arba in main concepts and all will be!Inshallah...and salam ala manit taba il huda.SAL LAL LAHO ALHI WASALAM.

    • Capable Woman profile imageAUTHOR

      Capable Woman 

      9 years ago from Augusta, Georgia

      Mahtab, Sufism is certainly Islam. Just because you don't agree with it does not make it any less so. Ask Pakistani Muslim's if Sufism is Islam...

      Interpretation and tolerance, though both good things, are not even the issue. Just as the Shia and Sunni each lay claim to sole legitimacy, so so the Sufi have the right to call themselves Muslim as long as they believe and act within the tenets of the faith. You don't agree?

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      All prophets brought only one message "Obey the all knowing, all powerfull LORD/ALLAH only". There is no one, not even the prophets who can forgive your sins except the Lord Almighty, But the later generation of all the Prophets changed this message, and instead inserted the Prophets who could make God Almighty forgive our sins. Or make a Prophet so sublime that he becomes almost equal to God Almighty, thus opening a way for shirk (holding partners with ALLAH).

      Secondly, Sufiism is not islam at all, sufis would make u pray Prophets and dead pious men of God, and not God Almighty.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      islam is the fastest growing religion of the world. 20000 americans accepting islam each year.

    • countrywomen profile image


      9 years ago from Washington, USA

      There are lots of sufi followers in India too. In fact when the Mughal Emperor Akbar propounded "Din E Elahi" after feeling blessed by the great Sufi Saint Moinuddin chisti pilgrimage and even to this day there are lots of Muslims, Hindus and others who go for pilgrimage to his Durgah at Ajmer:

      Very good objective hub. Thumbs up.

    • Reena Daruwalla profile image

      Reena Daruwalla 

      9 years ago from INDIA

      I so agree when you say, "Islam is at a period in its history that Christianity was in around the time just before the Renaissance." It is a religion that is undergoing much the same pattern of evolution as did chirstianity.

      What the Crusades were then, we can now possibly liken to 'Jihad' now, so I think one can safely conclude (insha allah) that there will be evolution and progress beyond 'jihad'.

    • usmanali81 profile image


      9 years ago

      Read the following mentioned authentic books written by authentic, recognized Non Muslim Historians. Non Muslims, praising and removing misconceptions; seems there is something very special in this ultimate way of life.

    • Ivan the Terrible profile image

      Ivan the Terrible 

      9 years ago from Madrid

      we had a long and interesting history when Islam ruled Spain. It wasn't always considered a disaterous history, either! there are many beautiful buildings here influenced by Islamic architecture and parts of the language spoken by the Islamic rulers still lingers here.

      Overall Islamic times here were pretty tolerant times as well. We are saddened to see that some few groups have coopted Islam for their own secular uses, but we also realize that some Christian groups have done the same thing.

      To many of my Islamic friends there is the belief that the U.S. is also a terrorist state as much as Iraq was, just more powerful.

    • LondonGirl profile image


      9 years ago from London

      Great and useful hub, thanks. You missed out one lot, though, the Ahmadis.

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 

      9 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Thank you for this *not* in-depth look at Islam. Much easier to grasp than explanations with more detail. You're so right that time doesn't move at the same pace for everyone.


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