Islam? Which Kind?

There are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world.1 They all worship Allah, not Jehovah, and most recognize the five pillars of Islam: profession of faith in the oneness of Allah and in Muhammad as his final prophet, prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and pilgrimage. However, not all Muslims are identical in faith or practice. The tree of Islam has many branches.

Sunni
Name: Derived from sunnah (“tradition”), referring to Muhammad’s so-called exemplary behavior as found in the Hadith (stories and teachings concerning him not found in the Qur’an).

Adherents: 1 billion (83 percent of the world’s Muslim population). This is the largest branch of Islam. Followers include U.S. boxing legend Muhammad Ali; basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, grand imam of the al-Azhar Seminary/University in Cairo, Egypt; and archterrorist Osama bin Laden, who follows Wahhabism. The late Yasser Arafat was also a Sunni.

Primary Locations: Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, Egypt, and Nigeria.

Distinctions: Sometimes referred to as traditional or orthodox Islam, it maintains that the line of Islamic authority descended not from Muhammad’s family but from his companions, particularly the four caliphs who succeeded him. Sunnis also believe in four primary sources of Islamic law: the Qur’an, Hadith, analogical reasoning, and consensus among their religious and legal scholars. They believe Muslims have direct access to Allah without the need for intermediaries. They also permit men to have multiple wives and concubines.

Schools of Legal Thought: Four schools, all acceptable within the Sunni community, differ concerning the interpretation of the holy texts and how a Muslim should live.

1. Hanafi: has 530 million followers; is considered more liberal in its decisions; and allows for exceptions to strict, literal interpretations, especially if a strict interpretation would bring hardship to the Muslim.

2. Maliki: has 222 million followers and is known for its more rigid, conservative decisions.

3. Shafii: has 240 million followers and attempts to reach a middle ground between the schools of Hanafi and Maliki.

4. Hanbali: has 2.3 million followers, is the strictest of all four Sunni schools, and holds to literal interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadith.

Wahhabism is a form of Hanbali and has 7 million followers. Wahhabis see themselves as reformers attempting to return to a purer, idealized form of Islam. Wahhabism’s founder “taught that Muslims had a duty to fight non-believers and to establish a Muslim society based solely on Islamic law.”2 The modern-day Islamic state of Saudi Arabia bases its official policy and jurisprudence on Wahhabism.

Online Resource: www.islamicity.com.

Shii
Name: Derived from shiah (“followers”).

Adherents: 170 million; includes Sayyid Ali-Sistani, the grand ayatollah in Iraq; Ibrahim Ibn Muhammad al-Wazir of Yemen, leader of the Zaydi; Aga Khan, 49th imam (an Ismaili).

Primary Locations: Iran, Iraq, India, Pakistan, Yemen, and Lebanon.

Distinctions: Whereas Sunnis believe the right to Muhammad’s succession lies with his early companions, Shiis (also called Shiites or Shiah) believe it lies with the prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. In opposition to Sunni Islam, Shii Islam regards the imam (spiritual-political leader) as an intermediary between Allah and man, and thus infallible. To Shiis, the imam’s word, not consensus, is a primary source of Islamic law. Shiis also identify with the suffering and martyrdom of their spiritual leaders through commemorative rituals, such as graveside visits and reenactments of martyrdom that include self-flagellation. Shiis permit “temporary” marriages for the purpose of pleasure.

Divisions: There are four principal divisions:

1. Zaydi: Named after the fifth imam, it has 8 million members who are sometimes called Fivers. Like the Sunnis, its followers do not believe the imams are supernaturally endowed or infallible and require them to reason independently in matters of the law and to wield the sword against Islam’s enemies.

2. Ismaili: Named after the seventh imam, it has 23.7 million members who are sometimes called Seveners. It was influenced by early Gnosticism; is secretive and esoteric; and believes Allah is incomprehensible and known only through a series of emanations, with physical matter being the lowest form.

The Druze began as an offshoot of the Ismailis but are not considered a part of Islam. They originated in the 11th century under a caliph who believed himself an earthly manifestation of God. They keep much of their teachings secret and do not proselytize, acknowledge Muhammad as the final prophet, or keep the five pillars of Islam. They do believe in the oneness of Allah and in reincarnation. There are roughly 834,000 Druze today, located mostly in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel.

3. Ithna Ashari: Adherents believe there were 12 imams in the line of succession and are called Twelvers. The largest division of Shii Islam, it numbers 137 million and is predominant in Iran. Along with Ismailis, Twelvers believe that one of the original imams (in their case, the 12th) never died but remains hidden until the end-times, when he will reappear as a messianic figure known as the Mahdi. Until the Mahdi’s appearance, certain religious scholars, called ayatollahs, serve as the Mahdi’s representatives. Twelvers believe in taqiyah, an insincere denial of one’s faith when life or property is threatened. They also believe the Jewish people poisoned Muhammad, causing his death. U.S. Congressman Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) says Iran is plotting a catastrophic terror attack against the United States and has labeled it Ya Mahdi, Ad Rekni, which means, “Mahdi, save us!”3

4. Alawi: It has 1.6 million members and is a small, secretive Shii group in northwest Syria. Considered extreme by other Muslims, it interprets the Qur’an allegorically and believes in reincarnation of the soul.

Online Resource: www.al-islam.org.

Sufism
Name: Derived from sufi (“one who wears wool”), Sufism refers to Islamic mysticism.

Adherents: 237 million.

Primary Locations: Throughout the Muslim world; strong in Sudan but prohibited in Saudi Arabia.

Distinctives: Sufism crosses all Islamic denominational boundaries. Numerous orders meet for prayer, meditation, and recitation of poetry and Qur’anic passages. As with all forms of mysticism, Sufism seeks to unite man with God (meaning Allah, of course) through the senses. Since traditional Islam focuses more on legality rather than theology, Sufism seeks to replace cold rationalism with warm experientialism. Sufis claim that union with God’s presence is achieved through self-denial and repetitious, ritual prayers often accompanied by music, frenzied dancing, and even self-inflicted pain to achieve the desired ecstatic state. Sufism’s emphasis on experience has helped to spread Islam worldwide.

Online Resource: www.sufism.org.

ENDNOTES
  1. Statistics from David B. Barrett, ed., World Christian Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), “World Summary” 1:4, table 1–1; “Religiometrics” 2:11.
  2. John L. Esposito, ed., The Islamic World: Past and Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), “Wahhabi” 3:179.
  3. Curt Weldon, Countdown to Terror (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2005), 2, 94–95.

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