This post does not attempt to explain all, or even most differences. These have already been endlessly discussed in many forums and in reality is way outside the scope of my knowledge. This post is simply a very short, 'helicoper overview' to the main differences between the different followers of Islam, as an outsider. The aim being to remove all emotional words and to simply present the basic facts.
To make sure I didn't make any terrible mistakes I had the post checked before posting. However, having said that, please bear with me; I'm not Muslim. If you do want to add any basic information, to enlarge and expand the scope of this posting, please feel free to post in the comment section at the end. I'd appreciate it.
Two Schools of Thought
I think most people know Islam has two schools of thought; the Sunnis and the Shi'ites. Whilst Sunnis are the majority in most Islamic countries, the Shi'ites are the majority in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain.
Sunni Muslims recognize four main groups:
Founded by Abd Allah Malik ibn Anas (715-795 AD). His book on the rules of law is the earliest known Muslim legal text.
Founded by An Numan ibn Thabit Abu Hanifa (700-767 AD), this school of thought is based in Iraq and stresses the use of individual opinion when making legal judgments.
Founded by Muhammad ibn Idris ash Shafii (767-820 AD). Shafii was a member of Muhammad's Quraysh tribe and was a distant relative of his. Shafii followed his own path, creating rules and legal opinions on matters which were not covered in direct statements made by Mohammed.
Founded by Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Hanbal (780-855 AD). Hanbal's legal schoolhas become prominent in Saudi Arabia because it is the only school accepted by the Wahhabi Muslims. This school places its emphasis on the Hadith as the source of law and rejects later innovations made by other schools, scholars and religious figures.
In addition to the four groups there are various Sunni sects:
In Sufism the spiritual and mystical aspects are emphasized and singing is encouraged as a form of worship.
Wah’habis believe every idea added to Islam after the 3rd century of the Mulsim era is/was false and should be ignored. The founder of the Wahhabis was Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.
In Arabic, their name means ‘to wander’ and were, in effect, dissidents and rebels and chose to separate from the main body of believers, feeling the majority of Muslims had lost the ‘true path’.
The word Shi'a is a shortened form of Shi'at Ali, which means ‘The followers of Ali’. Shi'ites belives the Phrophet should choose the mullahs and a mullah must be sinless if he is to lead the prayers.
In addition there are various Shi’ite sects:
The term Alawis means ‘followers of Ali’ and are also known as Nusayris. Located mostly in Syria.
The Bahai’s came into being in Iran, then called Persia during the 19th century. Although the Bahai's are descended from Islam, neither they nor Muslims think of Bahai's as being Muslims.
This group diverged from mainstream Islam in the 11th century when some Isma'ilis started to believe God could be found in the personality of a Prophet or Imam. Located in/ around Lebanon and Israel.
the Ismailis split from the main group of Shi'ites because of a dispute over who should be considered the next Imam.
The Fatimids are a successor movement to the Isma'ilis and are descendants of Fatima and Ali through the line of Isma'il. In the 10th century, their descendants became Caliphs in North Africa, and ruled Egypt from 969 to 1171.
Formed by Zaid, a grandson of Hussain, the Zaidis believe the true Imam must publicly assert his claim to the title.
This sect is well known, but under a different name: the Assassins.
Image: Al-Idrisi’s map of the world, taken from: www.islaminchina.wordpress.com