Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Creeds of Islam

I'm writing (and updating) this post in response to various blog posts and questions in which there seems to be some confusion between the differences between the two main Islamic schools of thought; Sunni and Shia/ Shi'ite/ Shiite/ Sheea.

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.

Sunnis [sun-nee]
Sunni Muslims recognize four main groups:

Maliki [maal-le-key]
Founded by Abd Allah Malik ibn Anas (715-795 AD). His book on the rules of law is the earliest known Muslim legal text.

Hanifite [han-nee-fite]
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.

Shafii [shaar-fee]
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.

Hanbali [han-baa-lee]
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:

Sufi [sue-fee]

In Sufism the spiritual and mystical aspects are emphasized and singing is encouraged as a form of worship.

Wahhabi [wa-haar-bee]
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.

Kahrijite [Khar-ree-jite]
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:

Alawis [al-a-wee]
The term Alawis means ‘followers of Ali’ and are also known as Nusayris. Located mostly in Syria.

Baha'i [ba-high]
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.

Druze [druze]
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.

Ismailis [ish-mai-lees]
the Ismailis split from the main group of Shi'ites because of a dispute over who should be considered the next Imam.

Fatimids [fa-tee-mids]
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.

Zaidi [zay-aye-dee]
Formed by Zaid, a grandson of Hussain, the Zaidis believe the true Imam must publicly assert his claim to the title.

Nizari [niz-zar-ree]
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


Anonymous said...

Bahá'í dawned in Persia. Both the Báb (1819-1850) & Bahá'u'lláh (1817-1892)were born there. These Twin Trumpet Blasts stated that Islam included Abraham, Moses, Jesus and their followers, according to the Qur'án, although those religions were not called "Islam". Likewise, true "Muslims" will be attentive to the new Revelations.

Abid said...

The second map seems a little outdated. For example, Pakistan's population is roughly 1/3 Shiite (estimated at 35% or so).

Nice unbiased text though :)

Alphast said...

Thanks for a very interesting post. I always had thought, for instance, that Zaidi were actually Shia and that Assassins were a sub-sect of the Druzes.

wgaw said...

many thanks for the info, appreciate your comments

ajtr said...

a few corrections:
1) the zaidis are shiite, not sunni
2) sufis are not a sect. they are the mystical brotherhoods in islam. there are sunni sufis and shia sufis. some fall under the pale of mainstream sunnism, and are accepted by orthodox scholars, while other more syncretic variants are regarded as "too extreme" by the orthodox.
3) the four sunni schools listed are not "schools of thought", but rather schools of law and rites. often they are called the schools of jurisprudence.
4) the kharijites are generally regarded to have been separate from both the sunnis and the shiites. the only remaining sect descended from the kharijites are the ibadhis of oman, though even this is contested
5) the fatimids were not a sect. it was a dynasty/empire ruled by the descendants of fatima. the dynasty adhered to ismaili shiism
6) the nizaris, also known as aghakhanis, are one of (the largest) sub-sect of ismailis.
7) you didn't mention the largest shiite sect, which are the ithna-asheri (twelvers).

Jay Kactuz said...

There are about 130-150 sects or splinter groups, but of course nobody knows exactly what an "Islamic" sect is, at least if you ask different Muslims.

I would say that the lowest denominator to arrive at the higher estimate is "Allah is god, the Quran is his book and Mohammad a messenger." Anything beyond this and you start getting variations and a multiplicity of Mulim sects. In fact, the Muslims make the Baptists look like unified brothers living in harmony.

If I were your teacher, I would give you a C+.

Ajtr, not bad at all. You know your history, but the kharijites are very much alive an well and still doing evil, but they call themselves Wahhabis now. In the same mode, Al Qeida is similar to the Azraqi or Azariqah movement. By the way, do you know the story of what the Ikhwan did in a small village called Taef in about 1924 and what this has to do with the Brotherhood?

Here is my take on the Duze, Assassins and Sufis: The Nizaris (also known as the Hashshashin but even better know as Assassins) were a subgroup of the Shiite Isma'ili sect. They are best known for their unique business plan, which consisted of a mafia-like protection racket and rent-a-killer agency. Starting 1100 AD, the head of this group (Hasan-i Sabbah) would recruit young men, drug them with hashish and then put them into a garden (still drugged) filled with all kind of earthly delights, most of them female in nature. After a short time there were removed from the garden and told they had experienced a taste of paradise and if they wanted back they had to complete a special mission for the Old Man of the Mountain (as the leader became known). To maximize the terror effect the Fedayeen (as they called themselves) would kill important figures (using disguises and a poisoned dagger) in public places at the most unexpected times, including when the victim was at prayer or in a mosque. The Assassins were fearless and almost unstoppable (and they really wanted to get back to that garden and those wild women). The hashishiyya murdered Crusaders, Caliphs and Sultans; Even Saladin was attacked twice. Often the Caliph would employ the services of the assassins to resolve difficult political issues (ie, kill his enemies). The Mongols destroyed the Nizari stronghold in 1256 but there are still some around led by the Aga Khan.
There are two more groups that appeared at this time and are still around. One are the Druze, also Ismailis, that trace their roots to Ismail ibn Jafar, a son of the first of two 7th Imams (the same as the assassins, but quite different in ideology!). It seems one was replaced by another brother and the so the there was a split, again. It was during the Abissid period that the "Mystical Islam," or Sufism movement began. This is a doctrine that mixes Islam with mysticism (or Persian magic, as some critics claim). The best-known early Sufi was Mansur Al-Hallaj (858-922AD). He preached love, unity and sprituality as a way to fin the Truth (al-haqq). Most Muslim didn't like the sound of that, so for this crime he had his hands and feet cut off (Sharia law!) and was then decapitaded and his body burned. Later Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (about 1100 AD) modified the Sufi doctrine to make it more acceptable to other Muslims (well, kind of). Sufism is still around today and it has evolved into something that I find rather hard to explain in less than a full chapter, nevertheless I will try. It is a semi-Islamic cult that mixes medication with spirituality. I mean meditation! Let me try again: Sufism is a reinterpretation of the basic tenets of Islam to emphasize the struggle against the self and its desires in order to to achieve the a spritual union of man and nature and (gasp!) Allah. Oh heck, it is what you get when you mix Islam with Buddhism, Hinduism and thrown in a few hermit Christian monks and take them all to a New Age music and dance festival. One of the preseding three explanations must be right, maybe!


Anonymous said...

There are several things that are just incorrect here:

1) Sufis are not a sect. They are follows of a mystical path. They can be sunni or shia.

2) There are four sunni schools of law (and not schools of thought).

3) You did not mention the largest shia group, the Ithna Ashari shia. Shias are divided into three groups: Itha ashari shia (which makes up 90% of shia in the world) - they believe in 12 imams, zaidi shia, and ismaili shia who split off from the ithna ashari shia with the 7th imam (they believed that ismail was the rightful imam). Ismaili shia are also split into various groups.

4) Druze, Bahai'is and Alawis are not shia.They developed out of shia islam just the same way as christianity developed out of judaism. Just like it is incorrect to call Christians Jews, it is incorrect to call these groups Shia. Druze consider themselves to be part of a religion that is separate than mainstream muslims - they consider themselves the true followers of the prophet but do not recognize other muslims as such. Bahaiis are a completely different religion. The position of Alawis is a bit more complicated. Mainstream sunni and shia muslims do not recognize alawis as muslims because of their belief is a christian like trinity which includes Ali. However Alawis describe themselves as shia muslims and until recently followed the jafari school of law. Their current belief in the trinity is unclear as they are very secretive (because they are a persecuted minority). Musa Al - Sadr, Lebanons shia leader recognized Alawis as Muslims but many view that as a political move.

6) you did not mention the shia schools of law. Itha asharis follow the jafari school of law. Zaidis follow a separate school of law as do bohra ismailis. Agha khan ismailis follow the decrees of the agha khan.

7) Khawarij are not called Khawarij because they left the folds of islam. Instead they are called Khawarij because they left the group that was supporting Ali during the battle between Ali and Muawiya. They are very mainstream in their beliefs. They exist nowadays in Oman and the Sultan of Oman is part of that sect. They do not call themselves khawarij because it has now become a derogatory term. Khawarij are neither sunni not shia. Shia were the supporters of Ali. Khawarij are those who left the supporters of Ali, and sunnis are basically everyone else.

wgaw said...

thanks for the corrections, appreciate your time and help.

uhmtaha said...

According to Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani's book of "Twelver Shia" fiqh, sinlessness is not a prerequisite for leading the prayer, but the imam must be "Adl" (just), which to my knowledge is held to mean that they don't commit major sins (at least as far as is known for sure)in public.

Wasalaam from Portland.