Main Sectarian Divisions of Islam


1.      Early Expansion of Islam

a.       Within 12 years of Muhammad’s death in 632: Islam’s soldiers had captured Damascus, Jerusalem, Egypt and Persia.

b.      Desire to carry out God’s will as articulated in the Qur’an and life of Muhammad.

c.       The caliphate (caliph = successor): Oversees the community’s political and religious affairs -- combine roles of chief executive, commander in chief, chief justice, leader of public worship.

                                                   i.      The first four caliphs were early converts of Muhammad, trusted companions.

2.      Shi’a (“faction”) - 10-15%

a.       Shi’ism = major sectarian alternative to Sunni Islam.  Shi’is claim loyalty to the cause of Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali and Ali’s descendents.

b.      Ali ibn-abu-Talib (ruled 656-661) – Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, supported by a small group who claimed him as Muhammad’s successor when M died.  Never received universal acceptance; other leaders began revolt against him.  Murdered in 661.

c.       Younger son, Husayn ibn-Ali, grandson of M, was annihilated with a small band of his followers near the town of Karbala in 680.

                                                   i.      An air of martyrdom to “Ali’s family” and vehemence to the Shi’ite cause.

                                                 ii.      There are various Shi’ite sects as a result of splits over succession and legitimate rulership.  Fivers, Seveners (seventh died without naming successor > controversy), Twelvers.

d.      Twelvers:  Believe there were twelve true imams, the first being Ali, the last Mahdi (begins with the Seveners), the messianic imam of the future. 

e.       The notion of Imam in Shi’i and Sunni Islam

f.        After Ali, all the imams can claim descent from Muhammad through his daughter Fatima.  Imams share in the divine illumination that shone through Muhammad, knowledge possessed by the imam is essentially the same as that possessed by the prophet.  Shi’ism is now the state religion of Iran.

g.       Shi’i Islam has been attractive to non-Arab Muslims in Iran, half of Iraq

3.      Sunni: sciences of law and theology, and the ascetic way

4.      Shi’is and Sunnis have much in common, but they differ on certain fundamental matters: nature and source of religious authority, meaning and end of Islamic history, content and sources of the Hadiths.




  1. Sunni
  2. Shi’i
  3. Imam
  4. Caliph
  5. Twelvers
  6. Mahdi
  7. Husain
  8. Ali