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8.6: Schools of Islam

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    Schools of Islam

    World map highlighted to represent the majority Sunni Muslims in the world; these regions include North and Eastern Africa, most of the Middle East, and parts of Southeast Asia. Other regions highlighted on the map represent the Shiite dominated nations. The smaller of the two Muslim schools, these nations include Iran and Yemen.
    Figure 8-6: Map of the world by Ghibar is licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0 .


    The largest denomination in Islam is Sunni Islam, which makes up 75%–90% of all Muslims. Sunni Muslims also go by the name Ahl as-Sunnah, which means “people of the tradition [of Muhammad].” These hadiths (“reports”), recounting Muhammad’s words, actions, and personal characteristics, are preserved in traditions known as Al-Kutub Al-Sittah (six major books). Sunnis believe that the first four caliphs were the rightful successors to Muhammad; since God did not specify any particular leaders to succeed him and those leaders were elected.


    The Shi’a constitute 10–20% of Islam and are its second-largest branch.

    Shia Islam has several branches, the largest of which is the Twelvers, followed by Zaidis and Ismailis. After the death of Imam Jafar al-Sadiq (the great grand son of Abu Bakr and Ali ibn Abi Talib) considered the sixth Imam by the Shia’s, the Ismailis started to follow his son Isma’il ibn Jafar and the Twelver Shia’s (Ithna Asheri) started to follow his other son Musa al-Kazim as their seventh Imam. The Zaydis follow Zayd ibn Ali, the uncle of Imam Jafar al-Sadiq, as their fifth Imam.

    While Sunnis believe that Muhammad did not appoint a successor and a caliph should be chosen by the whole community, the Twelver Shias and the Ismaili Shias believe that during Muhammad’s final pilgrimage to Mecca, he appointed his son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, as his successor in the Hadith of the pond of Khumm. As a result, they believe that Ali ibn Abi Talib was the first Imam (leader), rejecting the legitimacy of the previous Muslim caliphs Abu Bakr, Uthman ibn al-Affan and Umar ibn al-Khattab.


    Sufism is a mystical-ascetic approach to Islam that seeks to find divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God. By focusing on the more spiritual aspects of religion, Sufis strive to obtain direct experience of God by making use of “intuitive and emotional faculties” that one must be trained to use. However, Sufism has been criticized by the Salafi sect for what they see as an unjustified religious innovation. Many Sufi orders, or tariqas, can be classified as either Sunni or Shi’a, but others classify themselves simply as “Sufi.” (45)

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