There are two major sects in Islam. The Sunni and Shi’a sects. Some refer to Muslim mystics, the Sufis, as a sect of Islam. They are, however, considered as Sunni. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2010 and released January 2011 found that there are 1.62 billion Muslims around the world, and it is estimated that the Sunni population is between 75% and 90%.
The Sunni Islam
The word “sunni” comes from the Arabic word sunnah which means way and is referred to, the way of the prophet or the tradition (actions and sayings) of the Prophet Muhammad. The Sunni Islam is sometimes referred to as Orthodox Islam.
Among the Sunni sect there are four major schools of thought or sub-sects each follow a particular Islamic law. They are:
1) The Hanafi school of thought: The founder is the Persian scholar Imam Abu Hanifah al-Nu’man ibn Thabit (AD: 699-767). His school of thought is practiced widely in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Balkans and Turkey. The majority of Sunni Muslims practice the Hanfi jurisprudence.
2) The Shafi’i school of thought: The founder is Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Idris al-Shafi’i known as Imam Al-Shafi’i (AD: 767-820). Imam al-Shafi’i is also known as the “First Among Equals” for his exhaustive knowledge and systematic methodology to religious science. Adherents of this sect are mainly from the Middle East.
3) The Maliki school of thought: The founder is Malik Bin Anas (AD: 711-795). Its adherents are mostly from North Africa, United Arab Emirates, and parts of Saudi Arabia.
4) The Hanbali school of thought: The founder is Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (AD: 780–855). The Hanbali jurisprudence is considered very strict and conservative. The Hanbali school of jurisprudence is practiced mainly in Saudi Arabia, Qatar as well as in parts of Syria and Iraq
The Shi’a Islam
The word “Shi’a” in Arabic literally means a sect or a faction. The followers of the Shi’a sect belong to the faction or followers of Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali who, according to the Shi’a sect should have been the direct successor of Muhammad and is considered divinely appointed and the first Imam. There are three main schools of thought or sub-sects within the Shi’a sect.
1) The Ithna ashariyya (Twelvers): the followers of this sect believe in the 12 divinely ordained leaders, knows as the Twelve Imams. Nearly 85% of the total Shi’a population belong to this sect. They are scattered in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, and Syria. A large minority group is found in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
2) The Isma’ilis branch or as commonly known as the Seveners: Unlike the Twelvers, they believe in different number of Imams. They also differ in the role of the Imam. The Isma’ili minorities are found in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon and South Africa.
3) The Zaydi branch: This school of thought was named after its founder Zayd Ibn Ali. They are mainly prevalent in Yemen. They have a unique approach within the Shi’a Islamic thought that is similar to the Sunni Islam. Adherents to this branch are called the Fivers.
The difference between Sunni and Shia sects
The difference between Sunnis and Shi’a is more of a political nature than creed. There are no dogmatic differences between the two sects. Both, Sunnis and Shi’as, believe in the one God (Allah in Arabic) or Tawhid (monotheism), in the angels, scriptures, prophets and messengers, the hereafter, and the divine decree, destiny. They share the same scripture, called the Qur’an. Although there may be a difference in the way Sunnis and Shi’as worship, nevertheless, both pray five times a day, fast the month of Ramadan, pay the zakah (or the obligatory charity) and go to Mecca for pilgrimage. During daily prayers, both Sunnis and Shi’as direct their faces toward Mecca.
After the death of Muhammad, Muslims disputed over the prophet’s successor. Muhammad’s successor, Abu Bakr, and the other three Caliphs (Omar, Uthman and Ali) after him were accepted by Muslims as the rightful successors of the prophet and were later known as Sunnis. On the other hand the Muslims who thought Ali Bin Abi Talib, the prophet’s cousin, is the legitimate successor of the prophet became to be known as Shi’a. The Shi’a believes that the prophet’s successor has to be from the family of the prophet Muhammad. Whereas Sunnis believe that the successor of the prophet must be from the tribe of Quraish, the prophet’s tribe. This political discord continued for centuries and the divide between the two sects remains to this day unresolved. Another major difference between Sunni and Shi’a is that Sunnis believe that no person after Muhammad is infallible while the Shi’a believes in the infallibility of the twelve Imams (leaders) who are descendants from the family of prophet Muhammad.
Thank you, Imam Mustapha “Steve” Elturk, for answering our question!