Islamic Schools and Branches
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Islamic Schools and Branches

This article summarizes the different branches and schools in Islam. The best known split, into Sunni Islam, Shia Islam, and Kharijites, was mainly political at first but eventually acquired theological and juridical dimensions. There are three traditional types of schools in Islam: schools of jurisprudence, Sufi orders and schools of theology. The article also summarizes major denominations and movements that have arisen in the modern era.


The traditional divisions between the branches of Islam can be traced back to disagreement over who would succeed Muhammad. A few months prior to his death, Muhammad delivered a sermon at Ghadir Khumm where he announced that Ali ibn Abi Talib would be his successor.[1] After the sermon, Muhammad ordered the Muslims to pledge allegiance to Ali. Both Shia and Sunni sources agree that Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, and Uthman ibn Affan were among the many who pledged allegiance to Ali at this event.[2][3][4] However, just after Muhammad died, a group of Muslims met at Saqifa, where Umar pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr then assumed political power, and his supporters became known as the Sunnis. Despite that, a group of Muslims kept their allegiance to Ali. These people, who became known as Shias, held that while Ali's right to be the political leader may have been taken, he was still the religious and spiritual leader after Muhammad.

Eventually, after the deaths of Abu Bakr and two other Sunni leaders, Umar and Uthman, the Sunni Muslims went to Ali for political leadership. After Ali died, his son Hasan ibn Ali succeeded him, both politically and, according to Shias, religiously. However, after six months, he made a peace treaty with Muawiya ibn Abu Sufyan, which stipulated that, among other conditions, Muawiya would have political power as long as he did not choose who would succeed him. Muawiya broke the treaty and named his son Yazid ibn Muawiya his successor,[5] thus forming the Umayyad dynasty. While this was going on, Hasan and, after his death, his brother Husain ibn Ali, remained the religious leaders, at least according to the Shia. Thus, according to Sunnis, whoever held political power was considered the successor to Muhammad, while according to Shias, the twelve Imams (Ali, Hasan, Husain, and Husain's descendants) were the successors to Muhammad, even if they did not hold political power.

In addition to these two main branches, many other opinions also formed regarding succession to Muhammad.


Ahamdiyya are not considered as Muslim. Major schools and branches of Islam (N.B.: Ja'fari and Twelver boxes are interchanged)
Major schools and branches of Islam (N.B.: Ja'fari and Twelver boxes are interchanged)

The first centuries of Islam gave rise to three major sects: Sunnis, Shias, and Kharijites. The original difference between Sunnis and Shias is over who the true successor to Muhammad is. Shias believe Ali ibn Abi Talib is the true successor to Muhammad, while Sunnis consider Abu Bakr to hold that position. The Khawarij broke away from both the Shias and Sunnis during the First Fitna (the first Islamic Civil War) and subsequently opposed both the Shias and the Sunnis, often violently.

In addition, there are several differences within Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. Sunni Islam is separated into four main schools of jurisprudence, namely, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, Hanbali. These schools are named after Abu Hanifa, Anas bin Malik, al-Shafi'i, and Ahmad ibn Hanbal, respectively.[6]

Shia Islam, on the other hand, is separated into three major sects: Twelvers, Ismailis, and Zaydis. The vast majority of Shias are Twelvers (a 2012 estimate puts the figure as 94% of Shias being Twelvers)[7] to the extent that the term "Shia" frequently refers to Twelvers by default. The Twelver Shias are also notably the only sect of Muslims that complies with the saying of Muhammad that he would have twelve successors, a saying accepted by both Shia and Sunni Muslims.

All mainstream Twelver Shia Muslims follow the same school of thought, the Jafari school of thought (named after Jafar as-Sadiq,[8] the sixth Shia Imam). All four founders of the Sunni schools of thought gained knowledge, either directly or indirectly, through Jafar as-Sadiq.

Zaydis, also known as Fivers, do not follow the Jafari school of thought, but instead the Zayidi school of thought (named after Zayd ibn Ali[9]). Ismailis are further divided into two groups, Tayyibi Ismailis and Nizari Ismailis. The term "Ismaili" frequently refers to Nizari Ismailis, while Tayyibi Ismailis are called Bohras and split between Da'udi Bohras, Sulaymani Bohras, and Alavi Bohras.[10]

Similarly, Kharijites were initially divided into five major branches: Sufris, Azariqa, Najdat, Adjarites and Ibadis. Of these, Ibadis are the only surviving branch of Kharijites.

In addition to the aforementioned sections, new schools of thought and movements like Quranist Muslims, and African American Muslims later emerged independently.[11]

Main traditional branches

Sunni Islam

Sunni Muslims are the largest denomination of Islam and are known as Ahl as-Sunnah wa'l-Jam?'h or simply as Ahl as-Sunnah. The word Sunni comes from the word sunnah, which means the teachings and actions or examples of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad. Therefore, "Sunni" refers to those who follow or maintain the sunnah of Muhammad. In many countries, overwhelming majorities of Muslims are Sunnis, so that they simply refer to themselves as "Muslims" and do not use the Sunni label.

The Sunnis believe that Muhammad did not specifically appoint a successor to lead the Muslim ummah (community) before his death, and after an initial period of confusion, a group of his most prominent companions gathered and elected Abu Bakr, Muhammad's close friend and a father-in-law, as the first caliph of Islam. Sunni Muslims regard the first four caliphs (Abu Bakr, 'Umar ibn al-Khatt?b, Uthman Ibn Affan and Ali ibn Abu Talib) as "al-Khulaf?'ur-R?shid?n" or "The Rightly Guided Caliphs." Sunnis also believe that the position of caliph may be attained democratically, on gaining a majority of the votes, but after the Rashidun, the position turned into a hereditary dynastic rule because of the divisions started by the Umayyads and others. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, there has never been another caliph as widely recognized in the Muslim world.

In recent times, followers of the classical Sunni schools of jurisprudence and kalam (rationalistic theology) on one hand and Salafis, who follow a literalist reading of early Islamic sources, on the other, have laid competing claims to represent orthodox Sunni Islam.[12] Anglophone Islamic currents of the former type are sometimes referred to as "traditional Islam".[13][14]

Shia Islam

Shia Islam (? Shia, sometimes Shi'a; adjective "Shia"/Shi'ite) is the second-largest denomination of Islam, comprising 10-13%[15][16][17] of the total Muslim population in the world.[18] Shia Muslims, though a minority in the Muslim world, constitute the majority of the Muslim populations in[19]Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan as well as significant minorities in Kuwait, Yemen and Lebanon. In addition to believing in the authority of the Qur'an and teachings of Muhammad, Shia believe that Muhammad's family, the Ahl al-Bayt (the "People of the House"), including his descendants known as Imams, have special spiritual and political authority over the community[20] and believe that Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, was the first of these Imams and was the rightful successor to Muhammad, and thus reject the legitimacy of the first three Rashidun caliphs.[21]

The Shia Islamic faith is broad and includes many different groups. There are various Shia theological beliefs, schools of jurisprudence, philosophical beliefs, and spiritual movements. The Shia identity emerged soon after the martyrdom[dubious ] of Hussain son of Ali (the grandson of Muhammad) and Shia theology developed as a result of a shift from the political to the ideological in second century Shi'ism[22][dubious ] and like the Sunni (for example, Umayyad caliphate), the first Shia governments (for example, Idrisid dynasty in Morocco or Justanids in Iran) were established by the 7th and 8th century.

Major sub-denominations

Ghul?t movements in history

Muslim groups who either ascribe divine characteristics to some figures of Islamic history (usually a member of Muhammad's family, Ahl al-Bayt) or hold beliefs deemed deviant by mainstream Shi'i theology were called as Ghul?t.

Kharijite Islam

Kharijite (literally, "those who seceded") is a general term embracing a variety of Muslim sects which, while originally supporting the Caliphate of Ali, later on fought against him and eventually succeeded in his martyrdom while he was praying in the mosque of Kufa. While there are few remaining Kharijite or Kharijite-related groups, the term is sometimes used to denote Muslims who refuse to compromise with those with whom they disagree.

The major Kharijite sub-sect today is the Ibadi. The sect developed out of the 7th century Islamic sect of the Kharijites. While Ibadi Muslims maintain most of the beliefs of the original Kharijites, they have rejected the more aggressive methods.[]

A number of Kharijite groups went extinct in the past:

Sufi orders

Sufism is Islam's mystical-ascetic dimension and is represented by schools or orders known as Tasawwuf?-?ar?qah. It is seen as that aspect of Islamic teaching that deals with the purification of inner self. 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.[25]

The following list contains some notable Sufi orders:

Schools of jurisprudence

Islamic schools of jurisprudence, known as madhhabs, differ in the methodology they use to derive their rulings from the Quran and hadith.


In terms of religious jurisprudence (fiqh), Sunnism contains several schools of thought (madhhab) such as:


The major Shia school of jurisprudence is the Ja'fari or Im?m? school.[35] It is further divided into two branches, the Usuli school, which favors the exercise of ijtihad,[36] and the Akhbari school, which holds the traditions (a?b?r) of the Imams to be the main source of religious knowledge.[37] Minor schools include the Isml? school (Musta?l? Fimid Isml?yah), and the Zayd? school, which have closer affinity to Sunni jurisprudence.[35][38][39]


The fiqh or jurisprudence of Ibadis is relatively simple. Absolute authority is given to the Qur'an and hadith; new innovations accepted on the basis of qiyas, or analogical reasoning, were rejected as bid'ah by the Ibadis. That differs from the majority of Sunnis[40] but agrees with most Shi'ites[41] and the Zahiri and early Hanbali schools of Sunnism.[42][43][44]

Schools of Islamic theology

Aqidah is an Islamic term meaning "creed", doctrine, or article of faith.[45][46] There have existed many schools of Islamic theology, not all of which survive to the present day. Major themes of theological controversies in Islam have included predestination and free will, the nature of the Quran, the nature of the divine attributes, apparent and esoteric meaning of scripture, and the role of dialectical reasoning in the Islamic doctrine.


Kal?m is the Islamic philosophy of seeking theological principles through dialectic. In Arabic, the word literally means "speech/words". A scholar of kal?m is referred to as a mutakallim (Muslim theologian; plural mutakallim?n). There are many schools of Kalam, the main ones being the Ash'ari and Maturidi schools in Sunni Islam.


Ash'arism is a school of theology founded in the 10th century by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari. The Asharite view was that comprehension of the unique nature and characteristics of God were beyond human capability.


Maturidism is a school of theology founded by Abu Mansur Al Maturidi, which is a close variant of the Ash'ari school. Points which differ are the nature of belief and the place of human reason. The Maturidis state that belief (iman) does not increase nor decrease but remains static; it is piety (taqwa) which increases and decreases. The Ash'aris say that belief does in fact increase and decrease. The Maturidis say that the unaided human mind is able to find out that some of the more major sins such as alcohol or murder are evil without the help of revelation. The Ash'aris say that the unaided human mind is unable to know if something is good or evil, lawful or unlawful, without divine revelation.

Traditionalist theology

Traditionalist theology, sometimes referred to as the Athari school, derives its name from the word "tradition" as a translation of the Arabic word hadith or from the Arabic word athar, meaning "narrations". The traditionalist creed is to avoid delving into extensive theological speculation. They rely on the Qur'an, the Sunnah, and sayings of the Sahaba, seeing this as the middle path where the attributes of Allah are accepted without questioning their nature (bi la kayf). Ahmad bin Hanbal is regarded as the leader of the traditionalist school of creed. The term athari has been historically synonymous with Salafi. The central aspect of traditionalist theology is its definition of Tawhid, meaning literally unification or asserting the oneness of Allah.[47][48][49][50]


Murji'ah was a name for an early politico-religious movement which came to refer to all those who identified faith (iman) with belief to the exclusion of acts.[51]


Qadariyyah is an originally derogatory term designating early Islamic theologians who asserted that humans possess free will, whose exercise makes them responsible for their actions, justifying divine punishment and absolving God of responsibility for evil in the world.[52][53] Some of their doctrines were later adopted by the Mu'tazilis and rejected by the Ash'aris.[52]


Mu'tazili theology originated in the 8th century in al-Basrah when Wasil ibn Ata left the teaching lessons of Hasan al-Basri after a theological dispute. He and his followers expanded on the logic and rationalism of Greek philosophy, seeking to combine them with Islamic doctrines and show that the two were inherently compatible. The Mu'tazili debated philosophical questions such as whether the Qur'an was created or eternal, whether evil was created by God, the issue of predestination versus free will, whether God's attributes in the Qur'an were to be interpreted allegorically or literally, and whether sinning believers would have eternal punishment in hell.


Jahmis were the alleged followers of the early Islamic theologian Jahm bin Safwan who associate himself with Al-Harith ibn Surayj. He was an exponent of extreme determinism according to which a man acts only metaphorically in the same way in which the sun acts or does something when it sets.[54]


The Batiniyyah is a name given to an allegoristic type of scriptural interpretation developed among some Shia groups, stressing the bin (inward, esoteric) meaning of texts. It has been retained by all branches of Isma'ilism and its Druze offshoot. The Alawites practice a similar system of interpretation.[55]

Later branches

African-American movements

Many slaves brought from Africa to the Western hemisphere were Muslim. Although it is thought that the Islam of slaves did not survive past 1920,[56] the early twentieth century saw the rise of distinct Islamic movements within the African-American community, such as the Moorish Science Temple of America and the Nation of Islam. They sought to ascribe Islamic heritage to African-Americans, thereby giving much emphasis on racial aspects[57] (see Black nationalism). These Black Muslim movements often differed greatly in doctrine from mainstream. They included:

  • Moorish Science Temple of America, founded in 1913 by Noble Drew Ali (born Timothy Drew). He claimed it was a sect of Islam but he also drew inspiration from Buddhism, Christianity, Gnosticism and Taoism. Its significant divergences from mainstream Islam and strong African-American ethnic character[58] make its classification as an Islamic denomination a matter of debate among Muslims and scholars of religion.
  • Nation of Islam, founded by Wallace Fard Muhammad in Detroit in 1930,[59] with a declared aim of "resurrecting" the spiritual, mental, social and economic condition of the black man and woman of America and the world. The group believes Fard Muhammad was God on earth,[59][60] a belief viewed as shirk by mainstream Muslims. It does not see Muhammad as the final prophet, but Elijah Muhammad as the "Messenger of Truth" and only allows people of black ethnicity and believes they are the original race on earth.

Ahmadiyya movement

The Ahmadiyya movement was founded in India in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who claimed to be the promised Messiah ("Second Coming of Christ"), the Mahdi awaited by the Muslims and a "subordinate" prophet to Muhammad whose job was to restore the original Sharia given to Muhammad by guiding or rallying disenchanted Ummah back to Islam and thwart attacks on Islam by its opponents. The followers are divided into two groups, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement for the Propagation of Islam, the former believing that Ghulam Ahmad was a non-law bearing prophet and the latter believing that he was only a religious reformer though a prophet in an allegorical sense. Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims and claim to practice the pristine form of Islam as re-established with the teachings of Ghulam Ahmad.

In many Islamic countries the Ahmadis have been defined as heretics and non-Muslim and subjected to persecution and often systematic oppression.[63]

Gülen / Hizmet movement

The Gülen movement, usually referred to as the Hizmet movement,[64] established in the 1970s as an offshoot of the Nur Movement[65] and led by the Turkish Islamic scholar and preacher Fethullah Gülen in Turkey, Central Asia, and in other parts of the world, is active in education, with private schools and universities in over 180 countries as well as with many American charter schools operated by followers. It has initiated forums for interfaith dialogue.[66][67] The Cemaat movement's structure has been described as a flexible organizational network.[68] Movement schools and businesses organize locally and link themselves into informal networks.[69] Estimates of the number of schools and educational institutions vary widely; it appears there are about 300 Gülen movement schools in Turkey and over 1,000 schools worldwide.[70][71]


Islamism is a set of political ideologies, derived from various fundamentalist views, which hold that Islam is not only a religion but a political system that should govern the legal, economic and social imperatives of the state. Many Islamists do not refer to themselves as such and it is not a single particular movement. Religious views and ideologies of its adherents vary, and they may be Sunni Islamists or Shia Islamists depending upon their beliefs. Islamist groups include groups such as Al-Qaeda, the organizer of the September 11, 2001 attacks and perhaps the most prominent; and the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and perhaps the oldest. Although violence is often employed by some organizations, most Islamist movements are nonviolent.

Muslim Brotherhood

The Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimun (with Ikhwan ? brethren) or Muslim Brotherhood, is an organisation that was founded by Egyptian scholar Hassan al-Banna, a graduate of Dar al-Ulum. With its various branches, it is the largest Sunni movement in the Arab world, and an affiliate is often the largest opposition party in many Arab nations. The Muslim Brotherhood is not concerned with theological differences, accepting Muslims of any of the four Sunni schools of thought. It is the world's oldest and largest Islamist group. Its aims are to re-establish the Caliphate and in the mean time push for more Islamisation of society. The Brotherhood's stated goal is to instill the Qur'an and sunnah as the "sole reference point for... ordering the life of the Muslim family, individual, community... and state".[]


Abul Ala Maududi (with alternative spellings of last name Maudoodi), the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami

The Jamaat-e-Islami (or JI) is an Islamist political party in the Indian subcontinent. It was founded in Lahore, British India, by Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi (with alternative spellings of last name Maudoodi) in 1941 and is the oldest religious party in Pakistan and India. Today, sister organizations with similar objectives and ideological approaches exist in India (Jamaat-e-Islami Hind), Bangladesh (Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh), Kashmir (Jamaat-e-Islami Kashmir), and Sri Lanka, and there are "close brotherly relations" with the Islamist movements and missions "working in different continents and countries", particularly those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood (Akhwan-al-Muslimeen). The JI envisions an Islamic government in Pakistan and Bangladesh governing by Islamic law. It opposes Westernization--including secularization, capitalism, socialism, or such practices as interest based banking, and favours an Islamic economic order and Caliphate.[]

Liberal Muslims

Liberal and progressive movements have in common a religious outlook which depends mainly on Ijtihad or re-interpretations of scriptures. Liberal Muslims at thought have led to the birth of certain small denominations from primarily unaffiliated followers who believe in greater autonomy of the individual in interpretation of scripture, a critical examination of religious texts, gender equality, human rights, LGBT rights and a modern view of culture, tradition, and other ritualistic practices in Islam.[]


Mahdavia, or Mahdavism, is a Mahdiist sect founded in late 15th century India by Syed Muhammad Jaunpuri, who declared himself to be the Hidden Twelfth Imam of the Twelver Shia tradition.[72] They follow many aspects of the Sunni doctrine. Zikri Mahdavis, or Zikris, are an offshoot of the Mahdavi movement.[73]

Non-denominational Islam

Non-denominational Muslims is an umbrella term that has been used for and by Muslims who do not belong to or do not self-identify with a specific Islamic denomination.[74][75][76][77]


Tolu-e-Islam ("Resurgence of Islam") is a non-denominational Muslim organization based in Pakistan, with members throughout the world.[78] The movement was initiated by Ghulam Ahmed Pervez.


Quranism (Arabic: ?‎, translit. Qur'?niy?n) is an Islamic branch that holds the Qur'an to be the only canonical text in Islam, as opposed to hadith and often sunnah collections. This is in contrast to orthodox Muslims, who consider hadiths essential to the Islamic faith.[79] Quranistic movements include Abdullah Chakralawi's Ahle Qur'an[80][81] and Rashad Khalifa's United Submitters International.[82]

Salafism and Wahhabism

Ahl-i Hadith

Ahl-i Hadith is a movement which emerged in the Indian subcontinent in the mid-19th century. Followers call themselves Ahl-i Hadith or Salafi, while others consider them to be a branch of the Salafi or Wahhabi movement.[83][84][85]

Salafi movement

The Salafi movement is an ultra-conservative[86] reform[87] movement within Sunni Islam that emerged in the second half of the 19th century and advocated a return to the traditions of the "devout ancestors" (the salaf). The doctrine can be summed up as taking "a fundamentalist approach to Islam, emulating the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers--al-salaf al-salih, the 'pious forefathers'....They reject religious innovation, or bid'ah, and support the implementation of sharia (Islamic law)."[88] The movement is often divided into three categories: the largest group are the purists (or quietists), who avoid politics; the second largest group are the activists, who get involved in politics; the smallest group are the jihadists, who form a small (yet infamous) minority.[88] Most of the violent Islamist groups come from the Salafi movement and their subgroups. In recent years, the Salafi doctrine has often been correlated with the jihad of terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and those groups in favor of killing innocent civilians.[89]<[90] The Salafi movement is often described as being synonymous with Wahhabism, but Salafists consider the term "Wahhabi" derogatory.[91]

Islamic Modernism

Islamic Modernism, also sometimes referred to as Modernist Salafism,[92][93][94][95][96] is a movement that has been described as "the first Muslim ideological response"[97] attempting to reconcile Islamic faith with modern Western values such as nationalism, democracy, civil rights, rationality, equality, and progress.[98]


The Wahhabi movement was created by Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab in the Arabian peninsula, and was instrumental in the rise of the House of Saud to power. The terms Wahhabism and Salafism are often used interchangeably, although the word Wahhabi is specific for followers of Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab. Wahhabism has been accused of being "a source of global terrorism"[99][100] and causing disunity in Muslim communities, and criticized for its followers' destruction of historic sites.[101][102][103]

Population of the branches

Denomination Population
Sunni 1.4 billion[104]
Shia 154-200 million[105]
Ibadi 2.7 million[106]
Ahmadiyya 10-20 million[107]

See also


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