Denominations of Islam

Islam is not a monolithic religion. That is to say, it is not linked to just one school of thought or one rigid interpretation. Within Islam, several different denominations exist that hold different beliefs and traditions, with the three main factions consisting of the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Sufis.

Differences between Sunni and Shiite interpretations of Islam.

The majority of the world's Muslims are Sunnis, with Shiites being the minority group of the two, with the exception of Iraq and Iran where they are the majority. The 'split' between the Sunnis and the Shiites occurred in 632 and originated after a disagreement over the rightful successor of the Prophet Muhammad after his death. This occurred as the Sunnis did not place importance on the successor being hereditary, and therefore looked to the Prophet Muhammad's two fathers-in- law and one son in-law, who were his trusted advisors, to carry on his legacy. However, as none of these men were blood relatives, an opposing faction believed that the Prophet Mohammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali, was the natural successor and civil war broke out. As such, this difference of opinion led directly to the formation of the two distinct present day groups of Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

Despite the differences over succession however, Sunni and Shiite Muslims share many of the same beliefs and traditions.

Beliefs and Traditions:

One of the fundamental principles of Islam relates to the Five Pillars which are requirements of all Muslims. These include pilgrimage to Mecca, prayer five times daily, offering alms to the poor, belief and profession that there is no other God but Allah, and fasting for the holy month of Ramadan.

The Sunnis, Shiite and Sufis share these beliefs, which lie at the core of Islam, however they differ on some of the implementations and on the more theological aspects of Islam. This is evident in the way in which the Sunnis believe that religious law and doctrine should be based on the teachings and examples set by the prophets in Islam, and particularly by the Prophet Muhammad. The Shiite in contrast believe in the position of Muslim clerics to provide continued interpretations of Muslim law. As such, the Sunnis are often thought of as the more 'traditional' and less progressive of the two groups.

All three groups share a belief in the Quran, the holy book of Islam, but differ on the origins of the hadiths which are the written collections of the deeds and practices of the Prophet Muhammad. The Sunni believe that the hadiths come from the Prophet Muhammad's closest companions, whereas the Shiite believe that they originated from the imams, the religious teachers of Islam. As such, the Shiite place much importance on the teachings and pronouncements of Islamic scholars.

There are also minor differences in some of the prayer rituals between the Sunnis and the Shiites, as some Shiites have a tradition of joining the two afternoon and two evening prayer times together, thus praying five times a day but with very short breaks between them. This is less common with the Sunnis who tend to favor observing the more traditional and evenly split prayer times.

The way in which the two groups actually perform the prayer rituals can also differ as the Sunni fold one arm over the other in prayer whereas the Shiite hold their hands at their sides.


Sufism on the other hand is another faction of Islam entirely, although it is arguably closer in belief and doctrine to the Sunni branch of Islam than to Shiite. Sufis believe in religious teachers dating back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad and, as they observe the teachings of these spiritual leaders closely, they believe themselves to be the true proponents of Islam, which Sufi followers feel they adhere to in its truest form.

In many ways, if the Sunni branch of Islam is based on tradition, and the Shiite branch born of a political disagreement regarding succession, then Sufism is often referred to by Sufi followers themselves as the science of giving oneself completely to God. The origins of Sufism are not entirely clear, unlike those of the Sunnis or the Shiites, but it is widely held that Sufism developed due to a desire by some practitioners to further and more fully internalize the practices and beliefs held in Islam.

All Muslims believe that they will, after death, be united with Allah in Paradise. Where Sufism differs however, is the belief that followers can, through a range of techniques, become close to Allah in this lifetime, not only after the Final Judgment. This is evident through the way in which Sufis follow Divine Law, in which they believe that man can attain a heightened state of grace and purity in which he will be directly connected to Allah.

To achieve this state, followers practice a range of techniques such as controlled breathing, fasting, sleeplessness, self imposed solitude and, in some areas, Sufi 'whirling', a kind of meditation in which practitioners give their focus completely to Allah. Due to these techniques, Sufism is often linked to mysticism, but many Sufi argue that this is to misunderstand Sufism, the fundamental principle of which is to stay in as pure a state as possible in order to become closer to Allah, with or without any of the more challenging techniques such a whirling or recitation.

Of the lesser know sects of Islam, the most prevalent is Ahmadiyya Islam, which was formed comparatively late in 1889 in India. This faction of Islam diverges from others through the presence of its founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who claimed to be a messenger sent by Allah to call disillusioned followers back to the religion. As such, Ahamadiyya Islam is said by practitioners to be a movement back to the pure and focused teachings of Islam stemming from the Prophet Muhammad, which were felt to have been lost amid fanaticism and in-fighting among other Muslim groups over the centuries. To this end, followers of Ahmadiyya Islam focus on the prorogation of a peaceful branch of Islam not tied to politics or interpretation of scripture. Despite this, other denominations of Islam consider followers of Ahmadiyya Islam to be non-Muslims due to a dispute over the legitimacy of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad's position as the founder of the Ahmadiyya sect.