What are the main subgroups within the religion?
by John Kaltner
is a strong sense of unity and solidarity among Muslims that goes
all the way back to the earliest days of the religion. When Muhammad
introduced Islam into Arabia he simultaneously brought about a change
in how the people of the area would identify and align themselves.
had been a tribal-based society for centuries, which meant people
looked first to their tribe for identity and protection. For example,
Muhammad’s family was a member of the Hashem clan, which was
part of the powerful Quraysh tribe that played an influential role
in Arabian society. With the rise of Islam such alliances that were
formed along tribal and familial lines were called into question.
The important thing became
membership in the Muslim community, not affiliation with a particular
tribe or clan. The Arabic term that was adopted to designate this
faith-based group was ummah, and it is
still commonly used to refer to the world-wide Islamic community
to which all Muslims pledge their allegiance.
is not to say there are no divisions within Islam. Muslims differentiate
themselves in all sorts of social, cultural, and ideological ways.
Despite those distinctions they still recognize each other as fellow
believers and members of the one ummah. The most well-known
division in Islam is that between Sunni and Shi`a
Muslims. To understand the origin and reasons for this split we
need to return back to seventh century Arabia.
Muhammad died in 632 the overriding concern for the young Muslim
community was who would take his place. He had not appointed a successor,
and there was no system in place to insure a smooth transition of
authority. One group wanted a man named Ali, who was the Prophet’s
cousin and son-in-law, to become the new leader. They reasoned it
would be important to keep control within Muhammad’s family,
and Ali was the perfect candidate. Others thought differently and
felt the new leader should be someone who knew the Prophet personally,
regardless of whether or not he was a relative.
latter group eventually won out. A series of three different companions
of Muhammad were appointed leader before Ali assumed the office
of caliph (“successor”) and held it until his death
in 661. This period of Islamic history is referred to as the time
of the four “Rightly Guided Caliphs.” When Ali died
his followers believed the caliphate would be kept in his family
line, but the majority group passed over his sons in favor of a
man named Muawiya, whose reign ushered in the Umayyad Period (661-750).
who backed Ali in these battles over authority called themselves
shi`a, an Arabic word meaning “partisans” that
gave a name to the movement. Shi`a
Muslims are those of the “party of Ali” who believe
the leaders of the ummah throughout history should have been taken
from among his descendants. Today they number about 15% of all Muslims.
They consider themselves to be a persecuted minority
that has been denied its rightful place, but they believe they will
eventually be vindicated and all Muslims will come under the authority
of someone from Ali’s line. This is a topic to which we will
return in the chapter on leadership.
some relatively minor exceptions that will be discussed later, the
beliefs and practices of Sunnis and Shi`a closely mirror each other.
They each consider the other to be legitimate expressions of Islam
and each deems the followers of the other sect to be fellow Muslims.
In recent history there have been some violent clashes between Sunnis
and Shi`a, as in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, but these are usually
based on political disagreements rather than theological differences.
only two main branches of division, Islam lacks the diversity and
variety of a religion like Christianity, which contains many factions
and denominations. There
are a number of other Islamic groups whose names are familiar to
non-Muslims, but they are more like offshoots of Islam rather than
major branches within it.
is Wahhabi Islam, a radical form of the faith found
primarily in modern Saudi Arabia that traces its roots back to a
man named Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92). With the endorsement
of the powerful Saud family, he was able to spread his extreme brand
of the faith throughout the Arabian Peninsula. He thought Islam
had been tainted by improper innovations and corrupt practices,
and he went about the task of trying to remove these elements from
it. Osama bin Laden and his supporters are the most notorious adherents
group that is well-known in the United States is the Nation
of Islam. It was founded in the 1930s by a man named Fard
as an organization that attempted to respond to the needs and concerns
of African Americans. Elijah Muhammad took over the reins after
Fard’s mysterious disappearance, and under his leadership
it came to wield a great deal of religious and social influence
in many American cities.
of certain teachings that run counter to mainstream Islam, its relationship
with the rest of the ummah has been problematic. For example,
the Nation of Islam maintains that Fard was God incarnate and Elijah
Muhammad was a prophet, two beliefs that no Sunni or Shi`a would
be able to accept. In recent years, Elijah Muhammad’s successor
Louis Farrakhan has attempted to reach out to the worldwide Islamic
community and improve relations with other Muslims.
©2007 John Kaltner
Kaltner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies
at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses
in Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Islam:
What Non-Muslims Should Know (2003); Inquiring
of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qu’ran
Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers
(Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999)
This excerpt from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions
and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein,
Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner is used with permission from Westminster
John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. To
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