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Home > History of religion > Islam > Divisions of Islam
Divisions of Islam
There are many sub-sects of Islam, but we in India are concerned with two major sects, namely Sunni and Shia. There is really no difference in the articles of creed or the five pillars of Islam. The real difference lies in the status and position of Ali, the son in-law of the Prophet.

Divisions of IslamAli was wedded to the daughter of Prophet Muhammad. But setting this fact aside he had risked his life for the prophet and was a valiant man and a faithful follower of the Prophet. He was held in high esteem by every one. Even the Prophet not only loved Ali, but respected him for his qualities of head and heart. On three-four occasions the prophet had declared, `Oh God, who is a friend of Ali, be his friend and the one who is Ali`s enerny, be his enemy." Naturally, it was believed that he would be the first Caliph.

Unfortunately, after the death of the Prophet, not Ali, but Abu Bakr became the first Caliph and he nominated Umar as his successor. After Umar, Uthman became the third Caliph. Ali was declared the fourth Caliph, but he was killed when he was praying in the mosque at Kufa. Afterwards, Ali`s sons Hasan and Hussain were slain in a battle. Certainly this killing of Hasan and Hussain was a matter of deep lamentations by all the followers of Ali, who are now called Shia.

The real point of difference between the Shias and Sunnis is with regard to the institution of Imam. The Shia believes that the Prophet Muhammad has initiated a cycle for the continuing guidance of the community in the person of the Imarn. This Imam is invested with the qualities of inspired and infallible interpretation of the Quoran. The first Imam was Ali who belonged to the family of the Prophet and inherited the spiritual abilities from the Prophet. As such he was the real leader and infallible interpreter of the Quoran. This spiritual heritage continues in the descendants of Ali till now.

Sunni Muslims: These are followers of the Hanifa, Shafi, Hanibal and Malik schools. They constitute a 90% majority of the believers, and are considered to be main stream traditionalists. Because they are comfortable pursuing their faith within secular societies, they have been able to adapt to a variety of national cultures, while following their three sources of law: the Qur`an, Hadith and consensus of Muslims. The Sunni emphasize the power and sovereignty of Allah and his right to do whatever he wants with his creation. Strict determinism is taught. Its rulership is through the Caliphate, the office of Muslim ruler who is considered the successor to Muhammad. This successor is not through hereditary lineage.

The Shi`ites (also known as the Ja`firi school) split with the Sunni over the issue of the successor to Muhammad. This split occured after the assassination of the fourth caliph in 661. Shi`ites believe that the successor to Muhammad should have been Ali, his son in law, and that subsequent successors should have been through his lineage through his wife Fatima.

Shiism is broken into three main sects: the Twelve-Imam; Persia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Syria, the Zaydis (Yemen), and the Ismailis (India, Iran, Syria, and East Africa). Each group, of course, has differences of doctrine. "Shiite theology includes a doctrine known as the five supports: these are Divine Unity (tawhid), prophecy (nubuwwah), resurrection of the soul and body at the Judgment (ma`ad), the Imamate (imamah), and justice (adl).

masjid The first three are found in Sunni Islam, though with some differences of emphasis, the Imamate, however , is the essence of Shiism, and the last, justice, is an inheritance from the Mutazilites, or rationalists, whose system is in many ways perpetuated in Shi`ite theology. The Imamate, fom the word "Imam", in the Shiite traditions is the political and religious leader of the Shiite sect. This person possess great power and influence. According to Shiite doctrine, the Imam must be a biological successor of Ali. The Imam is also sinless and infallible on all matters of Islamic doctrine and will intercede for Muslims in the afterlife. The Shi`i and the Sunni differ in some interpretations of the Qur`an and Hadith and even have a different canon of Hadith and the Sunni.

The Sufi are a mystical tradition where the followers seek inner mystical knowledge of God. This sect "officially" developed around the 10th century and has since fragmented into different orders: Ahmadiyya, Qadariyya, Tijaniyya, etc. Of course, the Sufi believe their roots can be traced back to the inception of Islam in the early 7th century. The Sufi mystic must follow a path of deprivation and meditation. There are various forms of abstinence and poverty.

Worldly things are renounced and a complete trust in God`s will is taught. The goal is to attain to a higher knowledge and experience of Allah. The mystical focus meant that the Qur`an could be interpreted in different ways and so Sufism taught that the Qur`an had mystical meanings hidden within its pages. Out of this mysticism a type of pantheism developed among some Sufi believers. Pantheism is the teaching that God and the universe are one. Of course, the orthodox Muslims, called the Sunni, reject this idea since they claim that Allah is the creator of the universe and distinct from it. In part, Sufism arose as a reaction to the growing Islamic materialism that had developed in the Empire at that time. Islam had achieved great power and geographical scope and with it, the material gain was great.

The principles of universal brotherhood and doctrine of the equality of mankind which he proclaimed represents one very great contribution of Mohammad to the social uplift of humanity. All great religions have preached the same doctrine but the prophet of Islam had put this theory into actual practice and its value will be fully recognized, perhaps centuries hence, when international consciousness being awakened, racial prejudices may disappear and greater brotherhood of humanity come into existence.
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