What Are the Factions of Islam?

Despite differences, all factions of Islam value the Quran and pray to Allah.
... Hemera Technologies/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images

The divisions of Islam reflect different interpretations of the Quran, alternate views of Islamic succession and varied ways of worshiping Allah. Some of these divisions, like the ancient split between Sunni and Shiite, reflect historical developments that have shaped the Islamic world for centuries.

1 Sunni

The division between Sunni and Shiite Muslims began with the death of Muhammad, when Sunnis argue that the Prophet Muhammad chose Abu Bakr to succeed him. Abu Bakr was named the first caliph -- the Muslim political leader -- and in subsequent decades his followers began to formalize many aspects of the Sunni faith, creating a series of religious laws to deal with moral issues in everyday life. Sunnis also emphasize the importance of all Islamic scripture, and believe that all of the writings are equally valid and true; texts such as the "Sahih Muslim" and the "Sahih Bukhari" are particularly important to Sunni Muslims. The grand mufti serves as a leader and authority to Sunnis on the practical applications of Islamic law as drawn from scripture.

2 Shiite

Shiite Muslims argue that Abu Bakr was not the rightful successor to Muhammad, and that when the prophet was returning from a pilgrimage, he stood before his followers and announced that Ali -- Muhammad's son-in-law and cousin -- would be the next spiritual leader of his people. Eventually Ali ceded power to Abu Bakr for the good of Islam as a whole, but he later became the fourth caliph and his followers broke with the Sunni movement. Shiite Muslims believe that the "Twelfth Imam" is a messianic figure that was hidden by God and will return to revive the true message of God. In his absence, an ayatollah acts as the chief Shiite authority. Unlike Sunnis, Shiite Muslims give preference to the writings of the Prophet Muhammad's family and close associates.

3 Sufism

The faction of Sufism isn't in itself a different denomination from Shiite or Sunni, as followers of Sufism exist in both. Instead, Sufism is a movement that focuses on elements of mysticism within Islam. Sufis believe that true Islamic knowledge comes from teachers, not only books, and learn their faith from mentors. They adhere to all the traditional aspects of prayer, charity and fasting that other Muslims do, but they also practice dhikr, a chanting of Muslim scripture and invocation of the divine names of God.

4 Kharijite

In addition to Sunni and Shiite Islam, several smaller sects exist, such as the ancient Kharijite movement. This movement began when Ali assumed the position of caliph when the Kharijites took issue with the arbitration of Islamic authorities. They argued that these authorities were over-extending their power by siding with Ali's followers, who in the eyes of the Kharijite were rebellious. Since the Quran forbids this kind of rebellion, they split off into their own faction. This orthodox sect of Islam discouraged intermarriage with members of other faiths, along with music, games and all forms of luxury. Although Kharijite Islam has mostly disappeared, the more moderate sub-sect Ibadiyah has continued to thrive, particularly in parts of Northern Africa.

James Stuart began his professional writing career in 2010. He traveled through Asia, Europe, and North America, and has recently returned from Japan, where he worked as a freelance editor for several English language publications. He looks forward to using his travel experience in his writing. Stuart holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and philosophy from the University of Toronto.