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Muslims Adhere to Different Islamic Sects

Part of the Islam For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Although Sunnis make up the majority of Muslims, not every Muslim belongs to the same Islamic sect. A Muslim's Islamic beliefs may take one of these forms:

  • Sunni Muslims include 84%–90% of all Muslims. Sunni means “tradition,” and Sunnis regard themselves as those who emphasize following the traditions of Muhammad and of the first two generations of the community of Muslims that followed Muhammad.

    A number of movements to reform Islam have originated mainly in the 20th century. Some are limited to one country and others have a broader influence. Most are Sunni movements, such as the Wahhabis, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Jama`at-i-Islami.

  • Shi`ite Muslims comprise 10%–16% of all Muslims. Shi`ites are the “party of `Ali,” who believe that Muhammad’s son-in-law `Ali was his designated successor (imam) and that the Muslim community should be headed by a designated descendent of Muhammad. Three main subgroups of Shi`ites are Twelvers (Ithna-`Asharis), Seveners (Isma`ilis), and Fivers (Zaydis).

  • Sufis are Islamic mystics. Sufis go beyond external requirements of the religion to seek a personal experience of God through forms of meditation and spiritual growth. A number of Sufi orders, comparable to Christian monastic orders, exist. Most Sufis are also Sunni Muslims, although some are Shi`ite Muslims. Many conservative Sunni Muslims regard Sufism as a corruption of Islam, although most still regard Sufis as Muslims.

  • Baha’is and Ahmadiyyas are 19th-century offshoots of Shi`ite and Sunni Islam, respectively. Bahai’s consider themselves the newest of the major world’s religions but recognize that historically they originated from Shi`ite Islam in the same way that Christianity originated from Judaism. Ahmadiyyas do regard themselves as Muslims. Most other Muslims, however, deny that either group is a legitimate form of Islam and regard members of both groups as heretics — people who have corrupted and abandoned Islamic belief and practice.

  • Druze, Alevis, and `Alawis are small, sectarian groups with unorthodox beliefs and practices that split off from Islam. Druze and Alevis do not regard themselves as Muslims and are not considered Muslims by other Muslims. `Alawis have various non-Islamic practices, but debate continues as to whether they should still be considered Muslims.

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