The Primary Branches of Islam

  • The two main branches of Islam are the Sunnis and Shiites. These groups formed after the death of Mohammed as they differed over the proper succession of leadership in Islam.
  • Sunnis believed that the successor to Mohammed, the Caliph, should be elected. Shiites believed the successor to Mohammed should be a blood relative.
  • Sunnis are the dominant group within Islam today, comprising over 80% of all Muslims in the world. Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia would be examples of influential Sunni-majority nations.
  • Sunnis base their beliefs and practices primarily upon the Koran and the Sunna, the traditions and sayings of Mohammed, such as the Hadith, as interpreted by the consensus of the religious scholars of Islam, called Ulama.
  • Shiite belief and practice is less concerned with consensus and instead is governed by ruling authorities that represent the hidden 12th Imam, or Mahdi. The Shiites believe the Mahdi will one day return to govern the world under Islamic law.
  • Sunnis are generally more open to a separation between civil and religious leadership, whereas Shiite leadership typically dictates both civil and religious law (ex. the Ayatollahs of Iran).
  • A third branch of Islam is known as Sufism. This is a minority sect of Islam where the adherent seeks to renounce attachment to the world and come into a direct, mystical experience of Allah.

For more information on the religion of Islam, check out Dr. Carlson’s lecture, World Religions: What Makes Jesus Unique? available in CD or MP3 in our online store.