John Shore Christian Blog and Commentary

A Primer On Islam: Groups, Sects and Shari'a (Lesson 2 of 6)

Here is the second of the six-part class on Islam taught by my friend Pastor Bob. Lesson one is A Primer on Islam: The Basics. Take it away, Pastor Bob!

Welcome to this second lesson on my introduction to Islam. For the first lesson, I introduced some basic terms and concepts of Islam; this week I want to share the incredible diversity of Islam. In a nutshell, Islam is not one monolithic entity, but a living, breathing faith shaped by multiple contexts and a very rich history. Muslims do not ordinarily focus on these kind of distinctions (certainly not in the way Christians are apt to do with each other!), but these differences do affect the way Muslims interact with the world.

A Primer on Islam
Lesson Two
by Pastor Bob

Major Groups Within Islam, Sects and Related Traditions

TWO MAIN GROUPS WITHIN ORTHODOX ISLAM: Sunni Muslims: The majority of Muslims (85%).

  • Essentially "mainstream" Islam and very much a “lay” movement.
  • Tend to highly regard tradition and community consensus when making decisions.

Shi'a Muslims: The next largest group of Muslims.

  • Referred to as the Shi'ites. Found largely in Iran and Iraq.
  • Tend to rely more on inspired teachers who are related to Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali.
  • "Twelvers" refers to the majority of Shi'a Muslims who regard the twelve principle Imams. Iran is 90% "twelver" Shi'ites.


  • Focused on mysticism, this group is comprised of both Sunni & Shi'a Muslims.


  • They are "Seveners" because they acknowledge the seven principle Imams following the death of Muhammad.
  • A sub-group of Ismai'ilis follow their revered leader called the Agha Khan.
  • They are found all over the world, but particularly in the Indian sub-continent, and East Africa, as well as the UK and the United States.

Zaydis or “Fivers”

  • Considered the fifth Imam, Zayd, the last rightful Imam. Established in Yemen.


  • One of the founders, and its namesake, Isma'il al Darazi (d. 1020) believed that the sixth Fatamid Caliph (and Ismai'ili Imam) al-Hakim, was Divine.
  • With al-Hakim's mysterious disappearance in 1021, the Druzes teach that he didn’t die.
  • This is a sub-group of the Isma'ilis and is very secretive.
  • Found today mainly in Lebanon, Israel and Syria.


  • Founded by Guru Nanak (b.1469) near Lahore Pakistan. Popular among the Punjabi people.
  • Blending of personal devotion of popular Hinduism (bhakti), the contemplative experience of mystical Islam (Sufism) and the controlled ritual practices of Tibetan Buddhism (Tantrism).


  • Founded by Mizra Ali Muhammed (the Bab) and Mizra Husayun Ali (Baha'u'lla) in 1844 in Iran.
  • An offshoot of the Babi sect of Persia who were "twelver" Shi'a Muslims.
  • Severely persecuted in Iran, they are headquartered in Haifa, Israel and have become quite popular in Europe and America due to their focus on world unity and peace.
  • God is seen as being manifested through nine religious leaders including Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad and Baha'u'llah.


Islamic Law (Shari'a) and its major schools


  • Islamic religious law, shari'a, is based upon the principles and regulations of the Qur'an and the Hadith (the written-down words and practices of Muhammad).
  • Islamic scholars interpreted these sources and created legal opinions based on these sources.
  • These legal opinions dictated all aspects of Muslim behavior, including worship, finances, social practices and public behavior.
  • After roughly three centuries following Muhammad's death, the shari'a became codified largely under four Sunni legal schools and one Shi'a school. It then began to take on a sacred quality of its own.
  • Because of the multiplicity of schools of law and their legal opinions, there are always multiple ways of validly interpreting an action or crime and its consequences.
  • There is no monolithic “shari'a” but an ongoing adapting of laws with certain schools of law dominating certain regions. Today, Muslims struggle to apply the shari'a faithfully to their context and struggle with modernism and secularism.
  • Assessing shari'a: Being such a broad-based concept and diverse in its practice, it is not surprising that shari'a is so little understood by non-Muslims.
  1. Shari'a is about the practical implementation of faith values in daily life. This includes how a Muslim worships, what they eat, how they relate to each other, and importantly, because the Islamic empire grew so rapidly, how to relate to non-Muslims. Muslims have lived side-by-side with non-Muslim neighbors for the last 1,400 years, both as majority and minority, and have figured out how to live within the principles of shari'a--even within modern communist countries antagonistic towards any religion.
  2. As shared in Lesson One of this primer: The vast majority of Muslim-Americans deeply appreciate the American Constitution-based legal system; contrary to wanting to supplant or supersede it, they find it complementary to living in accordance with the values of shari'a.


  • Founder: Abu Hanifa of Iraq (d. 767).
  • Emphasized Qur'an and use of qualified, private opinion and analogy in interpreting its meaning. If a literal application of a law seemed unjust, adaptation to the context is applied.
  • Roughly 35% of the world's Muslims follow this legal tradition, mostly in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and former countries of the Ottoman Empire such as Turkey, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan & Syria).


  • Founded by Malik ibn Anas of Medina (d. 795).
  • Skeptical of private opinion in legal matters, he stressed a communal consensus of the law as dictated by the community's understanding (Medina) of the practices of Muhammad.
  • Roughly 25% of Muslims follow this tradition found mainly in North and West Africa.


  • Founded by Muhammad al-Shaifi'i of Egypt (d. 820).
  • He sought the middle ground between an over dependence on the authority of reason or community. His focus was on the Qur'an and the Hadith with analogy and communal consensus as secondary.
  • One could say that he used the sources of Hanifa but interpreted like Malik.
  • Roughly 15% of Muslims, followers are found in parts of the Middle East, East Africa, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.


  • Founded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal of Baghdad (d. 855).
  • A literalist, he vigorously opposed rational and private interpretation as well as the use of analogy and communal consensus. Muslims are to follow the statements of the Qur'an and Hadith as literally as possible.
  • His thought has profoundly influenced fundamentalism within contemporary Islam.
  • Less than 5% of the world’s Muslims, it is most influential in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, particularly through Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.


  • Founded by Ja'farl-Sadiq (d. 765) the sixth imam of Shi'a Islam.
  • Out of the Shi'a emphasis for its religious leaders, this school emphasizes the personal interpretation (ijtihad).
  • It is found wherever there are Shi'ites: Iran, Pakistan, North India, and East Africa.

Pastor Bob is a pastor in San Diego.