Sunni, Shia, and Sufi Islam

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Muhammad's successors were call caliphs. From the beginning, there was disagreement about what characteristics would qualify someone to be a caliph. The four "Rightly Guided Caliphs" were in power in successive years from 632 to 661. The two major divisions in Islam are the Shia and Sunni Muslims. One of the major differences between these two movements was over how the successors to Muhammad would be determined. A third movement in Islam is known as Sufi.


Sunni, Shia, and Sufi Islam

I. Historical Development

A. Historical Re-cap to 632 - Key Historical Events

1. 570 A.D. - Birth

2. 610 A.D. - Night of Power and Excellence

3. 622 A.D. - Hegira

4. 630 A.D. - Triumphant Return to Mecca

5. 632 A.D. - Death

B. The Four "Rightly Guided Caliphs"

1. Muhammad's Successors

2. Survey of Four "Rightly Guided Caliphs" and the Caliphate

a. Abu Bakr (632-634)

b. Umar ibn al-khattab (634-644)

c. Uthman ibn Affan (644-656)

d. Ali (657-661)

II. Differences Between the Groups

A. Shia

1. Believe that the Caliph should be a descendent of Ali.

2. Doctrine of Imamism which looks to certain divinely appointed leaders who arise in the direct succession of Muhammad.

3. Emergence of a Mahdi figure in times of distress to restore the faithful and protect the Prophetic message.

4. Emphasis on human freedom.

5. Found in vast majority in Iran and S. Iraq.

6. Add to the Shahadah: "There is no God, but Allah, and Muhammad is the Prophet of God, and Ali is the friend of God."

B. Sunni (Normative party)

1. Believe that the Caliph should be chosen in a rational way by the Council, regardless of his blood descent.

2. Believe the "imam" is simply the leader of the Islamic assembly on Fridays (preacher).

3. Reject any notion of a final mahdi.

4. Emphasize Divine sovereignty - predestination.

5. Easily the majority world-wide, with five times the adherents of Shi'a.

6. Reject any changes or additions to the Shahadah.

C. Sufi

III. Schools of Law in Sunni and Shia Islam

A. Sunni Tradition

1. Hanifi

2. Shafites

3. Malakites

4. Hanbalites

B. Shia Tradition

1. Imamites

2. Ismailis

3. Zaydis

4. Alawites

IV. Sufism

A. Contemplative and Mystical

B. Non-legalistic

C. Individualistic

D. Syncretistic

E. Esotericisms in Qur'an and Hadith

F. Role of the Pir


For more on Sunni, Shia, and Sufi Islam, go to "Introduction to Islam" in the Leadership Education section of this site:

Lecture #7 - Historical Development, Part 1 and Part 2

Lecture #10 - Schools of Law

Lecture #11 - Sufism and Sufi Orders


Course: Essentials of Islam

Lecture: Sunni, Shia, and Sufi Islam

I. Historical Development

In the last lecture, we examined the five unifying principles of Islam known as the five pillars of Islam. The purpose of this lecture is to follow up on that and to develop how historically Islam has become also a divided movement. It is simply inaccurate to talk about Islam as a seamless garment. This has been one of the difficulties with the Western understanding of Islam, and therefore this lecture is very, very important. Sadam Hussein and others in recent years have tried to portray Islam as a seamless garment, Muslims united against the West, or Muslim ideals against Western materialism, etc.

In fact, Islam is a very fractured community which goes back to the very beginning. In more recent events with the rise of the al Qaeda and conflicts with world terrorism, it has been difficult to speak with one voice about what is Islam. There are Islamists who espouse terrorism. There are Islamists who espouse peaceful means, etc. A lot of this is rooted in various traditions which go back to some fundamental differences in how Islam has developed. This is an important lecture, to try to find some context for how Islam developed and created a number of distinct traditions, just as we have in Christianity. We have everything ranging from Pentecostals to Quakers, Eastern Orthodox to Presbyterians. We have a lot of variety within the Christian community. In the same way, the Muslim community also has a great deal of variety.

A. Historical Re cap to 632 – Key Historical Events

You recall that last time we surveyed the key events in light of Muhammad leading up to the five principles of Islam. Going back to some of the historical events: Just to refresh your memory, Muhammad was born in 570 A.D. The year 610 was the year he had his famous “night of power and excellence” where he received the first revelation of the Qur’an. The year 622 is the Hegira where Muhammad left Mecca, entered triumphantly into Yachrib, which was renamed Medina, the “city of the prophet.” This marks the origin of the Islamic calendar. The year 630 was his triumphant return to Mecca when the city was given up without a struggle; the destruction of the idols and the ka’ba with the exception of the black stone, which represented monotheism. This was followed two years later by the death of Muhammad in 632.

It is at this point we want to pick up the story and discuss what happened in the period following the death of Muhammad. You recall that in seventh century Arabia there were two great empires: the Byzantine empire which was a Christian or Eastern empire; and the Zoroastrian, that is, the Persian empire. Arabia is juxtaposed between both of these and to the south of these two great empires. Within one hundred years after the death of Muhammad, from 632 to 732, in that one-hundred-year period, both not just one, but both of these mighty empires the Byzantine empire and the Persian empire fall at the feet of Islamic armies. It is considered by Muslims to be the “one hundred glorious years.” This is the way they refer to the century following the death of Muhammad.

What happens after Muhammad dies? there were still divisions among Bedouin tribes in Arabia. These tribes were fiercely independent. Yet, within a decade after Muhammad’s death there was considerable agreement among these tribes and they began to move out of the Arabian Peninsula as a united force. They conquered modern day Iraq, modern day Syria, even Palestine, Persia and Egypt. This is really remarkable. They conquered, they called people to follow Islam. If you were a Christian or a Jew, you were allowed to continue your faith as long as you paid a special tax known as a “jizya” and you entered into a protective status known as “demeni status”; that is, a protected status to practice your faith. There are many examples throughout their history that this was not allowed; and there are so many horrible massacres and slaughters. Basically, this was the official policy as the Muslim empires won out: Give people the opportunity come to Islam. If they refuse to come to Islam, put them to death. But if they are Christians or Jews, you would give them the opportunity to accept demeni status, or protected status.

When Muhammad died, one of the problems was, how Muhammad was to be succeeded. The Qur’an alludes to this, showing that Muhammad was in fact going to die. In a quote from surah 21: “No man before you (that is, Muhammad) has been made immortal. If you, yourself, are doomed to die, then will anyone else live? Every soul shall taste death.” This is a passage which simply points out that Muhammad, though he was mightily used by Allah, from the Muslim perspective, he was nevertheless a mortal and he would die. If Muhammad would die and taste death and would not be perpetually there to lead the community, the question is, how and in what way would this Muhammad be succeeded? This is why we have the term the “caliphate” because the caliph or caliphate represents a title for the successor of Muhammad. A caliph, sometimes pronounced “caliph” (long a), refers to the person who fulfills this function. There was great division, even early on, about what a caliph might be. Is it someone who merely succeeded Muhammad in his military role to lead the Muslim community? Or could this person serve in a prophetic role, to continue to receive revelation from Gabriel? Is it an office? Is it a prophethood? In what way is this position a function in the ongoing life of the Muslim community?

This caliphate lasted for a long period of time; and if you listen to the extended tapes, you can get a full summary of each of the major periods of the caliphate.

B. The Four “Rightly Guided Caliphs”

There is the period of what is called the “rightly guided caliphs” which occurs from 632 to 661, which refers to the four major caliphs. You have the Uhmiad empire from 651 to 750 and following, the Abaz empire from 750 to 1258. There are a number of important events also that follow this; but this is the main structure of the caliphate.

From our point of view, we only need to focus on the “rightly guided caliphs” from 632 to 661. This leads us up to the first major division within Islam. To this day, Muslims are divided between Sunni Muslims, which are mainly the Arab Muslims, and the Shiite Muslims, which refer mainly to the Persian Muslims. This is of course developed throughout the world today to Sunni and Shia Muslims.

These two divisions which occurred are actually traced back to a very early division within Islam. When Muhammad died, the first person to succeed Muhammad was a person known as Abu Bakr. He was a good successor; he was a very close friend of Muhammad. He was with him at the Hegira. He was with him when Yachib was renamed Medina. In many ways, he was a person that was very close to Muhammad. One of his wives, his favorite wife, was a woman named Aisha. Aisha was the daughter of Abu Bakr. Therefore, it is very, very important because Abu Bakr, through her, becomes related to the prophet. Abu Bakr is the first, and was an excellent military leader. He only reigned for a couple of short years; but he was able to assimilate the Arabian tribes, Bedouin tribes; and he made some initial raids into southern Iraq and Palestine and was victorious.

The second caliph is known as simply “Umar.” Umar reigned from 634 to 644 and this was a tremendous period of expansion of the Muslim community. He brought the Muslim armies into Damascus and into Syria, into Egypt and most of Persia was brought under the reign of Islam by the Muslim armies.

The Council of Electors was selected in order to nominate the next caliph. This again was a matter of some debate. How was this personally chosen? As we will see, the main reason that Islam divided into Sunni and Shia was over, how was the true successor to Muhammad to be determined? In 644 Umar was assassinated; and this has been a bone of great contention and great strife, even to this day in the Muslim community because he was assassinated while he was actually reading the Qur’an quietly.

The third caliph is known as Uthman, who reigned from 644 to 656. He was a weakly leader. A lot of division and internal strife occurred during the 12 years that he had the caliphate. He did, however, send out Muslim armies, both eastward and westward. He was a part of the Meccan troubled family to which Muhammad had belonged, which if you recall, had opposed him so strongly in the Battles of Badr and Uhud. Uthman was also resented because it was believed that he was part of the opponents of Muhammad and his family in the early days; and why should he now be brought in as one of the leaders of the Islamic community? He also was assassinated in 656 while reading the Qur’an. He is important because he is given credit for finalizing the Qur’an and destroying all of the variant copies.

This is very interesting to students of the Bible, where we engage in textual criticism where we examine the various documents of the New Testament and compare manuscripts and seek to understand what was actually present in the original autographs. This is not possible in the Muslim world; not only theologically impossible because they believe the Qur’an is a transcript of heavenly book; but practically speaking, it is impossible because during Uthman’s reign the various major variant copies were destroyed, leaving just one single Qur’an. This is a simple way to take care of all textual problems, to simply destroy the variants. This is precisely what took place in the Muslim community.

II. Differences Between the Groups

A. Shia

The fourth and final of the united caliphs is Ali. This is a person who is both the son of Muhammad’s uncle, Abu Kalib, and the husband of his youngest daughter, Fatima, which by the way, was the only surviving child of Muhammad and his wife Khadija. Ali is important because Muhammad and Ali are related by blood and during Ali’s time you have some major civil wars that break out in the Muslim community. I won’t go through all of the details of these battles, but this is the first major civil conflict between Muslims where you have Muslims fighting Muslims. In the course of this conflict, though, there was an attempt to regain the caliphate and Ali allowed his opponents to put the caliphate up to arbitration. This was opposed by Ali’s followers, who said that the descendant of Muhammad, the caliphate, should not be determined by a vote of any council. It should be determined by a blood relative of Muhammad. Because of that, you have a split between the Shiites, which literally means “the party of Ali” (Shia means “sect or party”) and the main Muslims known as the Sunnis (Sunni means “the normative” as in the normative practice of Muslims).

B. Sunni

Essentially the Sunni represented the mainstream Muslims who believed the caliphate should be appointed by a council. This means that anybody of any ethnicity could conceivably lead the Muslim community. The leading party, that is the Shia Ali, (now they shorten this to Shia or Shiite) asserted that only the blood descents of Ali could become the caliph because Ali was the only one related by blood, not just marriage, to Muhammad. This is the historical difference between the Sunni and the Shia.

Since that time there have been a number of other differences which I think are worth pointing out, how the Shia and Sunni communities are different today. The first difference, of course, has to do with this blood descendant that we have mentioned, that the caliph should be a descendant of Ali, according to the Shia; whereas the Sunni believe that he should be chosen by a council.

But the Shiite had other beliefs that evolved over time, which today are warp and woof of the Shiite doctrine, theology and practice. The next big difference is Imamism. The Shiites believe in the doctrine of an Imam. In the Sunni tradition, an Imam is simply the name of the prayer leader, the person who stands in the prayer niche and leads Muslims in ritual prayer on their ritual prayer day. Friday is the day of congregation when they actually meet together and do this. The Shiites, on the other hand, believed that the imam was a divinely appointed leader who could actually hold the mantle of Muhammad. That is to say, he would actually be able to take on the prophethood of Muhammad, not just the moral or military or political role; but actually, be the recipient of revelation. The Sunni reject that and simply say the imam is the prayer leader of the Islamic community, period.

The Shiites today are divided in all kinds of subgroups; some who believe there are only seven imams in the history of the world; some who believe there are 12 imams, etc. Most of the Muslims in the Shiite community still believe that there is a final imam that comes, known as a Mahdi figure. This is the third big difference between the Muslims because the Shiites expect a final Mahdi figure who will come to destroy the faithless and to restore the faithful and to protect the message of Muhammad. This person is often called “the hidden imam.” Many of the Persian Shiites in Iran believe, you may recall from some years past, that Ayatollah Khomeini was in fact this hidden imam.

B. Sunni (Normative party)

The Sunni reject any notion of a final Mahdi. This has been very important in more recent days in Afghanistan when the leader of the Taliban had actually taken out a mantle, a cloak, which had been believed to belong the actual prophet, and had clothed himself, wrapped himself in it as a way of saying that “I now carry the actual mantle of Muhammad, his prophethood, to lead Afghanistan to a divine state of superiority around the world.”

The idea of a Mahdi figure is a very important figure that runs through the Shiite and is a mainstream Shiite belief; but also as a belief amongst some minority groups in the Sunni community; though it is rejected by the majority of the Sunni position.

Shiites also typically emphasize human freedom more than the Sunni, who emphasize divine sovereignty. I love to tell the story about the emphasis on predestination among the Sunni. I always tell students that the Sunni’s view of predestination is so pronounced, so emphasized in their theology, that it would even make John Calvin turn pale. The Sunnis have some very bizarre conceptions of predestination where everything is predetermined, a predetermination, not just a foreknowledge. The Muslims, for example, a few years ago during the hajj (you will recall, there was this hastening between the two towns as a part of remembering Hagar’s going back and forth and frantically searching for water for Ishmael); during that hastening a few years ago, hundreds of Muslims were trampled to death and died right there during the hajj. The Muslim Imam who was there and presided over the hajj, a very, very important figure who was not just a minority figure, this was a very mainstream, key leader – was asked about these hundreds of people who were literally killed on hajj, and how in the world could he reconcile this with God’s sovereignty because why would God kill somebody who was there trying to perform hajj? His answer was, predestination. He said it was their time to die and Allah had decreed before the creation of the world that they would die at that moment; and he said the fact that they were all on pilgrimage meant nothing. If they had stayed home in Africa or in Syria or in the Middle East, or even in America, or wherever they came from; if they had stayed home, they still would have died at that exact moment, said the imam, because at that moment they had been predestined to die.

There was no reform movement to make the hastening between the two towns, between the two hills, safer or to do crowd control or any of that. It was simply chalked up to predestination. I thought this would be a good version of predestination which would even cause the most profound, committed Calvinist to stand back in amazement because the Muslims almost invariably include in almost every sentence the phrase “inshallah, if Allah wills.” Everything is rooted in predetermination of every event, every thought, every development. During the wake of the destruction of the twin towers in New York City there were many Muslim leaders who said, “This occurred because Allah willed it,” had nothing to do with Islamic terrorism and nothing to do with the rise of al Qaeda, had nothing to do with Osama Bin Laden. It was simply decreed by God. If Bin Laden had never been born, it still would have happened because it was Allah’s will that at that moment those two buildings would collapse.

Another difference is that the Shiite and the Sunni tend to be divided along ethnic lines. The Shia tend to be the Persian Muslims. You may be aware that we usually refer to the Middle Eastern Arabs and Muslims kind of all in one breath. In fact, most Muslims are not Arab; and even in the Middle East you have major groups who are not Arab, most importantly, Iran. Iran is predominantly Persian, which is not Arab. The Persian Muslims tend to be Shia. There are a number of Shia who are also in southern Iraq and they number a high percentage of Shia in Iraq. But Iran is the place where there are predominantly Shia. Around the world there are people who follow Sunni and Shia; but the Sunni’s position is by far the most dominant position, that fall under the name of Sunni, the normative position. Roughly 85%, some say as much as 89%, of Muslims belong to the Sunni community; which means roughly between 11 and 15% belong to the Shiite community.

The final difference between Shia and Sunni is a slight change in the shahada by the Shiite community. The Shiite add a last phrase that includes Ali. It goes like this: “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah and Ali is the friend of Allah. Allah, Ali, the friend of Allah.” The Sunni of course reject any changes or additions to the shahada.

C. Sufi

Finally, in addition to the Sunni and Shia, there is also another movement known as the Sufi. The Sufi refers to a mystical movement within Islam which follows various paths to spiritual enlightenment. The Sufi movement has reacted against the kind of cold, formal legalism that is in Islam. It has reacted against the cold austerity of Allah as one who does not communicate with his people, does not have any warm feelings or affection toward his people. All of this is reacted against by the Sufi and they essentially try to emphasize the intimacy of one’s relationship with Allah and many ways which a Muslim might be able to enter into personal communion with Allah. The word “Sufi” generally is thought to come from the word “wool” because the early Sufi saints used to wear very coarse wool. The Sufi movement is also divided into dozens of various subgroups that follow certain Sufi leaders who had a particular practice that they believed help them to come closer to Allah. These movements typically offer various, what they call “tariqats”; that is, paths or ways in which someone can follow and enter into ecstatic union with Allah.

Most of the Sufi movement developed in a major way in the tenth and eleventh centuries and continued to grow and gain a following throughout the world. It is an important tradition to be aware of.

This represents the major divisions within Islam in a very broad scope. You have the Sunni community. You have the Shiite community. You have the Sufi community. The Sufi community is not a separate community per se, but is a movement which is present within both Sunni as well as Shia. Within Sunni and Shia, you also have a number of schools of thought and traditions that further subdivide these two positions.

III. Schools of Law in Sunni and Shia Islam

I am going to briefly outline the key schools of the Sunni and Shia tradition, as well a few things about the Sufi tradition, to give you a little structure on how Islam is divided. Then we will come back, because this will help introduce the whole idea of authority in Islam.

Because Sunni and Shia tradition are divided only historically by the rise of Ali and the particular emphasis on how Muhammad’s prophethood would be passed or could be passed on; but also because of what we saw in these comparisons of different theological traditions which are based on further documents besides the Qur’an, that will deserve a special lecture all by itself.

A. Sunni Tradition

Just to summarize the various schools within Islam, you should know that the Sunni tradition, the main tradition, is generally divided into four major schools, which are known as “schools of law.”

When we look at the whole discussion about the revelation in Islam and how it goes beyond the Qur’an, this will become even clearer as you see that certain traditions are established which interpret the Qur’an in certain ways and even include various traditions. The foremost important of these schools are known as the Hanifi, the Shafites, the Malakites and the Hanbalites. These are the four most important schools of law. There are a few minor ones, but these are the most important.

The largest, more widespread school is the Hanifi school. This goes back to a certain teacher named Hanifi who had certain teachings about the Qur’an. It is actually a more liberal school. They accept an analogy principle, where they can take the Qur’an and by analogy apply it to a wide range of areas. It is the largest school; very, very prominent throughout Asia, including Asia Minor and modern day Turkey.

A major school is known as the Shafites, which again is named after a Muslim scholar of the ninth century named Al Shafi. This school of law tends to emphasize the importance of solidarity in the Muslim community. It does not like innovation. It is very strict about Muslims not marrying non-Muslims. It always errs on the side of reaffirming the role of Muslim solidarity. You will find the Shafite very popular in lower Egypt, in parts of Arabia, in East Africa as well as in distant places such as Indonesia and even the Philippines. Indonesia, you may be surprised to know, is the largest Muslim country in the world.

The third of the four schools of law are the Malakites. The Malakites again are traced back to a teacher named Malak, who died in 795, the late eighth century. They really emphasize the role of the Hadith. In the next lecture, we will develop “What is the Hadith?” In a nutshell, the Hadith refers to traditions that have arisen about Islam and what the Muslim community actually represents in terms of Muhammad’s practice. They develop traditions around what Muhammad said and did, which now become their paradigm for how Muslims should act today.

The fourth and most conservative of the schools is known as the Hanbalites. The Hanbalites are named after Hanbal, who died in the ninth century. Very literal interpretation of the Qur’an. They are very strict about how they interpret these verses; and many of the smaller groups, you’ve heard maybe of the Wahabes and other groups in Arabia. These are all subgroups of the Hanbalites. They try to argue that they represent the truest version of Islam. These are your fundamentalists that are in this category. Very prominent in southern Arabia, Qatar and other places, right directly in the Middle East.

B. Shia Tradition

In contrast, the Shiite community is not divided and based on schools of law, as much as it is based on various attitudes regarding the imams, these successors of Muhammad. The Imamites recognize 12 imams. They are often called “The Twelvers.” The Ismailis, they are often called “The Seveners.” They recognize seven imams throughout history. The Zaydis are people who have various social ideas that have become distinctive. They are actually much closer to conservative Sunnis, many of them even to some other Shiites. Finally, you have the Alawites, which have more liberal social views and a strong emphasis on the final Mahdi figure. Therefore, you have divisions within the Shiite community.

IV. Sufism

Finally, among the Sufis there are a number of Sufi orders, or tariqat, that have developed throughout the world. Rather than going into all of these schools, I think I will just simply mention some characteristics of the Sufi movement.

A. Contemplative and Mystical.

They tend to be very contemplative and mystical.

B. Non legalistic

The Sufis are typically more reactive against legalism.

C. Individualistic

They are far more individualistic than most Muslims.

D. Syncretistic

They tend to be very syncretistic of practices they find in Africa, Indonesia, other places. They have tended to amalgamate this into their practice of Islam.

E. Esotericisms in the Qur’an and Hadith

The Sufis tend to read esoteric meanings into the Qur’an or the Hadith. They tend to say, “This verse actually is symbolically meaning something completely different.”

F. Role of the Pir

The Sufis believe in figures known as pirs, who mediate between Allah and humanity. They accept the idea of spiritual mediation. These are some differences in the Sufi community. They are divided into all kinds of orders as well, as we saw with the Shiites and the Sunni communities.

Now that we have explored the basic emergence of the various communities within Islam in a very summarized way, what we will do next time is look at the role of authority and revelation in Islam.

Most Christians in the West and non-Muslims around the world are very uninformed about the true nature of authority in Islam. Most people typically think that the Qur’an is the source of revelation in Islam. That is simply not true. The Qur’an is actually one of several components which are regarded as revelatory and which together form the basis for Muslim law. Therefore, we are going to explore that in more detail next time.


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1 Essentials of Islam - Quiz 3 - Sunni, Shia and Sufi Islam

This quiz covers the material in Essentials of Islam, Lesson 3 - Sunni, Shia and Sufi Islam


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