Understanding the branches of Islam

23-09-2015

Islam is based on a number of shared fundamental beliefs and practices. Nonetheless, over time, leadership disputes within the Muslim community have resulted in the formation of different branches, leading to the development of distinct religious identities within Islam. A better understanding of commonalities and differences between these communities is particularly relevant today, when a large number of conflicts in the Muslim world are depicted in sectarian terms, either by reference to the 'Sunni-Shia divide' or the potential development of a 'Shiite crescent'. Regardless of the accuracy of such observations, it is clear that, since its inception, Islam has seen the emergence of a large number of different communities which are now spread around the globe. Despite the many religious and cultural connections they share, they differ from each other in their interpretations of aspects of the faith, views on Islamic history, and conceptions of leadership. This briefing offers a short introduction to some of these groups, including the estimated number and geographical distribution of adherents (if available); connections to and differences with other groups; and, in most cases, their distinctive views on leadership of the community. Attention devoted to the branches and subdivisions is not based on the respective community's size or perceived relevance; rather, the history and beliefs of some lesser-known communities were assumed to require explanation in more detail.

Islam is based on a number of shared fundamental beliefs and practices. Nonetheless, over time, leadership disputes within the Muslim community have resulted in the formation of different branches, leading to the development of distinct religious identities within Islam. A better understanding of commonalities and differences between these communities is particularly relevant today, when a large number of conflicts in the Muslim world are depicted in sectarian terms, either by reference to the 'Sunni-Shia divide' or the potential development of a 'Shiite crescent'. Regardless of the accuracy of such observations, it is clear that, since its inception, Islam has seen the emergence of a large number of different communities which are now spread around the globe. Despite the many religious and cultural connections they share, they differ from each other in their interpretations of aspects of the faith, views on Islamic history, and conceptions of leadership. This briefing offers a short introduction to some of these groups, including the estimated number and geographical distribution of adherents (if available); connections to and differences with other groups; and, in most cases, their distinctive views on leadership of the community. Attention devoted to the branches and subdivisions is not based on the respective community's size or perceived relevance; rather, the history and beliefs of some lesser-known communities were assumed to require explanation in more detail.