Dr. Susmit Kumar

Islam comprises more than one dozen sects, but two, Sunni and Shiite, dominate.

(1) Sunni: Sunnis constitute about 90 percent of the Muslim population worldwide. The word Sunni comes from the Arabic word Sunnah, meaning the words and actions of Muhammad. They believe in the caliphate of Abu Bakr and the Caliphate system, caliph being chosen by Shurah, an Arabic word for consultation or council. They believe in the Quran, Sunnah (Muhammad’s way of life) and hadith. They also follow one of the four madhahib, i.e. Maliki, Shafii, Hanafi, or Hanbali.

(2) Shiites: Shiites form the second largest sect, constituting about 10 percent of all Muslims but a majority in Iran and Iraq. They believe in the teachings of Muhammad and in the religious guidance of his family members or descendants, known as imams. They are the followers of Ali, the fourth caliph and Muhammad’s son-in-law, and recognize imams who were direct descendants of Ali, claiming that he had inherited his spirituality from the Prophet. According to Shiites, other caliphs lacked spiritual authority. For Shiites, the imam is an infallible teacher and a source of religious guidance. When the 12th imam mysteriously disappeared in 878 in the cave of the great mosque at Samarra without leaving any heir, Shiites nominated the ayatollah (sign of God) as chief until the return of the 12th imam, who is not dead and is going to reappear as the Mahdi, the Muslim messiah, which will lead to an era of true Islam.

Shiites annually commemorate the Battle of Karbala, which occurred on Muharram 10, A.H. 61 (October 9 or 10, A.D. 680) at Karbala, Iraq. This is a very sad occasion for them, since during the battle several relatives of Prophet Muhammad, including his grandson and the son of the fourth caliph, Ali, Husayn ibn Ali, were killed by the forces of Yazid I, the caliph of Umayyad.

(3) Other sects: Sufis, Isma’lis, Qarmatians, Assassins, Druzes, Nusayris, Matawilah, Zaydis, Ahmadiyah, and Baha’i.

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