Cults, Sects and Branches of Islam

Cults and Sects of Islam

Like other religions, Islam has a number of cults and sects

These range from the major branches (equivalent to Christianity’s ‘denominations‘), alongside the mystic Sufi movement, to cults (in the theological sense of the term) like Ahmadiyya, Baha’i, and the Druze.

Islamic fundamentalism is referred to as Islamism, a totalitarian ideology that has given rise to such extremist movements (cults in both the theological and sociological sense of the word) as Al Queda, Boko Haram, ISIS (IS/ISIL/Daesh) the Taliban, and the Wahhabis.

Some black Muslims follow the teachings of the Nation of Islam, though that movement’s beliefs differ significantly from traditional Islam.

Major Branches or Divisions of Islam

Since Muhammad neither left a male heir nor named a successor, his death created an immediate leadership crisis in Islam. The nature of Islam, however, which encompassed both civil and religious concerns, demanded a successor (Caliph, or Khalifa) to guide its adherents in applying the principles of the Qur’an to contemporary circumstances. Naming such an individual proved to be a difficult and divisive task. Along with other issues of interpretation, the role of, and criteria for appointing, the Caliph eventually fragmented Islam into two major divisions that remain today: Sunni and Shi’a (see Kung, 1986).

The Sunni

The Sunni branch, claiming approximately 90% of all Muslims, argued that the Caliph should belong to Muhammad’s tribe, the Qurayah, and that the community should choose him by the process of consensus (ijma). Since Muhammad was the “Seal of the Prophets,” the Sunnis considered the responsibilities of the Caliph merely to guard—not continue—the prophetic legacy, and to provide “for the administration of community affairs in obedience to the Qur’an and prophetic precedent” (Kerr, 1982, p. 330). Within thirty years of Muhammad’s death, four Caliphs were appointed in succession: Abu Bakr (632-634), ‘Umar (634-644), ‘Uthman (644-656), and ‘Ali (656-661). Sunnis regard these first Islamic leaders as “the four rightly guided Caliphs,” since they lived so close to Muhammad. Because of their chronological proximity to Muhammad, Sunnis believe that the sunna (behavior or practice) of these four Caliphs, together with the Prophet’s, is authoritative for all Muslims. The Sunnis derive their name from this emphasis on the sunna. While there are subdivisions of this group, distinguished by specific points of interpretation, they all call themselves Sunni.

The Shi’a

The other major branch of Islam, which claims about 10% of the Muslim population and exists primarily in Iraq and Iran, is the more militant Shi’a. The Shi’ites, as those comprising the Shi’a sect are called, splintered from the Sunnis primarily over the question of the Caliphate. Regarding this matter, there are specifically two points of disagreement between Shi’ites and Sunnis. First, the Shi’ites place more rigid genealogical restrictions on the Caliph than do the Sunnis. On the one hand, Sunnis believe that the Caliph should be a descendent of Muhammad’s tribe. On the other hand, Shi’ites argue that the Caliph should descend specifically from ‘Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law. In fact, the word Shi’ite means “partisan” and indicates that Shi’ites are “partisans of ‘Ali” (Rood, 1994). Second, the Shi’ites differ with the Sunnis regarding the authority of the Caliph. Unlike the Sunnis, Shi’ite Muslims believe that the Islamic leader, whom they call the imam, is more than merely a guardian of Muhammad’s prophetic legacy. Rather, Muhammad bequeathed ‘Ali with his wilaya (i.e., his “spiritual abilities”), enabling him to interpret the Qur’an and to lead the Islamic community infallibly. Though there are various interpretations, Shi’ites generally believe that the wilaya has been passed down through the subsequent generations of ‘Ali’s descendants. They further believe that this “cycle of the wilaya” will continue until the last day when humankind will be resurrected and judged (see Kerr, 1982, p. 331).

The majority faction within the Shi’a branch, known as the Imamis (most of whom live in Iran), believes that the completion of the wilaya cycle will end with the messianic return of the twelfth imam. According to this sect, the twelfth imam has been in “occultation” (the state of hiding) since the third century of Islam. They believe, however, that the ayatollahs (senior experts in Islamic law) have access to the hidden imam, and thus, have the right to interpret Islamic law and make religious rulings (Kerr, 1982, p. 331). The late Ayatollah Khomeini, perhaps the most widely remembered Shi’ite leader among contemporary Westerners, was considered to be the spokesman for the hidden imam.


Though more a movement within, rather than a sect of, Islam, a third identifiable group that should be mentioned is the Sufis. Reacting to the externally oriented, and legalistic disposition of the Islamic religious system, Sufis seek a mystical experience of God. The word Sufism usually is translated “mysticism,” which reflects this emphasis on a personal religious experience. Since Sufis, who belong to either the Sunni or Shi’a sect, desire more than an intellectual knowledge of Allah, they are prone to a number of superstitious practices (Rood, 1994).– Source: A Christian Approach to Islam, Garry K. Brantley, M.A., M.Div.

See Also
Wikipedia: Islamic Schools and Branches

This post was last updated: Jul. 22, 2015