Islamic Sects

What are the sects of Islam?

star and crescent in Islam
Star and Crescent

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In the religion of Islam, sects are not simply "denominations," if that word is understood to mean various valid approaches to the same religion. The division between Muslim sects - mainly Sunni and Shia (click to see a comparison chart) - is deeply rooted in Islamic history. Debates revolve around key historical figures and important core beliefs, all of which have significant implications for how Muslims are to live in the world today.

Members of one Islamic group do not usually recognize members of other groups as fellow Muslims, and open conflict between sects is not uncommon.

Yet, numerically, it could be said that Islam is less divided than Christianity and Judaism because the vast majority of the world's Muslims are Sunnis.


Sunnis have their historical roots in the majority group who followed Abu Bakr, an effective leader, as Muhammad's successor instead of the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law Ali. The Sunnis are so named because they believe themselves to follow the sunnah ("custom" or "tradition") of the Prophet.


Shiites followed Ali, the closest relative of Muhammad, as the prophet's successor. They are the second largest Islamic sect in the world today.


It's important to understand that some people believe that Sufism isn't an Islamic sect because their beliefs and practices often differ significantly with Sunnis and Shias. Many would say that Sufism is less an Islamic sect than a mystical way of approaching the Islamic faith.


The religious practices of the Yezidi borrow from different belief systems, only part of which is the dominant regional religion, Islam. Some people don't consider the Yezidi a sect of Islam. Some believe they worship Satan.


Ahmadiyya Islam was founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in India. Ahmad claimed to be the appearance of the promised Messiah (or, according to some sources, the manifestation of the prophet Muhammad as well as an incarnation of Jesus and the Hindu god Krishna.

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