Sects of Islam
January 2009 version

In discussing any religion, it is important to differentiate between the original teaching and the offshoots. Many Muslims might not be aware of the interesting diversity of teaching in the world of Islam. Christians too should know about the people in different sects of Islam to better understand how they think. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:22b, "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some." Simply speaking, one can see three very broad categories of Muslims.


Conservative Muslims believe that all the Qur'an and (usually) the Hadith traditions are for all times, except for parts specifically abrogated.

Liberal Muslims want a changed, mellowed-down Islam adapted to their modern lifestyle. Some still read the Qur'an a lot, and others are more secular. They do not pray five times a day, and ignore what the Hadiths say about Muslim women having to wear veils. Sahih Muslim vol.2:2789 p.606-607

Innovative groups have strange theology that is different from the Qur'an. At an extreme, the Nation of Islam (Black Muslim group) taught the black race was superior and the white race was created by devils.


Comparison with Christianity

If a Muslim looked briefly at what is called Christianity, they might see the same three categories. One Muslim told me that Christians themselves are disagreed on whether Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. Well, it is just as proper to say that Muslims (including 'Alawites) disagree on whether Mohammed is God or not.

Where would an extremist group like the KKK (Klu Klux Klan) fit? The Bible commands us to love others, and there is no Jew nor Greek in Christ. If you compare their racist teaching, their violent hate of others, you would have to conclude that if they read the Bible at all, they must be reading it upside down! It is befitting that they burn crosses, because their symbol that mocks Jesus' peaceful teaching better symbolizes their fiery end in Hell.

What about "holy warriors" and terrorists today? Since early Muslims chronicled that Mohammed ordered assassinations, 'Ali burned people to death, and Mohammed said to kill polytheists, every Muslim extremist is not necessarily an innovator. Most actually are in the conservative group.

One modernist Muslim told me, "conservative Christians and conservative Muslims are basically the same." I have to take strong exception to that. People who read their Bibles and really follow what Jesus taught are not trying to murder others, and we are not to hate anyone. Equating either Muslims extremists or the KKK with those who are serious about following Jesus' teaching shows just how far some will distort the truth.


The Practice of Islam

In discussing this with a Isma'ili friend of mine, he thought this classification of Muslims were a bit too simplistic, as there are many very different groups under the conservative category. He has a good point. A second shortcoming is the broad lines show it is hard to sharply delineate between groups and there are degrees of liberalism. So, let's move on to a less simplified model.

Only a few groups in Islam, the modern Wahhabis and ancient Kharijites, claim to follow the Qur'an and also consciously downplay all tradition. You can remember the classic Muslims and other categories by the acronym SCHISM, meaning division.

Successors and traditions have prominence in Shi'ite Islam. For example, when at Khomeini's funeral, crowds were trying to pull off parts of his body to take home and reverence. Pilgrimages to holy shrines to revere their saints are important for them.

Cultural Muslims know little about Islam, and may not care. Some cultural Muslims drink beer, and after seeing what Islam is about, they are Muslims because they just want to be left alone.

Human traditions of Mohammed and others (the Hadiths) are paramount in Sunni Islam.

Inventors of new beliefs. Some "Muslims" say it is fine to drink wine, there is no need to go to Mecca, or fast or pray as prescribed. God appeared as a "Trinity" of Allah, Mohammed, and 'Ali, and people who do not recognize 'Ali as God will be reincarnated as animals.

Spiritual mysticism, called Sufism, teaches one can be absorbed in the divine, and be God themselves. They focus on experience, including smoking hashish, and flagellating themselves with whips, because pain can bring them closer to God.

Modern Muslims are liberals who, personally "abrogate" things in the Qur'an they disagree with, even if neither Mohammed nor any early Muslim ever said they were abrogated. Since September 11, 2001, many modern Muslims were disgusted with conservative Muslims trying to follow what Mohammed originally said, and the feeling apparently is mutual.

In which group do what are termed "Muslim extremists" fit? Mohammed led a surprise attack at dawn, ordered assassinations, and Mohammed himself fought in either 19 or 26 of the 56 or so battles. However Mohammed did not advocate suicide, and he preferred to enslave women and children rather than kill them.

Conservative Muslims castigate the modern Muslims as denying everything in Islam that offends their western sensibilities. Modern Muslims look down on conservatives as ill-educated embarrassments who want the world to turn back the clock to the 13th century. Following is a brief synopsis of some of the sects.

Wahhabis - Focus on the Original Source

The Wahhabi sect is a strict, conservative sect that tries to follow the original teaching of Mohammed. It was derived from Sunni Hanbalism via Ibn Taymiya/Taymiyya (d.1328). Later it spread from Mecca to Punjab, India via Ismail Hadji Maulvi-Mohammed and Sayd Ahmed. The Saudi Arabian government came to power as a result of a Wahhabi revolt. They emphasize tawheed, or the oneness of God. Within Saudi Arabia Wahhabis are considered Sunnis.

Many of the Muslims in the World Trade Center plane crashes and the al-Qaeda were Wahhabis. Early Muslims tortured people and gouged out their eyes, so if an extremist is one who greatly deviates from the original teaching, peaceful liberal Muslims are at least as much "extremists" in Islam as the violent Wahhabis.

Kharijites - The Disappointed Ones

The Kharijites, (=Khawarij) in early Islam were the third most important group, after the Sunnis and Shi'ites. Like the Wahhabis, they only wanted the pure, original teaching, but unlike the Wahhabis an essential part of their teaching was obedience to 'Ali as the rightful caliph. Indeed, they were indistinguishable from Shi'ites, until 'Ali submitted to arbitration. After that, Kharijites fought against both Sunnis and Shi'ites. Their main leaders were Abu Bilal Mirdas (died 681 A.D.) and Abu Hamza (died 747 A.D.) Note the early dates.

The Kharijite key distinctives were that

· "God is sole judge and arbiter".

· After disappointment with 'Ali, they said the Caliphate was open to anyone, even a black slave.

· Deeds are an essential part of the fruit

· Man is free and responsible, as opposed to the fatalistic views of many other Muslims.

The Kharijites split into the Sufriyya/Saffriyah (al-Tabari vol.39 p.217), Azarika, Bayhasiyya, Nadjadat, and Ibadiyya groups. The Kharijites are almost extinct today. Surviving ones are in Oman, Zanzibar, north and east Africa. Many of the Kharijites are the more moderate Ibadites, who do not believe in assassination.

Sunnis - Traditionalists

About 300,000 individual traditions (most of them universally acknowledged as bogus) were allegedly preserved. Bukhari, Tirmidhi, and others sifted through these a couple of centuries after Mohammed and came up with volumes of the collections of what they regarded as genuine. Undoubtedly many of these are accurate, but fake ones did slip in. When Sunni Muslims speak of living under Muslim Law (Sharia), they mean these traditions and the interpretation of them and the Qur'an. Many Sunnis accept Shi'ites and Sufis, but Shi'ite Islam is outlawed in Malaysia.

Shi'ites - 7 or 12 Successors

The Shi'ites split with the Sunnis over succession. They say 'Ali, whom traditions say had superhuman strength, should have been caliph after Mohammed, and that the Caliphate is hereditary. The Sunnis said the Caliphate was elective for anyone of the Quaresh tribe. Here is a comparison of the two groups.

Pillar / Doctrine

Vast majority of Sunni

Vast majority of 12'er Shi'ite

Statement of Faith

"No God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet". Sunnis also belief that Mu'awiyah was a rightful caliph.

"No God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet". Shi'ites also believe that 'Ali is Allah's vice-regent.

Fasting, Alms, and Flagellation

Fasting, both required zakat and optional alms. No flagellation.

Same on fasting and alms. Differ among Shi'ites on flagellation.

Prayer direction

Toward Mecca for both


Should travel to Mecca once in their life. Hadiths forbid pilgrimages to tombs.

Should travel to Mecca once in their life. They also travel to holy shrines and tombs too.


Same for both


From Allah but uncreated: no errors

Created. Sunnis have invented things about it though.


People live or die based on what they say.

Sunni hadiths have some errors, including anti-Shi'ite bias. They also have other traditions.

Temporary marriage

Was OK until Khaibar, but most Sunnis say forbidden since then.

Is permissible today.

Additional tradition

No more added traditions valid

can add traditions later

Final Prophet / Messenger

Mohammed was the final prophet. Shi'ites and others are wrong if they say there are any more.

Mohammed was the final prophet. The 12th Imam, the Mahdi, will return; he is no prophet though.

Ghulat Sects - The Most Innovative Ones

'Alawites drink wine and believe in a Trinity of Mohammed, 'Ali, and Saliman al-Farisi. Babis followed the "Bab" (Gate) who was a man named Ali Muhammad, born in 1821 who claimed to be the forerunner for the 12th imam returned in 1844 A.D. He was executed in 1850 A.D., and his group split into two parts: Azalis, and Baha'is (1863), who believe the Bahaullah is the 12th imam returned as well as Christ returned. They do not really claim to be Muslim. Ahmadiyyas, which are now two sects, were started in 1879 in Punjab when Mirza Ghulam Ahmad claimed to be the Mahdi and the Messiah. They redefine Jihad as peaceful only. They believe Jesus was really crucified, but taken down alive, escaped to Kashmir, and was buried in Srinigar.

Sufi Muslims - Mystics

Sufism is the mystic branch of Islam. While regular Islam emphasizes actions, including prayer and fasting, it say little about heart experience. Sufism says the external actions do not matter, it is the internal that counts. Using frequent examples of wine, and less frequently illicit sex, they speak of not just experiencing God, but becoming God themselves by annihilation and being absorbed in the divine. A famous Sufi saying is "Praise be to me." One of the most widely read Sufi author today, nicknamed Rumi, even teaches mystical truth by teaching a story of two women who have sex with a donkey (The Mathnawi 5:1333-1405).

Not only were Sufis heavily persecuted in Iran under Khomeini, but historically they have also suffered persecution until the Ottomans took over. (Many Janissaries were Sufis.) Some Sufi groups talk of a doctrine of "survival" complementing the doctrine of "annihilation", saying that some parts of a completed Sufi are still separate, they are not actually Allah, and so other Muslims should not kill them. It is difficult to count Sufis, because a Sufi Muslim can also be a Sunni or Shi'ite. One estimate is that after the Iranian persecutions there are about 5 million of them, and they are growing in California.

Cultural Muslims

Cultural Muslims are Muslim in the sense that many westerners are Christian: they know more about the religion they profess to be than any other. In genuine Christianity, one is not a Christian if they have not given over their life to Christ. However, a person can be a Muslim as long as they say the right things, and do not get too out of line. As a matter of fact, in Austin I heard of an atheist who was also a Muslim. He did not believe Allah was real, but thought that Islam was a lifestyle he wanted to have.

Liberal Muslims

Modern, liberal Muslims differ from cultural Muslims in that liberal Muslims can be very serious about their religion. They are not trying to lie when they say Islam is a religion of peace; they sincerely believe that. This is in spite of the way the majority of the Muslim world has been throughout the ages. They are not ignorant of what has gone on, but believe that most of the Muslim world is filled with ill-educated people that have only a caricature of true Islam. On the other hand, conservative Muslims deplore modernists who bow Islam before the modern world. What they are ignorant of, or have rationalized away, is that the source of Islam, Mohammed himself, was a violent person who led raids on caravans, ordered assassinations, and commanded his followers to kill pagans and fight Christians and Jews.

Liberal Muslims say that conservatives are in the minority; conservatives say that liberals are in the minority. Some newspaper articles about protests and schools in Muslim lands indicate that there are substantial numbers of both conservatives and liberals. Yes, the conservative Muslims says that non-Muslims are to be killed (with some protection for Jews and Christians living in Muslim lands who pay an extra tax for being non-Muslim). All of the "reasonable" arguments of liberal Muslims and non-Muslims will not sway them, because Mohammed was clear on this.

Comparison with Christianity

Of course, the previous categories of Islam cry for comparison with Christianity. Curiously, the "Classic plus Schism" model works for Christianity too. Christianity has

Successor group (Catholics)

Cultural Christians (Many in the western world)

Human tradition (Orthodox)

Inventors (Mormons, JW's, Moonies, etc.)

Spiritual Mystics (Medieval Mysticism)

Modern Christians (Liberals and Neoorthodox)

Since Mohammed claims Islam was compatible with the original teaching of Jesus, if Christ's teaching has been preserved reliably today, then Islam would be in an invented cult of Christianity.

A Muslim was correct who told me, you cannot judge a religion by its practitioners. You do have to look to the original founder, and the original scriptures, to see if a religion is worthwhile to "achieve the goal". But what is the goal?

The goal is not to be religious; even the Aztecs were religious. The goal is right relationship with God; to listen to his words, love Him, please Him with your life, and live forever with Him in Heaven. I have heard a Muslim say, "we like Jesus, but we love Islam." Neither Islam nor Christianity should be your first love. Your first love should be God.

Thoughts to Ponder

Regardless of what kind of Muslim a person might be, there are "Muslim" teachings to disagree with. How would an objective person know which sect, if any, was correct? Indeed, how would anyone know which group of any world religion was correct?

Many Shi'ites say that 'Ali had secret teaching from God that is not in the Qur'an. Hadiths of Sunni Muslims clearly deny that. New Sufi groups led by a charismatic leader pop up in the Mideast, Africa, and India almost as frequently as New Age Movement groups in Europe and North America. Perhaps there is no end to these deceptions because there is not even a beginning of discernment. If people could ask one question, "How do we know if this is true?", spiritual deception would not be so widespread.

The Bible

"The Bible says...," - let's stop right here. Most deep conversations with a Muslim, sooner or later, will get back to the reliability of the Bible. Mohammed said that Jesus, Abraham, Moses, David, and others were true prophets of God. Mohammed said that Jesus was taught the Torah, and that Jesus taught the Gospel. Yet the Bible has so much that goes against the core of Islam (God being a Father, Jesus being God, saved by grace, not works, etc.) that if the Bible we have is all true, then Islam would be a false religion. If you are a Muslim do you agree that the Bible today and the Qur'an cannot both be true? If you are a Muslim, unless you are ready to sing praises to Jesus, you probably do agree that either the bible today, or the Qur'an, must be very, very wrong..

Can Muslims and Christians Agree?

Old Testament In Jesus' Time: Jesus validated that the Old Testament was given from God and was reliably preserved (at least up through His time). Sura 3:48 says, "And Allah will teach him [Jesus] the book and Wisdom, the Torah, and the Gospel." Jesus was sent "confirming the Torah that had come before him" in Sura 5:46. For a Muslim to deny this would be to deny the Qur'an itself.

Old Testament Scrolls: We have many copies of the Old Testament from the time of Jesus and earlier. There are 175 to 200 Dead Sea Scrolls (250 B.C. to 70 A.D.). There is the Nash Papyrus (150 B.C.) and a scroll at Masada (169-93 B.C.). There is a scroll at Nahal Hever (50 B.C. to 50 A.D.) and a later scroll Wadi Muraba'at at c.132 A.D.

New Testament in Mohammed's Time: Mohammed was read the gospels in Arabic according to his wife 'Aisha in Bukhari vol.4:605. While the Qur'an says Jews and Christians were hypocrites (Sura 5:61-63) who perverted what they heard (Sura 2:75), the Qur'an never says every copy of God's scriptures were corrupted. As a matter of fact, Christians are called the people of the Gospel in Sura 5:46. Since Sura 5:47 says, "Let the People of the Gospel Judge by what Allah hath revealed Therein...." it acknowledges that the gospels, at least in Mohammed's time, contained the truth.

Finally, Sura 5:48 says, "To thee (People of the Book) We sent the scripture in truth, confirming the scripture that came before it, and guarding it in safety: so judge between them by what Allah hath revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging from the truth that hath come to thee....". If you are a Muslim who disagrees with these words, then how does Allah differentiate between His words, which He allows devout worshippers to learn only in corrupted form, and His words that remain uncorrupted?

New Testament Scrolls: We have copies of the New Testament from 100 A.D. onwards. Not only do we have the John Rylands fragment (117-138 A.D.), but the Bodmer II manuscript (p66) contains most of John and is dated 125-175 A.D. The Chester Beatty manuscript contains most of the New Testament and is 100-150 A.D. Other fragments are p6 (Luke) 100 A.D. and p104 (Matthew) 125-175 A.D.


Every major world religion has sects, and you have to understand something of them to understand the people. When any group claims a prior teaching is from God, if it has no consistency with that teaching, that it is self-contradictory.

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