The third of the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths, Islam, originated with Muhammad’s teachings in the 7th century. Muslims believe Muhammad is the final of all religious prophets (beginning with Abraham) and that the Qu’ran, which is the Islamic scripture, was revealed to him by God. Islam derives from the word submission, and obedience to God is a primary theme in this religion. To live an Islamic life, believers must follow the five pillars, or tenets, of Islam, which are the testimony of faith (shahada), daily prayer (salah), giving alms (zakah), fasting during Ramadan (sawm), and the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj).
Basic Groupings of the Islam
The two primary branches of Islam are Sunni and Shia, which split from each other over a religio-political leadership dispute about Muhammad’s rightful successor. The Shia believe Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, was the only divinely ordained Imam (religious leader). The Sunni maintains the first three caliphs after Muhammad were also legitimate authorities. In modern Islam, Sunnis and Shia continue to have different views of acceptable Islamic jurisprudence schools and who is a proper Islamic religious authority. Islam also has an active mystical branch, Sufism, with various Sunni and Shia subsets.
- Sunni Islam accounts for over 75% of the world’s Muslim population. It recognizes Abu Bakr as the first caliph after Muhammad. Sunni has four schools of Islamic doctrine and law – Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali – which uniquely interpret Muhammad’s Hadith or recorded oral traditions. A Sunni Muslim may elect to follow any of these schools, as all are considered equally valid.
- Shia Islam represents 10-20% of Muslims worldwide. Its distinguishing feature is its reverence for Ali as an infallible, divinely inspired leader and as the first Imam of the Muslim community after Muhammad. A majority of Shia are known as “Twelvers” because they believe that the 11 familial successor imams after Muhammad culminate in a 12th Imam (al-Mahdi) who is hidden in the world and will reappear at its end to redeem the righteous.
- Ismaili faith: A sect of Shia Islam, its adherents are also known as “Seveners” because they believe that the rightful seventh Imam in Islamic leadership was Isma’il, the elder son of Imam Jafar al-Sadiq. Ismaili tradition awaits the return of the seventh Imam as the Mahdi or Islamic messianic figure. Ismailis are located in various parts of the world, particularly South Asia and the Levant.
- Alawi faith: Another Shia sect of Islam, the name reflects followers’ devotion to Ali’s religious authority. Alawites are a closed, secretive religious group that asserts they are Shia Muslims. However, outside scholars speculate their beliefs may have a syncretic mix with other faiths originating in the Middle East. Alawis live mostly in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey.
- Druze faith: A highly secretive tradition and a closed community that derives from the Ismaili sect of Islam; its core beliefs are thought to emphasize a combination of Gnostic principles believing that the Fatimid caliph, al-Hakin, is the one who embodies the key aspects of the goodness of the universe, which are, the intellect, the word, the soul, the preceder, and the follower. The Druze have a key presence in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.