Jaafar as Sadiq

Like Sunni Islam, Shia Islam has developed several sects. The most important of these is the Twelver, or Ithna-Ashari, sect, which predominates in the Shia world generally. Not all Shia became Twelvers, however. In the eighth century, a dispute arose over who should lead the Shia community after the death of the Sixth Imam, Jaafar ibn Muhammad (also known as Jaafar as Sadiq). [Source: Library of Congress *]

The group that eventually became the Twelvers followed the teaching of Musa al Kazim; another group followed the teachings of Musa's brother, Ismail, and were called Ismailis. Ismailis are also referred to as Seveners because they broke off from the Shia community over a disagreement concerning the Seventh Imam. Ismailis do not believe that any of their Imams have disappeared from the world in order to return later. Rather, they have followed a continuous line of leaders represented in early 1993 by Karim al Husayni Agha Khan IV, an active figure in international humanitarian efforts. The Twelver Shia and the Ismailis also have their own legal schools.*

Broadly speaking, the Twelvers are considered political quietists as opposed to the Zaydis who favor political activism, and the Ismailis who are identified with esoteric and gnostic religious doctrines. Within Twelver Shia Islam there are two major legal schools, the Usuli and the Akhbari. Akhbaris constitute a very small group and are found primarily around Basra and in southern Iraq as well as around Khorramshahr in Iran. The dominant Usuli school is more liberal in its legal outlook and allows greater use of interpretation (ijtihad) in reaching legal decisions, and considers that one must obey a mujtahid (learned interpreter of the law) as well as an Imam. *

Websites and Resources: Islam Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Patheos Library – Islam patheos.com/Library/Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs web.archive.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline ; Discover Islam dislam.org ;

Shias, Sufis and Muslim Sects and Schools Divisions in Islam archive.org ; Four Sunni Schools of Thought masud.co.uk ; Wikipedia article on Shia Islam Wikipedia Shafaqna: International Shia News Agency shafaqna.com ; Roshd.org, a Shia Website roshd.org/eng ; The Shiapedia, an online Shia encyclopedia web.archive.org ; shiasource.com ; Imam Al-Khoei Foundation (Twelver) al-khoei.org ; Official Website of Nizari Ismaili (Ismaili) the.ismaili ; Official Website of Alavi Bohra (Ismaili) alavibohra.org ; The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Ismaili) web.archive.org ; Wikipedia article on Sufism Wikipedia ; Sufism in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World oxfordislamicstudies.com ; Sufism, Sufis, and Sufi Orders – Sufism's Many Paths islam.uga.edu/Sufism ; Afterhours Sufism Stories inspirationalstories.com/sufism ; Risala Roohi Sharif, translations (English and Urdu) of "The Book of Soul", by Hazrat Sultan Bahu, a 17th century Sufi risala-roohi.tripod.com ; The Spiritual Life in Islam:Sufism thewaytotruth.org/sufism ; Sufism - an Inquiry sufismjournal.org


The first identifiable sect of Islam was the Kharijite sect, one that remains relatively unknown among non-Islamic people. Zachery Brasier wrote in List Verse: “After Muhammad died, a string of caliphs followed him, but there was constant discussion and debate about how the religion should actually proceed. When an assassin killed the third caliph, Uthman, the Muslim community split between two factions, each fighting for control of the community and doctrine. The main debate was over who should be the next caliph. Eventually those two factions would form the Shi’ite and Sunni sects. During that time, a third group organized as a sect of Islam, separate from the other two factions. The chief doctrine of the Kharijites was the idea that anybody could be a caliph. [Source: Zachery Brasier, List Verse, April 8, 2016]

Al-Kadhimiya Mosque in the Kādhimayn suburb of Baghdad contains the tombs of the seventh Twelver Shī‘ī Imām Mūsā al-Kāẓim and the ninth Twelver Shī‘ī Imām Muhammad al-Jawad

Arabia was the site for some of the conflicts on which the sectarian divisions of Islam are based, namely Shiasm (from Shiat Ali or "party of Ali"). One Shia denomination, the Kharijite movement, began in events surrounding the assassination of Uthman, the third caliph, and the transfer of authority to Ali, the fourth caliph. Those who believed Ali should have been the legitimate successor to the Prophet refused to accept the authority of Uthman. Muawiyah in Syria challenged Ali's election as caliph, leading to a war between the two and their supporters. Muawiyah and Ali eventually agreed to an arbitrator, and the fighting stopped. Part of Ali's army, however, objected to the compromise, claiming Muawiyah's family were insincere Muslims. So strong was their protest against compromise that they left Ali's camp (the term khariji literally means "the ones who leave") and fought a battle with their former colleagues the next year. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Saudi Arabia: A Country Study, U.S. Library of Congress, 1992 *]

The Kharijite movement continued to be significant on the Persian Gulf coast in the ninth through the eleventh century and survived in the twentieth century in the more moderate form of Ibadi Islam. The uncompromising fanaticism of the original Kharijites was, however, indicative of the fervor with which the tribal Arabs had accepted the missionary ideology of Islam. It was this fervor that made it possible for Arab armies to conquer so much territory in the seventh century. This same spirit helped the Al Saud succeed at the end of the eighteenth century and again at the beginning of the twentieth.*

Kharijite Beliefs

The most prominent quality of the Kharijite movement was opposition to the caliph's representatives and particularly to Muawiyah, who became caliph after Ali. Although the Kharijites were known to some Muslims as bandits and assassins, they developed certain ideal notions of justice and piety. The Prophet Muhammad had been sent to bring righteousness to the world and to teach the Arabs to pray and to distribute their wealth and power fairly. According to the Kharijites, whoever was lax in following the Prophet's directives should be opposed, ostracized, or killed.*

Zachery Brasier wrote in List Verse: ““While the rest of the Muslims argued over whether the caliph should descend from Muhammad or not, the Kharijites believed that anybody could be a caliph, as long as they received revelation from Allah. They held a democratic view of the caliphate, rejecting the idea that the caliphate should descend through family lines. Along with their views on the caliphate, the Kharijites held an extremely puritanical view of Islam. According to them, any major sin committed by a Muslim disqualified that person as a Muslim. [Source: Zachery Brasier, List Verse, April 8, 2016]

“As they spread their beliefs, the Kharijites also evolved into a violent organization, conducting killings and terrorism against Muslims who did not agree with them. Over time, they split into various sects, some of which still exist in much less extreme forms. However, some scholars of Islam believe that although ISIS is not a literal descendant of the Kharijite movement, it bears many ideological similarities to the earlier sect.”

Branches of Shia Islam


Alawite, (Arabic: Alawi, plural: Alawiyah) refers any member of a minority sect of Shia Muslims living chiefly in Syria. The Alawite community made up around 12 percent of Syria's pre-war population of 24 million. They traditionally been associated with Syria’s Assad regime. Both President Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s current leader, and his father, a long-serving dictator of Syria, are Alawites.

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “The roots of Alawism lie in the teachings of Muhammad ibn Nusayr an-Namiri (fl. 850), a Basran contemporary of the 10th Shia imam, and the sect was chiefly established by Husayn ibn Hamdan al-Khasibi (d. 957 or 968) during the period of the Hamdanid dynasty (905–1004), at which time the Alawites had great influence in Aleppo. With the fall of Shia rule, however, the Alawites, with other Shia, became the victims of persecution. They were ill-treated by waves of Crusaders, by Mamluks, and by Ottoman conquerors, in addition to fighting a number of internecine wars. [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica]

Considered by many Muslims to be heretics, the present-day Alawites obtained a legal decision about their status as Muslims from the Lebanese leader of the Ithna Ashariyah (Twelver) sect of Shia Islam. The Alawite sect has become politically dominant in Syria, particularly since 1971, when Hafiz al-Assad, an Alawite, was elected president of the country. The sect is predominant in the Latakia region of Syria, and it extends north to Antioch (Antakya), Turkey.Many Alawites also live around or in Hims and Hamah. They are second in number within Syria to the Sunnite sect, which makes up about three-fourths of the Muslim population of mostly Muslim Syria.

The name Alawi is more generally used to refer to all the groups affiliated with one of the Alis; thus the Muslims usually refer to the Syrian Alawites as Nusayriyah, or Namiriyah. Though well established in Syria since the 12th century, the Alawites were not able to fully adopt the name Alawi until 1920, the time of French occupation of the area.

Alawite Beliefs

Alawites in western Syria: green areas, where Alawites are the majority, slanted green stripes, where they are a significant minority

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “The basic doctrine of Alawite faith is the deification of Ali. He is one member of a trinity corresponding roughly to the Christian Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Alawites interpret the Pillars of Islam (the five duties required of every Muslim) as symbols and thus do not practice the Islamic duties. They celebrate an eclectic group of holidays, some Islamic, some Christian, and many Alawite practices are secret. They consider themselves to be moderate Shia, not much different from the Twelvers.” [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica]

Caroline Wyatt of the BBC wrote: The Alawites emerged in the 10th Century in neighbouring Iraq. Little has been confirmed about their beliefs and practices since then because, according to the leaders, they had to be hidden to avoid persecution. However, most sources say the name "Alawite" refers to their veneration of the first Shia imam, Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad. [Source:Caroline Wyatt, BBC, 3 April 2016]

“Alawites are said to share the belief of members of the main branches of Shia Islam, of which Ithna Asharis or Twelvers are the largest group, that Ali was the rightful successor to Muhammad as leader of the Muslim community following his death in 632. The Alawites purportedly differ from Twelvers in holding that Ali was a manifestation of God - a notion that some members of Syria's Sunni majority consider heretical.”

In a document published in 2016 “Alawite leaders insist that their faith is "solely based on the idea of worshipping God". They add that "the Qur’an alone is our holy book and a clear reference to our Muslim quality". While acknowledging that they share some formal religious sources, the leaders stress that Alawism is distinct from Shia Islam, and decline previous legal rulings, or fatwas, by leading Shia clerics that seek to "appropriate the Alawites and consider Alawism an integral part of Shiism or a branch of the latter". The leaders also acknowledge that Alawites have incorporated elements of other monotheistic religions into their traditions, most notably Judaism and Christianity, but say they should "not be seen as marks of deviation from Islam but as elements that bear witness to our riches and universality".

Alawites Express Their Identity

In 2016, Caroline Wyatt of the BBC wrote: “In a deeply unusual move, leaders of the Alawite sect in Syria have released a document, obtained by the BBC, that distances themselves from his regime and outlines what kind of future they wish for the country after five years of civil war. The community and religious leaders say they hope to "shine a light" on the Alawites after a long period of secrecy, at what they call "an important moment" in their history. [Source: Caroline Wyatt, BBC, 3 April 2016]

“In the eight-page document, termed a "declaration of identity reform", the Alawites say they represent a third model "of and within Islam". Those behind the text say Alawites are not members of a branch of Shia Islam - as they have been described in the past by Shia clerics - and that they are committed to "the fight against sectarian strife". They also make clear that they adhere to "the values of equality, liberty and citizenship", and call for secularism to be the future of Syria, and a system of governance in which Islam, Christianity and all other religions are equal. And despite Alawites having dominated Syria's government and security services under Mr Assad and his late father Hafez for more than four decades, they stress that the legitimacy of his regime "can only be considered according to the criteria of democracy and fundamental rights".

Alawites celebrating a festival in Banyas, Syria

“Of the document itself, he says: "It is very significant that Alawi community leaders have stressed that they are not a branch of Shia Islam but a separate Muslim religious community that is of and within Islam. "This development marks an important shift from the regime's previous attempts to steer the community closer to Twelver Shia Islam, under Hafez al-Assad after the Cold War, and Bashar's attempts at 'Sunnification' after he inherited the presidency in 2000. "They seem to be saying that they are an Abrahamic faith, that they want to be treated as such rather than as a minority Shia Islamic sect, and that they want this identity to be accepted and respected in a new secular Syria comprised of other Peoples of the Book."

“Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Western diplomat who has seen the declaration of identity believes it is significant, and that it matters. He says nothing of this kind, "authentically Alawite", had been seen since 1971 from within Syria. "The language implies a dissociation from Iran and the regime there, but also something that seeks to disconnect the Alawite community from the Assad family," he says. "If this had come out during darker times, it would have been seen as a plea for mercy, but this is a time of strength for the regime, supported by the Russians, so this is a statement by Alawite leaders that says 'we are who we are'. "It's an assertion of belonging to Syria, and an assertion of having an equal right to rights and duties within Syria independent of the regime system."


Approximately 30 percent of the people in Yemen belong to the Zaydi (Zaidi) sect of Shia Islam. They believe that an imam should be the worthiest member of the Prophet’s family. The did not recognize Muhammad al-Baqir (d. 731) as the fifth imam, as most Shia did, but recognized his brother Zayd instead (hence their name.

Zaydis in North Yemen

In Yemen, northerners mostly follow the conservative Zaidi sect of Shia Islam and have traditionally been isolated and suspicious of foreigners and outsiders while southerners mostly follow the liberal Shafi sect of Sunni Islam and have been exposed ti people from all over the world who showed up in their ports.

The Zaydis of San’a, a dynasty founded in A.D. 897 by a descendant of the Prophet, Yabya bin Hussein bin asim ar-Rassi, ruled strong semi-independent states in Yemen. The Zaydis created a strong and stable state that endured under the Ottomans and Europeans. They managed to suvive into the 20th century and were not toppled for good until the revolution in 1962. In the meantime, the Kathiris established a strong and stable kingdom in the Hadramawt area that endured until 1967.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Zaydis, Al Jazeera

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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