Varieties of Islam

Jacob Agee

Degrees, schools, styles and tones.

The Muslim world is anything but a monolith, despite the pronouncements of Western popular wisdom, of Huntington, Trump, Netanyahu and Co. Since the earliest decades after Muhammad’s death, diverse varieties of Islam have existed, sometimes resembling Christian denominations (though attempts to find the Muslim “equivalent” of everything Christian are ridiculous), but the most pronounced differences in Islam have in fact been between degrees and styles of interpretation shared by believers from different sects. Fundamental to intra-Muslim struggle has been whether Islam is interpreted as a personal way of life or as a political system, and to what extent either answer is carried.

All Muslims share the belief that Muhammad was the “seal of the prophets” of the Abrahamic monotheistic tradition (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), a succession that Muslims recognize. For Muslims, Jesus is second only to Muhammed, though the Trinity is rejected and the doctrine of tawhid, the absolute oneness of God, is the base of all Muslim theology. Jesus is dearly exalted, his name often supplemented with peace be upon him, but he is wholly human. As is Muhammad, who resembles Mary more, being the human one who gave physicality to God’s presence on earth; the Qur’an, God’s direct words in a human language, is in Islam the closest equivalent to the Christian Jesus who is God as humanity. Hence the historical term “Mohammedan”represents a naïve Western attempt to find direct equivalence with Christianity, namely with Muhammed substituted for Christ. Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued about how the entire concept of “religion” as generally understood, for that matter, is predicated on the Euro-American assumption that everything can be understood through equivalences of Christianity.  All Muslims share the Qur’an, though like in Protestantism questions around particular passages, of literalism versus interpretation, have created varieties and interpretations of Islam within single sects more intense than divisions between sects have been for much of history. 

The Hadith, the body of collected stories and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, are the Muslim’s closest equivalent to the Gospel, though much more extensive, constituting thousands of stories and hundreds of compilations. (And one scholar has assembled and commented on some of the body of Hadith about Jesus, which also are revered by Muslims: see Tarif Khalidi, The Muslim Jesus.) But it is with this body of texts that different sects part ways, for Sunnis, Shia, and Ibadis have their own collections of Hadith. That said, all share the idea of Sharia, law codes based on the Qur’an and the Hadith, and Sunnah, a code of behaviour based on Muhammad as depicted in the Hadith. Where direct commandments are given in the Qur’an, direct laws are made; for questions not addressed in the Book, the Hadith are scoured for answers; and where the Hadith prove fruitless or the Qur’an is silent or contradicts itself, Ijtihad, the reasoning of religious scholars and the religious community, are acceptable. This is very similar to Judaism, which has the Torah (Revelation) as first point of reference, then the Talmud, and then educated Jewish opinion as based on the two texts. Each sect and sub-sect has its own Sharia code and jurisprudence. 

The first sectarianization occurred in the decades following Muhammad’s death, and was centred around Southern Iraq. The Kharijite movement were early puritans, using the doctrine of takfir, denunciation as infidels of any Muslim with differing views: Daesh today use the self-same doctrine to an equally trigger-happy extent. Responsible for the murder of Uthman and Ali, the third and fourth Caliphs, they were a sect who were distinct from other Muslims. The Kharijites no longer exist, but did foreshadow how degrees of interpretation, rather than the content of interpretations, would prove much more definitive in the history of Islam.

For in the very same period, and through much of Islamic history, there were a plethora of different groups and sects, some political, some theological, but only three survive today, as the three broad sects into which the overwhelming majority of Muslims are divided: Ibadi, Sunni, and Shia. 

The Ibadis are the oldest, and smallest (no more than one percent of Muslims), still-existing sect. Like the Kharijites they rejected the rule of Uthman and Ali, but also were opposed to their murders and rejected takfir. Their relation to the Kharijites is unclear and contentious, but it appears they split away from them, and after a complex history with the puritan Ummayad dynasty in Damascus, founded their own elected Imamate in Oman. Oman remains their heartland today, the only Ibadi-majority nation and the home of most Ibadis, in fact the only Muslim-majority country with a majority that is neither Sunni nor Shia. They are also found on Zanzibar, a former Omani colony, and in isolated pockets in Algeria and Libya.

Oman is the quietest and most peaceful country in the Arab world, and the nature of Ibadism as it stands now has much responsibility for this. For Ibadism allows for the election of the Leader of the Umma (Muslim Community), unlike both the other major sects. While the level of detailed theological differences between sects is beyond the scope of this piece, suffice it to say that Ibadism is, as a whole, the most moderate of the three major sects. Oman is known to be rather puritanical, with a Sharia Law that is on the strict side, yet Ibadis have proven to be the sect most tolerant of other religions and opinions. For example, the late Sultan Qaboos of Oman, a religious leader as well as a political one, allowed settlement of large numbers of non-Ibadis and non-Muslims, including polytheistic Hindus, and in fact gave concessions during the Arab Spring that appeased resentment against his rule. Compare to Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the difference with Sunni and Shia Sharia lawmakers is clear to see. 

It may be clear already, but if not, I should state that the three great sects of Islam did not split over differences of doctrine entirely (although they have all developed their own doctrines), rather over questions of leadership of the Muslim Empire. This is how the Sunni-Shia split emerged. While the bulk of the community accepted Abu Bakr as Caliph (a Caliph is a general leader of the Muslim community: simultaneously a political and military leader, and a devout Muslim who should be an example to others), a small group, the Shi’at Ali, or “Party of Ali,” insisted that the true leader had to be a blood relative of Muhammad, and so recognized his cousin Ali as the true leader. The latter group became the Shia, and the rest became the Sunnis, deriving their name from the Sunnah. 

The Sunnis recognize the four “Rightly Guided (Rashidun) Caliphs,” those who knew Muhammad personally, as the legitimate successors of Muhammad and as the first four rulers of the Muslim Empire: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. The latter is recognized by the Shia as the first legitimate ruler. The Shia then recognize a chain of Imams, twelve blood descendants of Ali, as their rulers for the next few centuries. Note that “Imam”in Shi’ism thus refers to one of these spiritual Leaders, whereas in Sunnism it is a generic word for the leader of prayers at a mosque.  The Shia Imams are deeply spiritual, steeped in mystery and mysticism. Whereas Sunni Caliphs, of whom Sultans were a later version, were political, public and military leaders, who rejected and were rejected by the Shia. Islam’s Great Schism, like Christianity’s, was thus more about political power.

Within each of the two great monoliths, there are numerous subdivisions. Within Sunnism, it is about degrees.For Sunnis are historically split into four main legal and jurisprudential schools, defined by the specific Sharia code to which they subscribe, which differ in their severity and traditions. They are the Hanafi, the Shafi’i, the Maliki, and the Hanbali, each school named after the scholar on whose works it is based. Very, very broadly speaking, the Hanafi, who dominate former Ottoman territories, are the most liberal, as this school has historically sought to adapt Sharia to pre-existing cultural traditions in various areas (though note that the Taliban are Hanafi, their ideology being a combination of selective Islam and Pashtun tribal codes). 

The Hanbali are the most conservative school, found mostly in the Arabian Peninsula. The Wahhabis are an offshoot who grew out of the Hanbalis in the eighteenth century, based on the teachings of Muhammad Ibn Abd al Wahhab, an early Paisley-type figure from the Najd. They have now become their own school completely, in fact more of a formal sect, known sometimes as Wahhabis, and sometimes (by themselves) as Salafis, upper case. Though salafis, lower case, is also a generic word for Sunni Islamists (i.e. including but not limited to Salafis): for example the Muslim Brotherhood are salafis in terms of their ideology, but are not Salafis, as they are not part of this Saudi-based official sect. The word “salafi” comes from the Arabic salaf, denoting the world and morals of the first three generations of Muslims. Numerous other sub-Sunni schools and sects have existed and vanished through the centuries.

Within the Shia, it is much more complicated, as numerous divisions have emerged over what exact Imams are accepted within the official line of succession. The dominant sect are the “Twelvers,” who accept Twelve Imams from Ali to Muhammad al-Mahdi. The latter, they believe, is still alive in the world but invisible, and will reappear at the end of time, before the second coming of Jesus, which all Muslims believe in. They believe that this Twelfth Imam, in the meantime, guides the world through the Ayatollahs (Shia clerics). The Twelvers themselves are divided into three branches: the Usuli, the Shaykhi, and the Akhbari. The Usuli and Akhbari split over the degree to which ijtihad is accepted and how Hadith are selected, the Usuli being more modern. The Usuli are much more numerous, the Akhbari reduced to a few small communities mostly around Basra. Usuli Twelvers make up the majority of the populations of Iran (where theirs is the State Ideology), Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan. The Shaykhi are a very small sect who emerged in the early nineteenth century, focused on eschatology.

Furthermore, there are a number of other sects that are offshoots of Twelver Shi’ism. Such as the Albanian Bektashi, who fuse belief in the Twelve Imams with their unique Sufi rituals; the Alevi of Anatolia, who have mixed it with Kurdish and Turkish peasant traditions; and the deliberately secretive Alawites of Western Syria, who seem to be a fusion of vaguely Twelver beliefs with remnants of ancient Levantine Christianity. Though many see the Alawites as a Shia sect – including the Syrian regime partly due to their closeness to Iran, the Assads and other leadership figures being drawn from the Alawites, the ethnic group most favoured by their clientelist system – others have argued for Alawism to be considered a type of Islam in its own right, independent of Shi’ism.

Throughout the history of Shi’ism, however, a number of sects split off from the main line that the Twelvers accept, over disagreements over succession of the Imamate. The very first were the Kaysani, who no longer exist. The next though were the Zaidis, who accept Zaid as the true fourth Imam (the Twelvers accept Zayn al Abedin). They still exist in Yemen, constituting around a third of the population there. The Houthis, currently embroiled in the Civil War, are a Zaidi Islamist group.  

Then there are the Ishmaelis, who accept that Ishmael was the true Seventh Imam (Twelvers believe his brother Musa al-Kadhim was the rightful Seventh Imam). They are the most complicated of all the Muslim sects, as they are divided into a dozen sub-sects. The main one is the Seveners, who believe that Ishmael was the final Imam. Then there are at least ten more sects who recognize a chain of Imams descended from Ishmael, different from the chain descended from his brother that the Twelvers recognize. Numerous, impossibly complicated disagreements over succession within this post-Ishmael line led to a plethora of different sects, mostly based in Pakistan and India, including the Nizari (led by the Aga Khan, and forming a majority in the extreme East of Afghanistan and some immediately adjacent areas of China, Pakistan and Tajikistan), Musta’ali, Dawoodi Bohra, and many more.

The Druze of Lebanon and Syria are the best known of the Ishmaeli subgroups, accepting the Imamate, and one of Ishmael’s descendants as their final Imam. Though their relationship to Ishmaelism is somewhat contentious, as they have a number of pre-Islamic beliefs not shared with any other Muslims, such as the transmigration of the soul. There is also a smaller population of Seveners found in Syria. 

Finally, two further groups emerged partly out of Shia Islam. The first is the Ahmadis, whose Messianic Punjabi founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) preached that he was a redeemer of Islam, equating himself with the (Twelfth) Imam al-Mahdi. It would be a mistake to call it an offshoot of Shia though, as its system of beliefs is more like a liberal version of Sunni Islam, and they use the Sunni Hadith. It is something of a syncretism of the two, but now is a Muslim denomination in its own right. Their belief that Prophets can still come after Muhammad (who they accept as “seal of the prophets,” but define this phrase as meaning not the final prophet but the most perfect) has caused them to be declared as heretics and horrendously persecuted in Sunni-dominated Pakistan. Even in Scotland, in an infamous 2016 case, a much-loved Glaswegian Ahmadi newsagent, Asad Shah, was stabbed to death outside his shop by an English salafi, who pleaded guilty citing that the victim was an open Ahmadi and denied that Muhammed was the final prophet. Note that although Shia have never believed in Prophecy after Muhammad, Sunni puritans have accused them of as much and brand them heretics, due to their reverence for the Imams, whom they sometimes depict in paintings of the human form, forbidden in Sunni Islam. Ahmadis also have a number of other peculiar beliefs, including that Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected and thereafter lived in Kashmir (all other Muslims believe he was raised to heaven); and that religion and science are two parts of the same thing, entirely compatible, science being the how of God’s will and creation. (Echoing the Catholic theologian Teilhard de Chardin.)

The second group is the Baha’is. They are now recognized as a world religion in their own right (their founder was Mirza Husayn-Ali Nuru, 1817-1892, known as the “Baha’u’llah”) but grew out of a Persian Twelver environment, and their belief in the unity of God is directly descended from tawhid. With their background in ecumenical Shia Islam, they believe in the unity of religions, all of which they believe have something to offer to humanity. They are considered heretics by both Sunni and Shia Islamists, and suffer terrible persecution in Iran. Many Baha’is would agree with me in viewing it as also a distinct variety of Islam, as well as a world religion in its own right.

Having considered all the schools and sects, or denominations, into which Muslims are formally divided, we should now turn to types of Muslims. As I have mentioned, different types of Muslims have historically been more important than actual official sects, whose importance I have certainly over-exaggerated with the strict categorization above (for example, regular Sunnis certainly do not define themselves as “Hanafi” or “Shafi”). And of course, Sunni and Shia, like Catholics and Protestants, mostly do not think of themselves in such categories: even considering the sectarian warfare in Iraq and Syria, the (Shia) Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah still fund and support (Sunni) Hamas – Sunni and Shia Islamists still finding some common ground (though relations between the Saudis and Iranians could derail that). And the common idea of just “Muslim”still holds some traction: for example this is how Bosnian Muslims mostly simply see themselves, many having more knowledge of different Christian sects than of different Muslim sects. While there are also ecumenicals, who consciously describe themselves as just “Muslim” and refuse to pick whether they are Sunni or Shia, common amongst Indian Muslims and liberally-minded converts.

There are of course infinite types of Muslims, but the two varieties of believers I will look at are Sufis and Islamists. As in between these two opposite groups lie most everything else: personal believers, inner converts, ecumenicals and their foes, those who believe in modernity and those who reject it, as well as the differing degrees to which practising Muslims are influenced by the cultures of their homelands. 

Sufis are not a sect in themselves, though some specific brotherhoods may develop an identity of that sort: but if they do, it is more like a specific Hindu cult with its own rituals and emphases, but which still recognizes and is recognized by most other Hindus. Sufism is rather a style, more like “mystic” or “spiritual” in Christianity, which can be used to describe Christians of a certain type found in all denominations; or “Kabbalah” in Judaism. For there are Sufis amongst Sunnis, Shia, and Ahmadis (whose origins were in a Punjabi Sufi brotherhood). Shi’ism as a whole is actually more Sufic than Sunnism, as rituals and holy places associated with the veneration of the Imams are central to Shia practice, as are passion cults commemorating the martyrdom of Hussein, the first Imam: however, most Sufi orders are Sunni. But clear-cut distinctions are besides the point when dealing with Sufis, as it is in Sufi orders that we are most likely to find syncretism of both Sunni and Shia practices. Sufism is the emotional practice of Islam, attempting to get closer to God through experience and feeling. It is defined by shrines, veneration of saints (even in Sunni orders, there is likely veneration of Shia Imams as saints), and above all spiritual rituals, sometimes centred on music (as in West African Sufi houses), sometimes on dance (as in the Mevlevi of Istanbul), and so on. 

Hard line Sunni Islamists have a serious problem with Sufis, as they view all these traditions as decadent, contrary to the Sunnah, while the association of some Sufi groups with homosexuality and alcohol has been a trope within the vitriol against Sufis. Above all, the Sufi tradition of shrines and mausoleums has attracted salafist wrath, for example in the barbaric destruction by Malian Islamists of Sufi mausoleums in Timbuktu, where they also attempted to ban all music (Mali having a musical tradition as great as Ireland’s). Desecration of Sufi shrines is also common in Pakistan. 

This is the other, opposite, type of Muslim, the final variety of Islam I will discuss: political Islam, or Islamism. The first thing to understand is that there is no “church and state,” as there is no “church” per se: Islam is not a formal organisation in any way comparable to Christian Churches. Rather, it is a shared way of life, an orthopraxic system rather than an orthodoxy, though the strength of belief is perhaps generally much stronger than in Judaism and much of Christianity. As there is thus no separation – which in the West is very much perceived in terms of physical space – there is no wall between religion and politics and Islam often has influence on the latter, as the religion itself is totalizing, commanding that every sphere of life, public and private, be rooted in the Qur’an and Hadith. 

Indeed, in the Sunni tradition, the Caliphs were supposed to embody the Five Pillars of Islam and emulate the Sunnah. (The five pillars are profession of faith, daily prayer, almsgiving, fasting for Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca: these pillars are also shared – with some qualifications – by all the main Muslim sects.)     The Muslim world therefore has historically, in the modern period, had perhaps less innate understanding of sacred and secular as separate zones: Islam as a whole is thus more like Judaism in being an entire way of life, although Jews have perhaps come to understand better the dichotomy between the sacred and secular as a greater proportion of Jews have lived in secularized Western societies. That said, Turkey for example has been more secular than many Western societies, though Erdogan is changing that rapidly, and the Ba’ath parties who have ruled much of the Arab World into this century did create a Western-style secular state system, though thanks to their authoritarian nature they have failed to bring the large sections of their populations into the fold of secularism. 

Modern political Islamism emerged as a reaction to such states, which they saw as the erosion of the system by which legitimate Muslims, defined by adherence to the Five Pillars of Islam, ruled over Muslims. It had firstly appeared in Egypt, pioneered by Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949), founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, as a traditionalist form of anti-Imperialism, as Muslims there and elsewhere were being ruled over by Western“infidels” and their native collaborators. Then, under the leadership of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), it was reinvigorated as a form of opposition to the Western-style secularized leadership that was prevailing in much of the Muslim world, especially the Ba’ath regime in Egypt. Such post-colonial regimes were attempting to separate Mosque and State and were not directed by the Five Pillars.

Sunni Islamism was an attempt to reincarnate the Sunni Caliphate (which had lost its last nominal existence with the creation of the Turkish Republic which ousted the Sultan) and restore the values and identity of the Muslim world, pre-Napoleon (who began the process of European conquest of the Arab World, as emphasized by Edward Said).  This has been the essential aim of Sunni Islamists: to delegitimize secular or non-Sunni Muslim rulers by simply calling them apostates, infidels in disguise, and so on – not real Muslims. This was a new strategy, pioneered by Qutb. Further, it has also been to undo the middle-eastern borders created by the European powers post-World War One, which have never satisfied Muslims Arabs. As John McHugo has argued, for example, Mosul and Aleppo were always partner cities, but the Franco-British Sykes-Picot line (the modern border of Iraq and Syria) severed them, destroying the traditional economy of both (John McHugo, Syria: A Recent History).

So both Islamists and the Arab Nationalists they declare takfir against have sought to undo these borders and recreate something of the old Ottoman Caliphate/Arab Empire. For European ideas of nation, a politically limited community with set borders, even where based on old vilayets (Ottoman provinces), never entirely translated into Arabic, the Arabs having lived for millennia in massive empires (first their own, then under the Ottomans). So, there was the United Arab Republic, though its falling apart demonstrates Ba’athists’ inability to follow through with their ultimate aim of a greater Arab state. Daesh (i.e., so-called “Islamic State”), however, at its zenith of power consciously did away with the Sykes-Picot line, reuniting Sunni Arab territory on both the Syrian and Iraqi sides. Note also its attempt to relink Mosul and Aleppo; and how consciously Sunni a choice of name for their leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the use of the first Caliph’s name in direct opposition to Shia beliefs. Daesh, which attempts to actually physically recreate the world of the Prophet and Rightly Guarded Caliphs, however, represents the most literalist form of Sunni Islamism.

The Muslim Brotherhood offers a more moderate form, believing in the creation of a new society based on Sharia and the Sunnah, which they believe to be compatible with aspects of modernity. Rather than erasing modernity, they seek to reform it, and to move gradually towards political union of Muslims in a Sharia state. 

It is in the Shia world however that Islamism has had the most proportionally large success, with the successful revolution against the ultra-pro-Western Shah, who was branded as an infidel according to the Sunni Qutb’s tactic, installing a Shia theocracy in the state whose population accounts for the majority of the world’s Shia population. Shia Islamism since then has had more refined goals, namely to keep the Iranian theocracy alive, and Hezbollah in power in Lebanon, and in the last decade or so to consolidate the “Shia Crescent” linking them. The latter stretches from Western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, and is held together by ensuring that an Iran-friendly Shia government stays in power in Iraq, and the vaguely-Shia Assad dynasty in Syria. And also, in the last few years, to attempt to facilitate a Shia (Houthi) victory in the Yemeni Civil War. It has so far been largely successful in the Shia Crescent project, though Iran seems to wish ultimately to spread Twelver Islamism in Assad’s Syria, and to further its own and Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon. 

In terms of the relations between strong Muslim believers and the political sphere, they are in short more similar to evangelical Protestants who wish to see their beliefs confirmed by legislation binding everybody. Islam as a whole is more similar to Protestantism, focusing on debates of interpretation of the text, but with the nature of God rarely a source of debate, Islam having largely been free of the theological dramas of early Christianity, more similar to Judaism in how it sees God. 

So the DUP, for example, should see Islamists as kin, and we should view Islamists the same way we would likely view such Protestant parties, whose interpretation of Protestantism and its relation to politics is about on par with elements of the Muslim Brotherhood’s interpretation of Islam and politics. Like with the DUP, do I support them? No. Do I encourage anyone to vote for them? No. But do I support use of violence and unlimited civilian casualties to stop them? No, and anybody who suggested this as a solution to Evangelicals could possibly be in trouble with the law. Yet it is mainstream politics in the USA, Russia, the UK, Israel, France, China and other great states to advocate such solutions for Islamists. For anti-Islamism is proving much more dangerous in this century so far than Islamism itself (when one compares, for example, the civilian death toll of 9/11 to that of the War on Terror). Hubert Butler reached the same conclusion vis-á-vis anti-Marxism in relation to Marxism in the middle of the last century. 

Like it or not, Islamists are here to stay, as surely as the Evangelical Christian parties are. There are perhaps as many Islamists in the West than, say, Communists. And any use of mass violence to try and stop them inevitably creates rashids (martyrs), regardless of how the perpetrators dress it up; and in the long term, all these military and political tactics used to repress them only gives them more ammunition, and for some gives genuine legitimacy to their ideas – whilst Western and Eastern Islamaphobic culture is the greatest recruiter of all. 

I think that Islamists, though certainly the least attractive variety of Islam, should, insofar as they are not involved in or advocating violent or terrorist activities, be invited into full participation in the democratic system, where they will inevitably screw up and repulse and put off most Muslims and non-Muslims. And in any case, what is the great ethical difference between those Islamists who advocate violence, and the respectable generals who execute it? What is ultimately so different about preachers who encourage armedJihad (for Jihad can also be entirely spiritual), and public schools, such as the one I attended (Royal Belfast Academical Institution), which encourage their pupils to join the military in which they may well “legally” kill as many? Indeed, some more moderate Islamist parties present a worldview more moderate than DUP Evangelism. They should all be countered with ideas, through debate. For the only way to defeat a bad idea is with a better one. 

Jacob Eoin Agee was born in 1993 and educated in Belfast. He completed a four-year joint honours BA in Jewish and Islamic Studies, with Classics, at Trinity College, Dublin, before receiving an MA in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the Hugo Valentin Centre, Uppsala University. He is currently undertaking a PhD at Trinity College Dublin, on the essays of Hubert Butler.

His poetry has appeared in Poetry Ireland Review 111 (edited by the poet John F. Deane), the TCD literary journal Icarus (three times), and the “New Generation Poets” issue of Agenda (edited by Patricia McCarthy). He has also worked as a freelance translator for Fraktura, Croatia’s leading literary press.