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Although there are various sects within Islam, all Muslims believe in the concept of Tawhid(belief in one God, Allah), believe in the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him).


Sunni Islam is the largest branch of Islam and its followers are known as Sunnis. The Sunnis are so named because they believe themselves to follow the Sunnah ('custom' or 'tradition') of the prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Although the population of Sunni Muslims is unknown, some have estimated that out of the entire Muslim population between 85-90%, at least, practise this branch of Islam.


Sunnis have their historical roots in the majority group who followed the caliph Abu Bakr, as Muhammad's successor. They believe that Muhammad intended that the Muslim community choose a successor, or caliph, by consensus.


Sunnis base their religion on the Quran and the Sunnah as understood by the majority of the community under the structure of the four schools of thought (madhhabs).


The four Sunni madhhabs - Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i and the Hanbali - are sometimes mistakenly understood as different sects, but they are not. These four schools of law only differ in minor issues of application. These madhhabs continue to seek to find Islamic solutions to the answers posed by evolving societies, regardless of time or place.


'Shi'ism' is derived from the Arabic term 'shi'at 'Ali,' which literally means 'the party of Ali'. Shi'ites believe that after the Prophet Muhammad's (pbuh) death, Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law and cousin, should have been elected as caliph.


Another important distinction is the Shiat belief in the doctrine of Imamate "the divinely inspired, religious and political leader of the community;" [1] one who is without sin, and who bestows true knowledge on humanity.


Today Shi'a Islam is the second largest sect in Islam. The vast majority of Shi'ites are twelvers, followers of the branch known as ‘Ithna Ashari'. They believe in twelve Imams with the final Imam, Mahdi, appearing at an unspecified time in the future. The Shi'a thought consists of one major school of thought known as the Ja'faryia, founded by Ja'far al-Sadiq, the 6th Shia Imam. There are other minor schools of thought, known as the 'Seveners' or the 'Fivers.' These names all refer to the number of divine imams recognised after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).


Other differences between the Sunni and Shi'a include the regulations for the prayer call and ablutions, the practice of temporary marriage and permitted use of taqiya (professing disbelief to avoid harm or persecution).


The major holidays celebrated by Shi'a Muslims are Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr and Ashura. They also observe the month of Ramadan.


Ismailis, also known as the 'Seveners', are Shi'a Muslims who emerged in 765 after a disagreement over the successor to the sixth imam, Ja'far al-Sadiq. They believe that Ismail, the eldest son of Imam Ja'far, was the rightful ruler of all Muslims. Ismailis believe that after the sixth Imam Ja'far passed away, his eldest son, Ismail, inherited the right to rule, thus becoming the seventh imam. This belief differs from that of the twelvers who believe that the imamate passed to Ismail's brother Musa al-Kazim.


Ismailis also believe in the imamate doctrine, and additionally believe the succession of imams has continued to the present day.


Mawlana Hazar, 'His Highness the Aga Khan 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia' Imami Ismaili Muslims,' is believed to be the direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).[2] The Aga Khan's role is to spiritually lead his community and "oversee the cultural life of the community" by protecting the welfare of his people.[3]


Renowned Ismaili leaders include Ubaydulla, who claimed to be a descendent of Fatima and Ali. He founded the Fatimid dynasty conquering North Africa and ruling successfully until 1171. "One of its most enduring monuments was its religious centre, the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo," which has remained as an epicentre of Islamic education to the present day.[4]


Other groups within the Ismaili community include the Bohras, the Nizaris, and the Druze.


Zaydiyyah is a Shi'a school of law which has a different concept of the imamate from the other Shi'a groups. They accept Zayd ibn Ali, grandson of Hussain, as their 'Fifth Imam.' Zaydis believe that the Imam need not be a direct descendent of Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet (pbuh), but rather anyone related to Ali with the highest integrity.


[1] John L. Esposito Islam: The Straight Path, Oxford: OUP, 1994, p. 45. 
[2] Official website of the Ismaili Muslim Community, © Islamic Publications Limited 2007 
[3] John L. Esposito Islam: The Straight Path, Oxford: OUP, 1994, p. 48. 
[4] Ibid.

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