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An Infidel's Quick Guide to Islamic Sects

Like other world religions (Judaism, Christianity, et al), Islam is not monolithic. Most of us know that there is a basic split between the Sunni and Shi'a (kinda sorta like the split between Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism), but the more I studied, the more vast and deep (and confusing) the different subsets of Islam became. And I began to realize their various competing beliefs all had quite a bearing on the governments and terror groups of the Middle East today.

Here is a quick guide for "infidels" (non-Muslims) like me who would like to understand a little more about the beliefs of over 1 billion people:

1. Sunni.

The Sunni (taken from the Arabic word "sunna" meaning "tradition") are the largest sect of Islam, comprising some 85%-90% of all Muslims. If you live in the United States and you think of Muslims, you are probably thinking of the Sunni. They are the majority in such nations as Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, and the like.

Besides adhering to all the major tenets of mainline Islam, the Sunni believe that Muhammed, the prophet of Islam, did not specifically choose a successor before he died. So, the Muslim community through a "Shura" ("council") chose his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, as the first caliph since his life most closely followed the character (the traditions, or "sunna") of Muhammed.

The caliphate (spiritual and political leaders of Sunni Islam) continued until the break up of the Ottoman Turkish Empire at the end of World War I. The current leadership of ISIS believes that they have brought back the caliphate for all true Muslims to follow.

2. Shi'a.

The Shi'ites are about 10%-15% of all Muslims, but definitely wield an influence that far outweighs their numbers. This is the group that runs Iran, and has significant minorities in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen. (Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon is a Shi'ite Islamic terror organization.) In contrast to the Sunnis, the Shi'ites believe that Ali (Muhammed's son-in-law) should have been the first caliph all along.

The "umma" (worldwide Muslim community) should be headed up by a direct descendant of Muhammed. Ali was the first "imam" or spiritual leader after Muhammed, and thereafter Shi'ites believe that succeeding imams (including the ones today) have special spiritual insights. Although there are numerous sub-sets of Shi'ite Muslims today, a group known as "Twelvers" is the dominant thinking among current Iranian leadership.

The Twelvers believe that after the eleventh imam died his son the twelfth imam (who was only a child at the time) disappeared during the funeral for his father. This child was never found. The story arose that this child is still alive today, and in hiding. He will someday reveal himself as the Messiah (known as the "Mahdi" to Muslims) and bring in a universal submission to Islam.

Many Shi'ites today believe this will happen only through a cataclysmic war between Muslims and infidels, with the Mahdi appearing to wipe out the infidels and bring in universal peace for all faithful Muslims. (So, now you see why so many in the Iranian leadership do not fear a nuclear confrontation. Such a holocaust would only accelerate the arrival of the Mahdi.)

Another offshoot of Shi'ite Islam is the sect known as the Ismaili.  They subscribe to the same basic theology (though heavily influenced by Greek neo-platonic thought), but trace their Imam (the current leader Aga Khan IV) back to Ali and Fatima.  They differ from the Twelvers in that they believe the true Imam is descended from Ismaili Ibn Jafar as opposed to Musa al Kadhim (younger brother of Ismaili).  All this sounds rather nit-picky to most of us in the non-Muslim West, but the true successor to Muhammed (and thus the human spiritual leader of the worldwide community) is a really big deal to Muslims.

Ismaili Muslims live primarily in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and central Asia, but there are small communities scattered throughout the world.

Next Page: Sufi, Wahhabi, and Ahmadiyya.