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An Outline Introduction to Islam


Orville Boyd Jenkins


A. Religious Groupings

1. Sunni. The Sunni are so called because they believe that only the Sunna is authoritative for Islam. They accept Qur'anic Law--the "orthodox" foundations of Qur'an and Hadith and the Shari'a based on them. They accept no line of visible representatives in the line of Muhammad. Government is based on current interpretation and application of the Sunna. For the Sunnis, the term Imam is used for any prayer/worship leader in a local mosque. This may be any Muslim, not a hereditary leader.

2. Shi'a. This name comes from the phrase shi'at Ali, meaning "the party of 'Ali." This was the group who supported' Ali as the Fourth Caliph (successor of Muhammad), and believed that it should be his descendants that succeeded as Caliphs after his death. Those who came to be known as the Sunni supported Mu'awiya of the Ummayad clan, who had opposed' Ali during his life, and who seized power at Ali's death, then declared that his son would be his successor. The Shi'a consider the Imams to be the visible representatives of Muhammad, who are supposed to be descendants of ' Ali.

The Shi'as differ on who the rightful Imam is. Some believe the line of visible Imams stopped with a "hidden Imam." However, the hidden Imam does have visible representatives, who speak authoritatively to the umma (community of believers) to give interpretation and direction in the current situation.

a. There was a conflict over the rightful Seventh Imam in A.D. 765. Some believe that Isma'il, rather than his brother Musa, (who were Fatimid Egyptians) was the true Seventh Imam. This group are called Isma'ilis or "Seveners." Some Isma'ilis believe that when Isma'il was reported to have died before his father, he was actually hidden, and will return as the Mahdi. Others believe he died, but his son Muhammad ibn-lsma'il, disappeared in India and will return as the Mahdi. Others continue numbering the successors of Isma'il as Imams.

The Seveners suffered a major division in Egypt in 1094. One group followed Nizari and another Musta'li as Imam. Nizaris are found in Syria, and in East Africa they are represented in the Khoja Ismailis, followers of the Aga Khan (the 49th Imam, whose home is in France). This group has retained from their Indian heritage a belief in reincarnation.

The Bohras are in the line following Musta'li, the younger son. The Bohras further believe that the 21st Imam was "taken into concealment," being represented now by "deputies." The Bohras are Indian (Dawoodi) and Yemini (Sulaimani). Successive disputes over rightful successors have progressively divided the Shi'as into numerous groups with different Imams.


Examples: Khoja, Dawoodi (Bohra), origins in India, many in East Africa

Druze in Lebanon, Nusayris (Nizaris) in Syria, Egypt

b. One group in the 765 dispute recognized the second son, Musa, of the sixth Imam, Jafar, as the true seventh Imam. This group believe that the line of visible Imams continued to the Twelfth Imam. They believe that the 8-year-old Imam Muhammad "disappeared" in A.D. 878 and is in concealment until the end of time, when he will be revealed as the Mahdi. They are the Ithna 'Ashariyya (Ithnashari) or "Twelvers." The Ithnasharis have a visible representative to give authoritative guidance. In some areas these leaders are called Ayatollahs. This means "a word from God," coming from ayat (word) and Allah (God). Ithnashari Islam is the official religion in Iran and is the faith of the majority of Muslims in Iraq. Many Indian Ithnasharis live in East Africa.

Examples: Iraq; Iran: Safawi dynasty (before the overthrow of the Shah)

Revolutionary Iranian leadership

Kenya Ithnasharis

There are many additional groups of the Shi'as. One notable group is the Zaidites, who follow a different fifth Imam. The Zaidites maintained a ruling dynasty in Yemen from the 9th century until recently.

3. Sufi. The Sufis comprise a broad meditative mystical movement across Islam. As Sunnis, they believe in no mediator between God and the individual. They often have a sense of personal "conversion," with an emphasis on the individual's personal relationship to God. Sufis are prominent today in Somalia, Kenya, Egypt, North Africa and Turkey. I am told that most Somalis are associated with some Sufi order. Many Arabs in East Africa are identified with Sufi orders.

Al-Hallaj was a major Sufi figure who modeled himself after Jesus, and was rejected by many of his own people because they said he had become a Christian (see The Path of Love). Much Sufi literature is in poetry. This is consistent with the meditative, personal worship orientation of the Sufis. One of the most famous was a Moorish poet, Muhiy ad-din ibn al 'Arabi, of Andalusia (southern Spain), writing in the twelfth century. Jalal ad-din ar-Rumi (Jalal of the religion of Rome), writing in the thirteenth century, is the most famous of the Persian mystic poets. Some Sufis have been great scholars. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, a significant philosophical theologian, was a major Sufi figure.

Some Muslim leaders do not like to use the term or classification "Sufi." This is because, first, they resist labels which tend to divide Islam. One administrator of a mosque known as a Sufi mosque, said to me, "We are not Sufi or any other name. We are all just Muslims." A second reason is that the term may carry a negative or uncertain connotation because of (1) the early historical rejection of Sufism's identification with Jesus or Christianity, and (2) the excesses of some Turkish and Egyptian orders (like the whirling dervishes).

4. Ahmaddiya. This group believe the Mahdi/Messiah returned in the Indian Hazrat Ghulam Ahmed in 1835. They have a well-organized missionary society and publishing program worldwide. Ahmed claimed to be Jesus in another life as the returned Mahdi/Messiah. He meant to unite all true Muslims and Christians into the one true religion. He was rejected by both. Ahmaddiya world headquarters is in Lahore, Pakistan. Ahmaddiyas are refused permission to make the Hajj, because the Pakistan government has reported to Sa'udi officials that the Ahmaddiyas are not true Muslims.

B. Political Systems. Many different social and governmental systems are found in various Muslim countries. Here are just a few examples of the combinations of religious sect with political form.

1. Sunni--Military: Sudan, Libya

Royal: Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan.

2. Shi'a--Royal: Iran, under the Safawi Shah

Old Fatimid dynasty of Egypt, Syria

Hierarchical dictatorship: Revolutionary Iran under Khomeini

Representative democracy (or parliamentary dictatorship): Iran under an Ayatollah with Majlis and a president


3. Secular--Democratic dictatorship: Turkey, Egypt. Muslim, but non-"lslamic" politically. Both Turkey and Egypt have moved to systems more like full Western secular republics. Turkey has had full civilian constitutional rule since 1982. Syria's constitution declares Syria to be a Socialist State, but specifies that the president shall be a Muslim.


Originally published in An Outline Introduction to Islam (Nairobi:  Communication Press, 1991.)
Posted on Thoughts and Resources 22 March 2004
Last edited 23 November 2007

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 1991, 2004 by Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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