Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Salafist & Wahhabi: What’s The Difference?

On April 2, 2015 by Lazer Horse
Islam Explained - Masjid al-Haram on Hajj
Al-Haram mosque – Flickr – Al Jazeera English” by Al Jazeera EnglishAl-Haram mosque. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

If you’ve read the news at any point in the last few years, you will be familiar with, but perhaps confused by, the terms Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Salafist and Wahhabi. I decided to write this article as a very basic summary. It’s certainly not exhaustive, each group has their own history, some of which goes further back than the birth of Muhammad himself, but this provides a basic introduction.

Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Salafist and Wahhabi are, of course, all part of the Muslim faith, Islam; each have their own slightly different take on things. Some of these intergroup differences aren’t so big and some are big enough to cause wars.

Sunni Islam

Islam Explained - Selimiye Mosque - Edirne - Mimar Sinan

Selimiye Camii ve Mavi Gökyüzü” by Ahmet Baris ISITANOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Sunni Islam is the second largest religious body after Christianity. Sunnis make up 75-90% of all Muslims. Sunni is often referred to as the orthodox version of Islam. The word Sunni itself is thought to come from the Arabic word Sunnah, which refers to the sayings and actions of Muhammad.

Sunnis are a majority in most Muslim communities: in Southeast Asia, China, South Asia, Africa, and most of the Arab world.

Greens are Sunni, red are Shia:

Islam Explained - Suni Shia Split

Islam by country“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Shia Islam

Islam Explained - Islamic Calligraphy - Mirror

Shia Islam is the second largest denomination of Islam. To explain where the term Shia was born will involve explaining why Shia and Sunni parted ways in the first place.

When Muhammad died in 632 AD, he left his followers with a bit of a problem: who should take over the reigns of this swiftly growing religion? There were two schools of thought, some thought Muhammad’s cousin, Ali had been ordained by Muhammad and should be next in line. Others thought there should be a democratic consensus, and that Muhammad’s father-in-law Abu Bakr should get a go in the hot seat.

Shi’a is the short form of the historic phrase Shī’atu ‘Alī meaning followers, or party of, Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin — Ali.

Shia Muslims are in the majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Azerbaijan and, according to some estimates, Yemen. There are large Shia communities in Afghanistan, India, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Qatar, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The discrepancy in the leadership discussions split Shia and Sunni permanently; and, although Sunni and Shia often live side by side and even intermarry in some countries without too much fuss, they remain two separate entities.

The Shia have an Imamate, where the head of the organisation is the Imam. He fulfills a prophetic function and is considered almost God-like, imbued with some of Muhammad’s spiritual powers. The Sunni’s Caliphs head up the Caliphate, their version of the Imam. The Caliphs are elected and not considered spiritual beings.

Note: Caliph/Imam and Sunni/Shia are sort of likePriest/Vicar and Catholic/Protestant.

Sufi Islam

Islam Explained - Geometric arabesque tiling - dome of Hafiz Shirazi tomb - Shiraz

Roof hafez tomb” by PentoceloOwn work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Sufism can be thought of as Islam’s mystical branch. Rather than a sect, it’s more of a dimension of Islam, so there are Sufi orders within Shia and Sunni groups. Some Sufis contest that Sufism is built purely on the tenets of Islam, others believe its general philosophical vibe actually predates Muhammad and has slowly, over the years, become entwined with Islam.

Classical Sufi scholars have defined Sufism as:

“…a science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God.”

Sufis meet for spiritual sessions in zawiyahs, khanqahs, or tekke, rather than mosques.

Although Sufi are small in number, their focus on learning has influenced Islamic thought across the generations..

Salafist / Wahhabi

Islam Explained - Kaaba

Salafists are ultra-conservative, mega-straight laced, austere followers of Islam. Proponents like to think they are living as close to Muhammad’s original followers as possible. The name Salafist is increasingly often followed by the term Jihadist, their hardline approach to Islam is popular with those who wish to take lives in the name of their God.

Of course, in reality, the Jihadist section are the slim minority with the majority of Salafists focusing on non-violent evangelism and teaching. According to some, Salafism is the fastest growing Islamic contingent in the world.

For the sake of maintaining the simplicity of this list, we can refer to Salafism and Wahhabi as a merged concept as their ideals overlap in large parts. Some use the term Salafism interchangeably with Wahhabism, but to a Salafist, this is considered derogatory.

Currently there are an estimated 50 million Salafists world wide.

Islam Explained - Section Koran - Sufic

As I mentioned in the introduction, that was by no means an exhaustive list of Muslim groups, but those are the ones that appear in the mainstream media the most, so they’re worthy of our attention.







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