A survey of ancient and contemporary schools, sects, movements and cults within and outside Islam.
“The Jews split into 71 sects all of which are [to go] to Hellfire except one. The Christians split into 72 sects all of which are [to go] to Hellfire except one. My Ummah will split into 73 sects all of which are [to go] to Hellfire except one…Those who follow my Sunnah (tradition) and the Sunnah of my Companions will be saved”. [Sahih hadith quoted in Abu Daud 4:197-198, Tirmidhi 171, 5:25-27 & 2640-2644, Ibn Majah 2:1321-1322, and Nasai].
The existence of various religious schools and denominations is not unique to Islam but is also present in other Abrahamic religions. Indeed, the greater the acceptability of a religion by the people, the more difference of opinion it is likely to have among its followers. It is also natural that an older religion will have more organised tradition in comparison with a new sect or movement. In Islam, the differences in most sects are not about the fundamental tenets of Islam but concern the interpretation of the divine texts and reported tradition of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, against the background of the growth and evolution of pluralistic Islamic community underpinned by the context of social conditions, ethnic makeup, cultural practices and tribal orders of the followers.
This essay is a tip of an iceberg in exploring the old and new sects and groups in Islam. It is limited in its coverage of only religious practices and theological beliefs of Muslims. It does not cover militant, supremacist, social, political and other reform movements in Islam. The essay is divided into six parts. Part 1 deals with Sunni Islam and its main sects and sub-sects, including those that once existed but later became extinct or transformed into groups currently in existence under different names. Part 2 deals with Shia Islam and its main sects and sub-sects which have a large following, including those sects that are historically extinct. Part 3 deals with Ibadi Islam which represents a middle position between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam and has no sects or sub-sects at present. Part 4 is a brief survey of Sufi Islam, its various orders and its place in Turkiye which is the home of Sufism. Part 5 deals with Non-Conformist Islam. It looks at groups and movements which started with their roots in Islam but transgressed and became Ghulat. Part 6 is Conclusion and recommended readings.
In the description of each group or sect an attempt has been made to examine its origin against the religious and political background of its time, its major practices and the place it occupies in the tapestry of Islamic faith globally. The use of various terminologies in this essay such as sects, sub sects and movements are purely for descriptive purpose and do not imply any derogatory meaning or carry an order of precedence.
There has always been a healthy competition between theology and philosophy. The theologians of Islam confronted their contemporary philosophers and tried to find a scientific basis for the divine order for their faith. These explanations were sometimes enforced on the people with the patronage of the political authority of the time or allowed to be democratically rejected resulting in the birth of new sects in every era. All major Muslims sects had the support of at least one ruler, or his ruling clan at one point or another, and their popularity often coincided with the peak of the political power that sponsored them. Where differences arose, these encouraged the reformers to form break away sects to travel to distant places where political power was either weak or unwilling to challenge their non-conformist ideas.
New sects often made their point of reference the beliefs and traditions of the parent group they left. The Ismailiya sect retained most of the features of Shia Islam but added its own interpretation that made them distinct from Shia Islam. The Bohra sect emerged from the Ismailiya sect but added their own interpretation that made them different from the Ismailiya sect. Sunni Islam not only split in four Madhabs, each following a different Sunni Imam, but also resulted in many religious reform movements in the 18th and 19th century CE after Western colonialism replaced Islamic rulers, creating a big void in the continuation of centuries’ old Islamic tradition gone unchallenged from the outside powers.
Sometime new sects were born out the compulsions of the outer environment their followers faced politically and culturally. When Islam spread out of the Arabian Peninsula and was introduced to people deeply entrenched in Greek, Roman, Iranian, and Byzantine civilisations and cultural practices, it acquired philosophical and mystical thoughts which were absent in the early years of Islam and resulted in opening the religious space to accommodate both tradition and mystical ideas.
Most sects have roots in the three main schools of Islam, namely Sunni Islam, Shia Islam and Sufi Islam. Sunni school believed in religious and political authority resting with the leader of the Islamic State, the Caliph, who is chosen by the consensus of the people. In the early days of the Islamic State this consensus was achieved through tribal allegiance or the majority choice of the elders of the Ummah. Shia school vested this authority in the hereditary Imam of the time who was a representative of God and belonged through bloodline to the family of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. The Imam followed the Islamic laws of the Quran and the tradition of the Prophet. The Sufi school separated politics and religion and placed the individual in the centre of the universe to discover God and connect with the divine powers spiritually.
Part I: Sunni Islam
Ahl sunnah-wal-jamaat is a general term applied to various Sunni schools of theology that trace back their origin to the thinking of earlier Ahlul Hadith and Ashari scholars. They follow the authorities of the four Hanafi imams with slight differences in practice and jurisprudence but without any disagreement on the fundamental tenets of Islam. This group, combining the four Imams, makes up the majority of Muslims globally. They accept the division of authority in political, religious, and spiritual fields. Political authority rests with the Caliph, who is the head of Islamic State, and has the authority to collect Zakat and raise an army for carrying out Jihad. Muftis and scholars have religious authority, but they can only advise the Caliph. They do not have the power to enforce their opinions on the people. Spiritual authority is vested in the Sufis whose elaborate network of Awlias, Sheikhs and Abdals brings people closer to God.
Sunni school traces its evolution to the time of the Prophet when Islam was a simple religion to follow without any difference of opinion as the Prophet was physically present to clarify any doubts of the followers or decide on matters that needed elaboration. But in the second century of the Hijrah (AH) when the principles of Islam were discussed and written down, opinion was divided and resulted in the division of Sunni Islam in four schools of jurisprudence, namely, Hanafi, Shaafii, Maaleki and Hambali, each named after their Imam. In the beginning, Sunni Muslims could take guidance from any of the four schools but over time this was crystalised into specific followers of each school who chose to follow the jurisprudence of one school instead of choosing from the opinions of four schools according to their convenience. In addition to the four schools there was also another group that did not bind itself to the doctrines of any of the four Imams but went directly to Quran and Hadith. This group later became known as Ahl-e-Hadith or Salafis.
In Sunni Islam there is no hereditary Imam or a hierarchy of clergy. Sunnis do not participate in the condolence meetings organised by Shias in the first ten days of Muharram to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussain. They also do not participate in the 10 Muharram processions and acts of self-flagellation to honour the martyrs of Karbala. However, they take out processions in the month of Rabiul-Awal to celebrate the birthday of prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. They also commemorate the days of the companions of the Prophet, especially of the first four Caliphs.
The major writers of the Quranic exegesis (Tafseer) in the Sunni school are: Ibn Kathir, Al-Bagawi, Al-Maawardi, Al -Tabari, Al-Shuyuti, Ibn-al-Jawzi, Jalalain, Al-Nisai, Al-Firozabadi, Al-Shanqiti, Al-Tantawi, Al-Qurtubi, Al-Baidawi, Al-Shokani, Al-Sabuni, Daryabadi, As-Saadi, Al-Moududi, Thanwi, Shafi, Mubarakpuri.
This sect was founded by Mabad Ibn Khaled al-Juhaine in 66 AH. Al-Qadariya believed that Allah has given free will to man to exercise his choice regarding his actions, which are not forced by destiny. They also believed that Allah has knowledge of the deeds of men in advance, but Allah does not cause these actions to happen until man himself decides to take steps toward them. They also believed that a believer remains a Muslim even if he commits major sins and that the divine attributes of Allah such as his power to see, hear and know are to be taken figuratively and not literally.
Al-Jahmiya sect started as a reaction to the Al-Qadariyah sect. It was founded by Jahm ibn Safwan in 127 AH and lasted until the end of the Abbasid caliphate. Al-Jahmiya believed that the actions of man were determined by divine power irrespective of whether these actions were good or bad. Al-Jahmiya were fascinated by Greek philosophy and applied it to interpret Islam rationally. They gained prominence in the 3rdcentury AH with the philosophical interpretation of Quran by Bishr al Mareesee. He claimed that Quran was a set of meanings Allah created for humans to understand. Al-Jahmiya received patronage of Abbasid caliph Mamoon Rashid who accepted their belief that Quran was the creation of Allah. They also took a rationalist approach to existence. They withdrew to an intermediate position on lesser sins, and on the question of the hardship of the grave for the dead. They also opposed the view that Quran was eternal, as all created things will come to perish one day. They rejected the names and attributes of Allah and took the position that attributes that apply to humans cannot be ascribed to Allah as this would compromise His uniqueness and authority. They said that attributes such as Kalaamallah (speech of Allah) Yad-ul-lah (hand of Allah), or Arsh-ul-lah (throne of Allah) are allegorical and not something befitting the majesty of Allah. They believed that the punishment of hell was not eternal.
Al-Jahmiya later got divided into many factions that accepted some of its interpretations but did not adopt its philosophy completely. The principal faction among the Al-Jahmiya was Al-Mutazilah. Other groups included Al-Muatala, Al-Mirisiya, Al-Mutazaqa, Al-Waridiya, Al-Zanadiqiya, Al-Harqiya, Al-Makhlooqiya, Al-Faaniya, Al-Iriya, Al-Waqifiya, Al-Qabariya, Al-Lafziya, Al-Najjariya, Al-Ashairya, and Ad-Dirrariya. Their differences were, however, minor and they all belonged to the Al-Jahmiya sect. The various beliefs in these groups centred around the philosophical views that anything to which human attributes can be applied was creature and therefore it could not be claimed that Allah could be seen because what is seen is created. They said most of Allah’s attributes were created and therefore could not be applied to Him. They believed that Allah was mighty and majestic and was everywhere, not just present on His throne. They believed that whoever knew His Lord will never enter hellfire and whoever entered hellfire would never leave it. Some of them said it was impossible to confirm that Allah existed because such confirmation could only take place through the five senses; and that which may not be sensed is not a god, and that what may not be sensed could not be confirmed. Some of them held the view that a disbeliever will feel pain only once after entering hellfire and would continue to burn but without feeling any more pain. Some Al-Jahmiya believed that heaven and hell would eventually vanish. Others claimed that both heaven and hell were not yet created or completed.
A group among them denied prophecy and claimed that prophets were only wise men. Another group among them denied that there was turmoil of grave; some denied intercession (shafaah), and some said it was not the Quran but the pronunciation of Quran that was created. They claimed that Allah’s speech could not be limited to sound, letters or words; therefore, when the Quran is recited by humans it is created. Finally, there were Al-Jahmiya who believed that Quran is recited and memorised, but wat is written in the Mushaf is not the real Quran in the heaven (Loh-e-Mahfooz), but its representation on earth.
The Mutazila sect was founded by Wassil Ibn Ata soon after Al-Jahmiya. The Mutazila doctrine was based on five principles. These were: monotheism; justice, heaven and hell as reward and punishment; barzakh as the intermediate place until salvation or condemnation; and enjoining the good and prohibiting the evil. The Mutazila agreed with Al-Jahmiya in negating the attributes of Allah, but they did not negate Allah’s names. Al-Mutazila believed that a Muslim who commits a major sin is neither a believer nor a disbeliever but suspended between the two states. They also believed that the attributes of Allah should be understood figuratively and rationally. They also said that Quran as the word of Allah was not eternal but created. They believed Allah does not speak but He creates His speech. They differed from the Al-Jahmiya on the concept of pre-destination. According to them, man was responsible for his actions and was not compelled by the divine Will.
Al-Mutazila were active during the time of Imam Ahmad Ibn Hambal. They weakened during the time of Abbasid caliph Mutawakil. During this time the Asharites who had moved away from the Mutazila but retained their methodology of deduction and reasoning to explain theology came closer to Sunni Islam.
Toward the end of the third and start of the 4th century AH a celebrated Mutazila scholar Abul Hasan ibn Ismail al Ashari defected to the Ashari school and drew on his experience of logic and reasoning to establish a Sunni school of thought based on deduction and scholastic theology. He also sanctioned the use of critical examination of the fundamental beliefs of Muslims with a view to providing their philosophical justification. His works resulted in weakening the Mu’tazila ideas on the one hand, and on the other hand causing a split within the Sunni school between the traditionalists and rationalists. His influence continued even after his death. There were Sunni thinkers such as Imam Juwaini and Imam Fakhruddin Razi who supported his philosophical approach to theology in Sunni Islam. There were also traditionalist scholars such as Imam Hanbal who rejected the involvement of deduction in Kalaam and declared it unlawful. There were also scholars who took the middle path of neither rejecting nor fully accepting the Ashari approach of brining the science of Kalaam to theology.
Al-Ashari thrived under Turkic Seljuks in Iran and Turkiye. Two centuries later, the writings of Imam Ghazali downgraded the Ashari school to one of Irfan and Tasawwuf. Like Ghazali, Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi also watered down the Ashari thought to Sufism. After about two centuries since its rise, the Ashari sect became removed from its original moorings and became like Al-Mutazila ideology.
After the decline of the Asharites, Sunni Islam lost the rational methodology which once characterised its rise. However, had this been otherwise, there could have been more divisions in Sunni Islam than at present, as is seen in the various sub-sects of Shia Islam and the Ismailiya groups, which are not averse to the application of logic and reasoning in theology.
Al-Murjiah believed that Imaan is a fixed state of faith which neither increases not decreases. It is established on the declaration of faith by tongue and belief in heart. For the Murjiahs, Imaan does not get invalidated by the evil actions of the believer but can be perfected by virtuous deeds.
Founded by Dawood ibn Al Zahiri and Abu Muhammad ibn Mazam in 9th century AH, the Zahiri sect emphasised on following the literal meaning of the commands and prohibitions in the Quran and Prophetic traditions without going into the basis and reasons behind those rulings. The word Zahiri refers to the apparent (literalist) as against allegorist (Taweel). The Zahiris denied the validity of logic as an independent source of Islamic law. Although the Zahiri sect originated in Kufa, its followers relocated to Baghdad, Damascus, Bokhara, Iran and Spain.
The Zahiri sect was popular during the Muslim rule in Spain and after half a century, it merged with the Hambali school of Sunni Islam.
Ahle Hadith and their predecessors, Ahlul Hadith, emerged in response to Al-Jahmiya and Mutazila claim that Quran was created. They stressed the importance of accepting the sayings and tradition of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, as conveyed by the accepted narrators instead of vetting it against logic and philosophy. They considered conjecture and syllogism as Tahreef, meaning subverting the true sense of the divine revelation. Ahlul Hadith believed that Imaan has progressive degrees and is divisible. To distinguish them from other Sunnis, Ahlul Hadith adopted the Sunnah of Rafa Yadain, the raising of both hands up to shoulders and dropping them down before going to Ruku and Sajda from the Qiyam position in the five-time obligatory prayers. Ahlul Hadith stressed on going back to the roots to find true Islam which had been corrupted after the reign of the four caliphs. Another reason for their retreat to early Islamic tradition was that by 4th Century AH, Greek philosophy had influenced the religious discourse in Islam to the extent that Ilm-ul-Kalaam (theology) and Ilm-ul-Hadith (tradition), along with Ilm-ul-Fiqh (jurisprudence) had become distinct specialisations in Islam. Ahlul Hadith used literalism as their preferred method of interpreting the Quran and Sunnah.
The founder of Salafiya group is Ibn Taimiyya who in 7th century AH rejected all the sects and closed the door of independent reasoning (Ijtihad) that had led to Al-Jahmiya thoughts. Ibn Taimiyya was so resolute in opposing Mutazila ideology that he once stepped down from the pulpit of his mosque in Damascus saying that the way he was physically descending from one step to another, the establishment of Allah over His throne is that real. According to Ibn Batuta who claims to have witnessed this event, Ibn Taymiyya was attacked the angry worshippers and stopped from leading the Friday prayers. Ibn Taimiyya forbade imploring holy men, including Prophet Muhammad, in second person Ya after their demise, and likened it to corrupting the concept of Allah who has no partners. After Ibn Taimiyya’s death, his followers called themselves Al-Salafiya, meaning followers of the ancestors. The Salafi follow the life and authentic sayings of Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, the companions of the Prophet, the disciples of the companions and few traditional thinkers of the 1st, 2nd and 3r century AH. They do not emphasise on rituals and fanfare in religion, avoid commentaries on the earlier prophets from the Jewish sources and are strict in their adherence to the prophetic tradition.
Popularly known as Wahabis and sometimes described as Salafis, the Al-Wahabiya group started in the 12th century AH under the leadership of Saudi reformer Mohammad Ibn Abdul Wahab. He was not a political leader. He was a conservative scholar who accepted the rule of the House of Saud in return for their non-interference in his religious teachings. The Wahabis are in total agreement with the beliefs of Al- Salafiya in religion and support the teachings of Ibn Taimiyya. They consider veneration of graves as heresy, touching or kissing the Prophet’s Rawda in the Prophet’s Mosque and seeking Prophet’s intercession in supplications as innovation (Bidaa) and corrupting the faith. They also believe that promoting virtue and preventing evil is an obligation on every Muslim, and that seeking forgiveness of Allah directly from Him is the only way forward for salvation.
Deobandis are a sub-sect of Sunni Islam. The Deobandi movement was one of the several social and religious movements that were established in the former territories of the Ottoman Empire, Moghul Empire and in other parts in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Arab peninsula where political power had slipped from local elites to foreign colonial rule. These movements were not coordinated, nor followed a set pattern. Each movement was locally based and aimed at finding a response to the changed circumstances with the dual objective of preserving their beliefs and traditions and building resistance to foreign power and influence. Among these, the Deobandi movement focused on disseminating the teachings of the Quran and hadith to the Muslims of India following the jurisprudence of Imam Abu Hanifa, the founder of Hanafi school in Sunni Islam. The founders of the Deobandi movement were Mohammad Nanautavi and Rashid Ahmad Gangohi. They started the movement in 1866 CE at the Islamic Studies Centre in Saharanpur, UP, India. A year later, the first school to impart religious education to children was built in Deoband. The school introduced an organised religious syllabus of studies and hired permanent staff to teach the subjects. The success of the school led to many mosques joining the initiative and adopting the Deobandi syllabus to prepare Qaris, Huffaz, Imams, Alims and Muftis. Initially, the Deobandi movement was opposed to the Aligarh movement which promoted teaching of English as a second language to Muslims instead of primarily focusing on Arabic to directly reach out to the original texts of Islam.
Deobandis believe that Islam has two focuses. The first is the Sharia law given by Quran and supplemented by Hadith. The second is analogical reasoning (qiyas) and consensus of the Ummah (ijma) as long as the fundamental tenets of Islam are not compromised. They make the scholars of Islam responsible for interpreting the law based on their understanding and experience of dealing in religious matters. Deobandis are puritan orthodox Muslims, but they are different from the Salafis and Wahabis as they are more open to interpreting Islam in the light of their four principles of applying the law. They are also tolerant of Sufi interpretations.
There are many religious organisations, Darul Uloom, mosques, madrassas and institutions that work to promote Deobandi theology quietly without making news. However, some organisations have also chosen to become political parties, such as Jamaat Islami, Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam, Markazi Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith, Pakistan Rah-e-Haq Party, Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek and Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. These organisations follow the Deobandi school in religious matters.
Deobandi sect was also helped by other scholars who were not part of the Deobandi movement but their writings and talks contributed to the Deobandi beliefs and practice. A renowned scholar who shared their theology was Abul Ala Moududi. He founded the Jamaat Islami in Lahore in 1941 and also helped with the establishment of the Islamic University of Madinah. After his death, Jamaat Islami abandoned its religious mission and became an Islamic political party. Other scholars included, among many, Ehtishamul Haq Thanvi, Mufi Muhammad Shafi, Mohammad Taqi Usmani, Muhammad Ishaq Madani, Dr Israr Ahmad, Ahmed Deedat, Zakir Naik, Yasir Qadi and Ismail Ibn Musa Menk.
Another religious movement that took roots in British India where other movements also flourished in the late 1800s was the Barelvi movement founded by Ahmad Raza Khan in 1867. He established a school of Islamic studies in 1904 in Barelli, in Northern India. The success of his initiative led him to establish another religious school in Pilibhit, India. After the Partition, many Barelvi Muslims migrated to Pakistan. They also relocated to Madina in Saudi Arabia.
Like Deobandis, the Barelvis are also a major sub-sect of Sunni Islam, but they are closer to the Sufi philosophy, as well as the Shia school in their reverence of Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, and his family (Ahlul Beit). Barelvis believe that the messenger of Allah and all Godly men have special connection with God and are spiritually alive in their graves after death, even though they cannot return to the earth in their human form. They listen to the greetings of those who visit their graves and ask them to intercede with God on their behalf.
Barelvis have an elaborate network of saints, religious teachers and elders (Pirs) who guide their followers and bless them with their Duas. Barelvi Muslims strongly believe in the intercession of Prophet Muhammad on the Day of Judgment which is comparable to the belief of Christians about salvation. They believe that Prophet Mohammad’s spirit is present at any gathering on earth where Durood and Salam are recited loudly. For this reason, Barelvis stand up in reverence when offering Durood and Salam in second person singular to address the Prophet directly. In Barelvi mosques this Durood is collectively recited either every day in the month of Rabi-ul-Awal, the month of Prophet’s birthday, and weekly after Friday prayers. They also believe in offering blessed food to the poor in Nazar, Niaz and Fateha and also on the death of a relative to seek forgiveness for him.
Barelvi Muslims consider themselves to be the representatives of the first Muslim community comprising the companions and followers of the Prophet. Their core beliefs include personal devotion to the Prophet as a guide and intercessor between Allah and the individual through a hierarchy of hereditary religious leaders (Pirs) whom they hold in high esteem while they are living, as well as after their death, and take vows to follow their guidance. They also visit and offer Dua at the shrines of Sufi saints such as Sheikh Abdul Qadar Jilani in Lahore and Khawaja Moeenuddin Chisthi in Ajmer, India. The landscape of Pakistan and India is dotted with the shrines of big and small Sufi saints which attract millions of devotees annually. The Barelvi sect is regarded as the tolerant face of Sunni Islam compared to their puritan Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith counterparts.
Dawat-e-Islami is a Barelvi organisation founded by Muhammad Ilyas Qadri in Karachi, Pakistan in 1981 for the global propagation of Quran and Sunnah and prepare future scholars though Q&A sessions and Naat competitions. Another organisation of the Barelvi sect is the Sunni Tehreek. It was founded by Muhammad Saleem Qardi in Karachi, Pakistan in 1990 to prevent the takeover of Barelvi mosques from the Deobandis and Ahl-e-Hadith. It acts as the defender of Barelvis from rival sects. Saleem Qardi was killed in 1998 and was succeeded by Sarwat Ejaz Qadri. In 2012 the Sunni Tehreek became a political party.
Another organisation with strong roots in Barelvi school is Minhajul Quran. It was founded by Muhammad Tahirul Qadri in Lahore, Pakistan in 1980. It claims to be a non-sectarian, non-political organisation that works in the areas of religious education, spiritual awareness, human rights, women empowerment and interfaith harmony. The organisation has global membership comprising Barelvi diaspora.
Although the Aligarh Movement was known as a reform movement focused on educating the Muslims of North India in modern sciences in the language of the colonial masters of British India, it was also a religious movement which never took off due to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s non-seminary career and the presence of many other contemporary Muslim religious movements which were already active in the Indo-Pakistan sub-continent. The movement’s founder, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, wrote an incomplete Tafseer of Quran (16 Juz and 13 Surahs) which was published in several parts in the 1880s. His ideas were seen by the traditionalist Sunni scholars as bordering apostasy. He denied the miracles of the prophets and said these were allegorical references. He claimed that Jesus did not die on the cross but was rescued by his companions after which he died a natural death. Sir Syed also claimed that prayers had no impact on the outcome of an event. While many Muslims benefited from his educational initiative of integrating western sciences with Islamic values through the establishment of the Aligarh Muslim University, his ideas for making Quran and Islam more rational and less traditionalist were not accepted by them. These radical ideas were rejected by all schools of Sunni and Shia Islam, even though there are many convent-educated Muslims who think like Sir Syed to apply an inquisitive and intellectual approach to understanding Islam.
The Tabligi Jamaat was founded in 1926 in Mewat, India, by Molana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhalvi with the sole purpose of teaching the ideology and traditions of Islam to the local Muslim community. It took him six years to plan and consolidate his work. In 1932 two Dawa missions were organised to visit Kandhla and Saharanpur to meet Muslims in local mosques and inform them about the fundamental concepts and practices of Islam. Since then, the Tabligi Jammat has grown to become one of the largest Sunni Dawa movements in Islam. It has retained its methodology of organising small Dawa mission to various places where Muslim communities live. Its recruitment method is simple. There is no formal membership nor any induction ceremony nor an oath of allegiance. Muslims who attend obligatory prayers in mosques and who agree to attend Tablighi Jamaat’s talks later become the participants of the Jamaat’s forthcoming Dawa missions and are given administrative responsibilities for the duration of the Dawa mission which lasts from a few hours to 3 days, a week, one month and finally four months. During their missionary tours, members of the Tabligi Jamaat focus on 6 points. These are: declaration of faith (Kalimah); Prayers (Salat); knowledge and remembrance of Allah (Ilm and Dhikr)’ respecting other Muslims (Ikram ul Muslimeen); sincerity for the pleasure of Allah (Ikhlas); and inviting others to the faith and propagation of Islam (Dawa and Tablig). The Tabligi Jamaat is primarily a Sunni movement and focuses only on prayers and other practices instead of engaging in any theological or jurisprudential discourse. It concentrates on Deobandi and Hanafi mosques for its missionary work but is open to all Sunni denominations.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded by an Egyptian scholar and thinker Hassan Al Banna in Egypt in the 1920s. In the beginning it was conceived as a religious revivalist movement that sought to return Egyptian society to the fundamentals of Islam that had been corrupted with the rapidly advancing western values under colonial administration. Muslim Brotherhood became a force in the 1970s and 1980s before it was reduced to an opposition political movement struggling against the anti-democratic rulers of Egypt. Its religious message never translated from the academic level to that of the masses.
The movement has roots in Indonesia’s struggle against colonialism which started in 1816 among the boarding school community of Indonesian Muslims. It was founded in 1926 by a consensus of Indonesian Muslims who subscribed to the Ahle Sunnah wal Jamaa sect in Sunni Islam. The organisation’s objectives are to become a trusted source of Islamic information that encourages religious attitudes that are just, moderate and respect diversity. Nadhatul Ulama has published two guidebooks, Qanun Asasi, meaning fundamental law, and Al-Itikad, meaning the belief. Its 90 million members follow these guidebooks in their religious thinking and acting in social, religious and political fields. In 2015, Nahdatul Ulama launched the Nusantara Movement in Indonesia to uphold the essence of local culture in Islam as distinct from other countries. The Nusantara Movement is about inclusivity and promoting tolerance among Indonesians.
The Gulen Movement, also known in Turkiye as Hizmet, meaning Service, was founded by a self-taught preacher, Mohammed Fethullah Gulen, who was born in Erzurum, Turkiye in 1938 during the era of Mustafa Kemal’s religious reforms. In 1966 when Fethullah Gulen was head of Kestanepazari Quran School in Izmir, he developed his idea for establishing a network of secular schools (not Madressas) to educate the youth and promote religious and social justice and interfaith peace. His idea took off and over a hundred schools were established in Turkiye. Thereafter his movement grew globally in the Turkish diaspora and more schools were opened outside Turkiye in Central Asia, China, Pakistan and the US.
The Gulen movement has roots in Turkish Islam which has always been tolerant to non-Muslim lifestyles. The Gulenists are liberal Sunni Muslims. They see Islam as a secular and tolerant religion that reject obscurantism and compartmentalising Islam to a fixed set of rules and traditions. Gulen does not support official Islam. In his view Islam’s experience in each Muslim country is different, therefore as long Turkish nationalist ideology retains its Islamic identity, he does not see the need to Islamise Turkiye based on the experience of other Islamic countries. In 1999 Gulen moved to Pennsylvania in the US and has been living there since. This was the time when Gulen was under investigation by Turkiye’s then secular government and Erdogan had not become Prime Minister. After the failed 2016 coup in Turkiye, Gulen was blamed by Erdogan for masterminding the coup and his organisation FETO was proscribed in Turkiye as a terrorist outfit.
The movement’s name in Turkish means Letters of Light. It was founded by a prominent Turkish religious scholar Bediuzzaman Said Nursi who was born in 1877 in eastern Turkiye. His writings include a commentary on the Quran and its relevance to the natural world. He wrote a Treatise on Resurrection and 32 other pieces which are published as Words. Another collection of 33 letters written to his students is published as Letters. Two other works are titled: Flashes and Rays. Together, these collections constitute Said Nuri’s interpretation of Islam in the modern world from the point of view of education. Said Nuri was committed to the idea of Turkiye establishing a single education system in which religious knowledge was integrated with western secular sciences. Toward this goal, he wrote a complete school curriculum, and in 1917 tried to establish a school called Mardassatul Zahra which did not materialise due to Turkiye’ involvement in the first world war.
Said Nuri argued that there was no clash of civilisations between the East and West and that there was no contradiction between religion and modernism. He believed that instead of monarchy, republicanism was closer to Islam’s consultative process. Said Nuri received criticism from traditionalists, as well as secularists. While one the one hand he was criticised for introducing elements of Turkish nationalism in Islam, he was seen arguing for overthrowing the secular order and replacing it with Sharia. Said Nursi passed away in 1960 leaving a small number of followers who have kept his ideas alive through electronic resources.
Hizbut Tahrir is a political Sunni religious movement which started from Jerusalem in the middle of last century. Under the leadership of its founder Taqiuddin Al Nabhani, Hizbut Tahrir gained popularity globally and succeeded in establishing branches of the organisation in many countries. Taqiuddin encouraged his members to travel extensively in Muslim territories to propagate his political ideology of revival of a world Islamic government and the return of the Caliphate. Hizbut Tahrir members are practicing Muslims who follow the Quranic commandment to invite others to the good, ask for what is right and forbid what is evil. Hizbut Tahrir members use Dawa through word of mouth, audio recordings, corner meetings, distribution of pamphlets and mosque congregations to prepare Muslims for the time when they will live in a world Islamic government which implements Sharia law and regulates matters between halal and haram. Hizbut Tahrir believes in the appointment of the Caliph through consultation and taking an oath of allegiance to listen and obey in return for the leader fulfilling the promise of governing according to the Quran and Sunnah and enforcing Dawa and Jihad as the means of promoting and protecting the Islamic State.
Hizbut Tahrir was the largest Islamic political movement until the rise of ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the Levant. Its world government ideology made many Muslim countries uncomfortable, as well as shocked liberal Muslims who saw it as a fanciful hardline extremist organisation. In many countries it was banned and declared a terrorist entity. In the last decade, Hizbut Tahrir lost many of its supporters and its future is uncertain.
Pervezi Islam refers to the radical ideas of Ghulam Ahmad Pervez who belonged to the educated sections of the 20th century Asian Muslims who were eager to embrace liberal ideas introduced by colonialism without abandoning Islam. Ghulam Ahmad Pervez studied Islam’s esoteric sects such as Sufism and was influenced by it. He concluded that Islam needed reformation to bring unity among different schools. He proposed achieving this by focusing on the interpretations of Quranic commandments but without relying on the Hadith because it was not the word of God and therefore subject to differences among various schools. Ghulam Ahmad himself was from the Hanafi subsect of Sunni school and had been an Imam Khateeb of his city Batala’s Jamia Masjid in 1921.
Pervezism initially captured the imagination of the educated class of Muslims in Pakistan after partition, as he himself was a member of its civil service. He elaborated his ideas in a magazine called Tulu-e-Islam but as he went into the details, he began to contradict established traditional Sunni beliefs to the extent that he lost even those Muslims who were initially attracted to his reform ideas. His suggestion to follow the Ataturk example of replacing Arabic with Urdu in obligatory five times prayers was initially welcomed by the then ruling class but not taken up after he was strongly criticised and rejected by the clerics. He maintained that anything that was practiced or believed by Muslims outside the holy Quran was a fabrication and not Islam. His rejection of the Hadith tradition earned him the wrath of scholars who put this down to his inability to interpret the Arabic texts. In retaliation Pervez asserted that Mullahs had hijacked the faith. In 1970 Pervez’s books were banned in the Arab states, including Saudi Arabia. Ghulam Ahmad Pervez gradually began to lose steam, as well as those who found his ideas practical. With his death in 1985, his reform movement also ended, although there is a small number of Muslims who keep reviving his ideas in religious debates from time to time.
Part II: Shia Islam
The followers of Shia Islam are called Shias or Ahle-Tashee. They believe that during the period of the first three caliphs after the demise of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, scant regard was paid to the Prophet’s Hadith and sunnah. A hierarchical society was formed in which Arab Muslims enjoyed rank and respect over the non-Arab Muslims. Tribal loyalties returned and Muhajirs secured a higher status over the Ansaars. The Quraish began to assert their ascendency over the family members of the Prophet. These differences led to the assassination of the third Caliph, Uthman and the battle of Jamal in 36 AH in which on one side was Ayesha, the spouse of the Prophet, and on the other side was Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. A year later in 37 AH the battle of Siffeen again brought the first-generation Muslims fighting against each other. Both battles resulted in 70,000 casualties. When Ali succeeded Othman as the fourth Caliph, he reversed the policies of his predecessors, introduced egalitarianism and brought equality between the Mohajirs and Ansars, as well as between the ordinary people and people with titles and family status. He also equalled the pensions and state subsidy of all recipients, irrespective of status.
These differences eventually led to the foundation of Shia Islam which places great emphasis on the sanctity of the House of the Prophet and its members and draws its religious interpretation from those Ahadith which it regards authentic and supplementing the Quran. The martyrdom of Ali’s second son and Prophet’s grandson Hussain in the battle of Karbala in 61 AH at the hands of Yazid’s soldiers who was the son of the 5th Caliph Muawiya and the leader of the opposite side in the battle of Siffeen when he was still Governor, sealed the division between the Ahl Sunnah wal Jamaat and the Ahle Tashee which continues to this day.
There were also rifts in Shia Islam in the 1st and 2nd century AH. It got divided into three main schools, Jafriya school (also known as Asna Ashari or Twelvers), Zaydiya school and Ismailiya school, and several other sub sects that resulted from the differences on the continuation of Imams after Imam Jafar al Sadiq. The Kaysaniya believed in the Imamate of Muhammad al-Hanafiya. The Nawusiya believed in the occultation of Imam Jafar al Sadiq and in his being the Mahdi. The Fathiya believed in the Imamate of Abd Allah ibn Aftah, son of Imam Jafar al Sadiq. The Samtiya believed in the Imamate of Muhammad Dibaj, another son of Imam Jafar al Sadiq. The Tafiya believed that Imam Jafar al Sadiq entrusted the Imamate to Musa ibn Taffi. The Aqmasiya believed that Imam Jafar al Sadiq entrusted the Imamate to Musa ibn Umran al-Aqmas. The Yarmaiya believed that Imam Jafar al Sadiq entrusted the Imamate to Yarma ibn Musa. The Tamimiya believed that Imam Jafar al Sadiq entrusted the Imamate to ‘Abd Allah ibn Sad at-Tamimi. The Judiya believed that Imam Jafar al Sadiq entrusted the Imamate to a person named Abu Judah. The Yaqubiya rejected the Imamate of Musa ibn Jafar, saying that Imamate could be entrusted to persons other than the sons of Imam Jafar al Sadiq. Their leading person was named Abu Yaqub. The Mamtura suspended their judgment concerning Imam Musa al-Kazim because they were not sure if the Imam had really passed away. The Waqifiya believed that Imam Musa al-Kazim did not die and that he shall remain alive till the Day of Resurrection.
Apart from the major difference on Caliphate and Imamete, there are slight differences between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam on other aspects of religion. The Shia school follows the jurisprudence of Imam Jafar al Sadiq. The Sunni school follows the jurisprudence of four Sunni Imams. In the Shia school, short term permanent marriages are permissible for their followers who have to travel away from their households on religious expeditions or work for longer periods. This is called Muta. It is performed in the same way as Nikah but it differs from regular marriage due to its specific conditions, as well as an agreed fixed term. This facility is not available in Sunni Islam. In Shia Islam the obligatory five times prayers are performed as a set of three daily prayers; the pre-dawn prayer, the two day-time prayers (Zuhrain), and two night-time prayers (Maghrebain). The Shia fasting period is also about 20 minutes longer than the Sunni period. Shia calculation of Zakat also differs from the Sunni method. The Shia and Sunni calendars of key religious dates and festivals, obligatory and non-obligatory prayers and religious meetings, marriage and funeral rituals and charitable activities are both similar, as well as different.
The major writers of the Quranic exegesis (Tafseer) in the Shia school are: Al-Tabrisi, Ibrahim Qumi, Al-Tusi, Abdur Rahman Tabatabai, Tantawi Juhairi, Sayyid Qutb, Faiz Al-Kashani, Ibn Ashur, Shahabuddin Al-Alusi, Al-Zamakshari, Maturidi, Ibn Atiya Andalusi, Hussaini Al-Bahrani, Firat Al-Kufi, Zaid bin Ali, Al-Aaqam, Al-Qumi Nishapuri, Al-Abidi, Najmuddin Asadi, Mutaleheen Sheerazi and Al-Raazi, Said Hawaai, Muhammad Shirawi.
Followers of this group believed that the right successor to Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, should have been Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the fourth Caliph. They denied the caliphate of the first three Caliphs, Abubakar, Umar and Uthman and made accusations against many companions of the Prophet, including Ayesha, the spouse of the Prophet and daughter of Abubakar for opposing Ali’s succession to the Prophet. They are an offshoot of Al-Khawarij but are short of being expelled from Islam because they have not accused Ali of compromising his faith, who supported the caliphate of his three predecessors.
The Twelver Shias do not believe in the system of caliphate. Instead, they believe that Allah has appointed the Imams, and that the Prophet propagated this matter to the people on divine command. They claim that in the early years of the Imamete after the demise of the Prophet, the family of the Prophet and their supporters did not oppose the early Caliphs in order to maintain the unity of the Ummah, but after Imam Jafar al Sadiq, their policy of Taqiya was suspended and they openly began to assert that Imamete was a divine method of selection of Muslim leadership which was confirmed by the Prophet. Their first Imam is Ali, the cousin and husband of Prophet’s daughter Fatima.
The Twelvers believe that there are twelve Imams. The 12th Imam, whose name is Mahdi has gone into occultation, but he is living in the world and will appear at the time of Dajjal. The Twelvers are the majority group in the Shia school. They take their sources from the Quran, its Tafaseer, Prophet’s Sunnah and the narration of his truthful companions, other Islamic sciences explained by the Prophet and twelve Imams as recorded in books.
The Twelvers are the majority group in the Shia School. In their theology, religious hierarchy flows down from the first Imam to the 12th Imam. Until his return, their adherents are expected to take guidance from a Marje, meaning a person who could be consulted on religious matters. The Twelvers commemorate the martyrdom of Hussain with symbols of the battlefield of Karbala and perform self-flagellation on 10 Muharram, like the Catholics commemorating the mass of the Christ on Good Friday to personally feel the pain of the epic tragedy.
The Twelvers derive their political and religious authority from the designated Imams, who are direct descendants of the Prophet, with the sole exception of Ali who was from the Prophets’ family but was not his direct descendent. The position of the Imam is a divine order which was confirmed by the Prophet. The 1st Imam of the Twelvers is Imam Ali. The 6th Imam is Imam Musa Kazim. The 12th Imam is Imam Mohammad ibn Ismail Al Mahdi who went into occultation in 874 AH. He will make himself known to the Ummah at the same time of the appearance of Dajjal close to the end of time. During his absence, the religious authority is exercised by a clergy which follows an organised hierarchical structure of scholars professionally qualified and trained to lead the community. The major seminaries of Shiite theology are in Qum, Isfahan and Mashad in Iran and in Najaf and Karbala in Iraq.
Known as the Zaidiya school, it is a branch of Alh-e-Tashee. After the death of the 4th Imam Ali ibn Hussain in 713 AH, the Zaidi Shias considered Zayd ibn Ali as their 5th Imam rather than the older brother Mohammad Al-Baqir. The Zaidiya were also divided into three sub-sects on the question of succession. The Jarudiya believed that after the Prophet, Ali was the one worthy of the caliphate, but the Prophet introduced him to the people for the caliphate only by descriptions and not by name and that due to this ambiguity, the people chose Abu Bakr as the first Caliph and by doing so, they became infidels. The Sulaymaniya believed that Imamete is determined through consultation and that choosing an Imam (mafdhul) while a more deserving person for this office is present (afdhal) is permissible. They justified the legitimacy of the caliphate of Abu Bakr and Umar but said that that the Ummah erred by not choosing Ali who was the most deserving person for the Imamete. However, by making this choice they did not commit transgression (fisq). The Sulaymaniya declared Uthman as an infidel (kafir). The other sub-sect Batriya differed with the Sulaymaniya by suspending their judgment concerning Uthman.
The Zaidiya did not believe in the divine appointment of Imams. They believed that after Imam Ali whoever from the progeny of Ali and Fatima revolted with the sword seeking the truth could become the Imam of Muslims. In jurisprudence, the Zaidiya followed Imam Abu Hanifa and in that sense, they were a step closer to the Ahle Sunnah, like the Barelvis who, despite belonging to the Sunni school, are a step closer to Ahl Tashee in their reverence of the holy men and their belief in the intercession of the Prophet for salvation.
The Seveners are popularly known as Ismailiya. They followed the line of succession in Shia Islam up to the 6th Imam, Jafar al Sadiq, but after his death they separated from Shia Islam and took his elder son Ismail as their 7th Imam instead of following the Twelvers who accepted Imam Jafar al Sadiq’s younger son Musa Kazim as their 7th Imam. Yet there were differences among the Ismailiya on the Imamete after Jafar al Sadiq. One group believed the Imam after Imam Jafar al Sadiq was Ismail. He did not die and is alive in occultation and is the promised Mahdi. The second group called Sabaiya or the seveners, believed that Ismail died, and the Imamate transferred to his son, Muhammad ibn Ismail, who was the 7th and last Ismailiya Imam who went into occultation and shall appear toward the end of time to restore justice and equity. The third group, like the second group believed in the Imamate of Muhammad ibn Ismail with the difference that it said Muhammad ibn Ismail died and the Imamete passed on to his offspring. It is this group that became popular and continued with the tradition of Hazir Imams in every era until the coming of Qiyama.
After the death of the 18th Imam, Muhammad Mustansir Billah who was also the 8th Fatmid ruler in 1094 AH, the Ismailiya sect was divided into two major branches: Nizari Ismailiya and Bohras. The Nizari Ismailiya are popularly known as Aga Khanis after the family name of their present Imam. They followed Mustansir Billah’s son Nizar Al-Mustafa as their 19th Imam and have continued to have a Hazir Imam to this day.
Under the Fatimid rulers of Egypt from 10 to 12 centuries AH, the Ismailiya rose to become the largest community in Shia Islam after the Twelvers. The Ismailiya believe in the finality of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and in the religious authority of their Imams. According to their belief, the Quran has two meanings, a literal meaning (Zahir) and a deeper esoteric meaning (Batin), and their Hazir Imam has the authority to interpret the Quran according to the requirement of his time but without any departure from the fundamental tenets of Ismailiya theology.
Numbers have religious significance in Ismailiya thought. Number seven is an important number; such as seven tents of Islam (salat, fasting, haj, zakat, jihad, tahara and shahada), seven heavens, seven imams, seven days of the week etc.
The word Qiyama has a specific meaning in Ismailiya theology. It represents the final stage of the six periods, each of which are interspersed by seven Imams who preach the Sharia to their respective communities. But at the end of the sixth period and the emergence of Qiyama, the 7th Imam would abrogate the laws of the previous periods and introduce the original religion of Adam as practiced by him and the angels in the heaven. This state of religion is the glorification of Allah and recognising His unity.
After the death of Imam Mohammad bin Ismail in the 8th century AH, the Ismailiya sect concentrated on the deeper esoteric meaning of Islam. This required following the outward revelation and rituals of Islam or Deen (the Zahir) to understand the inner revelation of Imaan or Tawhid (the Batin) both of which are a continuum and inseparable. The teachings of their Hazir Imam of the time supplement but not supersede the Sharia of Prophet Muhammad.
The Ismailiya use the method of Taweel to allegorically interpret the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him. An example of Taweel method is the interpretation of Surah Al-Hadeed verse 13 which translates as: “On that Day hypocrite men and women will beg the believers, “Wait for us so that we may have some of your light.” It will be said ˹mockingly˺, “Go back ˹to the world˺ and seek a light ˹there˺!” Then a ˹separating˺ wall with a gate will be erected between them. On the inside will be grace and, on the outside, will be torment. (57:13). In the Taweel method the gate in the verse means Ali, and the separating wall means Sharia. The inside of the wall through the gate is Imam or Tawhid. The outside the Sharia is torment or absence of salvation. This Taweel is also supported by a Hadith of the prophet in which he said: “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate”. This Hadith is considered authentic by the Shia school but week by the Sunni school. The Sunni school interprets the “separating wall” as Al-Araaf (the barrier) which is mentioned in Surah Al-Aaraaf verses 46-49.
Having gone through a long history of opposition to their Taweel method which introduced changes in their understanding of the Quran and worship rituals, the Ismailiya do not discuss their theology publicly. Their departure from the Shia school came nine centuries ago with the advent of Qiyama when one of their Imams freed his followers from the burden of observing the rules of Sharia and asked them to rise to spiritual immortality. This led Ismailiya to fundamentally change the way they observe the five tents of Islam in performing obligatory prayers, keeping the Ramadan fasts and performing pilgrimage to Makkah. Their fundamental belief in Tahara (purity) and Shahada (being witness to the omnipresence of God and the prophethood of Muhammad) exempts them from calling the Azan and making ablution before offering prayers. They also call their payer Dua which is performed in a seated position which includes Sajda but not Ruku or Qiyam. The Ismailiya adhere to the Jafari school and other schools of close affinity but on all matters of religion they take guidance from the Hazir Imam of the time. They also accept the principle of Tasawwuf for personal search and balance between the Zahir and the Batin, which preoccupies their theology. They have their own esoteric interpretation of the Quran through Taweel and an organised system of clergy, alms giving and worship.
The Ismailiya call themselves Ismaili Shias, but the Shia school does not accept them as a sect within the Shia theology because of their denial of occultation of Imam Mahdi.
The Bohris, or Tayyibis as they were earlier known, are an off shoot of the Ismailiya sect. They follow the line of Ismailiya imams until the 18th Imam Mustansir Billah, but they differ from the Ismailiya on the 19th Imam. Instead of following Nizar Al-Mustafa, the elder son as their Imam, they follow the younger son Mustaa’li, as their 19th Imam. The 21st Imam of the Bohris was Abdullah ibn Aamir who went into occultation in 1230 AH. After their 21st Imam, the Bohri community was led by a Daa’i al Mutlaq meaning absolute missionary of his time. The Daa’i represents the concealed Imam. Over a period, the Bohri sect got divided into several branches each of which placed their allegiance to a different Daa’i of his time. The Daudi Bohras constitute the largest community of the Bohris. Other brances are Sulaymani Bohras, Alavi Bohras, Hebtiah Bohras, Atbai Malik Bohras and Progressive Bohras. Collectively, they are all Bohri Shias.
Bohris are usually a closed group who do not openly preach their Tariqa but they welcome Ismailiya to their fold if they are prepared to take allegiance to their 19th Imam Mustaa’li.
Part III: Sufi Islam
Sufi Islam began form the philosophical interpretations of Muslim thinkers during the Abbasid period, as well as following the expansion of Islam in Greek and Byzantine territories. Instead of indulging in reinterpreting Islam through logic and philosophy, Sufism sought a closer personal relationship of the individual with God in simplest terms by focusing on the inner self and engaging in the glorification of God though mind and body. Remembering God through Dhikr included reciting the Quran, chanting the various names of Allah and performing Sema, physical movements of the body to connect to the celestial movements in the universe. The outcome of such activity placed a person in a state of ecstatic abandonment and lifted him to discover the mysteries of the unknown.
In Sufi Islam, the central focus is on Vilaya or friendship with God, who is omniscient and omnipotent, the creator of all that exists whether seen or unseen. A person who attains the status of Vali becomes a saint. Even after a Vali’s death, his grave becomes a symbol of connecting the mortal physical world with the eternal spiritual world. As Sufism grew, the tombs of the Valis became shrines and devotees developed a series of rituals around the Vali’s tomb, including holding annual Urs (festivals) and narrating the extraordinary events of the Vali’s life and his closeness to the spiritual world. For the devotees, visiting a Vali’s tomb not only fulfilled their human need to have a sense of belonging to the wider community of like-minded folks and networking with them, but it also became a point of establishing a connection between their inner self and God.
Due to its strong public appeal Sufism grew from a minority school in the beginning to become one of the widespread traditions in Islam inviting new recruits and supporters along the way, as well as picking up the wrath of traditionalists who denounced it as a departure from the established Sunni and Shia schools. The descendants of the Awlia (plural of Valis) used their ancestor’s reputation and spiritual capital to increase their economic and social power and ensure continuity of the mystical tradition. All along the Muslim lands from Arabia to Central Asia and the current and former Ottoman territories, groups were formed along tribal and ethnic lines to establish Sufi orders in different regions to promote the teachings of popular Sufi orders.
Each Sufi order developed a different devotional way which was led by a religious scholar who was learned in the Quran and Hadith to ensure that the order remained rooted in Islam. The Sufis have many streams (Silsilas or Tareeqas) which are named after various teachers. In Turkiye the most well know Sufi traditions are those of Ibn Al Arabi and Mevlana Rum. In other Turkic regions and former Ottoman territories in Central Asia and the Middle east, as well as in Southwest Asia, the Sufi tradition is extraordinarily strong. The various Sufi orders comprise, among others, Suharwardiya, Tijani, Chistiya which originated in Herat, Afghanistan, Qadiriya which originated in Baghdad, Qadiriya-Budshishiyya which originated in Morocco, Khatmiya, Khaniqahi, Idrissiya which originated in Hadramawt, Yemen, Naqshbandiya which originated in Central Asia, Subud which originated in Indoenesia, Nimatullahi which originated in Iran, and Rene Guenon Sufi movement which originated in France.
The Sufis place great emphasis on the glorification of Allah by tongue and by heart (Zikr) which is a means to linking the earthy self to the divine being and seeking spiritual nourishment. Sufis use parables from the lives of saints (Hikayaat) to highlight the frailty of human nature but at the same time its capacity to perform miracles and reach spiritual heights through piety and submission to God. They also illustrate the oneness of nature and the place of human consciousness in the universe. Sufis do not always practice the etiquettes of worship ostensibly and instead concentrate more on the discipline of the inner self. For this reason, Salafis call them deviants.
Sufi Islam follows the interpretation of Sunni jurisprudence, but it is also open to all sects of Islam. Modern Sufism with an international network of Sufis, masters and devotees is stronger today compared to the past where it was confined to geographical boundaries of different Tareeqas and Dervish’s Inns. Their annual gatherings with their traditional ways of approaching religious doctrines have resulted in large scale conversions to Islam. The Sufi school provides an Islamic religious landscape and key for obtaining an accurate picture of the diversity of Islam comprising different trends, sects and organisations.
The major writers of the Quranic exegesis (Tafseer) in the Sufi school are: Al-Sulami, Al-Qashir, Ibn Arabi, Ismail Haqi, Ibn Ajaiba, Al-Jeelani, Ahmad bin Umar, Makki bin Abu Talib.
The Alawi sect was founded by Imam Mohammad ibn Nusayr al Bakri al Numeiri in Iraq in the 9th century whom the Twelvers considered an imposter. Followers of the Alawi faith are found in Syria and Lebanon. It combines many features of Abrahamic religions, as well as some elements of Zoroastrian faith. They do not believe in halal or haram or laws of Islamic inheritance. Due to their philosophical approach to theology, they resemble the Sufis. In addition to belief in the Quran and the five pillars of Islam, the Alawis believe in the trinity of Allah, Mohammad, and Ali. To the Alawis Ali as the human form of God on earth. The divinity of Ali means he is the perfect example of a human and a gate to divine knowledge. The Alawis pray in private houses, but they do not pray five-times a day. They also do not perform Haj. Alawis fast in Ramadan and observe the fast on speech. The Alawis of Syria are divided in two groups, Khassa meaning the initiated ones and Aamma meaning the laity. Alawis observe the Eid Al Ghadeer on 18 Dul Haj, the day when the Prophet approved Ali as his successor.
The Alawis include Khizr, Socrates and Plato in their prophets. They also believe in the cycle of transmigration of souls from human to animal (for bad souls) and to perfect humans (for good souls). Due to their historic persecution, they have developed the principle of Taqiya to prevent their genocide. Imam Ibn Teymiyah called the Alawis non-Muslims, as did orthodox Shias, but the Twelvers do not consider them outside Islam.
The annual festival of Hidirellez marking the arrival of spring is observed in Turkiye on 6 May every year. It is believed that on this day prophets Khizr and Ilyas met on earth. People gather in different parts of the country to celebrate the day with a bonfire, feasting on lamb meat and dancing. They also write down their wishes on a piece of paper and tie it to a rose branch in the belief that these will come true. The event has pagan roots and is also celebrated in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Bulgaria, Crimea and the Balkans and has lost its religious significance.
The Alevis are the Turkic branch of Arab Alawis but they slightly differ from them in religious beliefs and practices. Alevis are concentrated in the Southeast regions of Turkiye and are not Arabs. They do not believe in the transmigration of souls. They are divided into two groups, the Ocaks and Talips. The Ocaks are on a higher spiritual level than the Talips. Alevis do not pray five times a day nor perform Haj, nor observe fasting during the month of Ramadan but they fast during the ten days of Muharram. They call their prayer halls Cem Evi. Their prayers are open to both men and women and are presided over by a religious elder called Dede. At the end of the congregation, the devotees perform a dance which is called Semah, accompanied by a traditional instrument called the Saz. The Alevis do not believe in Zakat, but they have a system of voluntary collections to help the poor. Alevism allows the consumption of pork and alcohol.
At the centre of their worship is the troika of Allah, Mohammad and Ali. They also believe in the twelve Imams and Pirs who trace their lineage to the prophet. They observe the nights of mourning in Muharram and accept the doctrine of Taveel and Tabarra espoused in the Shia school. The Alevis follow the custom of the brotherhood of the affiliate (Musahip) and are loyal to their traditions and customs. They use a square house for their religious ceremonies. Alevism is based on lineage. Those whose ancestors are not Alevi cannot become Alevis.
The Bektashi order takes its name from the Sufi scholar Haji Bektash Veli who was born in Khorasan, Iran but moved to Anatolia where he studied Sufism and lived in the 13th century. Although they started as a Sufi Sunni order, they adopted the theology of the Shia school, including veneration to Ali and the twelve Imams. Haji Bektash introduced his teachings to the people living in the Christian areas of the Balkans during the reign of Ottoman Sultans. When Bektashi order was banned in Turkiye in 1826 it became a secret sect. When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk banned all sects in 1925, Bektashis joined Alevis. They also moved from Turkiye and set up their headquarter in Tirana, Albania in 1929. However, their religious freedoms were not fully restored in East Europe until 1990.
The Bektashi order permits the use of alcohol and does not force its followers to observe segregation between men and women, nor does it require Bektashi women to wear hijab. Their worship places are called Tekke. These worship places have domes but not minarets. The Bektash bury their religious elders (Babas) in the graveyard attached to the Tekke. The spiritual head of the Order is given the title of Dedebaba. The Bektashis do not have a sacred text to follow but rely on the writings of Haji Bektash, in particular his Velayetnaame, which contains the rituals and traditions of Bektashism. The Order emphasises on peace, love and tolerance.
Due to its liberal approach, the Bektashi order was embraced by the Jannissary corps of the Ottoman empire and by the local population in Albania and other parts of Turkiye where Islam had replaced Christianity and people were confused as to which religion they should follow.
It is easy to become a Bektashi by applying to the Derwish Lodge and confess at the induction ceremony. Bektashis recognise only Haji Bektash as their Pir. Although their beliefs and traditions are similar to the Alevis, they cannot convert into Alevi sect.
The Kizilbash meaning ‘red head people’ made up a militant group of seven tribes from Anatolia, Iranian Azerbaijan, Crimea, Syria and the caucuses who were instrumental in the establishment of Safavid dynasty in the 15th CE. They were initially Sunnis but they became followers of Shaykh Hayder of the Safavid Order and converted to Twelvers. The Kizilbash followed a political and religious ideology which included beliefs form Mutazila and Ismailiya theology, including belief in the Batiniya, the inner meaning. They subsequently joined the Alevi and Bektashi orders. The Shia school called them Ghulat, meaning transgressors.
The issue of whether Alevism, Bektashism and Kizilbash Bektashi-Alevism are religions independent from Islam or they are Sufi sects connected to Islam has been debatable among scholars. Turkish society accepts them as Sufi sects which preserve Turkish identity and nationalism and reflect the diversity of Turkiye in the beliefs, traditions and customs of people. They have seen that the bans of 1826 and 1925 only pushed these sects into becoming secret orders, even though their popularity receded into small pockets. Turkiye does not want these sects to close their doors to mainstream Islam and engage with it.
In Turkiye Sufism has found a permanent home after Islam was introduced to the Turkoman people in Anatolia many centuries ago. It was reinforced by the Mamluk, Safavid and the Ottomans. In the early years, Islam was spread by Dervish sheikhs who also fulfilled many social, economic and cultural roles in addition to teaching religion to the people. The Ottoman rulers found these Dervish useful and gave them endowments to support their livelihood. But it also resulted in many diverse religious beliefs establishing their stronghold with the local populations. While the central lands of Islam benefited from the Arab and Iranian religious traditions, the nomadic tradition and lack of government access to far-flung areas allowed other esoteric ideas and practices to grow and consolidate in distinct Sufi sects. This resulted in Sufi Islam generally following Sunni and Shia traditions but also introducing pantheist beliefs, condemned practices and a refusal to obey some religious orders. Today, Sunni Hanafi school occupies a major place in Turkiye’s Sufi Islam and the ideas of Ibn Arabi, Mevlana Rum and Yunus Emre have contributed to its strong ideological foundation.
Part IV: Ibadi Islam
Ibadi Islam has its origin in the civil disorders (fitan) that took place in the Islamic state that succeeded the Prophet. The first fitna was a civil war that followed the murder of the third Caliph Utman by Egyptian rebels which resulted in the battle of Jamal in 36 AH in Basra, Iraq, between the forces of the fourth Caliph Ali against those of Prophet’s wife Aisha, and Talha and Zubair. The rebels were subdued but they maintained the position that Ali should have given priority to apprehending the murderers of Uthman and brought them to justice. The second fitna was the battle of Siffeen in 37 AH which was fought between the forces of Ali and the Governor of Syria, Muawiya who had refused to acknowledge the caliphate of Ali until such time Uthman’s murderers had been caught and punished. These battles divided the Quraish into two groups, namely supporters of Banu Hashim and Ali on the one hand, and supporters of Banu Umayyah and Muawiya on the other hand. Thes fitn had deeper ramifications for the later generations of Muslims.
The Ibadis first started as an offshoot of Al Khawarij who were unhappy with Ali’s agreement to arbitration on the third Calip’s assassination and considered it a departure from Islamic law. But in the two battles that followed they took a position of Braa meaning disassociation or withholding friendship rather than outright hostility with either side. Their position on the fitna was “no judgement but God’s”. The unfolding crisis led to Ibadis leaving Kufa and Basra and going to Iraq, Oman, Yemen, North Africa, Zanzibar and Swahili speaking belt in East Africa. Ibadism gradually became a separate sect in Islam, with emphasis on a just ruler.
The first theologian of Ibadism was Abd Allah bin Ibad al Murra al Tamimi. The main founder of Ibadism was, however, his successor Jabir bin Zayd al Azdi. Ibadi teachings embrace both Sunni and Shia traditions and accommodate various Muslim groups. They are also tolerant toward Christians and Jews. Ibadis believe that it is not necessary for the ruler of Muslims to belong to the Quraish tribe of Arabia or belong to the family of the Prophet. They believe it is desirable nut not necessary for the Muslim Ummah to have one single ruler. If such a leader is not available on merit, the Muslim community should rule themselves. Ibadis believe that the first four Caliphs after the Prophet were just rulers.
On theology Ibadis adopt the position of the Mutaliza with clear exceptions. They believe that Quran is a creation of God and not an attribute of His manifestation. They reject literal interpretation of all anthropomorphic descriptions of God. They deny the possibility of any human seeing God in this life and in the hereafter. They also reject the existence of external attributes of God that are distinct from His essence. Ibadis reject the intercession of the Prophet on behalf of grave sinners for rescue from hellfire which is eternal. Ibadis do not take an intermediate position between Imaan and Kufr but have a position on two types of Kufr, one for the monotheists who commit grave sins and are ungrateful to God, and another position for the polytheists who associate partners with God. Ibadis share the philosophy of pre-destination with the Al-Ashaari, that God is the creator of all human acts and is omniscient and omnipotent.
Ibadis believe that only Ibadi Muslims will enter paradise. A person who is not Ibadi Muslim will enter hellfire where he will stay forever, no matter how kind, pious and good person he is. However, contemporary Ibadi scholars downplay this belief and assert that it is a matter for God to decide on the day of Judgement. They treat non Ibadi Muslims with courtesy and honour and call them Ahlul Qibla and allow them to offer congregational prayers in their mosques. This moderation may be the result of their exposure to several Islamic movements and in particular Shaafi faith to which they were exposed in Zanzibar and other parts of Africa.
Ibadis place great emphasis on justice and a just Muslim ruler. The believe that Sharia rule is the only way for government legitimacy. For several centuries Ibadis did not pray Friday prayers because they considered that the Islamic ruler of the time for whom a special Dua was made a part of the Friday sermon, was not a just ruler. In Ibadi madhab, hostile action is reserved only for an unjust ruler who fails to mend his corrupt ways or refuses to relinquish power. Ibadis also make a distinction between Kufr-e-Ne’ma and Kufr-e-Shirk. The first type of Kufr is associated with a Muslim who commits a major sin and does not repent. Unlike the Al-Khawarij, they do not consider such a Kafir an apostate and deserving of death penalty. For them, such Kafir are ungrateful monotheists who are in denial of the Ne’ma or kindness and blessings of God, who merits worship without associating any partners with Him. On the other hand, non-Muslims are regarded as Kafir who commit Kufr-e-Shirk by associating partners with God. Ibadi laws allow certain dealings with a non-Ibadi Muslim which it does not allow with a polytheist, such as contracting marriage, eating their slaughtered animals, exchanging greetings, accepting witness statements, offering the obligatory five times prayers and attending funeral prayers,
In prayers, Ibadis pray like Shias and Malikees with dropping their hands down on sides when standing in Qiyam. However, in general Ibadism is closer to Sunni rituals and traditions. They do not say Ameen loudly after Fateha in the loudly recited prayers. They also do not recite the Qunut in the pre-dawn prayer. They believe that Friday prayers should be held in large congregations in cities where justice prevails. In the Ibadi school, the ruler is choses by the elders of the community, but he can also be deposed if he is a tyrannical leader.
The major writers of the Quranic exegesis (Tafseer) in the Ibadi school are: Jabir bin Zayd, Abd Al-Raman bin Rustam, Yusuf Atfayish, Al-Khalili, Abdu Wahhab, Houd bin Muhakkam, Abu Awari, Abu Yakub Yusuf, Ibrahim Bahman, Said bin Ahmad Al-Kindi, Muhammad bin Sulayman Adrisu.
Part V: Non Conformist Islam
This sect was active around 40 AH. They initially supported Ali ibn Abi Talib but became an extremist group following the murder of the third Caliph Uthman which resulted in the division of the Muslim community into two camps. Al-Khawarij claimed that Ali should not have agreed to arbitration between himself and Muawiyah who was the leader of the Banu Umayyah clan of Makkah in the battle of Siffeen. They also believed on the excommunication of Muslims on major sins and called them infidels and polytheists, deserving the death penalty. Al-Khawarij accused Ali and his followers of disregarding the injunctions of Islamic justice and becoming apostates. They also denounced all those involved in the arbitration in Siffeen as unbelievers. They were expelled from Islam because of their extreme views and violent ideology.
The sect was named after its founder Hassan Sabbah who was one of the most influential Dai’s (missionaries) of the Ismailiya sect. His success resulted in Hassan Sabbah raising a force of Hashasheen and spreading terror in areas where Ismailiya faith was not observed. He took over the citadel of Alamut from its Christian king and turned Alamut into an outpost of Fatmid rule within the Abbasid empire. He devised a way to murder and plunder non-Ismailiya scholars and personalities through the ruthless Hashasheen. After the imprisonment of the 19th Ismailiya Imam Nizar by his younger brother Mustaali, Hassan Sabbah gave refuge to his son Ali Al Hadi. When Imam Hassan II became the Sabbai Imam, he announced the Qiyama, starting a new era, in which the spiritual meaning of the religion could be practiced openly without following the Sharia. He prayed with his back to Makkah and ordered his followers to break their Ramadan fast with a feast at noon. Alamut was destroyed in 1256 AH. After the fall of the Fatimid Empire, the Sabbais dispersed, and their sect became extinct.
The Gharabiyah were extremist Rafidahs who believed that Allah sent arch angel Jibraeel to Ali with the divine revelation, but Jibraeel made an error of judgement and instead gave the revelation to Muhammad who resembled Ali in physical features. The Gharabiyah were denounced by the Shias as non-Muslims.
The Qarmata emerged toward the end of 3rd century AH when the Islamic Ummah suffered division and fragmentation. They were an offshoot of Ismailiya sect. Their supporters came from social groups that grew up in the desert, practiced a Bedouin lifestyle, and were unhappy with the political leaders whom they considered corrupt and deviants. The Qarmata initially started from Kufa but for two centuries they were able to expand their influence over Syria, Khorasan, Multan, Sindh and Bahrain. Their founder, Hamdan Ashasb Qaramat combined theology with politics and claimed that the central government should be elected from the opposition and from the family of the Prophet. They rejected the customs of the society and demanded strict adherence to their own revolutionary norms by their followers. Although the sect was religiously motivated to bring justice and truth and eliminate the privileged classes, it was characterised by conservatism, cultural backwardness, bigotry, intolerance, scant regard for fundamental freedoms of individuals and exclusivity. In 312 AH the Qarmata gathered around Abul Fadl at Isfahan and claimed him as their Mahdi and rampaged across the Middle East which culminated with a violent attack on the Kaaba and taking away the sacred black stone (Hajr-e-Aswad) to Bahrain under their leader Abu Tahir Sulaiman ibn Hasan Jannabi. Later, they changed their Qibla from the Kaaba in Makkah to fire, which is a Zoroastrian symbol of God. The sacred stone was returned by the Qarmatians 23 years later. The Qarmata were eventually defeated by the Abbasids. They were denounced by the Shia school as non-Muslims.
Followers of the Druze sect are concentrated in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. The Druse are an extreme off shoot of Ismailiya sect. They broke up in the early 11th century under the leadership of Hamza Ibn Ali ibn Ahmad. The Druze were patronised and actively supported in Egypt by the 6th Fatimid Caliph, Abu Ali Al Mansoor, better known by his title as Hakim bi Amr Allah. Hakim was also the 16th Ismailiya Imam. It is said that Hamza exploited the weakness of the Fatmid Caliph to be recognised as the awaited Mahdi. Hamza preached that he was not only divine but the Lord Himself on earth. The Druze believed that Hamza had no father and no son and neither ate nor drank because of his divine character.
The Druze also considered Imam Ismail bin Jafar as a prophet. In 1035 AH Hakim died in mysterious circumstances at the age of 36. However, the Druze claimed that he had disappeared and his disappearance was a punishment from God for the sins of those who disobeyed his command and refused to join Din Al Towheed. The religious beliefs of the Druze gradually began to turn away from Islam. They stopped observing obligatory prayers, fasting in Ramdan or performing the annual pilgrimage to Makkah. In addition to the Quran, the Druze also believe in the Old and New Testaments and made use of Taweel for allegorical interpretation of biblical parables and texts. According to Druze teachings, anyone who did not believe in the manifestation of the spirit of God in the body of Hadi (Towheed) whether Muslim or non-Muslim should pay Jazya, or the Dhimmi tax.
The Druze believe that on death, the sole of the departed Druze person is reincarnated in a living Druze corpus, and this will continue till the end of time when all souls will be reunited with the spirit of God. They believe in five cosmic virtues represented by a five-point coloured star. In this cosmic symbol, the green colour represents intelligence or reason, the red colour represents the soul, the yellow colour represents the world, the blue colour represents a binding precedent in law, and the white colour represents immanence of God as knowable, perceivable and someone who could be experienced.
According to the Druze belief, these five virtues took the shape of five spirits which were reincarnated on earth in different eras as prophets and philosophers. The Druze belief in good and evil is illustrated by these five virtues. Together with their opposites these take the shape of good and bad people to guide humanity to the true path to God or lead them away to the path of darkness.
The Druze do not allow conversion. They say the door of Tawhid was closed in 434 AH at the time of their Imam Baha al Din who wanted to protect Druze law and its followers from deviation. The Druze support this concept with the theory of reincarnation within the Druze community, as all souls had the opportunity to accept Tawhid when it was announced. Due to their belief in reincarnation and departure from the fundamentals of Islam, the Druze are not considered Muslims.
Mahdism was founded in 1881 in Sudan by Muhammad Ahmad ibn As Sayyid Abdallah who proclaimed himself to be the awaited Mahdi, a messenger of God and representative of the Prophet. He claimed that he was sent to pave the way for the second coming of Jesus. He urged his followers to follow a simple puritanical lifestyle to return to the true spirit of Islam. Mahdism was also a reaction to the Sufi orders which had taken roots in Sudan’s Sunni majority. Sayyid Abdallah succeeded in raising an army from among his supporters and defeated the British who were administering Sudan through a Turko-Egyptian government. After the capture of Khartoum in 1885 from the British, Sayyid Abdallah established a Madhi state in Sudan.
Although he lived for only six months after his victory, his successor Mohammad Abdullahi ruled Sudan for the next twelve years. In 1898 the British recaptured Sudan and placed it under a joint British-Egyptian rule. Sayyid Abdallah’s supporters and members of his family continued to lead popular resistance against the British from the mountains. They had political ambitions which took precedence over Abdallah’s religious mission. In 1926, Sayyid Abdallah’s son Abd Al Rahman Al Mahdi was instructed by the British to withdraw his agents from the mountainous areas of Darfur, Kordovan and Nuba, and stop collecting Zakat. Gradually, the Mahdi influence waned in Sudan and the movement dried up in the 1970s. Sayyid Abdallah failed to secure the support of the rest of the Muslim world to his claim of being the promised Mahdi.
Ansaaru Allah Community of Brooklyn
Influenced by Mahdism in Sudan, an African-American, Dr Dwight York, claimed that he was a direct descendent (grandson) of the Nubian Mahdi in New York. In 1973 he established an organisation by the name of Ansaaru Allah Community in Brooklyn and started to give away pamphlets and small books about his interpretation of Islam. His followers used the themes of black nationalism, quest for true Islam and need for moral reform to recruit new members. However, he preached at a time when two other Muslim black civil rights organisations, the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple of America were also active in the Afro-American religious community. Appealing to the Afro-American Muslims of the US, he said that Prophet Muhammad was black. He predicted the apocalypse in 2000. He devised ways to popularise his message by appealing to a wider section of the Afro-American population. He welcomed the Caribbean blacks to his community with playing steel drums. He took the Hebrew title of Lion of Judah for himself to attract the Rastafarians. He also appealed to women by asking them to throw away their veil and modest clothing. He permitted them to wear shorts and preach in mosques. When the Sunni Muslim scholar Bilal Phillips confronted his heretic ideas, he became critical of orthodox Sunni Muslims. Suspecting that he might be killed by his opponents, he denounced all Muslims in 1992. A year later he moved with his small community to a farm in Georgia and adopted the tribal title of Maku, meaning Chief Black Eagle. None of the Muslim groups in America accepted his claims and his strange packaging of Islam.
Nation of Islam
The Nation of Islam (NOI) was born in the black ghettos of Michigan in the US as an expression of defiance of the poor and illiterate black Americans against their former white masters. In many ways the NOI resonated the American civil rights movement. Its founder, Wallace D Fard, was a travelling salesman whose silk trade took him to Makkah. On return to Detroit in 1930 he became the preacher of a weird theory of creation. He claimed that in the beginning there was nothing but darkness, and the one supreme God was black who chose the form of a man. He claimed that the world was run by 24 black scientists but one of them, Yakub, rebelled against God, and created blue eyed white men who were devils. God gave the devils a limited time to rule on earth and by the turn of the century black Americans would unite as Muslims under the NOI, which was their original religion in Africa before they were taken as slaves. He also claimed that he was God incarnate on earth.
After Fard’s mysterious disappearance in 1934, his protégé Elijah Mohammad took over the leadership of NOI. He was a fire brand orator of black emancipation and claimed himself to be a prophet of God who was sent to the black Americans just as Prophet Muhammad was sent to the Arabs. Under Elijah Mohammad, the NOI became popular among the black Americans. Elijah Mohammad also brought Malcolm X, boxer Mohamad Ali and musician Louis (Abdul Haleem) Farkhan to join the NOI. The members of the movement called themselves Muslims, took Shahada and adopted a Muslim name. They were forbidden from clubbing, adultery, gambling, smoking, eating pork and drinking alcohol. But they called their places of worship Temples and did not believe in angels, the day of resurrection and the finality of Prophet Muhammad.
Following the death of Elijah Mohammad in 1975, his son Warith Deen Mohammad took over the leadership of the movement. He repudiated the founding beliefs of the NOI and asked his followers to practice the fundamental tenets of Sunni Islam. In 1976, Warith Deen Mohammad changed the name of NOI to World Community of Al-Islam in the West. In 1981 it was renamed as American Muslim Mission and in 1984 as American Society of Muslims. This resulted in a split resulting in a minority group sticking with the movement’s original black supremacist philosophy under the leadership of Louis Farkhan. In 1977 Farkhan claimed back the name of Nation of Islam for his splinter group together with its original ideology. Farkhan became popular in the US because of his association with black politicians and other Muslim African leaders. After 25 years, in 2000, Farkhan moved his NOI closer to the American Society of Muslims and reconciled with Warith Deen Mohammad. The two leaders recognised each other as fellow Muslims. The former NOI members now observe Muslim traditions in performing the obligatory prayers, fasting in Ramadhan, performing Haj and giving Zakat. A small hardcore faction of NOI which believes in black supremacist ideology is fast depleting. Its members are increasingly joining the mainstream Sunni Islam in the US, the land where NOI was born.
Moorish Science Temple of America
The Moorish Science Temple was a peculiar sect of Islam which was proclaimed in Chicago by an American African Timothy Drew Ali in 1928. He claimed that he was a reincarnation of Jesus and all other prophets. He also claimed that according to the holy Quran of the Moorish Science Temple of America which he called circle 7, there is no negro or black or coloured race and all men are born equal. Being black has nothing to do with race but status. Other Muslims from Arab, Turkic and Asian lands were brothers prepared for a life on this earth by Allah, Jesus and Mohammad. The white people invented Christianity in the hope of salvation. He claimed that African Americans were undeclared Moroccans who were descendants of the Muslim Moors. He told his followers that in order to free themselves from abuse and mistreatment and get accepted by the mainstream Americans and whites, they would need to take an oath of Moorish American identity which would give them equal rights according to an existing Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation signed between Morocco and the US in 1786. The Moorish Science Temple issued its members with an ID passport bearing the words: Allah and Islam and the symbols of crescent and Circle 7. The cards also read: “I am a citizen of the USA. Noble Drew Ali, the ‘Prophet’.
Members of the Moorish Science Temple carried the title Brother and their names ended with the suffix Bey. At their annual convention in Chicago most of them wear the Moroccan red cap, Fez, and the Moroccan five-point star. They abstain from pork and alcohol and observe Ramadan in the month of October. Their women wear ahead gear like African women and dress modestly.
The Moorish temple went through several phases after Drew Ali’s death and was dormant for many years during the rise of Nation of Islam. However, it has resurfaced again claiming that the Moorish Temple Quran is no different from the Muslim Quran. However due to their belief that Drew Ali was a prophet, the Moorish Temple has struggled to be recognised as a legitimate Muslim sect, and is seen as a black American civil rights movement.
The Ahmadiyya Movement originated in Qadiyan, British India, in the last decade of the 1800s. The founder of the Ahmadiyya religion, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad started his career as an articulate Sunni orthodox preacher and writer. In 1890 CE, he started claiming that he was receiving constant communication from God in the form of dreams, Ilham and Wahi. In late 1890 Mirza Ghulam Ahmad disagreed with the traditional Muslim doctrine of ascension of Jesus to the heavens and his return to earth closer to the end of time. He also denied the physical nature of angels. A few years later, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad claimed that he was the promised Messiah, and that his coming had fulfilled the prophesy about the second coming of Jesus toward the end of time.
The Ahmadiyya make a distinction between the messenger of Allah Mohammad, peace be upon him, and Mirza Ghulam Ahmad who was not given a separate divine book or law by Allah but was sent to reform Islam of its corrupt practices and reinterpret the Quran and the Islamic Sharia law as revealed to Prophet Mohammad. For them, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad is a Nabi like Prophet Isa, who was sent many years after Prophet Musa to reinterpret the Torah and reaffirm the Judo-Christian divine law. The Ahmadiyya believe in the holy Quran’s monotheistic dogma, but they say that the obligation of Jihad in the Quran stands abolished, and that anyone who does not accept Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as a prophet of Allah is a kafir (non-believer). Some Ahmadiyya rank their leader higher than Prophet Muhammad. The Ahmadiyya are divided into two groups: the London-based Qadiani group and Pakistan-based Lahori group who differ on the criteria of choosing their caliphs after Ghulam Ahmad’s death. They also have differences on the role of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as a reformer and a prophet.
Because of their rejection of the fundamental Muslim belief that Prophet Muhammad is the last and final prophet of Allah, and there will be no messenger or Nabi after him till the end of time, all the remaining Muslim schools consider Ahmadiyya as non-Muslims. On their part, the Ahmadiyya believe that only they are true Muslims, and anyone who does not believe in the prophethood of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad is not a real Muslim. They also do not participate in the funeral prayers of non-Ahmadiyya Muslims and do not give their daughters in marriage to non-Ahmadiyya men. The Ahmadiyya strongly propagate their religion through their global missionary offices and have increased their followership in the US, Europe and Africa.
The Ahmadiyya have also established a global auxiliary organisation by the name of Ansarullah which is for men of 40 years and over to become helpers in the cause of Allah.
The Al-Baab or Shaykhi Movement began in Iran in 1257 AH. Its founder Sayed Ali Muhammad Shirazi took the title of Al-Baab in 1844 CE and declared himself to be a divine prophet. He was executed by the Iranian authorities in 1850 CE for his heretic ideas. His followers came to be known as Al-Babis who later joined the Bhai faith.
The Bahai faith originated in 1863 CE tracing its validity to the claim of Sayed Ali Muhammad who took the title of Al-Baab and foretold the coming of a messenger after him who will prepare humanity for the new age and will be greater than himself. One of Al-Baab’s disciples Mirza Husayn Ali became famous in Tehran for propagating Baabist ideas and was exiled for 40 years first to Baghdad and then to Turkiye and Israel under the Ottomans. Mirza Husayn Ali proclaimed to be the manifestation of God sent to inaugurate the age of peace and enlightenment as promised in all the world’s religions. During his long exile Mirza Husayn Ali gave himself the title of Bahaullah and wrote around 100 books and pamphlets in which he described the nature of God and the purpose of human existence, gave new laws and outlined his vision for creating a peaceful and purposeful global society. After his death in 1892, Bahauallah was succeeded by his son and after his death in 1921, by his grandson. After his grandson’s death in 1957 the hereditary line of Bahai succession ended. The shrines of Bahaullah and Al-Baab are in Haifa, Israel.
Although the Bahais never claimed to be Muslims, Bahaullah applied the theology of Ismailiya school to expound on his religion’s message of unity of all faiths. The Bahais and their predecessor Al-Babis introduced Western ideas in a Muslim society and used the symbols of faith such as calling themselves messengers of God to challenge and replace the tenets of Islamic Sharia law practiced by the Muslim community. The Bahais declared Tahiri, a venerated poet and proponent of women’s rights in Iran as a martyr after she was charged for removing her veil in defiance of Islam at a Bahai conference in 1848 in Badesht and was sentenced to death for her heretic beliefs. Bahais call their House of Worship Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, which means “a dawning place for the mention of God.”
Yazidis are not Muslims, but their religion has many features common to Islam. Yazidism combines Christian, Islamic and Zoroastrian traditions. Its followers live in Northern Iraq, Northern Syria, Southeastern Turkiye, Armenia and Georgia. Yazidis are strictly endogamous and monotheist. They dress like traditional Arabs. Yazidi founder was a an Ummayad Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir in 5th century AH, who lived in Basra, Iraq. Yazidis believe in a caste system which supports their belief in reincarnation. Their three castes are Murids, Sheikhs and Pirs. Every Yazidi is expected to make a pilgrimage to Lalish at least once in his lifetime where their religious leader Adi ibn Musafir is buried. Yazidis believe that God created the universe seven thousand years ago and assigned seven angels to look after its affairs. These angels were Melek Taus, Gabrail, Mikhail, Rafail, Dadrail, Azrafil and Shemnail. Their leader was Melek Taus. Each angel was assigned a different function but Melek Taus disobeyed God at some point and was punished. Melek Taus repented so much for his sin that his tears extinguished the hellfire. God forgave Taus and sent him to earth as His representative. Unlike the Christians and Muslims who have their own version of the fall of Iblis, the Yezidis have both the fall and redemption of Iblis in the form of Melek Taus and worship him as the restored angel and representative of God on earth.
Yezidis offer organised prayers on Wednesdays and Sundays. They pray to Melek Taus five times a day before a fire or sun which are symbols of light as a manifestation of God. Alcohol is not forbidden in Yezidi religion, but they do not eat pork. Yezidi children are baptised like Christians and their male children are circumcised like Muslims. The elements of fire, water, air and earth are sacred for the Yezidis. As in other enclosed faiths, it is not possible to convert to Yezidism. A Yezidi is only born into his caste from his Yezidi parents. Marriage outside the community is prohibited. Yezidis believe that the punishment of death penalty can restore the lost honour. Due to their mixed religious traditions from Abrahamic and Zoroastrian faiths, the Yezidis are often identified as a separate religion.
The origin of Shabak or Shabale is unknown as is their ethnic origin and mother tongue. It appears that they were the remnants of the militant Kizilbash who dispersed after the fall of the Safavids and to avoid persecution joined the Alevis and Bektashis in the Ottoman Empire. They moved to Northen Iraq and the area around Mosul in 1890s to avoid the Hanafi madhab. The Shabak believe in the trinity of Allah, Mohmmad and Ali. Their holy book is called Kitab Al-Manakib. They are guided by a spiritual leader called the Pir, who is assisted by a Rehbar to carry out all worship services. The Pir also acts as an intermediary between the divine power and ordinary Shabak. The Head of the Pirs is called Baba. The Shabak observe three holy occasions: Christmas and New Year, Ashura and the Night of Pardon. In the Night of Pardon, they make confessions for their sins. They also consume alcohol and make pilgrimage to the shrines of saints. For their peculiar beliefs and religious practices, they are regarded as another Ghulat group in Shia Islam.
Other esoteric cults
There are many mystery religions or other esoteric groups that fall outside the definition of Islam despite their similarity to some Sufi orders and their followers living in Islamic countries. These are notably Mandaeans, Ishikis, Yarsanis and animists.
Part VI: Conclusion
The area comprising the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Central Asia, Turkiye and the Balkan region has been home to many ethnic and religious groups and cultural civilisations with variations in demography, languages and historical backgrounds. With such a rich variety it is natural to have multiple religious practices and interpretations of Islam, as well as other faiths. Indeed, to expect the opposite is to undermine human ingenuity and intellect.
In Islam sectarianism has roots in its history concerning issues of rightful religious authority and eligible political leadership combining both the divine order and popular consultation. While the Sunnis have found a way of reconciling with the status quo, and Sufis and Ibadis have abstained from taking a clear position, the Shias have struggled to assert Ali’s rightful role that was denied to him for 25 years from the demise of the Prophet in 11 AH until his becoming the leader of the Muslim Ummah in 36 AH. After the death of the 5th Caliph, a further denial of the right of the family of the Prophet to provide the next ruler occurred when leadership was retained in the House of Umayyah following the martyrdom of Hussain in the battle of Karbala in 61 AH.
Another factor that contributed to the rise of various sects and movements in Islam was the notion of Asabiyah (nationalism) and Qawmiyah (tribalism). Instead of following the Quranic commandment to hold fast to the rope of Allah and become one, the Ummah got divided along linguistic, ethnic, and tribal affiliations. Some of the sects in Shia Islam came into being not on the application of jurisprudence but on the line of succession of their Imams and occultation.
Just as Islam’s challenge in the early years of its expansion came from Greek and Roman philosophy and Persian and Byzantine civilisations, which was repeated in colonial times when western values threatened Islamic traditions and resulted in many indigenous but uncoordinated revivalist movements offering different options and interpretations, including several claims of the return of the Madhi, the current challenge to Islam is from the erosion of moral and ethical values and fundamental beliefs and traditions in modern times. Many sects emerged in an attempt to reconcile Islam with rationalism or reject their fusion in order to keep the original Islam intact. Similarly, many new sects and movements may still emerge to answer the difficult questions of our contemporary times. The era of sects and movements has not ended yet.
An even bigger challenge to Islam is from within rather than from the outside. Extremism and secessionist trends caused much damage to the unity of the Ummah. Militant Islam did not serve Islam and even hurt those movements which were peaceful and persuasive in their approach to Dawa and promotion of Islam. On the other hand, there are several examples of sects and schools which were persecuted by the state or by the majority of one school, but these did not disappear. They only dispersed and closed the door for engagement. It is therefore important to celebrate the diversity of the Muslim Ummah instead of contrasting one sect with another and attempt to judge them. Afterall, the Hadith of the Prophet regarding the 73 sects tells us that the truth will be revealed by Allah on the Day of Judgement.
Many bells resonate in Islam’s history of sects and groups which are an outcome of their historical circumstances, but before we endeavour to become critical of those bells, we should also remember that those bells can also toll for us by our coming generations.
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