The Major Branches Of Islam

A Sufi Ritual In Sudan. Sufis are designated as a mystical Islamic dimension.
A Sufi Ritual In Sudan. Sufis are designated as a mystical Islamic dimension.

The Islam religion has over 2 billion followers in the world. The religion itself if nearly 1,300 years old. Practicing Muslims believe that Islam began in 610 CE when the last prophet, Muhammad, began receiving revelations from God. Followers of the faith recorded these revelations in the Qur’an. As with all other world religions, Islam is represented by several major branches: Sunni, Shi’a, Ibadi, Ahmadiyya, and Sufism. These branches started to develop after Muhammad’s death when people began to disagree on the successor of the religion. Although different, the major denominations all share some common beliefs of monotheism, holy books, etc.

The Major Denominations Of Islam


The Sunni branch is by far the largest denomination of Islam and represents 89-90% of all followers of Islam. They are present throughout the Middle East with large concentrations in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Sunni followers believe that Muhammad had not appointed a specific successor and many years after his death and significant debate, followers chose Abu Bakr Siddique. This man was one of Muhammad’s fathers-in-law and a close friend. One of the positions within the religion is that of Imam, who under Sunni belief is the formal prayer leader. Sunnis believe that the Qur’an applies to all of life and that individuals can approach God directly and that he will present himself on Judgment Day.


The Shi’a followers believe that Muhammad did choose a successor, Ali ibn Abi Talib, his son-in-law. Shi’a believers also have Imams, who are more central figures and community leaders because they are the perfect manifestation of God. This branch is less about the individual’s relationship with God and more about the cleric’s interpretation of the Qur’an. Unlike the Sunni, the Shi’a do not believe that humans will see God on Judgment Day. Since they are a minority sect, calculating their numbers is difficult. The majority, however, seem to reside in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan.


Another lesser known branch of Islam is Ibadi. This denomination pre-dates Sunni and Shi’a and is considered a highly orthodox version of Islam. They share the Shi’a belief that God will not show himself on Judgment Day. Unlike Sunni and Shi’a, the Ibadi believe that the Muslim community can rule itself without a single leader. Ibadi also differs in that they do not agree that the Muslim ruler must be a descendant of Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh. Seventy-five percent of the population of Oman is Ibadi.


This denomination is newer than the previous. Followers of Ahmadiyya do not recognize Muhammad as the last prophet. It has its roots in the teaching of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), their prophet. His followers believe he was divinely appointed as the renewer of Islam. They hold similar beliefs to Sunni and also recognize the Qur’an as their holy book. The largest concentrations of Ahmadiyya are in West and East Africa, Indonesia, and South Asia.


The majority of Sufis follow the Islam direction as given by Ali, Muhammad’s successor as believed by the Shi’a. Though not technically a sect of Islam, Sufism is an Islamic teaching that focuses on purification of the inner-self. They believe that humans can have an experience with God through intuitive and emotional abilities that Sufis learn through training. This experience does not have to happen in Paradise but can be achieved in life. Turkey and Persia are considered centers for Sufism although it has also reached Greece, Albania, and Macedonia among others.

Strength Of Beliefs

Though not an exhaustive list of the branches of Islam, the previous denominations are some of the most well-known. Islam is an old religion, one of the largest in the world, and full of intricate beliefs and traditions. No matterr the sect, Islams believe that the purpose of humans is to live and praise God so that one day they may gain entrance to Paradise.

Major Branches Of Islam - Similarities And Differences

RankMajor Branches Of IslamEstimated Global Adherents
1Sunni1.39 billion
2Shi'a200 million
3Ahmadiyya15 million
3 million
5SufismWidely Disputed

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