From the beginning, the basic sources of Islam have been the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Muslims have always looked to the Qur’an as their guide and have prayed and fasted and made pilgrimages as the Prophet did. For the details governing their lives, Muslims have relied upon their reason in applying the principles of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and this has been the cause of the different schools of law, the various tendencies, and the sects which are found in Islam.
Followers of the Hanafi school of law tend toward rationalism, such as is found among the Mu’tazilities; the Shafi’i school follows the moderate theology of the Ash’arites; the Malikites are predestinationist; and the Hanbalites tend to be literal in their interpretation of theology. These are theological tendencies, but not sectarian differences.
The two major sects in Islam are the Sunnis and the Shi’as, whose distinctive characteristics have been discussed at length in earlier chapters in this book. Among the Shi’as the three leading sects are the Ithna Ashariya, the Sab’iya, and the Zaidis. The Ithna Ashariya is the major group among the Shi’as, found primarily in Iraq and Iran; they accept the twelve Imams. The Sab’iya, sometimes called the Seveners because they broke away over the claim that Isma’il was the seventh Imam, are also known as the Isma’ilis. They have divided into several sects, of which the best known is the group which follows the Agha Khan, found in Pakistan, India, Iran, Syria, and East Africa. The Zaidis, now found in Yemen, are a small Shi’a sect which has drawn closer to the Sunnis over the years.
The Kharijites, who rebelled against Ali, were originally Shi’a and have been somewhat influenced by Sunni thought. They are found in Oman and Muscat, and in North Africa where they are known as Ibadis.
More than ninety per cent of the Muslims of the world are Sunnis, followers of the Sunnah. The only sects of any importance among the Sunnis are the Wahhabis, the reformist sect of Arabia, and the Qadiani sect of Pakistan which is generally looked upon as somewhat heretical, although its Lahori branch is not always so regarded. The various tendencies among the Sunnis have often led to differences in point of view, but not to the creation of new sects. The most widely accepted theological position is that of the Ash’arites. The rationalism of the Mu’tazilites at one time almost led to the formation of a recognizable sect, but today the rationalist point of view is only one of several tendencies among the Sunnis. Differences between the firmly orthodox and the modern reformist have not created a sectarian division.
The numerous Sufi orders cannot be classed as separate sects because they are made up of people who consider themselves to be Sunnis or Shi’as as well as Sufis. Sufi orders have been banned by the government of Turkey, but Sufism continues there as a powerful factor in the Islamic life of the country; both intellectuals and common people study the writings of their famous Sufis and continue their personal Sufi disciplines. The Sufi orders continue to be an important factor in Africa, though their influence in Egypt is declining. There is still, however, a strong interest in Sufi writings among the intellectuals in Egypt. The Shi’as have pronounced Sufi tendencies which have influenced the devotional life in Iran and Iraq as well as Pakistan and India . The Sufism of Pakistan and India has sometimes been influenced by the mysticism of Hinduism, leading on occasion to pantheistic tendencies there. In Indonesia, as we have seen, Sufism plays a major role in the devotional life of the Muslims, both as organized orders among the common people and as a study and discipline among the intellectuals. Only in China do we find that Sufism has not been an important factor in the Muslim community.
Sufism has been especially susceptible to the influences of Greek, Iranian, and Indian thought which have sometimes led it to excesses and fanaticism which were contrary to the real spirit of Islam. Some Sufis even denounced the Pillars of Islam and taught that union with God is the aim of Islam, a pantheistic doctrine which is heretical. Other Sufis have followed the teachings of Ghazali, combining the rituals of Islam with deep religious feeling. Such Sufis have made, and are making today, a valuable contribution to the religious life of the Muslim world.
Mohammad Rasjidi , in K.W. Morgan, ed.,
Islam: the Straight Path,
New York, Ronald Press, 1958