Is Sunni versus Shia the main division within Islam?

I've heard this many times, but I don't trust everything I hear.

Also, are there any groups in Islam which see itself as separate from both Sunnis and Shias, and sees those two groups as belonging to a larger group? For a Christian analogy, I've heard that the Russian Orthodox Church split off from the Roman Catholic Church before the Roman Catholic Church split into Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The Russian Orthodox Church would see Roman Catholicism and Protestantism as belonging to the same group.

  • I really approve these kinds of questions as you ask which can be so constructive for the readers... / God Bless You. May 5, 2016 at 12:10
  • Well it depends on who you ask. And what they would define as a division in Islam. There are for instance Ahmedi Muslims. they are like 1% of the muslim population (10-20 millions) if the Wikipedia sources are right.
    – Kilise
    Aug 23, 2016 at 19:53

2 Answers 2


It could be considered from some different angles. But, on the whole, (and also as a general reply) there is a main division between all Muslims. It is related to the succession of the Messenger of Allah (blessings be upon him and his family). (Sunni and Shia)

In truth:

one main group(Sunnis) believe that those four caliphs are the successors of the prophet (S), (it means: Abu-Bakr, Omar, Othman, Ali)

And the other group (Shia) believe that the Messenger of Allah (blessings of Allah be upon him and his family) appointed Imam Ali(a.s.) as his successor according to Qadir-Khum.(and also other Imams of Shiite).

Each main group (Sunni, Shia) consists of other smaller groups or sects or even subcategories which perhaps have differences in their opinions in details (in the matters which are less important than the issue of succession). Of course it could be possible that some small groups of people (recently) to be established as the name of Islamic sect(s) with different opinions, but, on the whole, we can call the main two groups of Islam to Sunni and Shia.

Eventually, it can be claimed that Sunni and Shia are the main division. In truth, it could be proved by referring to their population as well. Since according my research:

The population of the Muslims all around the world is approximately 1.600.000.000 people and the population of the Shia is very approximately 200 to 300 million Shias (less or more). Meanwhile, based on different sources, the population of the Shias is declared between 11 to 23 percent of the Muslims. Therefore it indicates that the main and largest division of the Muslims (by paying heed to their main beliefs, principles and population) is related to the Sunni and Shi’a as the questioner (@Andrew) mentioned that in his question.



In addition to the good answer by "اللهم صل علی محمد و آل محمد" I'd like to consider it from another angle.

There are a few scholars from whose teachings today's main groups emerged. All of them lived in a relatively short era of time and more than 200 years after Prophet Muhammad (s.). In this era many Islamic schools of law emerged but the ones remaining today are based on the teachings of this five individuals.

  • Ja'far al-Sadiq (702 – 765)
  • Abu Hanifa (699 – 767)
  • Malik ibn Anas (711 – 795)
  • Al-Shafi‘i (767 – 820)
  • Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780 – 855)

All of their teachings are based on Quran and Hadith. They differ in the question: What was the Prophets view on X? None of them wanted to found a new direction of Islam. They were teaching Islam as they understood it.

The first one is considered the sixth Imam of the Shia Muslims. Shia jurisprudence became known as Ja'fari jurisprudence (He is also a major figure for Hanafi and Maliki schools of law).

The other four schools of law (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, Hanbali) are considered as Sunni schools. This is what the first answer mentioned as smaller groups.

The interesting part is that Abu Hanifa and Malik ibn Anas learned from Ja'far al-Sadiq. Malik was also a student of Abu Hanifa. Shafi'i was taught by Malik ibn Anas for many years and Ahmad Ibn Hanbal learned from Shafi'i.

There are Muslims who don't consider themselves as following ONLY one of these schools of law, but take all or many of the different opinions of these five into consideration. Other groups who may still consider themselves Muslims are not based on any of these five schools of law. The question is whether they are still considered Muslims by the majority or not.

  • 2
    The story of abu Hanifa being a student of Ja'far as-Sadiq is highly questionable! But abu Hanifa is also said to have been a student of Malik in hadith, at least one could say that they both have met. But the stronger facts say that his students who have basically re-built his madhab Mohammad ibn al-Hassan and abu Yusuf have studied al Muwatta' under Malik!
    – Medi1Saif
    Nov 24, 2016 at 8:35

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .