What are the two main branches of ISLAM?

Islam is the religion and way of life of the Muslim people. As one of the biggest and continuously growing religions in the world, Islam has several sects or branches. In this article, we will answer the question “what are the two main branches of ISLAM?” as well as briefly discuss what is Islam and its origins.

What are the two main branches of Islam?

The two main branches of Islam are the following:

  • Sunni Islam
  • Shia Islam

What is Sunni Islam?

Sunni or Sunnis came from the Arabic word sunna or “way” which means followers of Mohammed. It is one of the two main branches of the Islam faith and is more dominant, especially in the first nine centuries with roughly 85% of Muslims belonging to this sect.

Unlike the other major branch, Sunnis or Sunnism believe that the Islam authority should give more importance to the traditions and practices of Mohammed and the Quran while allowing differences in legal aspects.

The Sunnis regard the leadership of the Islam faith as being established by the existing political cases of the Muslim world and not by divine order or catalyst.

Because of this, their religious scholars have less authority and are constrained with more legal standards over their followers than the other branches of Islam specifically the Shia counterpart.

Sunnism shares common consolidation on the importance of the Quran in the composition of their jurisprudence thus their four schools emerge.

The four schools are the following:

  • Hanafi
  • Shafii
  • Maliki
  • Hanbali

The Ottoman dynasty before was the seat of the Sunni reign against the Safavid dynasty of the Shia Islam and it has now more than forty countries from Indonesia to Morocco. They believe themselves to be the majority denomination as well as the mainstream and traditionalist branch of Islam.

The divide between the two major branches of Islam happened when the traditionalist won by the majority and chose Abu Bakr to become the first leader or caliph of the Islamic community over Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law after his death in 632 A.D.

The appointment of Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s close friend and companion, led to the Sunni’s historical selection of caliphs that are not always from Mohammad’s descendants as long as their ruling is sustained by maintaining order through the proper practice of Islam. 

The doctrine of Sunnism emphasizes the community’s majority consensus or ijma with various customs that evolved all throughout the history of the Islam faith.   

Except for Iraq, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Lebanon, and Iran, the Muslims are predominantly composed of Sunnis. The majority of Islam adherents in the early 21st century are said to be followers of the tradition of Sunni. 

What is Shia Islam?

Shia Islam is the smaller of the two main branches of Islam. They constitute approximately 15% of all Muslims around the world with their majority found in Iraq, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, and Iran where 90% of Muslims belong to the Shia sect with some communities in Afghanistan, India, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Qatar, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

Shia Islam was originally a movement in the early history after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D. The Arabic word, Shiat Ali, literally means movement or party of Ali. 

A small group of Muslims was the first Shiites who opposed the appointment of Abu Bakr as the first Caliph. But after the selection of the first Caliph, the Shiites grew in number to support Ali as the successor of the Prophet and became a political group.

There are three main branches of Islam today. These are the following:

  • Zaidis
  • Ismailis
  • Ithna Asharis (Twelvers or Imamis)

The largest of these branches is the Ithna Asharis whose belief is strongly founded in Muhammad’s 12 descendants beginning with Ali, Hassan, and Hussein, and their rights to the religion, leadership, authority, and divine guidance of the Islam faith.

The schism between the Sunni and Shia is rooted in the disunion over who should succeed in the leadership of Islam after the death of Prophet Muhammad. 

This branch of Islam argues that the rightful heir to Islam is Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, and all of His succeeding descendants. They value their scholars called Imams better than its counterpart.

Shiites support their belief by referring to the specific saying of Muhammad which is often contradicted by the Sunnis, which is: “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is my gate” (Bayat 1982, 4).

Although both their doctrine and ritual matters are both rooted in Quran when it comes to scholars/Imams and other saints, Shia holds a higher value to them and it is seen through their memorials, tombs, and pilgrimage places as an object of devotion.

What is Islam?

The word Islam came from the words “Al-silm” and “istaslama” which means peaceful surrender to the will of God which originated in Mecca and Medina at the start of the 7th century CE.

The believers of Islam are called Muslims and they are monotheistic which means they worship one almighty and all-knowing God referred to as Allah in Arabic word.

The Prophet Mohammad is the reason for the rise of Islam to the people of Mecca in 610. He is believed to be the last in the line of prophets that includes Moses and Jesus as a return to the original Abrahamic faith.

The Islam religion developed its laws to include all aspects of life such as legal and political authority while also integrating Jewish and Christian customs.

Muslims believe that God, through the archangel Gabriel, orally revealed the Quran to the final prophet Muhammad over a period of 23 years beginning in the month of Ramadan. 

The Prophet Muhammad became the founder of Islam through his revelation preaching of the five pillars in Mecca when he was 40 years old. He was then, together with his followers, expelled from Mecca in 622 so they traveled to Medina and extended this new religion all throughout the continent even after his death in 632.


The two main branches of Islam, Sunni, and Shia began their schism after the death of the Islam prophet Mohammad in the 14th century. With no clear successor, The two branches split apart by their different belief on who should be the next Caliph or leader of their religion. 

At the present, Sunni becomes the majority with approximately 85% of Muslims around the world while Shia comprises the remaining. Despite their differences, their faith is still rooted in the teachings of Mohammad and the Quran, and have lived peacefully relative to each other for the most part of their history. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): what are the 2 main branches of Islam?

When did the Shia and Sunni schism begin?

The original split between Sunnis and Shiites occurred in the year 632 after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. 

Where did Islam begin?

Most historians believe that the beginning of Islam took place in Mecca and Medina in the early 7th century CE. 

What was Muhammad’s full name?

Muhammad’s full name is Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib ibn Hāshim.


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