What is Shia Islam? A Visual Chart of Different Shia Communities

It is important, therefore, for non-Muslims who are dealing with the Ummah to communicate with both Sunni and Shia voices. To be oblivious to this reality would be like ignoring over many centuries that there were differences between Catholics and Protestants, or trying to resolve the civil war in Northern Ireland without engaging both Christian communities.

Imam Shāh Karīm al-Ḥusaynī Āgā Khān IV

This short article features a visual chart outlining the major differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims and further depicting the major divisions and branches within Shia Islam pertaining to the succession of the Shia Imamat.

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While all Muslims affirm the absolute oneness of God and the role of Muhammad as His final prophet, Shia and Sunni Muslims differ on the question of legitimate spiritual and religious authority after the Prophet Muhammad. It must be kept in mind that while Muhammad was alive, he was both the political and spiritual leader of the believers. All questions concerning religious interpretations, law, ethics, theology, etc. were deferred to and decided by the Prophet; his ruling was, for all intents and purposes, the direct representation of God’s Will and Command to the believers. Far from being just a mouthpiece for the Qur’an, Muhammad was the fountainhead of all spiritual authority, esoteric knowledge, moral leadership and the channel of God’s continual guidance and blessings for the believers. To obey the Prophet in his lifetime was the practical way of obeying God. God’s blessings, guidance and forgiveness had to be sought through Muhammad’s intercession, blessings and prayers. All devotional offerings (ṣadaqah) and acts of repentance by the believers were offered to God via Muhammad. Thus, in addition to being the vehicle through which the Qur’an is revealed in human language, the Prophet Muhammad was the bearer of a spiritual authority or charisma, called walāyah, which was the source of the spiritual sanctity and purity by which he performed the aforementioned spiritual duties. The relationship between God and the Prophet Muhammad is depicted in the below diagram and can be read about here:


Sunni Muslims recognize no direct succession of spiritual and charismatic authority (walāyah) of Muhammad; the community exercises authority and religious interpretation through the Caliphate (holding political authority, the scholars (ulamā) and Sufi shaykhs holding religious and mystical authority. Meanwhile, Shia Muslims stress that the Prophet Muhammad – whom Qur’ān 33:6 speaks of as possessing more authority (awlā) over the believers than their own souls – had actually designated his cousin and son-in-law ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib as the master (mawlā) of the believers. Read here for various statements by the Prophet in favour of ‘Alī’s role as his successor. This last took place during the Prophet’s farewell pilgrimage when Muhammad halted the pilgrims at Ghadīr Khum, quoted Qur’an 33:6 by saying “Do I not have more authority (awlā) over you than your own souls” and then proceeded to declare “He whose mawlā I am, ‘Alī is his mawlā“. This event at Ghadīr Khum is attested to by Sunni and Shia sources and narrated by 184 companions. Therefore, the Shia Muslims hold that the spiritual and charismatic authority of the Prophet Muhammad and all of his aforementioned spiritual rights and duties (with the exception of scriptural revelation) continue through the institution of hereditary spiritual leadership called the Imamat, with Imam ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib as the first Imām. This Imamat is subsequently handed down by each Imam to his appointed successor from among his male progeny. The Imams are of the Prophet’s Ahl al-Bayt whom the Qur’an declares as thoroughly purified by God as per Qur’an 33:33. The Imam for Shia Muslims is the inheritor of the Prophet Muhammad’s authority and the sole source for the legitimate interpretation of Islam.

Even some of Imam ‘Ali’s early followers regarded him as “an absolute and divinely guided leader who could demand of them the same kind of loyalty that would have been expected for the Prophet” (Dakake, The Charismatic Community, 57). For example, one of Ali’s supporters who also was devoted to the Prophet said to him: “our opinion is your opinion and we are in the palm of your right hand” (Dakake 58). The early followers of ‘Ali seem to have taken his guidance as “right guidance” deriving from Divine support. In other words, ‘Ali’s guidance was seen to be the expression of God’s will and the Qur’anic message. This spiritual and absolute authority of ‘Ali was known as walayah and it was inherited by his successors, the Imams. In the first century after the Prophet, the term sunnah was not specifically defined as “Sunnah of the Prophet” but was used in connection to Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, Uthman, and some Umayyad Caliphs. The idea of “Hadith” or traditions ascribed to the Prophet was not mainstream nor was Hadith criticism. Even the earliest legal texts by Malik b. Anas and Abu Hanifa employ many methods including analogical reasoning and opinion and do not rely exclusively on hadith. Only in the 2nd century does the Sunni jurist al-Shafi‘i first argue that only the Sunnah of the Prophet should be a source of law and that this Sunnah is embodied in Hadiths. It would take another one hundred years after al-Shafi‘i for Sunni Muslim jurists to fully base their methodologies on prophetic Hadiths (See Adis Duderija, “Evolution in the Concept of Sunnah During the First Four Generations of Muslims”, Read Here). Meanwhile, Imami Shia Muslims followed the Imams’ interpretations of Islam as normative without any need for Hadiths and other sources of Sunni law like analogy and opinion.

Sunni Muslims came to recognize the Qur’an, the Sunnah (custom) of Muhammad as recorded in the Ḥādīth literature, and legal interpretative techniques such as scholarly consensus (ijmā), analogy (qiyās), and interpretation (ijtiḥād) as the sources (uṣūl) for religious and legal interpretations. Meanwhile, Shia Muslims regard the institution of the Imamat and its living and continual interpretation of the Qur’ān as the sole authoritative and legitimate source of religious interpretation and spiritual guidance.

Over the last 1,400 years, the Shia Muslims experienced a number of splits and divisions due to disagreement over the rightful succession of the Imams. Different groups differed over the identity of the legitimate successor to a given Imam, thus resulting in the emergence of different Shia groups who trace the legitimate succession through different lines of Imams, which stem from the same ancestor. For example, the Ismailis and the Twelvers follow two different lines of Imams – both of which trace back to the Imam Ja‘far al-Ṣādiq. All of the major splits and the resultant branches are depicted in the below Visual Chart for the sake of informing the public about the historical origins of Shia Muslim communities.

The chart is followed by important extracts from the Address of His Highness Aga Khan IV, the forty-ninth hereditary Imam of the Nizari Ismaili branch of Shia Islam in an inaugural Speech made to the Parliament and Senate of Canada in 2014.

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Perhaps the most important area of incomprehension, outside the Ummah, is the conflict between Sunni and Shia interpretations of Islam and the consequences for the Sunni and Shia peoples. This powerful tension is sometimes even more profound than conflicts between Muslims and other faiths. It has increased massively in scope and intensity recently, and has been further exacerbated by external interventions. In Pakistan and Malaysia, in Iraq and Syria, in Lebanon and Bahrain, in Yemen and Somalia and Afghanistan it is becoming a disaster. It is important, therefore, for non-Muslims who are dealing with the Ummah to communicate with both Sunni and Shia voices. To be oblivious to this reality would be like ignoring over many centuries that there were differences between Catholics and Protestants, or trying to resolve the civil war in Northern Ireland without engaging both Christian communities. What would have been the consequences if the Protestant-Catholic struggle in Ireland had spread throughout the Christian world, as is happening today between Shia and Sunni Muslims in more than nine countries? It is of the highest priority that these dangerous trends be well understood and resisted, and that the fundamental legitimacy of pluralistic outlooks be honoured in all aspects of our lives together, including matters of faith….

I have the great privilege of representing the Ismaili Imamat — this institution which has stretched beyond borders for more than 1400 years and which defines itself and is recognised by an increasingly large number of states, as the succession of Shia Imami Ismaili Imam. [Translation] …

The Ismaili Imamat is a supra-national entity, representing the succession of Imams since the time of the Prophet. But let me clarify something more about the history of that role, in both the Sunni and Shia interpretations of the Muslim faith. The Sunni position is that the Prophet nominated no successor, and that spiritual-moral authority belongs to those who are learned in matters of religious law. As a result, there are many Sunni imams in a given time and place. But others believed that the Prophet had designated his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as his successor. From that early division, a host of further distinctions grew up, but the question of rightful leadership remains central. In time, the Shia were also sub-divided over this question, so that today the Ismailis are the only Shia community who, throughout history, have been led by a living, hereditary Imam in direct descent from the Prophet.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
Address to both Houses of the Parliament of Canada in the House of Commons Chamber (Ottawa, Canada), 27 February 2014

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7 thoughts on “What is Shia Islam? A Visual Chart of Different Shia Communities

  1. I am interested in papers on Shiism from a theological approach. With this I mean, in which ways does Shia thought contrast with Sunni views on faith, reason, and the human condition.Can anyone post something

  2. I find Ismaili Gnosis as a site of particular depth explaining the Esoteric rather than the exoteric or just practice aspect of Islam about how to perform Salat, Five Pillars of Faith, in facts Shia Ismaili interpretation has Six Pillars with Wallayah added, that is Succession or hereditary Rope of Imamat, based on Nooran Allah Noor from the Quran.

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