Social Structure and Institutions

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Branches of Islam

Islam has two major branches. The vast majority belong to the Sunnī branch, followed by the second major branch, Shī‘á. The two branches differ on the question of who is the rightful successor of leadership after the Prophet Muḥammad. The Shī‘á branch contend that Muḥammad’s cousin and son-in-law, ‘Alī, should have succeeded him (rather than the first three leaders, according to the Sunnī tradition, who were elected or approved as leaders after Muḥammad’s death). Nonetheless, Muslims generally do not identify themselves by claiming membership to any particular branch unless the context warrants it.

  • Sunnī: The term sunnī is derived from the word sunnah, referring to the exemplary behaviour of the Prophet Muḥammad. As such, Sunnī broadly means ‘Traditional’ or ‘’. It is the largest branch of Islam, making up at least 85% of the world’s Muslims.
  • Shī‘á: The term Shī‘á is derived from the phrase Shī‘at Ali which broadly means Follower of ‘Alī. A Muslim who identifies as a follower of the Shī‘á tradition is usually referred to as a Shī’īyah, Shī’ī or Shi’ite. There are various branches of Shī‘á mainly due to disputes of succession. The largest branch is the Ithnā-‘ashariy (Twelvers), followed by Zaydiyyah (Fivers) and Isma‘īliyah (Seveners). Followers of Shī‘á are predominantly from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain.
  • Ṣūfī: Ṣūfī is another major group of Islam, although a controversial matter. The tradition is generally considered a form of mysticism rather than a branch of Islam. As such, a follower of Ṣūfī is normally also a Sunnī (or occasionally a Shi’ite). The Ṣūfī tradition focuses primarily on practices that emphasise religious experiences, such as reflection, contemplation, remembrance (dhikr) of and personal connection with God. There are many Ṣūfī orders around the world, one of the most famous being the Mawlawiyah. This order is popularly known as ‘Whirling Dervishes’ for their ritual prayer of remembrance (dhikr) while spinning on the right foot.

Social Structure

The social structure of a Muslim community is generally expected to be able to provide for all the members’ spiritual and physical needs. This means that many Muslim communities may have specific buildings, institutions and professions dedicated to the Muslim community. Some examples include a mosque, Muslim schools, doctor, teacher and ritual slaughterer or butcher (to help the community abide by dietary laws). Local mosques are often at the heart of the Muslim community.

Organisational Structure

Sunnī Islam places great emphasis on close adherence to the Qur’ān and the Sunnah as its major source of authority. Religious leaders (ulamā) in Sunnī Islam are usually thought of as teachers, exemplars or leaders who hold considerable authority within their local community. Leaders in Sunnī Islam do not act as intermediaries between humanity and God.

Shī‘á Islam has an organisational structure reminiscent of a professional clergy. This clergy is also referred to as ulamā. Historically, the ulamā have practiced the right of independent reasoning and interpretation (ijtihād) of Islamic law. Today, the functions of the ulamā is the interpreting of Islamic law, theology and leading prayers.


The term imām has a variety of meanings depending on the regional context and the branch of Islam. Broadly speaking, an imām is a role model or leader for the Muslim community.

In Sunnī Islam, an imām performs multiple functions. A mosque often employs a full-time imām who may lead prayers, offer sermons, perform rituals such as weddings or funeral prayers and other tasks that assist the local community. Imāms are typically the person who leads the Friday congregational prayer service (ṣalāt al-jumu’ah).

In Shī‘á Islam, an imām is the divinely appointed successor of Muḥammad, and is considered to be infallible (see ‘Imamate’ in Doctrines and Philosophy). In the largest branch of Shī‘á (the Ithnā-‘ashariy [Twelvers]), jurists have assumed the title of imām after the disappearance of the twelfth imām.

Community (Ummah)

The concept of ummah (community) expresses the essential unity and theoretical equality of Muslims from diverse geographical, cultural, and tribal backgrounds. Various elements of Islam help foster a sense of unity within the ummah. For example, the dominance of spoken Arabic when reciting the Qur’ān is one of the common features shared by all Muslims regardless of their native languages. Other examples include the Five Pillars of Islam, especially the pilgrimage to Mecca (ḥajj) which brings Muslims from around the world in one place for a common cause.

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