The Traditions of Islam
Sunni  ~  Shi’a  ~  Sufi
Map with Islam Denomations


Islamic Icon
The Sunni Tradition
Those who follow the elected caliphs are “the people of the Sunnah” (the sayings and practices of the Prophet, as collected under the Sunni caliphs). They consider themselves traditionalists, and they emphasize the authority of the Qur’an and the secondary authority of the Hadith. They believe that Muhammad died without appointing a successor and left the matter of successors to the ummah, the Muslim community. They look to the time of the first four “rightly guided caliphs” (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and ’Ali) as the golden age of Islam.
Most Mainstream Muslims (non-Shi’ites) believe that the caliph has always been a merely temporal ruler, and that the ulema has always been responsible for enforcing orthodox, Islamic law (shari’a). As for the special role ascribed to the first four caliphs, Islamic tradition holds that they were followers [of] the Qur’an and the way or sunnah of Muhammad in all things and, for this reason, calls them the Rashidun, the Rightly Guided Caliphs. They also believe that the Khilafah ended towards the end of Ali’s reign and not with the fall of the Ottomans. Every Muslim leader after Ali and Muawiyah, they say, were not legitimate due to [their] not being accepted by all the Muslims. (wiki/Caliph)
Sunnis regard not only the life of the Prophet but also the lives of the rightly guided caliphs — who had heard the revelations of the Prophet firsthand and been inspired by his personal example — and a few other close companions of the Prophet as the models for the ideal Muslim. The line of caliphs as temporal rulers nonetheless continued until the end of the Ottoman Empire, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk disbanded the institution in creating a secular state. (Living Religions, 396)
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The Shi'a Tradition
The Shi’a feel that ’Ali was the rightful original successor to the Prophet Muhammad. ... They feel that spiritual power was passed on to ’Ali, and that the caliphate is based on this spiritual as well as temporal authority. ... Rather than recognize the Sunni caliphs, the Shi’a pay allegiance to a succession of seven or twelve Imams (leaders, guides). ... Twelver Shi’a believe that there were a total of twelve Imams, legitimate hereditary successors to Muhammad. The twelfth Imam, they believe, was commanded by God to go into an occult hidden state to continue to guide the people and return publicly at the Day of Resurrection as the Mahdi. A minority of the Shi’a, the Nizari Isma’ilis, recognize a different person as the seventh Imam. This line of Imams has continued to the present forty-ninth Imam, HRH Prince Karim Aga Khan IV.
       Unlike the Sunni caliph, the Imam combines political leadership (if possible) with continuing the transmission of Divine Guidance. This esoteric religious knowledge was given by God to Muhammad, from him to ’Ali
’s lineage. It includes both the outer and inner meanings of the Qur’an. (Living Religions, 397-8)
Ayatollah Khomeini
In 1953 in Iran, a predominantly Shi’a country, the democratically elected government of Muhammad Mosaddegh was overthrown by a coup reportedly planned by Great Britain and the United States, since Mosaddegh intended to nationalize Iran’s oil production. The country was returned to the authoritarian rule of the Pahlavi Shah, and the gap between the rich and poor grew. At the same time, the Shah tried to rapidly modernize his country, turning it into a major military and industrial power. In the process, he eroded the respected authroity of the ulama, the clerics and expounders of the shari’ah. A revolutionary leader emerged from this disempowered group, the Ayatollah Khomeini (c. 1900-89). From his Paris exile he led mass demonstrations in Iran against the Shah, who was removed from power in 1979.
       Khomeini insisted that social transformation should be linked with spiritual reformation, with government headed by a ruler “who acts as trustee and maintains the institutions and laws of Islam.” ...
Khomeini’s call for governmental change was not heeded. Radicals resorted to sabotage and terrorism as their most powerful weapons, in what Khomeini described as a great world battle between Islam and the Satanic forces of Western imperialism and Zionism. When the radicals attacked the American Embassy in Tehran and took hostages, the crisis with the West reached its highest level. It also tended to turn world opinion against Islam. In time, however, demonstrators returned to their homes, and the government metamorphosed into a new political system with a unique blend of theocracy and democracy. (Living Religions, 419-20)
Whirling Dervish


Kahlil Gibran's "The Prophet"In addition to the two orthodox traditions within Islam — Sunni and Shi’a — there is also an esoteric tradition, which is said to date back to the time of the Prophet. ... Sufis have typically understood their way as a corrective supplement to orthodoxy. Rather than rejecting Islamic law, Sufism has added to and deepened adherence to the law. Sufis consider their way a path to God that is motivated by longing for the One. In addition to studying the Qur’an, Sufis feel that the world is a book filled with “signs” — divine symbols and elements of beauty that speak to those who understand. The intense personal journeys of Sufis and the insights that have resulted from their truth-seeking have periodically refreshed Islam from within. Much of the allegorical interpretation of the Qur’an and devotional literature of Islam is derived from Sufism. (Living Religions, 398)

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu,
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion
or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up
from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,
am not an entity in this world or the next,
did not descend from Adam or Eve or any
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.
Coleman Barks, tr., The Essential Rumi (San Fransico: Harper Collins, 1995)

Whirling Dervish
The aim of Sufism is to become so purified of self that one is a perfect mirror for the divine attributes. The central practice is called dhikr, or “remembrance,” in which the Sufi recites, sings, or sometimes dances while repeating a prayer over and over, such as the phrase “la ilaha illa Allah.” Sufis understand this phrase in its esoteric sense: “There is nothing except God.” Nothing in this ephemeral world is real except the Creator; nothing else will last. As the seventy thousand veils of self — illusion, expectation, attachment, resentment, egocentrism, discontent, arrogance — drop away over the years, this becomes one’s truth, and only God is left to experience it. (Living Religions, 401)
Reflection Paper Icon
Choose one of the following two topics:
  1. Briefly explain the historical reasons for the split between the Sunni and the Sh’ia. Do you think that the contemporary tensions between these two traditions are religious, political, or a combination of the two?
~ or ~
  1. How does Rumi’s poem “Only Breath” relate to the central Sufi practice of dhikr (remembrance), as depicted in the SufiDevran video above?