Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Three Branches of Shia Islam

Specials- Shia islam
Photo: Wikipedia

All Muslims share the fundamental principles of the faith, which was introduced during the life of the Prophet Muhammad. These principles – the belief in the Quran, recognizing the prophet as the last messenger of God, and the oneness of God himself – are universally shared among Muslims, regardless of their sects. The difference between sects usually revolve around the question of what happens after Muhammad’s time, rather than what happened during his life. Hence ever since the Prophet died, in 632, there have been ongoing disputes among Muslims on various issues related to the Muslim faith and Muslim communities. One of the most important divisions in Islam is the split between Shia and Sunni. In brief, the Shiites believed in the leadership of the Household of the Prophet after his death, while the Sunnis believed in the leadership of other close companions of the prophet. In the beginning, this division was not profound, but gradually during both the Umayyad (661-750) and the Abbā (750-1258) dynasties, these divisions deepened. A series of events and conflicts over leadership and political positions gradually cemented these sectarian rivalities. Hence, what primarily started as a political endeavor over leadership, gained religious characteristics and set the stage for the battle of “right” versus “wrong” in Islam for centuries to come.

Indeed, there is no clear line between the Sunnis and the Shiites, as there have been disagreement and disputes within each of these communities. All Shia Muslims believe in the Imamat – or spiritual leadership – of Ali, who was Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, but differences remain between different Shia sects. As we will see in this article, there have been leadership and succession disputes among the Shiites which have resulted in the emergence of different branches of Shia Islam.

The Twelver Shiism

The Twelver Shiism, or Athnā‘ashariyyah, is the largest branch of Shiism. It is a majority sect in Iran (where it is the state religion), Azerbaijan, Iraq, and Bahrain. Large communities of Twelver Shia Islam also live in Lebanon, India, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, with some in Afghanistan, Yemen, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, Qatar, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Tanzania and Chad as well.

The very term “Twelver”, which is a literal translation for “Athnā’ashariyyah ”, refers to the belief in twelve divinely ordained Imams: twelve male descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. For them, the Twelve Imams are infallible men, who not only rule over the ummah (the community) with justice but are also best qualified to interpret the esoteric meaning of the Quran. Like other Muslim groups, the Twelver Shiites fully accept the unity of God, the Quran as the words of God and Muhammad as the last messenger. But in addition to the words and the deeds of Muhammad, they consider the words and the deeds of the infallible Imams from the household of the prophet, a divine reference point for the community of believers.

To Shia Muslims, Imam Ali, who is the Fourth Caliph for Sunni Muslims, is the first Imam and rightful successor to Muhammad. All the other Imams who were the descendants of Ali were killed, hence they all considered as martyrs. The battle of Karbala (680) has profound symbolic significance for the followers of this sect. In the battle of Karbala, Imam Hussain ibn Ali, the son of Ali and the grandson of Muhammad, was killed by men of the Umayyad sect. The Twelver Shiites commemorate this event every year on the day of Ashura.

There is a strong messianic element in the Twelver Shiism, as Shia Muslims believe that the last Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, never died and in fact lives in occultation. So according to their traditions, he will emerge one day to reinstate social justice. They also believe that the return of al-Mahdi, also called the Hidden Imam, will come about at the same time as the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, who will aid the final Mahdi against the Masih ad-Dajjal, an evil figure in Islam.

There are some theological divisions in Twelver Shiism. Perhaps the most important one is the divide between the Akhbaris and the Usulis. Unlike Usulis, Akhbaris do not follow the Mara’ja Taqleed (or scholars), who practice the modern form of ijtihad (or independent legal reasoning). For them, Taqleed is acceptable only when it is performed by an infallible Imam.

Iran was a Sunni majority country until the early 16th century, when a dynasty of Turkish culture, the Safavids, emerged and made Twelver Shiism the official religion. Today Iran is the only country which has adopted the Twelver Shiism as the state religion.


The Zaidiyyah (Zaidi) sect of Shia Islam is named after Zayd ibn ʿAlī, grandson of Ḥussain ibn ʿAli. They believe that Zayd was the true Imam because he led an unsuccessful rebellion against the caliph of the Umayyads, Hisham, in 740.

They do not recognize a true Imam until he actively fights against tyrants. Therefore, unlike the Twelver Shiites, the Zaidis recognize Zayd ibn Ali as the true fifth Imam, because of his military campaign against the Umayyad dynasty, which they believe was illegitimate. Most Twelver Shiites believe that Zayd’s brother Muhammad al-Baqir was the true Fifth Imam. The Zaidis do not recognize him because he did not fight the Umayyad dynasty.

The Zaydis established their first state in Tabaristan in northern Iran along the Caspian Sea in 864, and it lasted until the death of its leader at the hand of the Samanids in 928. Forty years later, the state was re-established in the neighboring region of Gilan, which is in north-western Iran, and lasted under Hasanid leaders until the 12th century. In Yemen, a Zaydi state was established in 893 and survived until the death of its last imam in 1962. The Houthis are part of the Shia Zaidi branch in Yemen.

Theologically the Shia Zaidis are closer to the majority Sunnites than the other Shiites. They disagree on some fundamental principles with the Twelver Shiites. For example, they do not believe in the messianic notion of the Hidden Imam, al-Mahdi. They do not believe the imams receive divine guidance, hence they are not considered as infallible. They also do not believe that the Imamate (leadership) should necessarily pass from father to son, as long as it is held by any descendant of Imam Ali.

The Ismaili Branch

The Ismaili sect, formed during the late 8th and early 9th centuries, stressed the dual nature of Quranic interpretation as both exoteric (external reality) and esoteric (internal knowledge). Ismailis view the family of the Prophet Muḥammad as divinely chosen, infallible, and guided by God to lead the Islamic community. Ismailis believe that each Imam has the Noor, or Light of God, among him, which is passed down in the line of the prophet.

The story of the Ismaili divergence from the Twelver Shiites is again over leadership and succession. The Twelver Shiites believe that after Imam Jaʿfar’s death (765), Imam Mūsā al-Kāẓim takes the position of the Imamate, or leadership, but the Islamilis opted to follow another son of Imam Jaʿfar, Ismaʿil. Hence, this branch of Shiism is known as the Ismaili. Some of them believed that Ismail was the seventh and last Imam. Hence, they are known as the Seveners, who later claimed that Ismail’s son Muḥammad al-Tamm will return at the end of the world as the Mahdi to reinstate justice.

However, the majority of the Ismailis believe that the imamate line continues. Despite their small size, they went to become a very influential Islamic sect as they eventually managed to establish the Fāṭimid dynasty (909–1171) in North Africa, which later spread to Egypt and briefly took power in the Levant. The legendary Assassins or Nizārīs, a religious and political movement derived from the Ismailis, also proselytized in other places such as Iraq. Iran is also connected to them.

There is a difference between the Nizari Ismaili and Mustaali Ismaili – and again, it is over the issue of leadership and succession. The Nizaris accepted Imam Nizar I as the nineteenth Imam, while the Mustaalis opt for Nizar’s younger brother Mustali. The Nizari Muslims are currently headed by Aga Khan IV, who is known as Imam Shah Karim Al Hussaini. He is the 49th hereditary Imam of the Ismaili Shiites. He has been the living Imam since 1957, when he was only 20. Aga Khan IV is an unusual Muslim spiritual leader: he holds British citizenship and lives in France with a degree from Harvard University. About 10 years ago, he was among the top 15 of the world’s wealthiest royals, according to Forbes magazine, with an estimated wealth of $1bn (£770m). In 2013, The Muslim Times described the Aga Khan as a “paradox”. It wrote: “The Pope of his flock, he also possesses fabled wealth and inhabits a world of marvelous châteaux, yachts, jets, and Thoroughbred horses. To be sure, few persons bridge so many divides – between the spiritual and the material; East and West; Muslim and Christian – as gracefully as he does.”