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The Muslim world can be divided into two main sects: Shiah and Sunni.

Though essentially following the same beliefs and tenets, they differ on two points: the succession to Prophet Muhammad, and the religious authority in Islam after him.
The Shiahs consider Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet as his rightful heir. They maintain that Ali was the first legitimate Imam or Khalifah (Caliph) and therefore reject Abu Bakr, Omar and Usman, the first three Khalifahs of the Sunni Muslims, as usurpers. They maintain that Ali was nominated to lead the Muslims by the Prophet himself, who in turn nominated his successors or Imams.


Shiism is a minority branch of Islam which makes up about one tenth of the total population of the Muslim world. The Shiites form an important part of the population in a number of Arab countries like Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and Iran.

There are two main shiite sects:

(a) The "Twelvers" (from the Arabic, "Ithna", twelve) are by far the largest group of Shiah Islam. Within the Arab world they form about half the population of Iraq and there are Twelver minorities in Lebanon, Bahrain and in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia. The Twelvers believe that the line of Ali became extinct with al-Askari, the Twelfth Imam, who mysteriously disappeared in 873 AD. They however refuse to accept that al-Askari died and believe that he will appear shortly before the end of the world.

(b) The Ismailites or Seveners are the second largest shiite sect, spread thinly throughout the Muslim world. In the Arab world there are concentrations in Egypt and Syria
. Their spiritual leader is the Aga Khan. The Ismailites only recognize the seven first Imams.

The word Sunnism comes from the Arabic as-Sunna (a collection of six books of sayings "hadith" attributed to the Prophet). It is the main branch of Islam and recognizes the legitimacy of the first four Khalifahs or Caliphs.

The Sunnis believe that the office of the Prophet was not hereditary and no one could claim to be his sole heir. According to them, it was for the community to choose one amongst themselves as their leader or the

There are four orthodox sects or schools of jurisprudence among the Sunni Muslims i.e. Hanafiyah (followers of Imam Abu Hanifah), Shafiyah (followers of Imam Ash-Shafii), Malakiyah (followers of Imam Malik) and Hanbaliyah (followers of Imam Ahmed Bin Hanbal).

The word Caliph, in Arabic Khalifah, which originally means 'successor' or 'deputy', is used to designate the Prophet’s successor as leader of the Muslim community. This title was used by the successive Arab empires (Umayyad, Abassid and other rival dynasties) and by the Ottoman sultans. The Ottoman Caliphate was maintained for two years after the abolition of the Sultanate, until it was itself abolished by Kemal Ataturk in February 1924. Several unsuccessful attempts were made between the two World Wars to restore it.

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