Islam: Sunnis and Shiites Page: 4 of 6
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The four legal schools, which vary on certain issues from strict to broad legal
interpretations, are the (1) Hanafi: this is the oldest school of law. It was founded in Iraq
by Abu Hanifa (d. 767 AD). It is prevalent in Turkey, Central Asia, the Balkans, Iraq,
Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh; (2) Maliki: this
was founded in the Arabian Peninsula by Malik ibn Anas (d. 795 AD). It is prevalent in
North Africa, Mauritania, Kuwait, and Bahrain; (3) Shaf'i: this school was founded by
Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi'i (d. 819 AD). It is prevalent in Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia,
Somalia, parts of Yemen, Indonesia, and Malaysia; and (4) Hanbali: this was founded by
Ahmad Hanbal (d. 855). It is prevalent in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, parts of Oman, and the
United Arab Emirates.
Sectarian Divisions. Sunni Islam has had less prominent sectarian divisions than
Shiite Islam. The Ibadi sect, which is centered mostly in Oman, East Africa, and in parts
of Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia, has been sometimes misrepresented as a Sunni sect. Ibadi
religious and political dogma generally resembles basic Sunni doctrine, although the
Ibadis are neither Sunni nor Shiite. Ibadis believe strongly in the existence of a just
Muslim society and argue that religious leaders should be chosen by community leaders
for their knowledge and piety, without regard to race or lineage.
The Sunni puritanical movement called "Wahhabism" has become well known in
recent years and is arguably the most pervasive revivalist movement in the Islamic world.2
This movement, founded in Arabia by the scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab
(1703-1791 AD), is considered to be an offshoot of the Hanbali school of law. Abd
al-Wahhab encouraged a return to the orthodox practice of the "fundamentals" of Islam,
as embodied in the Quran and in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. In the eighteenth
century, Muhammad ibn Saud, founder of the modern-day Saudi dynasty, formed an
alliance with Abd al-Wahhab and unified the disparate tribes in the Arabian Peninsula.
From that point forward, there has been a close relationship between the Saudi ruling
family and the Wahhabi religious establishment. The most conservative interpretations
of Wahhabi Islam view Shiites and other non-Wahhabi Muslims as dissident heretics.
Following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Shiite Islamic revolution in Iran,
Saudi Arabia's ruling Sunni royal family began more actively promoting Wahhabi
religious doctrine abroad and has since financed the construction of Wahhabi-oriented
mosques, religious schools, and Islamic centers in dozens of countries.
Shiite Islam: Development and Basic Tenets
Initially, the Shiite movement gained a wide following in areas that now include Iraq,
Iran, Yemen, and parts of Central and South Asia. In most of the world, Shiites would
continue as a minority. Today, according to some estimates, Shiite Islam is practiced
among approximately 10% to 15% of the world's Muslim population.
Leadership of the Community. For Shiites, the first true leader of the Muslim
community is Ali, who is considered an imam, a term used among Shiites not only to
indicate leadership abilities but also to signify blood relations to the Prophet Muhammad.
As Ali's descendants took over leadership of the Shiite community, the functions of an
2 See CRS Report RS21695, The Islamic Traditions of Wahhabism and Salafiyya, by Christopher
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Islam: Sunnis and Shiites, report, December 11, 2006; Washington D.C.. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc805544/m1/4/: accessed January 23, 2019), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.