Sunni and Shia Islam
The division between the Sunnis and the Shia is the largest and oldest in the history of Islam.
* Sunni branches
The Khariji`i were the first group to break with the larger Islamic community in CE 658. Believing in absolute purity of conduct and belief, the Khariji`i attached everyone they considered an apostate. They exist today in small groups in North Africa and southern Arabia.
The Muwahhidun (Wahhabis) adhere to the teachings of Ibn Taimiya condemning all innovations in Islam. These teachings were adopted as the official doctrine of Arabia by the Sa`ud family in 1803.
* Shi`a branches
The Imami (Twelvers) believe that the twelfth Imam after Ali is now hidden. The Imami are the dominant branch of Shi`a Islam and are found in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and especially Iran, where they form the majority. This branch of Shi`a Islam was made the official religion of Iran at the beginning of the Safavid Dynasty in 1501.
The Ismaili (Seveners) came to power in Egypt during the Fatimid Dynasty in the tenth century and believe in only seven Imams following Ali. Various small groups of Ismaili are found today in Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, India, Yemen, and East Africa, but their precise numbers are difficult to establish.
The Alawite of Syria and the Druze , found mainly in Lebanon, Israel, and Syria, are thought by many to be offshoots of the Ismaili. The Druze community was closed to outsiders in 1043 and the details of their doctrine remain secret, but it is generally believed to be a movement that grew up around the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim, who proclaimed himself divine in 1017. Its relationship to Islam is mostly historical, as the Druze diverge greatly from mainstream Islamic believe and practice.
The Zaidi accept five Imams after Ali, ending with Zaid ibn Ali, but they do not accept the concept of the Hidden Imam. They are found in Yemen, where they established a state in the beginning of the tenth century.
The Sufi are the mystics of Islam. They follow an ascetic lifestyle in search of the truth, and some believe in the possibility of obtaining a mystical union with God through ritual dancing, music, or meditation. Over time, the Sufi organized themselves into orders that may loosely compared to Christian monastic orders. These orders provided a way to popularize Islam among the general population, especially in the non-Arab Muslim world. Aspects of popular Sufism can be seen in many activities of daily life: for example, songws that are sung—especially by women—when rocking children to sleep, grinding grain, sweeping, and other repetitive activities. Some of Islam's greatest poets and philosophers have been Sufi.