Understanding the different sects of Islam
Muslims are not merely divided into liberal, secular, conservative, hard-liner, Islamist, and extremist, nor are they simply just Shiite or Sunni. There are also very different schools of thought and their views on issues from women’s rights to apostasy vary immensely from one another. I just want to focus on the major ones, to give people a better understanding of how diverse the Muslim world is.
Hanafi (Sunni) Muslims - The largest number of Sunni Muslims belong to the Hanafi school of thought. It is the major school of Islamic thought for most of the Muslims in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the former Soviet countries, as well as significant number of Muslims in India, China, Iraq, Russia, and the Caucasus.
Hanabali (Sunni) Muslims - Considered by many Muslims as the most extremist form of thought, Hanabali is the forerunner for the Wahabbi-Salafi extremist ideology in Saudi Arabia. Hanabali school of thought is found primarily in Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, with smaller numbers scattered around the world.
Maliki (Sunni) Muslims - The Maliki is the main school of thought in Africa, including North Africa. It is also very significant in the United Arab Emirates, and to a lesser extent parts of other Arab Gulf countries.
Shafai’i (Sunni) Muslims - This school of thought is followed mainly by Muslims in Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and other parts of Southeast Asia. It is also, to a smaller extent, followed in East Africa, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, by the Kurds, small parts of Egypt and Yemen.
Zahiri (Sunni) Muslims - A very tiny group within the Sunni schools of thought, Zahiris make up a small minority communities in Morocco and Pakistan.
Twelver (Shiite) Muslims - Often referred to just as Shiite, the twelvers are by far the largest group of Shiite Muslims in the world making up over 90% of all Shiite Muslims. They believe in “12 Imams” having succeeded Muhammad, with the 12th Imam expected to appear on judgement day with Jesus. Known as the Mahdi, he is said to bring peace to earth with Jesus. According to Shiite beliefs, the Mahdi will be looked upon to prepare for the reign of Jesus who will rule for a time after. The twelvers make up the majority of Muslims in in Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain, with lesser, but very significant populations in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Kuwait and the heavily persecuted community in Eastern province of Saudi Arabia.
Alawites (Shiite) Muslims - As a branch of the Twelver Shiites, they are a group of Muslims who incorporate many Christian and Gnostic elements in their beliefs, and seen as very secular. Historically they have been heavily persecuted and resorted to concealing their beliefs in Sunni ruled regions. They number around 3-5 million people scattered mainly in Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon.
Alevi (Shiite) Muslims - As a branch of the Twelver Shiites, they mainly focus on philosophy and tradition. They are also widely secular and they incorporate many sufi and non-Islamic elements in their customs. There are around 24 million Alevis worldwide, with the majority in Turkey, and the rest mainly in the Balkans, Albania, Azerbaijan, Iran and Syria.
Ismaili (Shiite) Muslims - The Ismailis and Twelver Shiites both accept the same initial Imams and share a lot in common. However, they disagree on the succession of the Sixth Imam. Most Ismaelis originate from the Indian subcontinent and many later migrated to Africa. Their population is around 15 million worldwide, and they are scattered in different parts of the world.
Druze (Shiite) Muslims - A very small number, branching from the Ismaili sect of Shiite Islam. They are one of the small groups of Muslim sects that do not accept converts. Some Druze do not even consider themselves as Muslims. There are currently around 2 million Druze in the world, with the majority in Syria, and smaller but very significant populations in Lebanon and Israel.
Zaidi (Shiite) Muslims - The Zaidis, similar to the Ismaeilis, share a great deal with the Twelver Shiite Muslims, as they all accept the same initial Imams. However, the Zaidis disagree on the succession of the 4th Imam, as to who should have been the 5th Imam, and hence they are sometimes referred to as “Fivers”. Their only major concentration is in Yemen, where they make up about 40% of the total Muslim population.
Sufi Muslims - Considered to the spiritualist mystical Muslims, the Sufis have been persecuted in many countries. Historically Turkey and Iran were the two major centres for the Sufis. In recent years Sufism has spread to several other countries, despite being persecuted, it is celebrated as a spiritual mystical form of Islam. Sufism, however, is not a separate sect, but more of an approach. There are Shiite Sufis and Sunni Sufis.
Ibadi Muslims - The only country where Ibadi Muslims have a significant following is Oman, with a significant number in Zanzibar as well. They are neither considered to be Sunni or Shiite.
Ahmadi Muslims - The Ahmadiyya community is a minority Muslim sect in every country of the world. There is no country that even comes close to being Ahmadiyya in its school of thought. Pakistan has the largest population of Ahmadi Muslims.
Note 1: The Jafari Shiite school of thought is the jurisprudence of most Shiite Muslims, followed by Twelvers, Alevis and Ismailis, as well as many of the Zaidis.
Note 2: There are many other smaller groups within Islam, and also several Islamic schools of thought which have gone extinct.