Click here to skip to content
Elements of Abrahamic Faiths banner

Faith: Divisions

There are many different groupings within each of the three religions.

Judaism has Orthodox, Reform and Liberal among its movements. Christianity includes the Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Eastern churches, with countless subdivisions. In Islam there are Sunnis and Shias.



Orthodox Judaism is the oldest form of Jewish observance. The commandments contained in the Torah are considered divine and followed in a way that is interpreted and codified in traditional Rabbinic writings.

Reform Judaism, which started in 19th-century Germany, does not consider Rabbinic law binding and interprets the Torah more flexibly in the modern world, while trying to preserve Jewish heritage. It is more prevalent in the USA than the UK.

The 20th-century UK movement of Liberal Judaism has a more liberal interpretation of Jewish law based on a belief in progressive revelation.

Masorti (traditional) Judaism (known as Conservative Judaism in the USA is another of the main Jewish movements.

Hasidic Judaism, a mystical ultra-Orthodox strand is characterised by traditional dress and strict observance of the Torah.

In terms of family ancestry, Jews may describe themselves as Sephardic (originally from Spain, North Africa or the Middle East) or Ashkenazi (originally from northern or eastern Europe).



Half the world's Christians are Roman Catholic: 800–1000 million people. There is a firm structure of beliefs and moral codes, with an emphasis on prayer and ritual. Jesus's mother, Mary, is venerated. Attendance at Mass is important. The authority and power of the church, under the Pope in Rome, is paramount.

The Orthodox and Eastern churches (200–300 million people) also emphasise tradition, ritual and icons. They have no single head, but a system of patriarchs. They are prevalent in countries such as Greece, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Egypt and Ethiopia.

The split into Catholic and Orthodox (the Great Schism) happened in 1054. It roughly divided western Europe (centred on Rome) and eastern Europe (historically centred on Constantinople, today's Istanbul).

Protestant churches, such as the Lutherans (c. 70 million people), date from the reforms of the German Martin Luther in 1517. He broke from Catholicism by emphasising personal faith not church authority, and services in local languages not Latin. Protestants are widespread in Germany and Scandinavia for instance.

The Anglican church (Church of England, c. 55 million people in the English-speaking world) is not Protestant or Catholic, but sits between the two. It formed in 1534 when Henry VIII split from Rome.

There are various other 'free' churches (that is, without a hierarchy) such as Baptists and Methodists.



The Sunni and Shia forms of Islam arose after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. Some believed the leadership of the Muslim community should descend through Muhammad's family to his cousin and son-in-law, Ali; they became known as Shia Muslims. Others thought the leadership should pass to Muhammad's friend and associate Abu-Bakr; they became known as Sunni Muslims.

The two groups interpret holy writings differently because of the emphasis they give certain authors. The concept of martyrdom plays an important part in Shia Muslim history and thought, originating in the deaths of Ali and Husayn, the Prophet's grandson.

Both Shia and Sunni Muslims can be Sufi. A Sufi Muslim tries to come close to God by achieving mystical inner knowledge. The qawwali, a deep spiritual song in praise of God, is associated with Sufism.

In Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Wahhabism is a dominant form of Islam. It is strict and puritanical, believing that for example listening to music is contrary to Islam.

The majority of the 1,000–1,500 million Muslims in the world are Sunni (over 90%). In Iran, however, Shia Muslims form the majority.

Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jew in a London street

Cathedral of Saint Sophia. Greek Orthodox Church, Bayswater, London

Wesley’s Chapel. Methodist congregation, Shoreditch, London

Shia Shrine, Karachi, Pakistan

Sufi dancer Zia Azazi in the British Library, May 2007