The notion of an “Arab world” as a synonym for all countries with a Muslim majority may lead to confusion. Islam, like other religions, has different branches. The two main branches of Islam are: Sunnism, which is followed by 70% of Muslims,[1] the name of which is derived from Sunna (or “tradition”), and which recognises the four Righteously Guided Caliphs[2] as legitimate successors of Muhammad; and Shiʿism,[3] the name of which comes from a contraction of Shīʿatu ʿAlī (or “the followers of Ali”) who was the nephew and son-in-law of Muhammad and is believed to be his natural and designated successor. Saudi Arabia and Iran present themselves at the head of Sunni and Shia Islam respectively. They follow a lunar calendar, called Hijrī, that starts in 622.

It might seem obvious that Muslims are those who follow the teachings of Islam, and consider Muhammad as God’s Messenger, to whom the divine message was revealed – a message which was recorded in the Quran[4] in Arabic. However, not all Muslims can read in Arabic and the teaching is accordingly adapted. Although Islam was born in the Arabian Peninsula, and Allah’s message is considered to have been revealed in Arabic, most Muslims do not speak Arabic as their mother tongue, and are therefore not considered as Arabs. The five countries with the largest Muslim populations are not Arab countries. The Muslim populations of Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria add up to 864 million, or approximately 48 percent of the estimated total world Muslim population of 1.8 billion.[5]

In Sunni Islam, there are four Islamic legal schools:[6] Mâlikî,[7] Hanafî,[8] Hanbalî[9] and Shâfi‘î[10]. The main currents of Shi’ism are the Twelvers[11] and the Alawis[12] (called Alevis, in Turkey). There are other branches of Islam, such as the Ahmadis,[13] Druzes[14] and Ibadis,[15] as well as approaches like Sufism,[16] which are accepted to greater or lesser degrees by mainstream Islam.

The main pan-Islamic organisations are: the Organisation of Islamic Countries,[17] based in Jeddah and composed of 57 countries[18]; ICESCO,[19] composed of 54 countries and based in Rabat; the Muslim World League[20], a pan-Islamic NGO based in Mecca; and the League of Arab States.

The “Arab World” is a term referring to countries where Arabic is the main or official language. The League of Arab States has 22 members,[21] all of which consider themselves “Arab countries”.

Although the term Arabs[22] described initially the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula, today it tends to represent people who live in Arab countries, speak Arabic and share an Arabic culture. Although there is a very strong will for homogenisation within these countries, some linguistic, religious and cultural minorities have managed to remain in the territory. Some object to being called “Arabs”. These communities include the Berbers, Nubians, Copts, “Phoenicians”, and Kurds, all of whom claim non-Arabic linguistic, cultural and religious origins or backgrounds.

Some of the religious minorities in majority Muslim countries, mainly Christians, are indigenous. Jews have almost disappeared from these countries.[23] Yezidis, Baha’is, or other Muslim minorities, enjoy varying levels of freedom within Muslim countries.



[1] ‘Sunni Islam’, Britannica, (accessed 5th January 2021); Frederick Mathewson Denny, ‘Sunni Islam’, Oxford Bibliographies, 19th May 2017;

[2] ‘Caliph Islamic title’, by Asma Afsaruddin, Britannica; (accessed 5th January 2021); ‘Caliph and Caliphate’, by James E. Sowerwine, Oxford Bibliographies, 10th May 2017;

[3] ‘Shiʿi Islam’, by Andrew J. Newman, Britannica; (accessed 5th January 2021); Andrew A. Newman, ‘Shi`i Islam’, Oxford Bibliographies, 19th May 2017;

[4] ‘Qur’an’, by Andrew Rippin, Oxford Bibliographies, 29th September 2014;

[5] World Religion Database, Todd M. Johnson and Brian J. Grim, eds., Leiden/Boston, Brill, 2021.

[6] ‘Islamic Law’, by Allan Christelow, Oxford Bibliographies, 27th February 2019;

[7] ‘Mālikī Islamic law’, Britannica;; Delfina Serrano, ‘Mālikīs’, Oxford Bibliographies, 30th July 2014;

[8] ‘Ḥanafī school Islamic law’, Britannica;; ‘The Hanafi School’, by Christie S. Warren, Oxford Bibliographies, 28th May 2013;

[9] ‘Ḥanbalī school Islamic law’ by Ahmed El Shamsy, Britannica;; Livnat Holtzman, ‘Ḥanbalīs’, Oxford Bibliographies, 10th March 2015;

[10] ‘Shāfiʿī Islamic law’, Britannica;; ‘Shafiʿis’, by Ahmed el Shamsy, Oxford Bibliographies, 19th May 2017;

[11] ‘Twelver Shiʿa’, by Andrew A. Newman, Oxford Bibliographies, 25th May 2011;

[12] ‘Alawis’, by Stephan Prochazka, Oxford Bibliographies, 28th May 2013;

[13] ‘The Ahmadiyyah Movement’, by Yohanan Friedmann, Oxford Bibliographies, 19th May 2017;

[14] ‘Druze’, by Hussam Timani, Oxford Bibliographies, 24th July 2018;

[15] ‘Ibadiyya’, by Martin Custers, Oxford Bibliographies, 24th July 2018;

[16] ‘Sufism’, by Marcia Hermansen, Oxford Bibliographies,19th May 2017;

[17] ‘Organization of the Islamic Cooperation Islamic organization’;, Britannica;

[18] ‘Organization of the Islamic Cooperation Islamic organization’;

[19] ‘ICESCO’, Kaiicid Dialogue Centre,

[20] ‘The Muslim World League’;

[21] ‘The Arab League’, Council on Foreign Relations;

[22] ‘Arab people’, Britannica;

[23] See ACN reports on Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.