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Schism (religion)

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The word schism (English pronunciation: /ˈsɪzəm/ or /ˈskɪzəm/), from the Greek σχίσμα, skhísma (from σχίζω, skhízō, "to tear, to split"), means a split or a division, usually in an organization or a movement. A schismatic is a person who creates or incites schism in an organization or who is a member of a splinter group. The word is most frequently and usefully used about a religious division that occur with a religious body with a defined organisation and hierarchy. Thus it is difficult to talk about Hindu schisms, or Jewish ones since Antiquity. Schismatic as an adjective means pertaining to a schism or schisms, or to those ideas, policies, etc. that are thought to lead towards or promote schism. More generally, especially outside of religion the word schism may refer to the separation/split between two or more people, be it brothers, friends, lovers, etc. or any division of a formerly united from the state movement in politics or any other field into two or more disagreeing groups.


In Buddhism, the first schism was set up by Devadatta, during Buddha's life. This schism didn't last long, and Devadatta later apologized for his misdeeds. Later (after Buddha's death), the early Buddhist schools came into being due to various schisms, but there is still some unclarity concerning the specific schisms that occurred, and the order in which they occurred. In the old texts, 18 or 20 early schools are mentioned. Later, there were the Mahayana and Vajrayana movements, which can be regarded as being schismatic in origin. Each school has various subgroups, which often are schismatic in origin. For example, in Thai Theravadin Buddhism there are two groups (Mahanikaya and Dhammayut), of which the Dhammayut has its origin partly in the Mahanikaya, and is the new and schismatic group. Both Mahanikaya and Dhammayut have many subgroups, which usually do not have schismatic origins, but came into being in a natural way, through the popularity of a (leader) monk. Tibetan Buddhism has seen schisms in the past, of which most were healed, although the Drukpa school centred in Bhutan perhaps remains in a state of schism (since 1616) from the other Tibetan schools. In recent years political manipulation from China has attempted to create further schisms among Tibetan Buddhists. But since the religious authority of the Dalai Lama is uncertainly defined, schism in Tibetan Buddhism is hard to detect.



The historical development of major church branches from their roots. The different width of the lines (thickest for "Protestantism" and thinnest for "Oriental Orthodox" and "Nestorians") is without objective significance. Protestantism in general, and not just Restorationism, claims a direct connection with Early Christianity.

The words schism and schismatic have found their heaviest usage in the history of Christianity, to denote splits within a church or religious body. In this context, "schismatic", as a noun, denotes a person who creates or incites schism in a church or is a member of a splinter Church and, as an adjective, refers to ideas and activities that are thought to lead to or to constitute schism, and so departure from what the user of the word considers to be the true Christian Church. These words have been used to denote both the phenomenon of Christian group splintering in general, and certain significant historical splits in particular.

Some religious groups make a distinction[1] between heresy and schism. Heresy is rejection of a doctrine that a Church considered to be essential. Schism is a rejection of communion with the authorities of a Church, and this term has historically been applied to such a break when there was no dispute about doctrine.

The First Council of Nicaea distinguished between the two. It declared Arian and non-Trinitarian teachings to be heretical and excluded their adherents from the Church. It also addressed the schism between Peter of Alexandria and Meletius of Lycopolis, considering their quarrel to be about a matter of discipline, not of faith.

The divisions that came to a head at the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon were seen as matters of heresy, not merely of schism. Thus, the Eastern Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodoxy consider each other to be heretical, not orthodox, because of the Oriental Orthodox Church's rejection and the Eastern Orthodox Church's acceptance of the Confession of Chalcedon about the two natures, human and divine, of Christ.

An individual who withdraws from communion with the authorities of a Church, but who is neither expelled from it nor formally breaks with it, remains a member, though a disobedient one.[2] On the other hand, when it is a group and not just individuals who withdraw from communion, two distinct ecclesiastical entities result. Often, each of the two then accuses the other of heresy.

In Roman Catholic Church canon law, an act of schism, like an act of apostasy or heresy, automatically brings on the individual concerned the penalty of excommunication.[3] As stated in canon 1312 §1 1° of the Code of Canon Law, this penalty is intended to be medicinal, so as to lead to restoration of unity.

The Nicene Creed declares belief in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Those who accept this creed therefore generally believe they should be united in a single Church or group of Churches in communion with each other. The ancient Churches consider that they represent the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church: for instance, the Roman Catholic Church claims that title and considers the Eastern Orthodox Church to be in schism, while the Eastern Orthodox Church also claims that title and holds that the Catholic Church is schismatic and probably heretical; some Protestant Churches believe that they also represent the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and consider the Orthodox and Catholic Churches to be in error, whilst others have in effect abandoned any expectation of a wholly united Church. See also Great Apostasy.

A current dispute with an acknowledged risk of schism for the Anglican Communion is that over homosexuality.

It has been recently suggested that the Roman Catholic Church in Poland might be heading for a schism. The potential breakaway church led by Father Rydzyk was named "The Rydzyk Church of Poland"[1], an ironic expression, or the "Toruń-Catholic Church" (in Polish: kościół toruńsko-katolicki). In Poland the latter term is sometimes used to refer to the ideology of Father Rydzyk and his followers who are known as the Radio Maryja Family.


Over the period of time after the death of the last Prophet of Islam, Muhammed, there have arisen many Muslim sects by means of schools of thought, traditions and related faiths.[4][5]

However, the central text of Islam, the Qur'an ordains that Muslims are not to be divided into divisions or sects and rather be united under a common goal of faith in one God and acceptance of Muhammad as the prophet of Allah, failure to do which has also been deemed a sin by God and thus forbidden.[6:149][6:159]

According to a Hadith (collections of accounts of the life and teachings of Muhammed) report, Muhammed is said to have prophecised "My Ummah (Community or Nation) will be fragmented into seventy-three sects, and all of them will be in the Hell fire except one." The Sahaba (his companions) asked him which group that would be, whereupon he replied, "It is the one to which I and my companions belong" (reported in Sunan al-Tirmidhi Hadith No. 171).

The Qur'an also ordains that the followers of Islam need to 'obey Allah and obey the Messenger (i.e. Prophet Muhammed)' stressing on the importance of keeping the commandments mentioned in the Qur'an by Allah, and following all the teachings of Muhammed,[4:59]; labeling everyone who concurs as a 'Muslim'[22:78] and a part of the 'best of communities brought forth from mankind'.[3:110]

Sunni Muslims, often referred to as Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l-Jamā‘h or Ahl as-Sunnah, are the largest denomination of Islam.

The word Sunni comes from the word Sunnah, which means the teachings and actions or examples of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad. Therefore, the term Sunni refers to those who follow or maintain the Sunnah of Muhammad.

The Sunni believe that Muhammad died without appointing a successor to lead the Muslim ummah (community). After an initial period of confusion, a group of his most prominent companions gathered and elected Abu Bakr, Muhammad's close friend and father-in-law, as the first Caliph. Sunnis regard the first four caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar (`Umar ibn al-Khattāb), Uthman Ibn Affan and Ali (Ali ibn Abu Talib) as the al-Khulafā’ur-Rāshidūn or "Rashidun" (The Rightly Guided Caliphs).

Sunnis believe that the position of Caliph may be democratically chosen, but after the first four Rightly Guided Caliphs the position turned into a hereditary dynastic rule. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, there has never been another widely recognized Caliph.

Shia Islam is the second largest denomination of Islam. Shi`a Muslims believe that, similar to the appointment of prophets, Imams after Muhammad are also chosen by God. According to Shi`as, Ali was chosen by Allah and thus appointed by Muhammad to be the direct successor and leader of the Muslim community. They regard him as the first Shia Imam, which continued as a hereditary position through Fatimah and Ali's descendants.

Not strictly a denomination, Sufism is a mystical-ascetic form of Islam practised by both shia and Sunni Muslims. By focusing on the more spiritual aspects of religion, Sufis strive to obtain direct experience of God by making use of "intuitive and emotional faculties" that one must be trained to use.[6] Sufism is usually considered to be complementary to orthodox Islam, although Sufism has been criticized by many Muslims for being an unjustified Bid‘ah or religious innovation. One starts with sharia (Islamic law), the exoteric or mundane practice of Islam and then is initiated into the mystical (esoteric path of a Tariqah (Sufi Order). Sufi followers consider themselves Sunni or Shia , while there are a few others who consider themselves as just 'Sufi' or Sufi-influenced.

Kharijite (lit. "those who seceded") is a general term embracing a variety of Islamic sects which, while originally supporting the Caliphate of Ali, eventually rejected his legitimacy after he negotiated with Mu'awiya during the 7th Century Islamic civil war (First Fitna).[7] Their complaint was that the Imam must be spiritually pure, and that Ali's compromise with Mu'awiya was a compromise of his spiritual purity, and therefore of his legitimacy as Imam or Caliph. While there are few remaining Kharijite or Kharijite-related groups, the term is sometimes used to denote Muslims who refuse to compromise with those with whom they disagree.


Throughout the Jewish history, Judaism survived many schisms. Today, major Jewish denominations are Orthodox Judaism and non-Orthodox: Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist.






  1. Catechism of the Eastern Orthodox Church, p. 42; The Concordia Cyclopedia quoted in Unionism and Syncretism - and PLI; Orthodox Practice - Choosing God-parents; Code of Canon Law, canon 751
  2. "Heresy (whether formal or material), schism and apostasy do not in themselves constitute a formal act of defection, if they are not externally concretized and manifested to the ecclesiastical authority in the required manner"(circular letter 10279/2006 of 13 March 2006 from the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts to Presidents of Episcopal Conferences).
  3. Code of Canon Law, canon 1364
  4. So Many Different Groups of Muslims by Sheikh Yusuf Estes
  5. Why are Muslims divided into different Sects/Schools of Thought by Dr. Zakir Naik on
  6. Trimingham (1998), p.1
  7. Overview of Kharijite islam

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