No sects, please, we're Muslims?

How did sect get to be a pejorative? And how should we refer to Shiites and Sunnis – are they different sects? Is it better to refer to them as branches of Islam?

And if sect is not the right word for the two groups, is sectarian the right word to describe the violence between them in Iraq? Those are questions that have been kicking around the Monitor newsroom in the wake of last week's article "Sunni vs. Shiite."

The two "quick definitions" of sect offered by hint at the range of this word. The first is "a subdivision of a larger religious group." Fairly neutral, that. It anchors the word in the world of faith, but without any particular emotional freight.

The second definition is "a dissenting clique." Now dissent is an honorable concept, rooted deeply in the worlds of theology, the law, and public affairs. The Anglo-Polish mathematician Jacob Bronowski asked, "Has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetime."

But who would describe himself as a member of "a dissenting clique"? Only someone with a well-developed sense of irony or self-deprecation, meseems.

A clique is a group of friends or associates who literally just click, that is, make noise together. ("Click" in the informal sense of "to hit it off with someone" goes back only to the early 20th century.) The connotation of clique is of a tight group that doesn't readily admit newcomers.

So sect is a term of religious classification, but the odor of quirkiness or even crankiness clings to it. A suggestion of splinteriness, of distinct minority status, is part of it, too. Sect also tends to suggest allegiance to a particular leader within a larger movement. It has more of an edge than denomination, a neutral term to refer to various groupings, generally within Protestantism.

But where does sect really come from? I went into this one with an amateur etymologist's working hypothesis: Obviously, sect is related to section, to something cut off or sliced up somehow – as in bisect, dissect, cross section, etc.

Not so, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It comes to English through French from the Latin secta, meaning "a following," or by extension, a party or faction. The OED acknowledges in its little note on the subject that many people speculate on the root secare, to cut. But no, the Latin root that seems more plausible, to the OED's collective wisdom, is sequi, as in sequel, sequence, and consequence. And sectarian indeed comes from sect.

Both words are particularly rooted in the difficult religious history of 17th- century Britain. Sectarian was a term Presbyterians used to describe Independents, or Separatists. Later Anglicans used it to describe Nonconformists. Oxford's first citation for sectarian was from John Milton in 1649.

Sunni and Shiite Islam are often referred to as the main branches of Islam, rather the way Catholicism and Protestantism are the two broad divisions of Christianity.

But sects is definitely in use in connection with Islam, too, particularly with reference to smaller groups within the religion – Druze, Alawites, etc.

Scholars from around the world gathered in Doha, Qatar, last week to facilitate discussion among different branches, sects, and schools of thought within Islam. They condemned sectarian violence in Iraq and tried to see beyond differences and dissent.

Dr. Ahmed Mohamed al-Tayeb, president of Egypt's Al Azhar University, denounced the US for seeking to divide and conquer the Muslim world by overemphasizing sectarian differences. "The ongoing sectarian violence in Iraq cannot be justified, as both Sunnis and Shias agree on the same pillars of Islam," he told the Gulf Times.

This weekly column appears with links at

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