Sunni Muslims comprise the largest group of Muslims in the world, and even among Sunnis there is great diversity. Generally they have no formal leadership hierarchy, such as that of the Catholic Church, and the leaders or imams are often simply respected members of the community who function as prayer leaders in the mosque and may be called upon to offer their educated advice on Muslim matters.
Shi'as are the second most common group of Muslim communities in the Muslim world, and there are a great variety of Shi'a groups. Shi'a communities generally are distinguished from Sunnis in their assertion of the privileged position of the Prophet Muhammad's family and descendants as leaders in the Muslim community. An imam in the Shi'a traditions then is not simply an appointed prayer leader, but a divinely instituted descendant of Muhammad. Ali, the fourth Caliph, is regarded as the first of 12 imams, and the 12th imam is believed to be in hiding until his apocalyptic return at the end of the age. Sufis comprise a variety of groups of Muslims who engage in ascetic and moral practices in an attempt to achieve mystical union with God. There are many different groups of Sufis, and not all Muslims acknowledge that Sufis are real Muslims. However, Sufis selfidentify as Muslims, and clearly build their practices on Islamic traditions.
MUSLIMS IN NORTH AMERICA TODAY
The first Muslims in North America were brought to America by force as slaves from Africa. Later, the first free Muslim immigrants were likely peddlers from Lebanon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are currently approximately 600,000 Muslims in Canada according to the 2001 census, an estimated 6 million in the United States, and 15, 000 in Mexico. Muslims in North America are on the whole very organized and established enough to maintain their Islamic identity in the North American context, adding their rich cultural heritage to these societies.
Many Muslim children learn to recite the Qur'an at a very young age. Even in countries where Muslims do not speak or understand Arabic, children are taught to recite the Qur'an in Arabic. There are even contests in which very young Muslim children attempt to recite the entire Qur'an from memory in public.
Children as young as 8 and 9 years of age have successfully memorized the entire Qur'an. Children are taught to proclaim the shahadah at a very young age, and Muslims continue to develop their understanding and practice of all the implications of that concise yet profound statement throughout their adolescence and adulthood. For children of Muslims who encourage observance of the daily prayers, salat marks out the sacred moments of every day when the shahadah is proclaimed, and one's body is prostrated in supreme humility and worship to Allah. Children are not required to fast during Ramadan, but many consider it a great honor when they reach the age they may participate in sawm during this sacred month. Neither are children required to pay zakat, and hajj too is something most Muslims do not participate in until they are adults. However, Muslim children of economically disadvantaged families and orphans are to benefit from zakat according to Islam, and all Muslim children likely look forward to participating in the hajj when they are old enough and able. Children make up a crucial part of the world's second-largest religion as they learn to embrace its ideas and participate in its practices.