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Though the two major sects of Islam, Sunni, and Shia, agree on the majority of core Islamic principles and practices, a deep divide between the two dates back 14 centuries. The schism began with a disagreement over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad as the leader of the Islamic faith he established.

The most significant difference between them is their views on the rightful successor to Prophet Muhammad. While Sunnis believe in a consensus-based caliphate, Shias believe it should be passed down through Prophet Muhammad’s genealogy, specifically through his cousin Ali and his progeny. Here’s an introduction to the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

What was the cause of the Sunni-Shiite split?

Following Prophet Mohammad’s death in 632 A.D., there was a heated debate among Muslims about who should succeed Prophet Mohammad as the leader of the Islamic Community. The schism arose when Prophet Mohammad died without a male heir and never declared who should be his successor.

Both sides agreed that Allah is the one true God and Muhammad is his messenger; however, one group (later known as the Shiites) believed Muhammad’s successor should be someone from his bloodline, whereas the other (later known as the Sunnis) believed a pious individual who would follow the Prophet’s customs was acceptable.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, around 85 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are Sunni, with Shia accounting for 15 percent. While Shias make up the majority of the population in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan, as well as a sizable minority in Lebanon, Sunnis make up the majority in more than 40 other nations, spanning Morocco to Indonesia.

What are the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam?

Sunni and Shia Muslims share the same core principles of Islam. For example, both groups worship Allah as God, acknowledge Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) as the Prophet, and follow the teachings of the Qu’ran. However, there are significant disparities between Sunni and Shia Islam.

The two religions were initially united, but a schism developed following Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) death in 632 about who the genuine successor was.

How do Sunni and Shia Islam compare?

Population and Location

Sunni Muslims account for approximately 85% of the Muslim population, while Shia Muslims account for approximately 15%. To put this in context, there are around 1.6 billion Sunni Muslims and just shy of 200 million Shia Muslims. Furthermore, Sunni Muslims range from West Africa to Indonesia, whereas Shia Muslims are concentrated in the Middle East.

The Rightful Successor

The fundamental basis for the division between Sunni and Shia Muslims is their conflicting beliefs on who should have succeeded Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). As previously stated, Sunni Muslims believe that the first four caliphs were Muhammad’s rightful successors. However, Shia Muslims believe that Muhammad’s natural successor should have been a relative.

Religious hierarchy

Sunni Muslims allow the government to decide who becomes a leader. Alternatively, Shia Muslims have complete control over their structure, with clergy members always descended from Ali ibn Abi Talib.

Views of the afterlife

Both Sunni Islam and Shia Islam hold that there is an afterlife. Both denominations agree that there is a Paradise and Hell. The Sunnis and Shi’ites differ in their understanding of how to enter Paradise or Hell. Sunni Muslims believe that to reach Paradise, they must have faith in Allah and his prophets. They believe in the Quran’s noble actions and accept Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) as the final prophet. Even if they do all these things, they feel they are still subject to Allah’s judgment.

Shia Muslims, on the other hand, believe that following Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) and the Twelve Imams guarantees entry into Paradise.

Approaches to Prayer

Sunni and Shia Muslims believe in five daily prayers, although their methods of prayer differ significantly. Sunni Muslims, for example, say each of the five prayers independently, meaning they pray five times daily. However, Shia Muslims pray all five prayers in three sessions. Furthermore, Sunnis pray with their arms crossed over their chests, but Shi’ites pray with their arms at their sides. 

Beliefs About Imams

In Islam, the person who leads the prayers is the Imam. Imams are a vital part of the Muslim society. Imams are venerated and recognized as spiritual role models in Sunni, and being appointed requires a deep faith in the Quran and Sunnah. Imams are, however, only ordained by Allah in Shia Islam. Imams are the sole interpreters of the Quran, according to Shia Islam.

Beliefs About Self-Flagellation

Sunni Muslims oppose self-flagellation or flogging oneself, especially as a means of religious discipline. In Sunni Islam, self-flagellation is deemed sinful. On the other hand, Shia Muslims deliberately practice self-flagellation to honor and commemorate Hussein’s martyrdom.

 Views of Angels

Sunni Islam and Shia Islam both believe that angels exist and were created by God from light. Sunni Muslims believe that angels always obey God’s commands because they lack free will. However, Shia believe that angels have free will and, while they fulfill God’s commands, they might deviate and disobey them. Shi’ites say they are not disobedient because they do not want to sin.

Religious Texts and Practices

As previously stated, Sunni and Shia Muslims share numerous similarities despite their differences. One of the commonalities between the two groups is that they both adhere to the Qur’an, the Prophet’s hadith (sayings), and sunna (customs). They both follow the five pillars of Islam, which are:

  • Shahada (Profession of religion): When someone becomes a Muslim, they must confess their religion by uttering the following phrase: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) is God’s Messenger.” This notion lies at the heart of Islam.
  • Salat (Prayer): Muslims must pray five times daily, facing Mecca. Muslims pray by reciting the first chapter of the Quran (sura). Muslims can pray individually or in groups in the Mosque, with a leader (Imam) guiding the congregation.
  • Zakat (Alms): According to Islamic law, Muslims must donate a predetermined amount of their income to people in their community who are in need.
  • Sawm (Fasting): During Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, all healthy adult Muslims must abstain from all food and drink during the daytime. This is so that Muslims might rekindle their thankfulness for all God has provided them during fasting.
  • Hajj (Pilgrimage): Every Muslim must visit the holy city of Makkah in Saudi Arabia at least once if their health and money allow it. Muslims believe the Ka’bah, located at the center of the Haram Masjid in Makkah, is Abraham’s house. Muslims worldwide flock to Makkah to assemble around the Kaaba on the eighth. And the twelfth day of the Islamic calendar’s last month.

However, one distinction between Sunni and Shia Muslims is that Shia Muslims often have a negative attitude toward some of Prophet Muhammad’s (Peace Be Upon Him) associates. This is due to their conduct during the community’s early years of conflict over leadership.

Several of these companions have passed down traditions about the Prophet Muhammad’s (Peace Be Upon Him) life and spiritual practices. Shia Muslims reject all of these traditions and do not base their religious actions on their companions’ testimonies.

Final Words

Understanding the fundamental distinctions and similarities between Sunni and Shi’a Islam is critical for basic religious literacy in a world where ignorance of major religions is a considerable disadvantage. It is also valuable for understanding tensions between populations in the Middle East and the West.

However, despite the differences mentioned in this article, both Shia and Sunni Muslims recite the Quran, believe that Prophet Mohammad was Allah’s messenger, and practice Islamic tenets such as salah (daily prayer), sawm (fasting during Ramadan), Hajj (annual sacred Islamic pilgrimage to Makkah), zakat (charity to the poor), and pledging their faith.