Differences Between Sunni And Shia Muslims

Despite differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims, both respect the Qur’an as the Holy Book.
Despite differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims, both respect the Qur’an as the Holy Book.

Basic Beliefs of Sunni Islam

The name Sunni is derived from the word “Sunnah” which means “tradition.” This sect believes that they follow the true tradition of the prophet Muhammad. Sunni Muslims practice Islam as their interpretation of Islamic law guides them. These interpretations follow four differing schools of thought: the Hanafi, the Maliki, the Shafi'i and the Hanbali. These are based on the teachings of 4 early Islamic scholars. Some Sunni Muslims believe that Islamic law should be based on only one of these interpretations, others believe it is acceptable to choose interpretations of specific issues from each scholar and mix the teachings.

Basic Beliefs of Shia Islam

Shia Muslims follow one principle school of thought: Jafariya. They believe that the Imam exists to provide moral and religious leadership to the world. These Imams have been appointed by God. In addition to the Qur’an, Shia practitioners honor the Nahj al-Balagha book which is a collection of the sermons by their first Imam.

Similarities between the Sunnis and Shias

The two sects, while different, also share many beliefs. They both believe that there is only one all-powerful God who created the world and all life in it. They also believe in a devil, angels, and demons. Shia and Sunni believe that Islam began in 610 CE when Muhammad, the last prophet, began receiving messages from God. These revelations were recorded in the Qur’an by his followers, which both sects respect as the Holy Book.

In practicing their religion, both groups recognize the Five Pillars of Islam which provide the framework for everyday life. These pillars include: testifying the existence of only one God and Muhammad as his prophet, taking part in prayer 5 times daily, giving charity, fasting during Ramadan, and making the pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca). These two sects also believe that the purpose of human life is to praise God so that one day the gates of Paradise will open for them.

What is the Difference between Sunni and Shia Islam?

Sunni followers believe that their prophet Muhammad did not appoint a specific successor before his death. After significant debate over several years, Sunni followers chose one of Muhammad’s fathers-in-law and a close friend, Abu Bakr Siddique, as their religious leader. Sunnis believe that the Imam, an important position within Islam, is the formal prayer leader. They also apply the teachings of the Qur’an to all of life and believe that individuals can approach God directly through prayer. In Sunni belief, God will present himself on Judgment Day.

Shia followers believe that their prophet Muhammad chose Ali ibn Abi Talib, his son-in-law, as successor. Their Imams are central figures and leaders of the community in Shia belief, they are the perfect manifestation of God. This branch of Islam relies more on the cleric’s interpretation of the Qur’an than on the individual’s relationship with God. Shia practitioners do not believe that humans will see God on Judgment Day.

This early division between Islam followers has led to additional distinct differences between the two. Over time, the Shia began to give more importance to specific Hadith and Sunnah literature, leaning toward those that were written by family and close associates of the Prophet. The Sunni, however gave the same importance to all Islamic literature. This difference has created a different understanding of Islamic law between the two. Shia followers also visit and honor shrines of past Imams, saints, and scholars. In the eyes of many Sunni, this is blasphemous and equivalent to worshipping other deities.

Some ritualistic differences can also be noted between the two. When Sunnis pray, they kneel so that their head touches their prayer mat. Shias, however, kneel so that their head touches bare earth or a small clay block taken from a holy place.

In leadership roles, the Shia have established a formal hierarchy among their clergy. Leaders arise from those with the most profound studies and they may teach all over the world. They fund their religious institutions through a mandatory tax. This hierarchy and taxation does not exist in Sunni Islam; because it is the majority religion in many places, the state often finances their religious institutions.

These are thus some of the basic differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

World Demographics

The Sunni branch is by far the largest denomination of Islam and represents 89-90% of all followers, they are located all over the world. Throughout the Middle East, their numbers are higher with large concentrations in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Aside from Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan, Sunnis constitute a larger population than Shia in any other country.

Shia are a minority sect making up only 10% to 13% of the total Muslim population. Calculating their population is difficult because unless they form a large minority group in their country, they are often counted as Sunni. Estimates hold that between 10% and 20% of the world’s Muslims are Shia. This number reaches approximately 200 million. They make up the majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan. They also have a strong presence, roughly 30% of the population, in Lebanon, Yemen, and Kuwait. In Turkey, they make up just over 20% of the population and are between 10% and 20% in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Shia-Sunni Relations Today

Today, relations between Shias and Sunnis continue to be strained. Where Sunnis are the majority and hold political power, Shias tend to live in poor conditions. They believe these conditions are due to Sunni oppression and discrimination. Extreme Sunni fundamentalists claim that Shias are heretics and call for their murder.

Iran has national policies that support Shia military groups and political parties in other countries. Sunni-ruled countries have often perceived this as a threat to their well-being and responded by increasing funding to its interests everywhere.

In Syria, the conflict is complex but is divided along Shia-Sunni lines. The majority of the population is Sunni however, the government is Shia. Iran has been supporting Shia efforts to counter Sunni opposition by funding militia and sending troops. In retaliation, Sunni fighters are targeting Shia populations, Shia places of worship, and Iraq (majority Shia).

Efforts Towards Unity

Despite the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims, all of this violence and distrust, some Muslim leaders do call for Shia-Sunni unity. They claim that fighting between the sects only works to weaken the Islamic religion. This unity stance has gained support since terrorists targeted the Prophet’s Mosque, the second holiest site of Islam located in Saudi Arabia during the month of Ramadan. This attack occurred just months before the Hajj pilgrimage. Iranian leaders joined the call for unity as well, an important change in stances given that Saudi Arabia is majority Sunni.


More in Society