Islam is the second-largest religion in the world, with 1.9 billion followers. People that follow Islam are called Muslims. In Islam, the last prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), is revered as the prophet of the one true God, Allah. There are over 70 different subsects within Islam, the biggest of which are the Sunni and Shia Muslims.
What is Sunni Islam?
Sunni Islam is the largest branch of Islam. Sunni Muslims, or Sunnis, believe the first four caliphs are Muhammad’s rightful successors (Peace Be Upon Him). The first four caliphs were the first four leaders of Islam after the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). Each of them directly learned from Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) and served him very closely.
Furthermore, Sunni Muslims believe that the politically organized unit, or regime, set up by Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) at Medina is an earthly dominion, as opposed to a spiritual one. Therefore, they view the leadership of Islam as being determined by the politics of the Muslim world instead of by divine order. The Sunni Muslims have recognized the prominent families in Mecca as leaders and have accepted a variety of caliphs over time.
Sunni Islam recognizes the six books of the Hadith, compiled by six Sunni Muslim scholars in the ninth century CE. The six books of the Hadith are:
- Sahih al-Bukhari.
- Sahih Muslim.
- Sunan Abu Dawood.
- Sunan al-Tirmidhi.
- Sunan al-Nasa’i.
- Sunan ibn Majah.
Moreover, Sunni Muslims regard four schools of Islam as orthodox:
What is Shia Islam?
Shia Islam, on the other hand, is a smaller branch of Islam. Someone who observes or follows Shia Islam is known as a Shi’ite or Shi’i. Shia Muslims believe that the first four caliphs are not the rightful successors of Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). Instead, they give this position to Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him)’s son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, and his descendants. Shia Muslims believe that some of Ali’s descendants hold special spiritual and political authority over the community and possess a range of divinely given traits. There are many sub-divisions of Shia Islam, but the two main ones are Twelvers and Ismailis. Twelvers are the most prominent and influential group in Shia Islam.
A List of Differences Between Sunni and Shia Islam
Sunni and Shia Muslims share the same fundamental views of Islam; for instance, both groups worship Allah as God, accept Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) as the Prophet, and follow the teachings of the Quran. However, there are still many differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Initially, the two denominations were united, but after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) in 632 AD, the Sunni and Shia Muslims split. As a result, the Sunnis became a more conservative denomination, but the Shia Muslims stayed more traditional.
Here is a list of differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims:
- There are more Sunni Muslims than Shia Muslims
Sunni Muslims are estimated to make up around 85% of the Muslim community, while Shia Muslims only make up about 15%. There are approximately 1.6 billion Sunni Muslims, just shy of 200 million Shia Muslims. Moreover, Shia Muslims are generally concentrated in the Middle East, whereas Sunni Muslims are more spread out from West Africa to Indonesia.
- They have different beliefs about Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him)’s successor
More so than any other differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims, their differing views on who should have succeeded Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) is the main reason for their divide. As mentioned, The Sunni Muslims believe that the first four caliphs should have succeeded Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), but the Shia Muslims believe it should have been someone in Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him)’s bloodline.
- Sunni Muslims have a more accessible religious hierarchy
Sunni Muslims allow the government to have its say in who is appointed as a leader. Alternatively, Shia Muslims have complete control over their hierarchy, and the clergy is always someone from the direct line of Ali ibn Abi Talib.
- They have different views on the afterlife
Both Sunni Islam and Shia Islam share the belief that there is an afterlife. Both denominations are united in their belief that there is a Paradise and a Hell. The divide between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites is in how you get to either Paradise or Hell. Sunni Muslims believe that they must have faith in Allah and his prophets, believe in the righteous deeds presented in the Quran, and accept Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) as the final prophet even to enter Paradise. However, even if they practice all these things, they believe they are still at the mercy of Allah’s judgment.
On the other hand, Shia Muslims believe that if they follow Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) and the Twelve Imams, they are guaranteed to get into Paradise.
- They pray differently
Both Sunni and Shia Muslims believe in saying the five prayers a day, but other than that, the way they pray is very different. Sunni Muslims, for example, say each of the five prayers separately so that they pray five times a day. However, Shia Muslims say all five prayers across three sessions of prayer. Moreover, Sunnis pray with their arms crossed over their chest, while Shi’ites pray with their arms by their sides.
- They have different beliefs about Imams
Imams are people who lead the Muslim community. In Sunni Islam, Imams are viewed as saints, and they must have a strong faith in the Quran and Sunnah to be appointed. However, in Shia Islam, Imams are only set by God. Therefore, in Shia Islam, Imams are the only legitimate Quran interpreters.
- They have different beliefs about self-flagellation
Sunni Muslims disagree with self-flagellation, which is flogging oneself, particularly as a religious discipline. In Sunni Islam, self-flagellation is considered a sin. On the flip side, Shia Muslims actively practice self-flagellation to honor and commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein.
- Shia Muslims honor temporary marriages
Temporary marriage is an ancient practice in Islam that typically occurs when a man has to leave his wife to travel far away. It essentially unites a man and woman as husband and wife, but only for a designated, temporary amount of time. In Shia Islam, this practice is still respected, whereas in Sunni Islam, they believe it to be adultery.
- Shia Muslims are permitted to worship at graves
Shia Muslims have no issues with praying at graves and even encourage it. Because they believe that even if a fellow Shia Muslim has passed away, they are still of the way of Allah. Sunni Muslims, however, are entirely opposed to praying at graves. They view it as a sin because it means you rely on someone other than Allah for help.
- They have different views on angels
Sunni Islam and Shia Islam believe angels are real and were created by God from light. Sunni Muslims believe angels always obey God’s commandments because they have no free will. However, Shia Muslims believe that angels have free will and, while they are obedient to God’s commandments, they can stray and disobey Him. However, Shi’ites think they’re not disobedient because they do not desire to sin.
Religious Texts and Practices
As mentioned, despite their differences, there are many things that Sunni and Shia Muslims have in common. One of the similarities between the two groups is that they both follow the Quran and the Prophet’s hadith (sayings) and sunna (customs). They also both adhere to the five pillars of Islam, which are:
- Shahada (Profession of Faith): Once someone becomes a Muslim, they must make a profession of faith by reciting this phrase: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) is the Messenger of God.” This belief is at the core of Islam.
- Salat (Prayer): Muslims must pray five times daily, facing Mecca. As part of their prayer, Muslims recite the opening chapter of the Quran (sura). Muslims can pray individually or in groups at the Mosque, where a leader (Imam) will guide the congregation.
- Zakat (Alms): Muslims are obligated by Islamic law to donate a fixed portion of their income to members of their community who are in need.
- Sawm (Fasting): All healthy adult Muslims must abstain from food or drink during the daylight hours of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. During the fasting period, Muslims can renew their gratitude for all the things God has given them.
- Hajj (Pilgrimage): Every Muslim whose health and finances allow is required to make at least one visit to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Muslims believe that the Ka’ba, at the center of the Haram Mosque in Mecca, is the house of Abraham. So Muslims from all over the world travel to Mecca to gather around the Ka’ba on the eighth and twelfth days of the final month of the Islamic calendar.
However, a difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims is that they generally feel a certain amount of aversion towards some of the Prophet Muhammad’s (Peace Be Upon Him) companions; because of their actions during the early years of disagreement about leadership in the community.
Several of these companions have narrated traditions about the Prophet Muhammad’s (Peace Be Upon Him) life and spiritual practice. However, Shia Muslims reject these traditions and do not base any of their religious methods on the testimony of these companions.