Shia and Sunni are the two branches of Islam. They share most of the basic tenets and principles of the religion. Differences between Shias and Sunnis initially stemmed from political strife and not any spiritual disagreements. These differences originally appeared after the passing away of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The so-called division of Muslims between Shia and Sunni is akin to the differences between Catholics and Protestants.
|Population||200 million||1.2 billion|
|Angels||Angels obey God's commandments. They have limited free will, though no drive to sin.||God created angels from light. They do not have their own free will and always obey the commandments of God.|
|Birth of Jesus||Virgin Birth||Virgin Birth|
|Second coming of Jesus||Affirmed||Affirmed|
|Death of Jesus||Denied. Jesus did not die on the cross, but his body went up to heaven.||Denied. Jesus did not die on the cross, but his body went up to heaven.|
|View of other Abrahamic religions||Christianity and Judaism are "People of the Book."||Christianity and Judaism are "People of the Book."|
|Resurrection of Jesus||Denied. Jesus did not die on the cross. Jesus will come back down from heaven in the future.||Denied. Jesus did not die on the cross. Jesus will come back down from heaven in the future.|
|Clergy||Imaam (divinely guided), Ayatollah, Mujtahid, Allamah, Maulana||Caliph, Imaam (Saint), Mujtahid, Allamah, Maulana|
|Place of worship||Mosque, Imambarah or Ashurkhana, Eidgah||Mosque, Eidgah|
|Use of statues and pictures||Not permitted||Not permitted|
|Holy days||Ashura, Eid al Fitr, Eid al Adha, Eid al ghadeer||Eid al Fitr, Eid al Adha, Eid-e-Milaad-un-Nabi|
|Marriage||Man may marry up to 4 women.||Man may marry up to 4 women.|
|Offshoot religions||Baha'i - a separate religion||Ahmadiyya (Ahmedi) - a sect of Islam|
|Origin||From teachings of Prophet Muhammad, a 7th century Arab religious and political figure.||From teachings of Prophet Muhammad, a 7th century Arab religious and political figure.|
|Places most closely associated with independent history of the faith||Kufa, Karbala||Madinah (Medina), Makkah (Mecca)|
|Adherents called||Shiites, Shia, Shii, Ehl-e-Tash'e||Sunni, Ehl-e-Sunnah|
|Geographic Presence||Majority in Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Lebanon. Minority spread across the world.||Majority in most Muslim countries. Minority spread across the world.|
|Articles of Belief||One God, Angels, Revealed Books of God including the Quran, Messengers, Day of Judgement, Prophethood, Imaamah||One God, Angels, Revealed Books of God including the Quran, Messengers, Day of Judgement, Prophethood|
|Pillars of faith||1. Prayer 2. Fasting 3. Pilgrimage 4. Mandatory alms, 20% for Imaam and the needy (khums) 5.Jihad 6. Promotion of good 7. Dissuasion from bad 8. Re-affirmation 9. Disassociation from the enemies of Islam starting from first Caliph.||1. Testament of Faith 2. Prayer 3. Mandatory alms, 2.5% for needy (zakaat) 4. Fasting 5. Pilgrimage 6. Struggle in the way of God to promote good and stop bad.|
|Belief of God||One God||One God|
|Imams identified as||Divinely guided. Considered as the only legitimate interpreters of the Quran.||Saints. Considered as persons with strong faith in Quran and Sunnah.|
|Required lineage for ruler||Must be male child from lineage of Ali from Fatimah.||Can be any practicing Muslim chosen by agreement of the authorities of the muslim populace (ummah).|
|Muhammad nominated a successor ?||Yes, his cousin and son in law Ali ibn Abu Talib||No|
|Successors after the Prophet||12 Infallible Imams; Ali bin Abi Talib, Hassan, Hussain, Ali ZainulAbideen, Muhammad AlBaqir, Jaafar AlSaadiq, Musa AlKaazim, Ali AlRaza, Muhammad AlTaqi, Ali AlNaqi, Hasan AlAskari, Muhammad AlMahdi (hidden).||The Four Rightly Guided Caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar bin Al Khattab, Uthman bin Afan, Ali bin Abi Talib,|
|Beliefs regarding revealed scriptures||Belief in the Quran||Belief in the Quran|
|Continuation of authoritative revelation||Partially true. Imaams are considered divinely guided. The purpose is to explain and safeguard the current faith and its esoteric meaning.||No, authoritative revelation ended with Prophet Muhammad.|
|Public affirmation of faith and propagation of teachings||The Shia allow 'Taqiyya': which is to be able to deny faith when under grave danger. This extends to the belief that true meaning of faith is hidden until the coming of twelfth Imaam.||Little stress on esoteric meaning or taqiyya. While 'inner meaning' of Quraan is accepted as existing, stress is on literal rather than mystic interpretation. Notable exceptions are Sufi schools.|
|Collection of religious narrations from Imaams and Mujtahids||Nahajul Balagha, Kitab al-Kafi, Man la yahduruhu al-Faqih, Tahdhib al-Ahkam, Al-Istibsaar||Muatta Maalik, Musnad Ahmad, Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan Abu Dawood, Jami al-Tirmidhi, Sunan Nasae.|
|Did Islam achieve ultimate glory?||No, it was hijacked by hypocrites, especially the first three Caliphs.||Yes, mission of Muhammad achieved glory at the time of first three Caliphs and sustained by next three Caliphs including Ali bin Abi Talib.|
|View on the personality of Imaam Ali||Prophet said inter alia: - “Exemption from the Hellfire comes with love for Ali (A.S).” - “Of whomever I was master, Ali (A.S) is his master.” - “Ali (A.S) is from me and I am from him, and he is the protector of every true believer after m||Considered as a 'Lion of God', the first male convert to Islam, and a warrior champion of the faith.|
|Branches and their status||Ithna Ashariyya ('Twelvers'), Ismailis ('Seveners') and Zaidis ('Fivers'). The latter do not agree to infallibility of Imaams or to the occultation of the 12th Imaam Mahdi.||Four contributing schools of Law: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi and Hanbali. Two Schools of Creed: Ashari and Maturidi. These branches count each other on right path with different way of thinking.|
|Special Day of worship||Friday||Friday|
|Temporary unannounced Marriage||Yes||No, termed as adultery.|
|Name of the practice means||"party" or "partisans" of Ali||"well-trodden path" or "tradition"|
|Current leaders||Mujtahids||Imaams (not in the same sense as Shi'a, where Imaams are divinely guided)|
|Intercession permitted||Yes (14 Infallibles only - From Prophet until the Mahdi, including Fatima, daughter of the Prophet and wife of Ali)||Major groups of Sunnis do not accept intercession. However, the method of prayer at dargahs or ziyarat-gahs (tombs of saints) may be considered close to intercession.|
|Self Flagellation (Lattum)||To commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein, Shiite groups march in massive parades on the 10th day of the Muharram month. There is self-flagellation i.e. flogging own back, chest with hands, knives, blades or chains. Permitted by some scholars.||No, termed as major sin|
|Building and visiting shrines permitted||Yes||No|
|Building and visiting mosques permitted||Yes||Yes|
|Original Language(s)||Arabic, Farsi||Arabic|
The Division between Shias and Sunnis
The division between Shias and Sunnis dates back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and the question of who was to take over the leadership of the Muslim nation. Sunni Muslims agree with the position taken by many of the Prophet's companions, that the new leader should be elected from among those capable of the job. This is what was done, and the Prophet Muhammad's close friend and advisor, Abu Bakr, became the first Caliph of the Islamic nation. The word "Sunni" in Arabic comes from a word meaning "one who follows the traditions of the Prophet."
On the other hand, Shia Muslims share the belief that leadership should have stayed within the Prophet's own family, among those specifically appointed by him, or among Imams appointed by God Himself. Shia Muslims believe that following the Prophet Muhammad's death, leadership should have passed directly to his cousin/son-in-law, Ali. Throughout history, Shia Muslims have not recognized the authority of elected Muslim leaders, choosing instead to follow a line of Imams which they believe have been appointed by the Prophet Muhammad or God Himself. The word "Shia" in Arabic means a group or supportive party of people. The commonly-known term is shortened from the historical "Shia-t-Ali," or "the Party of Ali." They are also known as followers of "Ahl-al-Bayt" or "People of the Household" (of the Prophet).
From this initial question of political leadership, some aspects of spiritual life have been affected and now differ between the two groups of Muslims.
Differences in beliefs
Shia Muslims believe that the Imam is sinless by nature, and that his authority is infallible as it comes directly from God. Therefore, Shia Muslims often venerate the Imams as saints and perform pilgrimages to their tombs and shrines in the hopes of divine intercession. Sunni Muslims counter that there is no basis in Islam for a hereditary privileged class of spiritual leaders, and certainly no basis for the veneration or intercession of saints. Sunni Muslims contend that leadership of the community is not a birthright, but a trust that is earned and which may be given or taken away by the people themselves.
Shia Muslims also feel animosity towards some of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad, based on their positions and actions during the early years of discord about leadership in the community. Many of these companions (Abu Bakr, Umar, Aisha, etc.) have narrated traditions about the Prophet's life and spiritual practice. Shia Muslims reject these traditions (hadith) and do not base any of their religious practices on the testimony of these individuals. This naturally gives rise to some differences in religious practice between the two groups. These differences touch all detailed aspects of religious life: prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, etc.
It is important to remember that despite all of these differences in opinion and practice, Shia and Sunni Muslims share the main articles of Islamic belief and are considered by most to be brethren in faith. In fact, most Muslims do not distinguish themselves by claiming membership in any particular group, but prefer to call themselves simply, "Muslims."
Shia vs Sunni Demographics
Sunni Muslims make up the majority (85%) of Muslims all over the world. Significant populations of Shia Muslims can be found in Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and Lebanon.
In June 2012, attacks on Shiite targets in Iraq killed scores of people.
In January 2012, The Economist reported that there was a growing sense of unease in the global Shia community because of attacks on them by Sunni extremists. They cited the attacks on Ashura and later in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bahrain.
In Bahrain, the Shia majority is ruled by a Sunni minority, a government that has grown to become highly unpopular.
In Syria, a regime dominated by Alawites, an esoteric offshoot of Shia Islam, is bloodily failing to suppress an uprising largely led by members of the Sunni majority.
Most statements about Islam apply to Sunni Islam, which represents the vast majority of the Muslim population. Although the differences between Sunni Islam and the various Shiite sects started out as political, the distinction between the two groups has gradually become more and more theological as well. Shia Muslims continue to hold the same fundamental beliefs of other Muslims, with the principle addition being that they also believe in an imamate, which is the distinctive institution of Shia Islam. The doctrine of the imamate was not fully developed until the 10th century and other dogmas developed still later.
Sunni Muslims view the caliph as a temporal leader only and consider an imam to be a prayer leader, but for the Shia the historic caliphs were merely de facto rulers while the rightful and true leadership continued to be passed along through a sort of apostolic succession of Muhammad's descendants, the Imams (when capitalized, Imam refers to the Shia descendant of the House of Ali). The conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam can thus be said to be fundamentally about the nature of religious authority: is it conferred and transmitted through rational, legal institutions or does it include a charismatic, mystical element?
Sunni - Rationality & Legality
In principle, Sunni Muslims' relationship with God is direct and is not mediated by anything like a priest or pope (A rabbi is a teacher not a mediator). Some religious figures may exercise a great deal of political or social power, but committees of socially important believers in each community are generally responsible for the management of the mosque and its land. The real ecclesiastical power lies with the four orthodox schools of legal thought because they define the boundaries of Islamic law, theology, and belief.
- Maliki: founded by Abd Allah Malik ibn Anas (ca. 715-95)
- Hanifite: founded by An Numan ibn Thabit Abu Hanifa (ca. 700-67)
- Shafi'ite: founded by Muhammad ibn Idris ash Shafii (767-820)
- Hanbali: founded by Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Hanbal (780-855)
The Maliki school is centered around Medina and Malik's law book is the earliest known Muslim legal text. The Hanifi school is located in Iraq and stresses the use of individual opinion in rendering legal judgments. Shafii was a member of Muhammad's Quraysh tribe and was a distant relative of his. Shafii studied under Malik in Medina, but ended up following his own path, creating rules of analogy for the purpose of reaching legal opinions on matters which were not covered in direct statements made by Muhammad. Hanbal's legal school is centered in Baghdad and became prominent in Saudi Arabia because it is the only school accepted by the Wahhabi Muslims. It places the primary emphasis on the Hadith as the source of law and rejects later innovations made by other schools, scholars, and religious figures.
Shia - Inherited & Mystical
Unlike the Sunnis, Shia Muslims have from the start regarded inherited, mystical elements as fundamental to the nature of religious authority. The term Shia is a shortened form of Shiat Ali, which means "the party of Ali." At the time of Ali's death in 661, that is probably all it was: a party or tendency of people who supported Ali's claims to the caliphate. Ali was Muhammad's first cousin, in some ways Muhammad's adoptive brother, the husband of his daughter (Fatima) and father of his favorite grandsons. Moreover, Ali was regarded as more authentically representative of what Muhammad stood for and fought for, especially in contrast to the wealthy and worldly Umayyads.
After Ali died, his role was believed to have passed to his two sons, Hasan and Husain, who were also Muhammad's grandsons. Despite this, they did not take over the caliphate - that position went to Mu'awiya, who founded the Umayyad dynasty. After this time, the descendants of Ali became a principle focus of dissent and opposition to the Umayyads. Many came to believe that the Umayyads and following Islamic rulers were corrupt and had fallen away from the path set by Muhammad. Those who believed that justice and good government would only replace tyranny and corruption when the rightful heirs of Muhammad took control came to be known as the Shiites.