Islam has two main branches: the Shia and the Sunni. This split in the religion comes down to a political and spiritual difference of opinion about who should have succeeded Muhammad after his death in 632 CE. Major tenets and beliefs are often similar between the two branches because Sunnis and Shias are both Muslims, but some important differences exist. Tensions and conflicts between Shias and Sunnis are very similar to those that have at times existed between Catholics and Protestants.

Comparison chart

Shia versus Sunni comparison chart
Population 200 million 1.2 billion
Believe Muhammad nominated a successor? Yes, his cousin and son in law Ali ibn Abu Talib No
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).
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,
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.
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.
Name of the practice means "party" or "partisans" of Ali "Well-trodden path" or "tradition"; "People of tradition and the community"
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.
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
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.
Place of worship Mosque, Imambarah or Ashurkhana, Eidgah Mosque, Eidgah, Masjid
Use of statues and pictures Not permitted Not permitted
Clergy Imaam (divinely guided), Ayatollah, Mujtahid, Allamah, Maulana, Hojatoleslam, Sayed, Mollah (colloquial) Caliph, Imaam (Saint), Mujtahid, Allamah, Maulana
Marriage Man may marry up to 4 women. Man may marry up to more women.
Offshoot religions Baha'i - a separate religion Ahmadiyya (Ahmedi) - a separeted religion
Original Language(s) Arabic, Farsi Arabic
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.
Holy days Ashura, Eid al Fitr, Eid al Adha, Eid al ghadeer Eid al Fitr, Eid al Adha, Eid-e-Milaad-un-Nabi
Origin From teachings of Prophet Muhammad, a 7th century Arab religious and political figure. From teachings of Prophet Muhammad, a 7th century Arab-Iran religious and political figure.
Places most closely associated with independent history of the faith Kufa, Karbala Madinah (Medina), Makkah (Mecca)
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.
Beliefs regarding revealed scriptures Belief in the Quran Belief in the Quran & Hadit
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.
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.
Current leaders Mujtahids Imaams (not in the same sense as Shi'a, where Imaams are divinely guided), Sheikhs and Murshids
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.
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.
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.
Building and visiting mosques permitted Yes Yes
Worship at graves Yes Not permitted; is considered 'shirk' or a hypocrisy against faith.

Historical Division Between Sunnis and Shias

Shia and Sunni Islam have evolved into many different sects.
Shia and Sunni Islam have evolved into many different sects.

At the time of Muhammad's death in 632 CE, Muhammad had no male heirs to carry on the political and spiritual leadership along the Arabian Peninsula that Islam had come to dominate in his lifetime. There was no clear agreement as to who should succeed him. Those who would later be known as Sunnis believed a devout member of Muhammad's original Quraysh tribe should become the next leader, while those who would eventually be known as Shias believed Muhammad's successor should be directly related to Muhammad by blood.

Abu Bakr, who was Muhammad's friend, advisor, and father-in-law (he was Aisha's father), became the first Muslim caliph, or spiritual leader, following a gathering (see shura) that elected him to the position. Like Muhammad, Abu Bakr was from the Quraysh tribe, an important point for many who wanted to see him rise to power. This went against the wishes of those who wanted to see Muhammad's direct bloodline retain the leadership role.

Shia Islam gets its name from "Shi'at Ali," which roughly means "Party of Ali." Ali was Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. Shia believe Muhammad explicitly requested Ali to replace him in his teachings (e.g., see the hadith of position and hadith of the pond of Khumm). Ali later became the fourth caliph, and he is well respected by Shia and Sunni alike. However, the Shia view him as the most important historical and religious figure following Muhammad. Ali is similarly vital to Sufi Islamic beliefs.

Historically, there is no clear, unbiased evidence to definitively know who Muhammad wanted to succeed him. Modern Islamic theologians and spiritual leaders still debate the matter.

Differences in Sunni and Shia Beliefs

Though all Muslims follow the Qur'an and Muhammad as a prophet, different traditions and beliefs have developed out of the two branches of the faith. There are moderate and fundamentalist sects within each branch.

Differences are more apparent in countries where Sunnis and Shias have major conflict and physically fight one another. For example, differences are more noticeable in Iraq than they are in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, two countries where Muslims are less likely to identify as either Sunni or Shia, but rather simply as Muslim.

Perception of Ali

As the division between Sunni and Shia is about Muhammad's successor, there are differences in how the two branches view the historical succession. Sunni Muslims recognize and respect Ali as the fourth righteous caliph who replaced Uthman ibn Affan, the third caliph. In contrast, the largest sect of Shia Islam, known as Twelvers, tends to reject the first three Sunni caliphs, or at least downplay their role in Islam's development, and instead sees Ali as the first true leader, or imam, of Islam.

The difference of opinion regarding who and when certain men were (or are) supposed to be in power can sometimes be a source of conflict between the two branches. For example, many Shia Twelvers believe several of their initial imams were murdered by Sunni caliphs.

Perception of Imams

In most Shia Islam, imams are seen as spiritual leaders chosen by Allah who are thought to be free from sin (see 'Ismah). They are direct descendents of Muhammad. As such, the word of imams and their interpretation of theological matters is considered to be holy and final in a sense that is similar to how some Catholics view the words of the Pope.

Sunni Islam sees imams very differently. Imams are often important spiritual prayer leaders in the community, but they are not seen as infallible and are not venerated upon death, as often happens to imams in Shia Islam. In Sunni Islam, there is little mysticism involved in how caliphs are viewed; however, they are highly respected.

Different Hadiths

Hadiths are collections of reports regarding Muhammad's teachings and life, as remembered by a variety of narrators (and written later by others). Though the Qur'an takes precedence over hadiths, these texts are often used in Islamic law, especially to settle disputes. Shias and Sunnis sometimes recognize or reject different hadiths, or interpret the same hadiths differently, which further and subtly divides them through Sharia law on a variety of issues.

Multiple and different schools of Shia and Sunni Sharia law exist. Click to enlarge.
Multiple and different schools of Shia and Sunni Sharia law exist. Click to enlarge.

Shia Islam rejects Sunni Islam's Kutub al-Sittah, or the five allegedly original hadiths, and rejects hadiths attributed to Muhammad's wife, Aisha, who Shias feel defied Ali. Likewise, Sunnis reject Shia Islam's The Four Books.

To see more differences in Shia and Sunni hadith collections, visit this Wikipedia category and its subcategories.

Day of Ashura (Holiday)

On the Day of Ashura, Muslims — both Sunni and Shia — mourn the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, who was Ali's son and Muhammad's grandson. Because Shia Muslims put emphasis on Muhammad's bloodline, the Day of Ashura is often seen as a more important holy day for Shia Islam than Sunni Islam. It is common for Shias to mourn by way of chest-beating and self-flagellation; the latter practice is often rejected by Sunnis and sometimes even banned by law.

In places where the Shia-Sunni divide is great, sectarian violence is common on the Day of Ashura.

Basic Tenets

The Sunni's Five Pillars of Islam lay out the basic beliefs and practices required of every Muslim. While Shias may agree with some of the same concepts (particularly the "oneness" of Allah), their accepted tenets are different and include five basic beliefs (see Theology of Twelvers) and ten basic practices (see Ancillaries of the Faith). Tenets differ further among sects of both main Islamic branches (e.g., see Seven Pillars of Ismailism).

Principles of the Religion (Shia Islam)

The following are the core principles of Shia Islam. There is some overlap between these concepts and those found in the Ancillaries of the Faith, as well as Five Pillars of Islam.

  1. Tawhid, or the belief that nothing is equal to Allah's uniqueness; this also goes for other gods.
  2. Adl, or the concept of Allah's divine justice.
  3. Nubuwwah, or the notion that Allah divinely appoints prophets and messengers.
  4. Imamate, or how imams are divinely chosen. Different Shia sects interpret this principle in a variety of ways.
  5. Mi'ad, or the belief that all of humanity will be resurrected at the end of the world to be judged by Allah.

Ancillaries of the Faith (Shia Islam)

Shia Islam's Ancillaries of the Faith is essentially the Five Pillars of Islam found among the Sunnis, as well as five beliefs unique to Shia Islam's main tenets. Sunnis often have similar beliefs or practices, but they are not necessarily seen as the most important.

  1. Salat, or the requirement of ritualistic prayer five times daily. Some Sunnis believe that failing to perform the daily prayer ritual makes someone a non-Muslim or a sinner.
  2. Sawm, or the importance of fasting, especially during the holy month of Ramadan.
  3. Hajj, or the requirement that all able-bodied individuals must make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in life.
  4. Zakat, or a form of charitable giving that results in a form of wealth redistribution.
  5. Khums, or another type of charitable giving that is like a "tax" specifically on business income or surpluses.
  6. Jihad, or belief in "struggling" toward Allah and righteousness; the concept frequently applies to military actions, but can include spiritual concepts, too.
  7. Forbidding what is wrong, or striving to encourage virtue and subdue vice.
  8. Forbidding what is evil, or the importance of fighting injustice; usually applies to social and political issues.
  9. Tawalla, or the commandment that Muslims must love the (rightful) successors of Muhammad.
  10. Tabarra, or the belief that Muslims should isolate themselves from those who do not believe in Allah or who oppose Muhammad as a prophet.

Five Pillars of Islam (Sunni Islam)

Sunnis have five main concepts of Islam. Though they share most of the same beliefs that Shias do, the below are considered the most important beliefs and practices that a Muslim can have, according to Sunnis.

  1. Shahadah, or the belief that there is no god other than Allah and that Muhammad was his messenger.
  2. Salat, or the requirement of ritualistic prayer five times daily. Some Sunnis believe that failing to perform the daily prayer ritual makes someone a non-Muslim or a sinner.
  3. Zakat, or a form of charitable giving that results in a form of wealth redistribution.
  4. Sawm, or the importance of fasting, especially during the holy month of Ramadan.
  5. Hajj, or the requirement that all able-bodied individuals must make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in life.

Wali (Saints)


Though both Shia and Sunni Muslims revere important holy figures from Islamic history, Shia Muslims are much more likely to pray to these deceased saints — many of whom were once imams — in a way that is similar to the prayers Catholics offer up to their saints.

Temporary Marriage

Some sects of Shia Islam have a concept of a temporary marriage contract known as nikah mut'ah. These contracts allow a man and woman to date and spend time together and often have set beginning and ending dates and guidelines. Some temporary marriages that go well are turned into long-term marriage. Though the acceptance of temporary marriage has varied throughout history and different sects in Shia Islam, nikah mut'ah can still be found in some Shia communities today.

Sunnis reject the practice of nikah mut'ah, which they consider sinful. However, Sunnis do have nikah 'urfi, a type of marriage contract which has some similarities to nikah mut'ah (in some countries).

Apocalyptic Beliefs

Both Shia and Sunni Muslims believe in an impending apocalypse. Many of the supposed signs of this apocalypse are very similar to apocalyptic signs found in Christianity. Likewise, both branches of Islam believe in Isa — Islam's name for Jesus — will return to the earth after having spent thousands of years in heaven with Allah and kill Islam's "antichrist" figure, who is known as Masih ad-Dajjal.

Where Shia and Sunni beliefs mainly differ on this subject is when it comes to the identity of Mahdi, a vital figure in Islam's interpretation of the "final days." Sunnis view Mahdi as a successor of Muhammad who will lead the world toward Islamic righteousness; some believe he will not be sent by Allah, but rather will simply be a devout man. Views on his importance vary, and in most cases Shia Muslims have a much more elaborate set of beliefs surrounding this figure.

Shia views differ by sect, but Twelvers, who make up the majority of Shia Islam, believe the Mahdi will actually be Muhammad al-Mahdi returning from the place Allah has hidden him (see The Occultation). Muhammad al-Mahdi was meant to be the twelfth imam in Shia Islam, but he disappeared when he was six years old.


With somewhere between 80% and 90% of the world's Muslims identifying as Sunnis, Sunni Islam is much more common than Shia Islam, but Shias make up the religious majority in a few countries like Iran and Bahrain.

Only a few countries have Shia majorities.
Only a few countries have Shia majorities.

The vast majority of Muslims in the U.S. are Sunni, but most choose not to focus on the Shia—Sunni schism. With nearly 3% of its population claiming to be Muslim, Illinois has the highest percentage of Muslims found in any state. This chart shows the presence of Muslims in the U.S. as a percentage of the population in each county.

Conflict Between Shia and Sunni Muslims

In some nations, tension and even physical conflict is common between Shias and Sunnis, particularly around important religious holidays (e.g., Day of Ashura) or significant political events and turmoil.

More recent conflicts include the following events:

Recent Shia and Sunni News


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