Differences Between Sunni and Shia (Shiite) Muslims

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Abu Bakr
According to the Washington Post: “Battles fought 13 centuries ago over the leadership of the Muslims are at the core of Shia beliefs, which, like the Catholic faith, is rife with saints, blood and martyrdom and boasts a rigorous intellectual tradition. The Shia are in essence a people on pilgrimage, living over and over — as some Christians do the passion of Christ — the wrongs that were done them. Often, pilgrims will weep as they describe the final battle of Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein, near Karbala as if it had happened yesterday and they had known him personally.” [Source: Washington Post]

Shia (derived from Shi, which in turn is derived from “shi’at “Ali” , “the party of Ali,”) believe that Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, was anointed to carry on Islam after the prophet’s death while Sunnis believed the heirs of Abu Bakr, Muhammad's father in law, was best suited for the task. Shia believe that Ali is Muhammad’s true successor because he was a blood relative of the prophet and was thus the only one capable of explaining Islam’s doctrines. Some sects argue that Ali was an even more important prophet than Muhammad. Ali's successor were known as "divine imams."

Shia and Sunnis differ little in their core beliefs. The doctrinal roots of their difference lie in a disagreement over the rightful successor to the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Over the centuries the Shiites developed slightly different interpretations of the Qurʾan and the hadiths, and have different rituals and prayers. Shiites, for example, only pray three times each day rather than usual five. Time magazine reported: “In addition to belief in the same god...Sunnis and Shia have a great deal in common: ethnicity, language, cuisines and apparel, They ways in which they differ are subtle and vary from region to region. There are some unwritten rules that govern how each sect practices its faith, names its children and decorates its homes. But differentiation is not an exact science and mistaken identity is commonplace.” [Source: Time magazine, March 15. 2007]

Sunnis: 1) recognize all four caliphs after Muhammad, including Ali, as legitimate successors and do not require blood ties to the prophet as a qualification to be leader; 2) Reject the Shia line of imams and hold that Muhammad and the Qur’an are the only two authorities of religion; 3) Leaders have historically been more heads of state than religious authorities; 4) Lack an elaborate clergy and allow lay people to lead prayers; and 5) Seen by Westerners as more staid, moderate and open to the world. [Sources: Washington Post, Congressional Research Service, Center for History and New Media, understanding-islam.com, Wikipedia, CIA World Factbook]

Shia: 1) Reject the first three successors (caliphs) after Muhammad as usurpers; 2) Regard Ali, the fourth caliph, and Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, as the first caliph or imam, the term they use for the head of the community; 3) Hold that imams are sinless and must be obeyed on all matters; each imam appoints his successor, who must be of Muhammad's bloodline; 4) Believe imams are both religious and political heads; and 5) Seen by Westerners as more orthodox, zealous and less open to outside influence.

Websites on Muslims Divisions Divisions in Islam archive.org ; Shi’a History and Identity shiism.wcfia.harvard.edu ; What is Shi'a Islam? iis.ac.uk ; Four Sunni Schools of Thought masud.co.uk ; History of Islam: An encyclopedia of Islamic history historyofislam.com ; Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World oxfordislamicstudies.com ; Sacred Footsetps sacredfootsteps.com ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook ; Islam IslamOnline islamonline.net ; Institute for Social Policy and Understanding ispu.org; Islam.com islam.com ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org

Politics, Sectarianism and Differences Between Sunnis and Shia

Historically Sunnis have almost always ruled Shiites, who have played up their position as an oppressed and disinherited minority. In Islam's early history, only Egypt established a Shiite dynasty, the Fatimids, named after Muhammad's daughter.
Friction between Sunnis and Shia is more about politics, history, tribalism and inequality than its about religious differences and the reason for the friction is complex and has a long history. Ghanim Hashem Kudhir, who teaches modern Islamic history at Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University, told Time magazine, “Their sect is nothing more than a uniform, a convenient way to tell friend from enemy. What binds them in not religion but common historical experience.”

The vast majority of Islamic names, even Ali, are common among both Sunnis and Shia but some are viewed as clear sectarian markers. Abdel-Hussein and Abdel-Zahra are usually Shia. Abu Bakr, Omar and Uthman — early caliphs perceived by Shia as being hostile to Ali — are generally only found among Sunnis. In Iraq, tribal or family names such Dulaimi, Sumarrai and Bkri tend to be Sunni while Sa’aedi, Moussawi and Rubaie tend to be Shia. Large tribes in Iraq tend to have members of both sects. Among the common names of members of these tribes are Jaburi, Shammari and Khafaji.

Language can also be a sectarian marker. In Iraq since the southern part of the country is overwhelmingly Shia, anybody speaking with a pronounced southern accent is assumed to be a Shia . The Anbar region is predominately Sunni and the people there speak a distinct dialect.

Religious Differences Between Sunnis and Shia

declaration of Shiism as the state religion of Iran by Shah Ismail, of the Iranian-Persian Safavids dynasty

There is little difference between Sunnis and Shia on basic beliefs about God, prophecy, revelations and the Last Judgment. The differences that exist are comparable to those between Catholic and Orthodox Christians or Catholics and Protestants. Vali Nasr, author of the “The Shia Revival”, compares Shia to Catholics because of their emphasis on religious hierarchy, mysticism, worship of a holy family (in the case of Shia the Prophet’s descendants) and clerical intercession while the Sunnis lack a unified clerical establishment and rely more on Qur’an and the Sunnah, the way of the Prophet, as the sole authority on religious questions.

Shia Muslims arguably takes a more emotional and gloomy view of religion than Sunni Muslims. Shia affirm man's free will, tend toward the ecstatic and are obsessed with martyrdom while Sunnis are more deterministic, staid and simple They don't question the Qur’an they simply do what it says.. Shia take a more rational and philosophical approach to the Qur’an, often questioning what the sacred book really means. Many Shia beliefs — in reincarnations, messiahs and Gnosticism — are perceived as wacky by Sunnis.

Shia Islam places greater importance on the individual in the religious hierarchy. Sunnis believed hat clerics are guides or advisors and that the relationship with God is direct, a belief that mirrors the Protestant view. Shia on the other hand believe that clerics are empowered to interpret God’s will for the faithful and is somewhat comparable to the Catholic view of a powerful hierarchy.

Sunni “pays attention to the sincerity of belief by enjoining interior states of pious intents called “niat” .” Some Shia sects make a distinctions between big sins, which exclude an individual from salvation, and little sins which are forgivable.

Shia are required to pay two kinds of tithes — “khums”, or fifth of their income, and “zakat”, a smaller payment. Sunnis only pay the zakat. Shia are expected to give one fifth of their income to the household of the their cleric mentor and he in turn uses the money for good works, establishing madrassahs and providing stipends for theological students. The Zakat is 10 percent for Shia (compared to 2.5 percent for Sunnis).

History of the Relation Between Sunnis and Shia

combat between Ali and Amr Ben Wad near Medina

Sunni Islam has always been he dominant sect and often has managed have control even in places where Sunnis were outnumbered by Shia, which today includes many of the major oil-producing areas of the Middle East (even in Saudi Arabia. Shia make up the majority population in key oil-producing regions). A key to the Sunni strategy of domination has been excluding Shia for the military and bureaucracy. Historically Shia have been the underclass, often forced to do manual labor and denied their far share of state resources.

Despite being repressed Shia Islam never went away and a sense of victimhood and being the underdog seems to drive Shia forward. A popular Shia saying goes: “Every day is Ashura and every city is Karbala.”The Shia way has traditionally appealed to those who were oppressed, whether they be individuals or small or medium size group that felt disenfranchised or had different beliefs than Sunnis or kingdoms or states that chafed under Sunni rule.

To justify their political dominance Sunnis have characterized Shia at best as incomplete Muslims and at worst as heretics. Shia rituals have been characterized as pagan and their fondness of images of Ali has been condemned as idol worshiping. Shia festivals such as Ashura have been periodically banned out of fear might turn into political gatherings used to ignite an uprising.

Despite all this Sunnis and Shia have managed to coexist for 1,300 years. The Sunni Caliphs of Baghdad tolerated the Shia and even contributed to the development of Najaf and Karbala. Sectarian tensions rose when the seat of Sunni power fell into the hands of the Ottoman Turks in Istanbul. The Turks fought a number of battles with the Shia Safavids of Persia and Shia caught in predominately Sunni Arab territories suffered. Things didn’t improve that much for the Shia when colonial Britain and France moved into the Middle East.

In secular state Sunnis and Shia formed close bonds. Saddam Hussein was for the most part was a nasty ruler but his secular government did go a long way towards bridging the gap between Sunnis and Shia. Before the American invasion of Iraq, marriages between Shia and Sunnis were quite common in Iraq. Sociologist have estimated that nearly a third of all Iraqi unions were between members of different sects. Sunnis and Shia also shared neighborhoods, socialized and formed businesses together.

Frictions Between Sunnis and Shia

Ayatollah Khomeini

Tensions between Sunnis and Shia were notched up a level when Ayatollah Khomeini launched the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and began calling transnational Islamic revolution, with Shia leading the charge. Arab monarchs felt threatened by this as did Saddam Hussein in predominately Shia Iraq. Saddam cracked down on Shia and ordered the murder of a popular ayatollah. Iraq and Iran fought a bloody war between 1980 and 1988. Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousand, of Shia were killed by Saddam after an unsuccessful Shia uprising after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

After the American invasion of Iraq, friction between Shia and Sunnis communities that had gotten along under Saddam became quite intense and it was not uncommon for people to get killed because they belonged to the wrong sect. There were some concerns that he sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq would spill to other places with large Shia populations such as Lebanon and even Kuwait and Saudi Arabia The Shia group Hezbollah has maintained a powerful presence in Lebanon for some time.

In the eyes of many Wahhabis and other Islamists, Shia are heretics, even apostates further removed from the Muslim faith than Christians and Jews. Under Islamic law, apostasy carries the death penalty. Shia have been the targets of attacks by Al-Qaeda, Taliban and other Muslim extremists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and other places.

Sometimes Arab newspapers run articles with conspiracy theories on how Shia aim to take over the Muslim world and form a Shia crescent from Lebanon to India. There are also stories of vile, lecherous Shia that are similar to those circulated about Jews. A number of books with similar themes are widely available.

Sunni and Shia Prayers and Prayer Positions

Shia and Sunnis hold their hands in different positions when they pray. Shia tend to hold their arms straight down and with their hands in front them with their palms touching the body or facing downwards. Sunnis cross their arms just over the rib cage. A Shi'a at prayer can often be identified by a small tablet of clay from a holy place (often Karbala), on which they place their forehead whilst prostrating. [Source: BBC, Time magazine, March 15. 2007]

Sunni prayer positions

During prayers members of both sects kneel, bend and touch their foreheads to the ground. Devout Shia touch their heads to a small clay disc, known as a “turba”, made in to the holy city of Najaf. Over time the “turba” can make a small callus on the forehead. Some Sunnis develop calluses from rubbing their forehead against their prayer mats.

All Muslims are required to pray five times a day. Sunnis have five separate prayer times. Shia have the option of doubling up their prayers and praying at three prayer times (before sunrise and twice in the afternoon at one's discretion). On the call to prayer Shia add “Come to the best deed” after “Come to security” and add Ali’s name to those of God and the Prophet Muhammad. Shia also have a special ritual ablution and their call to prayer is typically a couple minutes behind those of Sunnis.

During Ramadan, Sunnis and Shia often break the fast at different times and observe their celebrations a day or two apart. In Iraq, the Shia-dominated government angered Sunnis when it decided to hang Saddam Hussein on the first day of Sunni Eid in 2006. The festival started the next day for Shia.

Differing Sunni and Shia Views on Shrines, Mosques, Saints and Images

Sunni mosques tend to have domes and minarets. Shia often worship at Huseiniyas, which combine the functions of a mosque and community center and don’t necessarily have domes. In Iraq, Shia places of worships are often draped with traditional green and black flags and are decorated with portraits of Ali and sometimes Hussein. Sunni mosques tend to be more austere; portraits of any kind are regarded as forms of idolatry. [Source: Time magazine, March 15. 2007]

Twelver Shia reverence for the Imams has encouraged distinctive rituals. The most important is Ashura, the commemoration of the death of Husayn. Other practices include pilgrimages to shrines of Ali and his relatives. According to strict Wahhabi Sunni interpretations of Islam, these practices resemble the pagan rituals that the Prophet attacked. Therefore, observance of Ashura and pilgrimages to shrines have constituted flash points for sectarian problems between the Saudi Wahhabis and the Shia minority in the Eastern Province. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Saudi Arabia: A Country Study, U.S. Library of Congress, 1992 *]

According to the BBC: “The Wahabi movement within Sunni Islam views the Shi'a practice of visiting and venerating shrines to the Imams of the Prophet's Family and other saints and scholars as heretical. Most mainstream Sunni Muslims have no objections. Some Sufi movements, which often provide a bridge between Shi'a and Sunni theologies, help to unite Muslims of both traditions and encourage visiting and venerating these shrines. |[Source: BBC, August 19, 2009 |::|]

Shia fondness of portraits often extends to their homes. An image of Ali is often hung on the walls of their living rooms. Sunnis tend to favor calligraphy with quotations from the Qur’an. During important religious occasions Shia may unfurl colorful flags on their roof. Sometimes Sunnis display a white flag when they have returned from the Hajj.

Shia fondness of portraits also extends to their vehicles. Shia often have pictures or stickers of Ali in their cars, especially in their rear windows. The also like to hang religious amulets (like a strip of green called am “Alek”) from the rear view mirrors. In Iraq, such markers can be dangerous. In the mid 2000s, it was not uncommon for Sunni militias to pull over cars with Ali stickers and murder the passengers,

Sunni Predetermination Versus Shia Free Will

Shia's praying

Predetermination is primarily a Sunni belief. Shia affirm man's free will. Some Muslims believe “God determines all things, but humans are responsible for acquiring the possibilities God creates for them." There are a number of Qur’anic verses that proclaim human responsibility and declare that men will be rewarded or punished on the Judgment Day depending on the deeds they perform in their life.

The Shia belief is essentially as follows: “Human reason is competent to determine good and evil, except in such matters as religious obligation. Men do not themselves possess the power to create actions which belongs to God alone, but they are invested by God with volition whereby they can chose to do good or evil actions, and thus everyone is liable to reward or punishment in future life." [Source: Encyclopedia of the World's Religion, H.A.R. Gibb]

The beliefs that free will and reasoning have a place in Islam were advocated by scholars influenced by Greek philosophy. Some of their ideas — such as reasoning contradicts revelation — undermined the very foundation of Islam. Conservative Muslims argue against free will, stating that to do so is second guessing Allah and reckoning that someone other than God is involved in the act of Creation. Some go even farther and say that anything that comes into existence as a “consequence” of human action is an allusion and the consequence exists only because God allows it. In doing this God creates beliefs and non-beliefs, piety and impiety as well as concrete things like people and animals. These beliefs remain at the heart of Sunni beliefs today. Tied in to these argument is a suspicion of applying reasoning to the Qur’an and matters of faith.

Sunni-Shia Differences on Hadith, Sunnah and Mahdi

According to the BBC: “Initially the difference between Sunni and Shi'a was merely a question of who should lead the Muslim community. As time went on, however, the Shi'a began to show a preference for particular Hadith and Sunnah literature. [Source: BBC, August 19, 2009 |::|]

“Interpretation of the Hadith and Sunnah is an Islamic academic science. The Shi'a gave preference to those credited to the Prophet's family and close associates. The Sunnis consider all Hadith and Sunnah narrated by any of twelve thousand companions to be equally valid. Shi'as recognise these as useful texts relating to Islamic jurisprudence, but subject them to close scrutiny. Ultimately this difference of emphasis led to different understandings of the laws and practices of Islam. |::|

“The concept of the Mahdi is a central tenet of Shi'a theology, but many Sunni Muslims also believe in the coming of a Mahdi, or rightly guided one, at the end of time to spread justice and peace. He will also be called Muhammad and be a descendant of the Prophet in the line of his daughter Fatima (Ali's wife). The idea has been popular with grassroots Muslims due to the preaching of several Sufi or mystical trends in Islam.

“Over the centuries a number of individuals have declared themselves the Mahdi come to regenerate the Muslim world, but none has been accepted by the majority of the Sunni community. However, some more Orthodox Sunni Muslims dispute the concept of the Mahdi because there is no mention of it in the Qur'an or Sunnah. |::|

Sunni and Shia Leadership Differences

According to the BBC: “Today there are significant differences in the structures and organisation of religious leadership in the Sunni and the Shi'a communities. There is a hierarchy to the Shi'a clergy and political and religious authority is vested in the most learned who emerge as spiritual leaders. These leaders are transnational and religious institutions are funded by religious taxes called Khums (20% of annual excess income) and Zakat (2.5%). Shi'a institutions abroad are also funded this way.

“There is no such hierarchy of the clergy in Sunni Islam. Most religious and social institutions in Sunni Muslim states are funded by the state. Only Zakat is applicable. In the West most Sunni Muslim institutions are funded by charitable donations from the community at home and abroad. |::|

How Sunnis and Shia View Each Other

Differing understandings of the role of the clergy are a key distinction between Sunni and Shia. Emphasizing predestination and predetermination by Allah, Sunni clerics interpret the sunna within limits imposed by centuries of learning and scholarship. Shia clerics emphasize free will and the infallibility of divinely inspired imams to interpret ancient texts.

Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, Iraq
According to the BBC: “The persecution of the Prophet's family and the early Shi'as provide a paradigm of martyrdom which is repeated throughout Shi'a history. The relationship between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims through the ages has been shaped by the political landscape of that period. [Source: BBC, August 19, 2009 |::|]

“As the Sunni Ottoman Empire expanded into the Balkans and central Asia and the Shi'a Safavid dynasty spread through the Persian Empire from the 16th century CE, tensions arose in Sunni-Shi'a relations. |::|

“The majority of Sunni and Shi'a Muslims do not allow their theological differences to divide them or cause hostility between them. For example, Shaikh Mahmood Shaltoot of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the oldest institution of Islamic learning in the world, considers Shi'a Islam to be of equal status to the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence. |::|

“However, current global political conditions mean there has been a degree of polarisation and hostility in many Muslim societies. The term Rafidi (meaning "Rejecter") has been applied by radical Sunnis to disparage Shi'as. In turn the Shi'as will often use the label Wahabi, which refers to a particular sectarian movement within Sunni Islam, as a term of abuse for all those who disagree with Shi'a beliefs and practices. |::|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, Encyclopedia.com, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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