What are the major differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims? A significant root of the political maelstrom that characterizes the Middle East today is the Shia-Sunni breach, and hopefully these 7 major differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims will help you comprehend the essence of this historical schism and its role in shaping the modern Muslim world.
Before getting on to the disagreements that have led to this gaping fissure between the two prominent groups, let’s discuss the situation in the Middle East that is marred by numerous conflicts, of which a sectarian divide is only one. Today the Islamic world is polarized with Saudi Arabia and its stringent Sunni values as well as other Sunni states on one end, and Shiite states like Iran and Iraq on the other. This rivalry and the major differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims have come into play in numerous locations: for instance, in Yemen, Iran supports the Houthi Shiite rebels working to overthrow the government, whereas Saudi Arabia is providing military assistance to the Sunni government to retain its power. In Syria, Saudi Arabia staunchly backs the rebel groups on the ground, whereas Iran stands by the controversial Bashar al-Assad government. It doesn’t help that Shiites feel cornered and defensive, particularly due to their severe lack of numbers next to Sunnis, who make up 85 to 90 percent of the world’s Muslims.
The animosity is of such a magnitude that it has even instigated terrorist groups of different ideologies to fight against one another, further worsening the climate in the Middle East, where currently the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s advance is a cause for concern. With major world powers such as Russia and the United States involved and many religious barriers on the ground between the people coupled with the threat of terrorism filling the power vacuum if the government is toppled, it would seem that there is no possible solution to Syria’s misery.
However, it seems that people are completely unaffected by the numerous sectarian splits in the global Muslim community, for Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion according to the Pew Research Center. Additionally, Muslim populations in various countries are also predicted to go up; these Countries Where Muslim Population Will Increase the Most by 2050 are evidence of the fact.
The strange part is that this rivalry did not commence during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet and it is essentially not even religious in its nature. In fact, it began with disagreements over who should assume political leadership after Muhammad passed away. The people who disagreed with Abu Bakr taking over were the first Shiite Muslims, and from then on sprang a rift which only intensified as time went by. It is of note, however, that Muslims, in general, identify with Islam, rather than specifically Shia and Sunni Islam. It may appear as if Shiites and Sunnis are at daggers with each other, but this conflict holds little importance for the general community, and it is only the fiasco on the political forum that forces ordinary people to choose sides, disrupting an otherwise inevitable unity.
Now let’s traverse through the major differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims and distinguish between the intricacies of their historical dispute:
7. Differences in rituals
Shia and Sunni Muslims have slight variations in their timings and method of prayer, and the former believe that it is allowed to combine the two main Dhuhr and Asr prayers as well as the two Maghrib and Isha prayers, which the latter rejects. In the month of Ramadan, Shiite Muslims keep their fast ten minutes earlier and break it ten minutes later. Shias also believe in al-Mutah (temporary marriage), whereas Sunnis do not accept it at all, as they believe the practice was abolished when the framework of Islam was being solidified.
6. Reverence of figures besides prophets
Shiite Muslims believe in Tawassul (intercession), which means they believe that supplicating to the Prophet and the Imams is permissible, whereas Sunnis perceive this as shirk or polytheism. Shia Muslims do this with the belief that Muhammad and the Imams are martyrs and are hence living and able to hear their invocations. According to Shias, since they hold favor with God they will transmit their prayers to Him.
5. Belief in Mohammad Mahdi
The fifth major difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims is regarding Mohammad Mahdi who is believed to be the descendent of the Prophet Muhammad and is the twelfth Imam according to Shias. They believe that Mahdi has already been born and is in occultation, and will remain so until the time comes for him to emerge and take charge in establishing a righteous rule on the planet. Sunnis, on the other hand, believe that Mahdi is yet to be born, although they concur that he will be of the Prophet’s lineage. Sunnis also believe that the Mahdi will be a pious and righteous man, but Shias hold him in much greater reverence.
4. Belief in the twelve Imams
The twelve Imams according to Shia Islam are the twelve descendants of Muhammad beginning with Ali bin Abu Talib and ending with Muhammad ibn al-Hassan or the Mahdi. According to them, these were the rightful caliphs following the death of the Prophet and others are merely usurpers of their right, whereas Sunnis respect them only as pious and righteous Muslims. Shiite Muslims take the sayings of the twelve Imams very seriously, and consider them a strict part of religious law. They also believe that they are flawless and can intercede for them, as stated in number six on this list of the major differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims, and hence they journey to their graves where they solicit their mediation.
3. Commemoration of Karbala on days of Ashura’a
Since the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, the third Imam, Shiite Muslims spend the Islamic month of Muharram every year in mourning, and they do so specifically on the days of Ashura’a by taking out processions and engaging in matam (beating of the chest). This is done majorly because of the inhumane manner in which the Imam and his 72 devoted followers were deprived of basic necessities before they were mercilessly killed, despite the Imam being honorable and simply taking a stand against the tyranny of the then caliph Yazid. Sunnis also remember this incident on the days of Ashura’a, but they do not engage in the elaborate acts of mourning that Shias do.
2. Dislike of other companions
Due to their belief in the Imams’ right to succession, Shias naturally dislike or feel averse to other caliphs who ruled instead, such as Abu Bakr, the immediate successor to the Prophet, and the two caliphs who followed him, Umar and Usman. They thus also refuse to formulate their religious law on the ahadeeth and traditions narrated by these companions, leading to the visible differences in practice that separate the two sects. Sunnis, however, treat these men with the utmost respect which they believe is deserving of their close companionship with the Prophet.
1. Disagreement over Ali’s right to succession
The major difference by which Shia Islam distinguishes itself from mainstream Islam is the belief that Ali was designated the immediate successor to the Caliphate upon the death of Muhammad, and that the first three Rightly Guided Caliphs unlawfully took the right to rule from him. Ali is central to Shiite Islam and he is venerated as an infallible. Sunnis, however, merely view him as a devoted and pious companion of the Prophet who rendered incredible services to the cause of Islam. The disagreement over succession after Muhammad passed away is therefore number one on our list of the major differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims.