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The Difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims

Although most Muslims prefer not to label themselves with anything other than “Muslim,” the vast majority of the followers of Islam can be distinguished as Sunni. The core difference between the two main branches of Muslims, known as Sunni and Shia, is the result of a historical-political disagreement, though, over time, some theological differences have occurred as well. Despite such differences, however, both agree upon the main tenets of Islam, namely the testimony of faith (that there is no God but Allah Alone and Muhammad is His Last Prophet and Messenger) and the five pillars of Islam. This article explains the main differences between the Sunni and Shia Muslims, and the historical context of their split.

The political-historical context

After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, there was a differing of opinion amongst Muslims as to who should succeed the Prophet and act as the head of the community (of Muslims), and lead the caliphate or Islamic state. Those who later came to be known as Sunni (“Sunni” in Arabic roughly means to follow the Sunnah or ways and traditions of the Prophet) Muslims upheld the position of many of the Prophet’s companions, in that the new leader should be elected from among those most pious and suitable for such a position. This is what happened, and the Prophet’s best friend, Abu Bakr, was chosen to be the first caliph.

Those who came to be known as Shia (originally stemming from “Shi’it-Ali,” which translates as the party or group of Ali) Muslims strongly disagreed with this position. The Shia Muslims upheld the opinion that the next leader after the last Prophet should be someone from the Prophet’s bloodline, and therefore took a hereditary view of Muslim leadership. They believed that the next in line should be the Prophet’s cousin, Ali ibn Abu Talib, or an imam appointed by God. The Shia Muslims have a different view of an imam than the Sunnis, who call an imam a leader of prayer and community within an area. Shia Muslims, on the other hand, believe in the Imamate, which, in a nutshell, regards the imams (leaders they believe are chosen by God) as infallible beings, worthy of veneration and following.

The main differences between the Sunni and the Shia

Sunni Muslims argue that the leader of the Muslims should be someone chosen by them, someone who has earned their trust, and that this person can be withdrawn from that position if there is strong reason for doing so. They strongly disagree that leadership should be given to someone based on their lineage or bloodline, and do not worship any spiritual leader but respect his directions if they do not go against the basis of Islamic teachings.

Shia Muslims, on the other hand, argue that the leader of the Muslims should be someone from the household of the Prophet Muhammad, or someone chosen by God who becomes known as an imam.  They believe in a succession of infallible imams, whom they believe have been appointed by God. Many who follow this belief make small pilgrimages to tombs and shrines of such imams, with the belief that they will intercede with God on their behalf. Sunni Muslims disagree with this belief, and pursue direct communication between themselves and God through supplication and prayer.

The main difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims arose out of a historical-political disagreement after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. This, over time, also led to some theological differences. Despite this, both Sunni and Shia agree on the fundamental tenets of Islam.