What Is The Difference Between Sunni and Shiite Islam?

What is the main difference between Sunni and Shiite Islam? The Shiite believe that Islam should be led by the descendants of Prophet Muhammad while the Sunni believe that the leadership of Islam should be appointed by election and consensus.

Shia (Shiite) and Sunni are the two main branches of Islam. They consider themselves Muslims since their beliefs, symbols, and religious practices are similar. But the belief over who should succeed Prophet Muhammad is their key difference.

Why did Sunni and Shia split? This is one of the question that puzzles new believer and other people wanting to join Islam. The research shows that it was politically grounded. This article provide over 10 differences between Sunni and Shia.

10 Difference Between Sunni and Shiite Islam (With Table)

Difference Between Sunni and Shiite Islam With Table

Basic Terms Sunni Islam Shiite Islam
Population About 1.2 billion About 200 million
Hereditary Succession Islam leadership should be by election and consensus. Islam leadership should be from descendant of Muhammad.
Styles of Prayers Cross their arms while praying Keep their arms open by their sides
Governance Scholarship texts penned by past religious leaders. More hierarchical structures by following living religious leaders.
Marriage A man may marry up to more women. Man may marry up to four wives.
Imams Identification Saints since they have strong faith in Quran and Sunna. Divinely guided since they are seen as the only legitimate interpreters of the Quran.
Original Language Arabic Arabic, Farsi
Ruler Lineage Can be any practicing Muslim chosen by agreement of the authorities of the muslim populace (ummah). Must be male child from lineage of Ali from Fatimah.
Current Leaders Imaams, Sheikhs and Murshids Mujtahids
Worship at Graves Not permitted since it is considered ‘shirk’ or a hypocrisy against faith. Yes

What Is Sunni Islam?

Sunni Islam is the largest branch of Islam since it represent about 85-90% of Muslims across the world. It follows the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran.

Sunnis believe in the legitimacy of the first four caliphs as successors to the Prophet, while adhering to the principle of consensus (ijma) and the use of Hadith (sayings and actions of the Prophet) as sources of guidance.

They emphasize the community’s role in interpreting Islamic law (Sharia) and reject any hereditary succession of leadership. Sunnis are diverse, following different schools of thought, but they unite in their devotion to the Five Pillars of Islam.

What Is Shiite Islam?

Shiite Islam (Shia Islam) is one of the major branches of Islam and it consist of about 10-15% of Muslims worldwide. Shiites believe in the leadership of the Prophet Muhammad’s family and descendant.

They consider the Imams as divinely appointed spiritual and political leaders. The split from Sunni Islam occurred over disagreements about the rightful succession after the Prophet’s death. Shiites uphold unique rituals and commemorations, such as Ashura.

Shiite Muslims have distinctive legal interpretations and religious practices. Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Azerbaijan, Lebanon and Bahrain have significant Shiite populations or influencing their respective cultures and politics.

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Main Difference Between Sunni and Shiite Islam

  1. Shiite believes in the leadership of the Prophet Muhammad’s family, while Sunni follow the leadership of the first four caliphs after the Prophet Muhammad.
  2. Sunni consider Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali as the rightful successors (caliphs) to the Prophet while Shiite consider Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, as the first Imam.
  3. Shiite regard Imams as divinely appointed spiritual and political successors, while Sunni regard caliphs as elected leaders based on consensus (ijma).
  4. Sunni do not belief in the infallibility of caliphs or leaders while Shiite emphasizes the concept of infallibility (ismah) for the Imams.
  5. Shiite celebrates significant events like Ashura to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain while Sunni do not have specific rituals for commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain.
  6. Sunni has diverse schools of thought (e.g., Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali) within Sunni jurisprudence while Shiite has a distinct legal interpretation and religious practices.

Similarities Between Sunni and Shiite Islam

  1. Both believe in the oneness of Allah (God) and accept the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as found in the Quran.
  2. Share the Five Pillars of Islam: Declaration of faith (Shahada), Prayer (Salah), Charity (Zakat), Fasting during Ramadan (Sawm), and Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj).
  3. Recognize the importance of Hadith (sayings and actions of the Prophet) as a secondary source of guidance, alongside the Quran.
  4. Follow Islamic moral and ethical principles, including honesty, compassion, and respect for others.
  5. Celebrate Islamic holidays such as Eid al-Fitr (end of Ramadan) and Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice).
  6. Both have a shared historical foundation during the early days of Islam before the split occurred.

Final Thoughts from Experts

The main difference between Sunni and Shiite (Shia) Islam is the beliefs over who should have succeeded the Prophet Muhammad. It is a key theological difference that helps differentiate these two major branches of Islam.

Sunnis dominate Muslims world from West Africa, North Africa, Middle East, to Indonesia. The Shiites are centrally located with majority in Iran, predominance in Iraq and sizable populations in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. (Source: Colombia International University).

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