In Brief: Difference Between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam

In Brief: Difference Between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam

Sunni Islam and Shia Islam are the two major branches of Islam or, in other words, two of the main sectarian divisions. The general difference between the two stems from the recognized true successor to the Prophet Muhammad.

Sunni Islam vs. Shia Islam: Understanding the Difference Between the Two

At the core of Sunni Islam is an assertion that Muhammad did not officially designate a successor before his death. Instead, the Muslim community following his demise elected his father-in-law Abu Bakr as the first caliph based on his Sunnah.

Note that the word “Sunni” comes from the word “sunnah,” which represents the teachings and examples or actions of the Sahaba or the companions of the prophet, and Muhammad. Adherents essentially consider Abu Bakr as the first companion of the revered prophet.

Sunni Muslims also consider the first four caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan and Ali ibn Abi Talib, as “al-Khalifa-Rāshidūn” or the Rightly Guided Caliphs. Note that the Islamic state under these four caliphs has been collectively called the Rāshidūn Caliphate.

On the other hand, Shia Islam asserts that Muhammad officially named his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor and the Imam after him during a sermon he delivered at the Pond of Khumm. The sermon has now been called the event of Ghadir Khumm.

The Shia tradition declares further that the family members of Muhammad called the Ahl al-Bayt or The People of the House, as well as his descendants called the Imams, have exclusive spiritual and political authority over the Muslim community.

Remember that Ali was from the same Banu Hashim clan as the prophet, and was the first male to become Muslim. In believing in his legitimacy, Shia Muslims reject the legitimacy of the first three Rāshidūn caliphs, specifically Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, and Uthman ibn Affan.

Sunni-Shia Divide: Other Facts About the two Major Divisions of Islam

Sunni Islam is the largest Islamic denomination with adherents comprising 87 to 90 percent of the total global Muslim population. Sunni Muslims also dominate Muslim populations in countries in the Near and Middle East, North and East Africa, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia.

However, several factions have laid competing claims regarding representation. These include the followers of the schools of jurisprudence and theological traditions, and groups such as Islamists and Salafis, including Wahhabism and the Ahle Hadith movement, that follow a literalist reading of early Islamic sources.

Adherents of Shia Islam represent 10 to 15 percent of the total global Muslim population. In countries such as Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan, Shia Muslims constitute the majority of the Muslim population. There are also significant minorities in Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, as well as in countries in East Africa and South Asia.

There are also sub-denominations under Shia Islam founded based on the recognized spiritual leader. These are the Twelvers that believe in the legitimacy of the so-called twelve Imams, Ismailism, the Zaidiyyah, Alawites, and the Ismailism offshoot Druze.

Nevertheless, because of the considerable difference between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam, the history of Sunni-Shia relations has often involved aggression. From the earliest emergence of the two denominations and the rise of the different caliphates to modern sociopolitical events, Shia Muslims have faced discrimination and persecution.

FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES

  • Council on Foreign Relations. 2016. “The Sunni-Shia Divide: A CFR InfoGuide Presentation.” Council on Foreign Relations. Available online
  • Moore, J. 2015. “The Sunni and Shia Schism: Religion, Islamic Politics, and Why Americans Need to Know the Differences.” The Social Studies. 106(5): 226-235. DOI: 1080/00377996.2015.1059794