Introduction to two mainstream sects of Islam: Sunni and Shia

Sunni and Shia Muslims are similar in terms of their belief in oneness of God, finality of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the Quran, fasting in Ramadan, the Hajj pilgrimage, the Zakat (charity tax), and several other basic tenets of Islam. Both sects have peacefully lived with each other barring a few incidents and phases of intolerance and violence.

Both branches of Islam represent the early, mainstream versions of Islam and their differences are not only in some matters of jurisprudence but also in terms of politics.

Populationca. 1.2 billion (approximately 70–75% of Muslim population)ca. 200–250 million (approximately 20–25% of Muslim population)
Name meansFrom the Arabic ‘sunnah’ or ‘way’, referring to “One of the path” or “one who follows the traditions of the Prophet”From the Arabic ‘Shi’atu Ali’ or ‘Party of Ali’, referring to “party”, or “partisans” of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Muslim and the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet.
Adherents calledSunni, Sunnis, Ahl us Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah.Shiites, Shi’ites, Shia, Shi’a, Shi’i, Ahl at-Tashayyu’.
OriginsFrom the teachings of the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad as interpreted by the Four [Rashidun Caliphs], the [Sahaba] and [Ahlul Bayt], the four [madhhabs] and rulings of the scholars [Ulama].From the teachings of the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad, the [Ahlul Bayt], the [Imams] of Ahlul Bayt and rulings of the [Marja].
Theological language(s)ArabicArabic.
Geographic distribution and presenceForm the majority in most Muslim countries.Make up a significant part (35-40%) of the Arab Middle East. Represent a majority in Iran, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iraq, North Yemen, Lebanon, and forms significant percentage in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and others.
Places associated with development of faithMedinaMeccaJerusalemBaghdadDamascus.MedinaMeccaJerusalemKufaKarbala, Najaf, Baghdad, Damascus
Holy cities and placesMecca, Medina (Saudi Arabia), Jerusalem (Israel/Palestine, however some Shiite ahadith indicate it’s in Jannah).Mecca, Medina (Saudi Arabia), Jerusalem (Israel/Palestine), NajafKarbalaKufa (Iraq).
Organizational structureVoid of leadership since the abolishment of the Ottomans Caliphate in 1920.More hierarchical and centralized. Grand Ayatollahs act as spiritual leaders (in the matters of fiqh) until the return of the 12th Imam, Mahdi.
Central authorityThe Caliphate – successor to the Prophet – is a political body headed by the Caliph (defunct since 1920). In the past, four principles for appointing the Caliph recognized: consensus by the Ummah, nomination by the preceding Caliph, selection by a committee, or by military force. The idea was that the Caliph was to be chosen from among those most capable. A fifth principle – descent from Mohammed’s Quraish tribe, was not always followed. Sinlessness not a condition for leadership.The Imamate – a religious body headed by the Imam – is entitled by a descendant of the Prophet, from the lines of 12 Imams. Must be a male descendant of the lineage of Mohammad through his daughter Fatima, and must be chosen by God. Imams are spiritual leaders and are sinless.
Current leadersImams (not in the same sense as Shia Imams who are divinely guided).Mujtahids (Grand Ayatollahs).
LeadershipBelieve no one was appointed by Mohammad to be his successor. Historically, the Caliph, a non-hereditary position that can theoretically be removed, has acted as leader. The position of Caliph has been void since 1920. Caliphs viewed as temporal leaders only, and held to be both a religious and political office. The main task of the Caliphate was to see that Sharia law was applied in the community, that the borders of Islam were secure, and in general, to provide for the well-being of the citizens. In the absence of the Caliphate, hierarchical structure often falls under the state, rather than clerical, control.[16][17][18][19][20]Believe the true leader of the community is Imam Ali along with his descendants who were appointed by God to be the successor of Mohammad. View leadership as a hereditary class descending from Mohammad’s lineage through his daughter Fatima. The position of the Imam is currently held by the Mahdi. Imams are infallible and the office is purely religious. Various Grand Ayatollahs act as central figures until the return of the Mahdi. In absence of the Imamate, authority falls under various Grand Ayatollahs. In the past there have been no more than five Ayatollahs at any given time.
Required lineage for rulerInitially from the tribe of the Prophet. However, in theory, he can be any practicing male Muslim adult chosen by agreement of the authorities of the Muslim populace (Ummah).Believe the authority of Islam should be based on a male descended from the Hashemite line, that is, from the lineage of Ali from Fatimah.
Successor nominated by MohammedNo. Believe no successor was nominated.Yes, believe Mohammed nominated his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abu Talib as successor.
Rulers or successors after the prophetThe Four Rightly Guided Caliphs: Abu BakrUmar bin Al KhattabUthman bin Afan, Ali bin Abi TalibZaidis (Fivers), Ismailis (Seveners), Athna’ashariyyah (Twelvers) all recognize the first 4 Imams. Zaidis recognize Zayd ibn Ali as the fifth Imam. Seveners recognize Isma’il ibn Jafar as the divinely appointed spiritual successor to Ja’far al-Sadiq. Twelver Shia claim there are 12 Infallible Imams: Ali bin Abi Talib, Hasan ibn AliHusayn ibn AliAli ibn Husayn Zayn al-AbidinMohammad al-BaqirJa’far al-SadiqMusa al-KadhimAli al-RidhaMuhammad al-TaqīAli al-NaqiHasan al-AskariMohammad al-Mahdi.
ClergyCaliph (defunct since 1920), Imam (Saint), MujtahidAllamahMaulana. Clergy usually wear white headgear.In order of rank there are Imams (divinely guided), Grand AyatollahsAyatollahsHujjat al-Islam, Muballigh al-Risala (carrier of knowledge), and Talib al-Ilm.[27] Clergy often elaborately dressed, and often wear white, black or green headgear.
Role of clergyClerics interpret Islamic law [Shari’ah] and pass jurisdiction.Wield considerable power. Clerics mandated to interpret God’s word and the more senior the cleric, the more authoritative his views are.
Clerical dressSunni clerics often wear white clothing and a turban or skullcap. Dress is often indicative of study background or location (e.g. clerics who have studies at [al-Azhar] wear a black, brown or white [jubbah] and tarboush, clerics in Syria wear a formal jubbah or long coat with a tall white turban).Shiite learned class usually wear black or dark brown robes called an aba, which is a sleveless cloak that is open in front, along with either a white, black or green turban, with the turban’s color often related to their lineage. A black turban, or even a green turban, represents a Sayyid. A Sayyid is someone who is a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad. A Shia cleric who cannot trace his lineage to the Prophet Mohammad thus wears a white turban.
Imams identified asConsidered as persons with strong faith in Quran and Sunnah. Primarily act as prayer leaders in mosques.Spiritual or mystic master of Muslims. Infallible and divinely guided. Considered as the only legitimate interpreters of the Quran.[ Different branches of Shiites recognize different numbers of Imams. Imams are treated as God’s appointed representatives on Earth, and their tombs have become pilgrimage sites. For ‘Twelver’ Shia, the Twelfth Imam is believed not to have died, but rather to have passed into occultation, to one day reappear as the Mahdi or ‘guided one’ and establish rule over a perfect Islamic society.
Definition of Imam”A low-case is used when referring to Sunni imams. For Sunnis, an imam can be a saint or someone who leads prayers in the mosque.When capitalized, Imam refers to those with the highest level of power and authority. Imams are considered infallible leaders who are descended from the House of Ali. Imams are seen as divine legates and interpreters of the Quran and provided guidance for daily life. Various Shia sects have different numbers of Imams.
Quality of ImamsHuman.Infallible humans. Spiritual masters and guides.
BranchesNowadays Sunnis recognize four main schools of Law: HanafiHanbaliMalikiShafi’i. There also exists an obscure fifth school of law called Zahiri, but it’s almost extinct and even many Muslims are unaware of its existence. There’re three schools of Creed: AthariAsh’ari and Maturidi. These branches consider each other to be on right path with different way of thinking. Even though Salafis respect these scholars, they do not support blind following of them. They consider one of the four Imam’s contradictory opinion is only correct. But scholars are not punishable for their mistakes which are not deliberate. The four scholars warned that they should not be followed blindly.The main branches are the Zaydis (‘Fivers’), the Ismailis (‘Seveners’), and Ithna Ashariyya (‘Twelvers’ the mainstream Shia branch). The main distinction is the number of recognized Imams.
Offshoot religionsAhmadiyya or QadiyanisBabism (Azali and Baha’i), Druze (offshoot of Ismaili), Alawites (AlevisIshikism); influenced Yazdanism and its syncretic off-shoot religions of Yazidism and mystic Yarsanism
Places of worshipMosque, Eidgah, Surau.Mosque, Husseiniyas, Imambarah or Ashurkhana, Eidgah.
Building and visiting mosques permittedYes. Sunnis generally “go to mosques”.Yes. Shi’as go to Mosques (Masjid) as other Muslims do. On different occasionو they go to husseiniyas, Imambargahs or Tekyehs, which are special halls specifically set aside for the telling of the trajedy of Karbala, tears of reflection, grief and mediation. Husseiniyas function as mosques and community centers, and for all intents and purposes, are mosques where, in addition to prayers and services, additional services are performed in mourning.
Styles of mosquesTend to have domes and minarets. Mosques are generally more austere. Portraits of any kind are regarded as forms of idolatry.Shiite mosques and husseinyas are often adorned with the names of Ahlul Bayt (Prophet’s family): Mohammad, Ali, Fatima, Hasan, Hussein and others. Shiite mosques are often draped with traditional green and black flags
Building and visiting shrines permittedSunnis (except hardcore Salafis) visit shrinesYes. Shia Islam encourages the visiting of shrines.
Religious authority other than the QuranAuthority to interpret Islam lies with the Ijma (consensus) of the Muslim community.Infallible Imams. In their absence, the Muslim parliament and community as guided by senior clerics.
JurisprudenceBasic sources are the Quran, the sunnah (customs of the prophet Mohammed), qiyas (analogy, however rejected by Zahiris), ijma (consensus), and ijtihad (individual reasoning).Basic sources are the Quran, the sunnah (customs of the prophet Mohammed), ijma (consensus), and ‘aql (mind) by which ijtihad (individual reasoning), for Usulis. However, Akhbaris reject ijma and aql (thus rejecting ijtihad). Shia hadiths differ from Sunni hadiths mainly in that Shia hadiths include the sayings of the Ahlul Bayt.
Religious lawMuftis (judges) traditionally administered religious law based on one of the 4 schools of law. Muftis may issue fatwas (guidelines) to Islamic law, but Sunnis do not have to follow a Mufti’s words.Usulis refer to Grand Ayatollahs for fatwas and are required to choose a senior cleric (Marja taqlid) whom they imitate (taqlid) on the fiqh matters. However, Akhbaris reject taqlid of the marja.
Schools of lawFour main schools of jurisprudence that offer alternative interpretations of religious law. These are the Hanafi, Maliki, Shaf’i, Hanbali[37]. The fifth school of law is Zahiri, however it’s so small that many Muslims are unaware of its existence.Fivers have 1 main school of law: Zaydi. Seveners have 2 main schools of law: the Taiyebi Musta’liyyah and Nizar’Iyyah. Among the Twelvers, there’s 1 main school of law: Ja’fari. It’s further divided into 3 subschools: UsulismAkhbarismShaykhism
Implementing lawSunni judges are known to follow Islamic law to the letter.Shiite judges are known for being more inclusive and flexible in interpreting the law. Shiite law refuses to accept traditions not transmitted through Ali or one of his descendants. Reject the doctrine of ijma (coming to a decision by consensus). Law can only be interpreted by the Imams of the House of Ali.
Articles of beliefBelief in God, Prophets and Messengers, Divine Books, the Day of Judgement, Angels, and Divine Destiny.[39]One God, Prophets and Messengers, Angels, Revealed Book of God the Quran, Day of Judgment, Prophethood, Imamah.
Pillars of faith1. Declaration of Faith 2. Obligatory Prayer 3. Compulsory Alms, 2.5% for needy (zakat) 4. Fasting in the month of Ramadan 5. Pilgrimage to MeccaShia have 5 pillars: 1. Belief in One God 2. Justice 3. Prophethood 4. Succession to Mohammad 5. Belief in the Day of Judgement. On top of that, Shia have 10 further practices 1. Prayer 2. Fasting in the month of Ramadan 3. Zakat 4. Khums – compulsory alms, 20% for Imam and the needy 6. Pilgrimage to Mecca 7. Jihad (understood generally as the duty to perform good works) 8. Promotion of good 9. Dissuasion from bad 9. Re-affirmation of God’s love 10. Disassociation and hatred towards evil.
Proclaiming faith“There is no god but Allah and Mohammad is the messenger of Allah.”“There is no god but Allah and Mohammad is the messenger of Allah. Ali is the wali of Allah.”
Beliefs regarding revealed scripturesBelief in the Quran.Belief in the Quran.
QuranThe direct word of God.The direct word of God.
HadithsYes. Recognize 6 major collections of hadiths.[42]Yes. Recognize 4 major collections of hadiths.
Position on the MahdiThe Mahdi will come in the future. Accept the Mahdi and his worldwide leadership as Caliph of God on Earth at the end of the world. Do not accept the Mahdi as the Shia’s twelfth Imam.The Mahdi is already on Earth, but is currently the “hidden Imam”, and will reappear at the end of time. Will bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth after the apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Twelver Shia believe the Mahdi is the twelfth Imam.[43]
View of other Abrahamic religionsChristians and Jews are “People of the Book.”Christians and Jews are “People of the Book.”
Birth of JesusHis birth was a divine virgin birth.His birth was a divine virgin birth
Death of JesusJesus did not die on the cross, but ascended to heaven.Jesus did not die on the cross, but ascended to heaven.
Resurrection of JesusJesus did not die on the cross, but will one day descend from heaven.Jesus did not die on the cross, but will one day descend from heaven.
Second coming of JesusYes, he will one day return.[49]Yes, he will one day return.
AfterlifeWill see God in the hereafter.Will not see God in the hereafter.
AngelsGod created angels from light. Angels do not have their own free will and they always obey the commandments of God.God created angels from light. Angels obey God’s commandments, however, they have limited free will, though no desire to sin. [
Special day of communal worshipFriday.Friday.
Holy daysEid al-Fitr (breaking the fast at the end of Ramadan), Eid al-Adha (celebrates the end of Hajj), Mawlid (observance of Mohammad’s birthday, but Salafis reject its celebration).Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Mawlid (observance of Mohammad’s birthday), Ashura Day (commemoration of the death of Hussein ibn Ali), Eid al-Ghadeer (celebration of the appointment of Ali ibn Abi Talib by Prophet Mohammad as his successor).
Use of statues and pictures in worshipNot permitted. Sunnis tend to favor calligraphy with quotations from the Koran in mosques. Sometimes Sunnis display white flags when having returned from Hajj.Not permitted. Shias tend to favor calligraphy with quotations from the Koran in mosques. Sometimes in Shia majority areas symbolic, although not religious, images of Ahlul Bayt (Prophet’s family) may decorate husseiniyas or Imambargahs.
SymbolsProminent non-official symbol is the Dhu l-fiqar, which is the bifurcated Sword of Ali. If is often worn, for example, as a charm on necklaces and jewelry.
Prayers5 times per day, with no fewer than one hour between prayers. Can be consolidated on special occasions i.e. traveling.5 times per day, can be (it’s not mandatory) consolidated into 1+2+2. The Fajr prayer is performed separately, while the Dhuhr and Asr prayers are performed one after another, and the Maghrib and Isha’ prayers are likewise performed one after another
Prayer styleWhen cleansing before prayers, viewed as necessary to completely wash feet. Worshipers face the Kaaba in Mecca when praying. Often place foreheads on prayer mats or floors. Pray with hands folded over chest, except among members of the Maliki school who hold their hands at their sides as Shias and Ibadis do. Sunnis do not use any rocks or tablets of soil to place their foreheads on when praying.[57] Male worshippers often may wear a white skullcap.When cleansing before prayers, Shia clean their ears with their fingers. Worshipers face the Kaaba in Mecca when praying. When prostrating during ritual prayer (salah), Shia place their forehead onto a piece of naturally occurring material, often a clay tablet (mohr), or a tablet of soil (turbah) ideally taken from a holy site such as Karbala, the place where Imam Hussein was martyred, instead of directly onto a prayer mat.[58] Shiite male worshippers often wear nothing on their heads when praying.
Burial of the deadElaborate graves traditionally frowned upon and discouraged by Salafis and Deobandis.Elaborate graves traditionally built for the Ahlul Bayt (Prophet’s family) or very distinguished scholars. Graves can be marked or unmarked.
Intercession permittedYes. Both possible and encouraged. Many Sunnis believe pious, holy people after their death can intercede on behalf of the living. Those who honor local saints and holy men worship their relics and invoke their names for protection and blessings. However, Salafis reject tawassul.Yes. Both possible and encouraged. Many Shia believe pious, holy people after their death can intercede on behalf of the living. Those who honor local saints and holy men worship their relics and invoke their names for protection and blessings. Besides the highly visited shrines of the fourteen Pure Ones, there is also another category of Shia pilgrimage sites, namely imamzadihs. Imamzadihs are the tombs of descendants, relatives and close friends of the Twelve Imams. Many Shia also visit the mausoleums of revered Sufi saints and scholars.[66]
Shrines and saintsMay make pilgrimages to shrines and venerate “saints”. However, Salafis reject ziyarat.May make pilgrimages to shrines and venerate “saints”.[67]
TaqiyyaSunnis refer to ‘Taqiyya’ as ‘Ikraah’ (compulsion). For Sunnis this is only acceptable to hide one’s faith in situations where doing so will save him from being killed.Shia permit ‘Taqiyya’ or ‘concealment’ is only acceptable to hide one’s faith in situations where doing so will save him from being killed[68]
Self-flagellationNo, all forms of self-harm are regarded as a very major sin.Yes and No. An act called tatbir done by minority among Shias to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali. Some Grand Ayatollahs ruled it haram, whilst others permitted.
Ban on the consumption of porkYes.Yes.
Seafood consumptionMost schools of Sunni Islam permit the eating of any form of seafood.Prohibit the consumption of any seafood which does not accord with the Old Testament requirement of having “fins and scales”.
MarriageMan may be married up to 4 women at a single time.Man may be married up to 4 women at a single time.
Temporary marriageYes and No. Misyar marriage is used in some Arab countriesYes, nikah mut’ah is deemed permissible but not nikah misyarnikah urfi and nikah halala. Permitted by ‘Twelver’ Shias, but not by ‘Fivers’ or ‘Seveners’.[71][72]
Given names common among adherentsMuhammad, Abdullah, Abu Bakr, Ali,Fatima, Aisha,Umar, Uthman, Hassan, Hussain are common names among Sunnis.Muhammad, Abbas, Ali, Fatima, Hassan, Hussein/Hussain, Zaynab are disproportionately common names among Shias, although also commonly found among Sunnis.