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Explained: What is the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims?

Arfa Javaid

There are around 1.9 billion Muslims in the world. Of these, around 85% are Sunni and 15% are Shia. While the two sects within Islam share most of the fundamental beliefs and practices of religion, they differ on doctrine, law, ritual, and religious organizations. Here’s a primer on the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims. 

Sunni vs Shia Muslims: What led to the divide?

After the death of Prophet Mohammad in 632 A.D., a strong disagreement among the followers of Islam emerged on who should succeed Prophet Mohammad as the leader of the Islamic Community. The schism emerged as the Prophet Mohammad died without a male heir and never stated who should be his successor. 

While some believed that the successor must be chosen by consensus, others believed that only Prophet’s descendants must lead the new faith. 

Shia and Sunni Muslims: The Divide

What came to be known as the Sunni sect won and chose Prophet’s close friend Abu Bakar as his successor and the first caliph of Islam. The other group that wanted the prophet’s descendant Ali, his cousin and son in law, to succeed him came to be known as the Shia sect. 

Ali became the fourth caliph of Islam only after two successor’s of Abu Bakar were assassinated. Ali was assassinated in 661 A.D.with a poison-laced sword in a mosque at Kufa (present-day Iraq) as the bitter power struggle between the two sects rose. 

His sons, Hasan and Hussein, succeeded him but Hussein and his relatives were massacred in the Battle of Karbala in 680 A.D. in Iraq. The incident is mourned every year by the Shia community during Muharram.

The Sunnis on the other hand believe that they are the true adherents of the Sunnah and regarded the first three caliphs of Islam as rightly guided. The last caliphate ended with the fall of the Ottoman Empire post World War-I. 

Major differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims

Sunni Muslim

Shia Muslim

Sunnis make up the majority of the Muslim population across the world. 

Shia Muslims make up 15-20% of the Muslim population globally. 

The name Sunni is derived from the phrase Ahl al-Sunnah, meaning the People of the Tradition. 

Here, tradition refers to the practises based on what the Prophet Mohammad said, did, agreed and condemned. 

The name Shia comes from a movement Shiat Ali, meaning the Party of Ali. 

The Shia Muslims believe that Prophet Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, was the rightful successor to the Mohmmad as leader of Islam. 

Sunni Islam is separated into four main schools of jurisprudence, namely, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, Hanbali.

The major Shia school of jurisprudence is the Ja'fari or Imāmī school.

It is separated into three major sects, namely, Twelvers, Ismailis, and Zaydis.

Five pillars of Islam-- Shahada,Salah,Sawm,Zakat, and Hajj

Seven pillars of Islam-- Walayah, Tawhid, Salah, Zakat, Sawm, Hajj, and Jihad.

Sunnis are the majority in over 40 countries such as Syria, Turkey, South Asia, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Persian Gulf.

Shia Muslims constitute the majority of the Muslim populations in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Azerbaijan.

Despite the aforementioned differences, both Shia and Sunni Muslims read Quran, believe that Prophet Mohammad was the messenger of Allah, follow the tenets of Islam such as offering salah (praying daily), practising sawm (fasting during the month of Ramadan), Hajj (annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca), zakat (giving charity to poor) and pledging themselves to their faith. 

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List of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Member Countries

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