The Differences between Sunni and Shia
Islam is a religion of Muslims promulgated in Arabia by the prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.) in the seventh century C.E. A person can convert Islam by saying Shahada – There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger. These words contain the core meaning of Islam. Islam was born through properthood of Muhammad (S.A.W.) and the Holy Quran is the book of Islam. The Quran contains 114 chapters and it was built up with the revealing of Muhammad (S.A.W.). Islam can be divided into three periods: the time before Islam – “The Time of Ingratitude” or “al-jahiliah” when people didn’t know God and created idols to worship; the period of Muhammad’s life and the time after the death of Muhammad (S.A.W.) when the sects and laws developed without the governance of the messenger (be peace upon him).
This essay will analyze the third period, the period after the death of the messenger when the governance was in the hands of caliphs however the most important fact of this period is that the Prophet didn’t assign anyone after him as he was ordered to do so by Allah. The Prophet didn’t have any sons, they died, and if he had even one it would have been easier to choose the first caliph. He had nine more wives after the death of his first wife Khadija who had given birth to two sons. However they didn’t have become pregnant. Most of his marriages after Khadija were political and diplomatic alliances (Hazleton. P.14).
Allah knows best the reason of this decision since this decision made remarkable changes in Islamic world and created mainly two sects: Sunni and Shia. As a result the aim of the essay is to understand the origins and believes of Shia and Sunni compare and contrast the arguments and learn the reasons they split, explain the concept of seven or twelve Imams.
Most of Muslims are in Sunni sect while only 10% of Muslims follow Shia. Shia mostly widely spread in Iraq, Iran, Labanon, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and Syria (pewresearch.org/religion). However Shia is divided into several groups itself. The two main branches of Shia Muslims are divided according to whether they accept seven or twelve Imams: Seveners and Twelvers (Blanchard. P.5).
Seveners are a group which followed Ismail as the seventh Imam, another name Seveners is Ismailis (Blanchard. P.5). Both groups believe in Mahdi, the Imam of the last time. They refuse the death of Ismaili and suggest that he was hidden to come back at the end time as the Mahdi. Moreover Sunnis also believe in the Hidden Imam as Muslims believe that Allah will not leave them without guidance. Shias call their mujtahids and leaders Ayatollah – shadow of Allah.
The Origins of the Sunni/Shia and Historical Events
There is no debate among sects that the religion of Allah is Islam; the only way of learning Islam is through the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet. They both do Salat, hajj and give zakat (tax). The main differences are in interpretation and understanding of some verses of the Quran, in accepting or not accepting some of the Sunnah as genuine. These differences were the reason of differences in some basic principles and laws of Sharia. Some sufficient differences which distinguish Shia from the Sunni will be described in the essay.
Main issue in the history of forming these two sects is the debate whether there should be a family line of the rulers (as the supporters of Shiat Ali think) or whether the Messenger (S.A.W.) wanted elections to be held to assign the most worthy man as a Muslims leader. After the death of the Messenger the community elected a companion of Muhammad (S.A.W) named Abu Bakr, his father-in-law, so he was the first Caliph (successor). But some people didn’t agree with this decision and wanted another man named Ali (ra), cousin of the Prophet (S.A.W.), husband of his daughter Fatima, the father of Hassan and Hussein and his first male follower, to be a leader of umma.
People who became the followers of this idea became a sect Shia. Shia means “party” or “faction” (of Ali). Shias felt that Ali should have been the first caliph based on bloodline instead of Abu-Bakr. Shias claimed that Ali refused to be caliph as he didn’t want any fights in the community. Before he took leadership of caliphate there were three caliphs: Abu Bakr 632- 634, Umar 634–644 and Uthman 644-656 (Amin, p.1).
When Uthman was assassinated during the prayer, a conflict between Ali and the governor of Syria and Uthman’s cousin, Muawiya, took place. Moreover he was forced by Aisha, the Messenger’s wife and daughter of Abu Bakr. She blamed him for not taking efforts to bring Uthman’s murderer to justice (Amin, p.1). But Aisha’s army lost at the Battle of the Camel in 656 AD and she asked Ali to excuse her. Ali allowed her to come back to her home in Madinah but she had to retire from public life. Ali became the fourth caliph and was killed during the prayer in 661 AD. Ali had two sons, Hasan and Hussein; however they couldn’t be the caliph.
Then Muawiya was a caliph and in order to protect his position he made Hasan swear not to try to claim the caliphate and to give up public work (Sailor.org p.1). Muawiya never was from the family of the Prophet (S.A.W.) in contrast he was from Ummayad family which conflicted with Muhammad (S.A.W). He announced his son Yazid as caliph breaching Islamic tradition because according to Islamic tradition the caliph could only be elected by community.
After his father’s death Yazid became caliph and he sent his army to kill the second son of Ali, Hussein and his family including his toddler son. In 680 AD they were murdered at the Battle of Karbala which was the peak reason for Shias to become separated from the Islamic community because they didn’t accept Ummayad Dynasty as caliphs.
This battle is remembered by Shias every year as Ashura (Saylor.org p.1). Shias believe that caliphate belongs to imams and religious leaders who descended from Ali. So, it is one of the main differences between Sunnis and Shias as imams are the most important person for Shias. Since that time Shias regard imams as true caliphs and they believe that imams are definitely appointed by God and they are free of sin.
Differences in Beliefs
Let’s see the first difference – the difference of Shahadah. Sunni’s shahadah – “There is no God but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah”. Shia’s shahadah is “There is no God but Allah, Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and Ali is the Friend of Allah” (Amin, p.1). As we already mentioned above Shia give much more importance on their imam Ali because he was given the qualities which other people didn’t have. He was promised heaven while he was alive and the ayat was dedicated to him. The Prophet announced that he is the best human being after him. “Shias say that ‘Ali was appointed by Allah to be the successor of the Prophet, and that the Prophet declared it on several occasions. More than one hundred of those occasions are recorded in the history. The Sunni scholars believe that the Prophet did not appoint anybody to be his successor” (Abdul Bayt p.8)
For Shias the first caliph is Ali nut for Sunnis the first caliph is Abu-Bakr. Each imam chose a successor according to Shias and those imams passed down a spiritual knowledge to their successors. For Shias Imam’s position is the highest position in spiritual and political issues. Sunnis are followers of traditional Islam; followers of the Prophet Muhammad and don’t have such believes, they never increased the position of Ali, but considered him as the firth caliph. Shias remember Ali’s youngest son, who was killed at the Battle Karbala in Iraq in 680 known event as Ashura ritual when they all cry and beat their chests in mourning some hit their heads until bleeding and dress only in black during ten days, women don’t use perfume during this period.
Sunnis never do it while Shias regard it as moral lesson to be learned from. They pilgrimage to Hussein’s tomb or gravesites of other Muslim saints during the month Muharram which is sacred to all Muslims. Sunnis don’t do pilgrimage to any tomb except some minority in Sunni sect (they agree that Islam permits pilgrimage to saint’s tomb), only perform Hajj. This is the significant difference between them. Some Sunni scholars criticize this action as Allah is the only one worthy worship.
Both sects have strong beliefs in the life after death, hell and heaven, angels and devils, which are the core beliefs of Islam. According to survey (pewresearch.org/religion) both Shias and Sunnis believe in predestination. “There are not significant differences by sect in attitudes toward these core tenets of Islam” (pewresearch.org/religion).
Another difference is that Shias believe prophets are without sin from the moment they were born and Sunnis believe that they become pure without sin after they become prophets. Moreover Shias believe that Imams also without sin.
Differences in Prayers
Muslims, both Sunni and Shia kneel as it is the main requirement of Salat, bend and touch their foreheads to the ground – it calls Sajda in Arabic. In both sects men have rights over women according to the Holy book Quran and Sunna; so women are not equal to men and pray at home as they are not allowed to mix together in public places with men. Women wear hijabs in both directions. They both keep fasting during Ramadan. When Sunnis pray their arms are in the position that one folder over the other but Shias keep them down and a smote stone “turba” is the place which heads touch. “Sunnis pray in mosques, which have domes and minarets” (teachersites.schoolworld.com) in contrast Shiias pray in the mosques without domes and minarets which named Husseiniya.
Shias and Sunnis Relationships
Islamic world has fights since the death of the Prophet Muhammad due to differences in understanding the importance of Ali as Saint Muslim. Some groups of Shias believe that Muhammad was not the last prophet even if it is said in the Holy Quran. They claim that prophet hood continues in Imams which appointed by Allah. Sunnis totally don’t agree with this concepts however not all Shias think so; only minority. This minority thinks that Allah may transform spiritually in Imam’s body. This belief makes Sunnis that Shias who follow this idea claim that they are not Muslims but great sinners. Shias contains only 10-15% of Muslims. Mainly Shias don’t follow their minority group’s ideas and act as simple Muslims.
Debates still continue between them especially as the news tells us the situation in Islamic countries is getting worse because of the misunderstandings which started log before ago. I do believe that it is the test for Muslims as Allah didn’t give any son to Muhammad (S.A.W.) after he became the prophet. Moreover his sons by Khadija died so he had no one to take his position. Moreover Ali was announced by the Messenger the best of human beings after him. The consequences of all these stories exist nowadays. Shias and Sunnis in some Islamic countries are killing each other. However they all are Muslims and have the same book and the same prophet. As for me I am Sunni and find some concepts of Shias out of Islam. I know some differences exist among Christians too. However I do believe that people certainly should understand that the faith in the only and Almighty God join them altogether.
Husein A. Amin (2001). The Origins of the Sunni/Shia split in Islam. Ed. Islam for Today. Available at: http://cdn.preterhuman.net/texts/religion.occult.new_age/Islam/The%20Origins%20of%20the%20Sunni-Shia%20split%20in%20Islam.pdff
Abdul Bayt Digital Islamic Library Project (n.a). Outline of Differences between Shi’ite and Sunni Schools of Thought. Published on Books on Islam and Muslims. Available at: http://www.al-islam.org/shiite-encyclopedia-ahlul-bayt-dilp-team/outline-differences-between-shiite-and-sunni-schools
Saylor (n.a). Sunnis and Shiites. The Saylor Foundation. Available at: http://www.saylor.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/HIST101-9.2-SunnisShiites-FINAL1.pdf
Christopher M. Blanchard (2009). Islam: Sunnis and Shiites. Congressional Research Service. 7-5700. www.crs.gov RS21745
Hazleto, L. (2010). The Epic Story of Shia –Sunni Split in Islam. After the Prophet. Doubleday. https://lubpak.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Hazleton-after-the-prophet-shia-sunni-split.pdf
Per Research Centre (2013) Many Sunnis and Shias Worry about Religious Conflict. Available at: http://www.pewforum.org/files/2013/11/Shias-Sunnis-religious-conflict-full-report.pdf