Islam of today is has two major branches; the Sunni Muslims and the Shia Muslims. This massive split between the sects & laws is not just between the people, but also endeavors’ politics. These differences have developed into a burden over the years. They argue about many different things but it all starts with, “who should have succeeded the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) after his death?” The conflicts between these two sects are very similar to those that had, at one time, existed between the Protestants & Catholics.
However, let’s compare some basic differences. Let us begin with the number of followers.
Shia: Party or Followers of Ali ibn Talib (RA).
Sunni: Well tread path or tradition.
Shia: 200 Million & growing.
Sunni: 1.2 Billion & growing.
Image Source: CFR – Percentage of Shias and Sunnis in respective countries.
Believe the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) nominated a Successor:
Shia: They believe that His cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib, should have been the successor.
Sunni: Believe that any practicing Muslim can be the chosen by the agreement of the authorities of the Muslim people.
The Rulers or Successors after the Prophet (PBUH):
Shia: They believe that the 12 Imams were the only ones that were allowed to become Muslim rulers namely, Ali ibn Abi Talib (RA), Imam Hassan (RA), Imam Hussein (RA), Imam Ali Zain ul Abideen (RA), Imam Muhammad Al Baqir,Imam Ja’far Al Sadiq, Imam Musa Al Kazim, Imam Ali Al Raza, Imam Muhammad Al Taqi, Imam Ali Al Naqi, Imam Hasan Al Askari, Imam Muhammad Al Mahdi (hidden from the world).
Sunni: The 4 Rightly Guided Caliphs: Abu Bakr (RA), Omar bin Al Khattab (RA), Usman bin Affan (RA) & Ali bin Abi Talib (RA).
Views about Ali bin Abi Talib (RA):
Shia: Believe Ali ibn Talib to be divine, and at times consider Ali ibn Talib above the Prophet (PBUH) the head of the religion in many authorities and aspects.
Sunni: They consider Ali ibn Talib (RA) as a ‘Lion of God’ – a title he got during one of the battles. However, they also consider him to be the first child to convert to Islam and a great warrior of the faith.
Respective Views of the Imams accordingly:
Shia: They consider them to be divinely guided, and consider as the only legitimate interpreters of the Quran.
Sunni: This sect believes the Imams to be close to Allah, or saints or people with strong faith in the teachings of the Quran and Sunnah (ways of the Prophet (PBUH)).
Passing Authoritative Revelation of Hadiths:
Shia: Somewhat true, Imams are considered guided directly by God. The reason being is to safeguard the current faith and its esoteric meaning.
Sunni: Anyone can pass down a Hadith – as long as it is in connection to the Prophet (PBUH) himself i.e. I heard this Hadith from X, who heard it from Y, who heard it from Z and Z finally heard it from the Prophet (PBUH) himself (this chain consists hundreds of people).
Image Source: CFR – Branches of Islam.
Self Beating or Flagellation (Matam):
Shia: They beat themselves to recall and show respect to the martyrdom of Imam Hussein – marching in great groups on the tenth of Muharram (1st Islamic month of lunar calendar) which also includes beating oneself with knives, blades, chains with sharp ends or even the use of hands on chest. This is also permitted by some Shia scholars.
Sunni: Beating oneself in Sunnis is a major sin, also many Sunni scholars’ quote that the Quran speaks of literally harming oneself with their own hands is not allowed.
Building and Visiting Shrines:
Shia: Shia scholars allow building and constructing shrines.
Sunni: Sunnis do not.
Views on Angels:
Shia: They obey God and His commandments. They have limited free will but never towards sinning.
Sunni: God created Angels from light; they only obey God commandments and do not have a will of their own.
Place of Worship (Muslims can also pray at home – if they for some reason cannot visit the respective worship place):
Shia: Imam Bargah, Ashur Khana, Mosque, Eidgah.
Use of Statues and Pictures:
Shia: Only pictures are allowed by some scholars.
Sunni: Not allowed at all.
Image Source: Google Image – An imam leading prayers in Cairo, Egypt, in 1865.
Shia: Imam (divinely guided), Ayatullah, Allama, Maulana.
Sunni: Caliph (not self declared), Imam (Saint), Allama, Maulana.
Shia: Man may marry up to four women and can do Mut’ah. Mut’ah is a type of marriage where the duration of the marriage and the dowry must be specified and agreed upon in advance. It is a private contract made in a verbal or written format. A declaration of the intent to marry and an acceptance of the terms are required. Zaidi Shia, Ismaili Shia and Sunni Muslims do not practice Nikah Mut’ah. The practice is often viewed as a cover for promiscuity or prostitution.
Sunni: Man may marry up to four women – which is announced and is registered.
Shia: Baha’i – a separate religion.
Sunni: Non Muqallideen – a sect of Islam.
Belief in God:
Shia: One God.
Sunni: One God.
Shia: Farsi & Arabic.
Views on Jesus or Prophet Isa (AS):
Shia: Believe that Jesus did not die on the cross but will come back down from heaven in the future to fight Dajjal, False Messiah or the Anti-Christ.
Sunni: Believe that Jesus did not die on the cross but will come back down from heaven in the future to fight Dajjal, False Messiah or the Anti-Christ.
Special or Holy Days:
Shia: Ashura (ten days of Muharram), Eid al Fitr, Eid al Adha, Eid al Ghadeer.
Sunni: Eid al Fitr, Eid al Adha & Ramadan.
Places Associated with Religion:
Shia: Karbala & Kufa.
Sunni: Makkah & Medina.
Shia: Shiites, Shia, Shii & Ahle Eh Tashi.
Sunni: Sunni & Ahle Eh Sunnat
Major Population by Country:
Shia: The majority are in Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, and Lebanon. Minority spread across the world.
Sunni: Majority are in most Muslim countries. Minority spread across the world.
Foundations of Belief:
Shia: One God, Angels, Revealed Books of God including the Quran, Messengers, Day of Judgment, Prophet hood & Imamah.
Sunni: One God, Angels, All the Books Revealed by God including the Torah, Psalms, Gospel or Bible and the Quran, Messengers, Day of Judgment & Prophet hood.
Image Source: Google Image – Millions of muslims from around the world come and performing Hajj in Makkah.
The Pillars of Faith:
4. Mandatory alms, 20% for Imam and the needy (khums).
5. Promotion of good.
6. Dissuasion from bad.
7. Re-Affirmation 8 Disassociation from the enemies of Islam starting from first Caliph.
1. Testament of Faith
2. Prayers 5 times a day.
3. Mandatory alms, 2.5% for needy (Zakat)
4. Fasting in the Month of Ramadan
5. Pilgrimage to Makkah once in a lifetime for those who are able.
Passing of the Religious Narrations:
Shia: Nahjul Balagha, Kitab Al Kafi, Man la Yahduruhu Al Faqih, Tahdhib Al Ahkam, Al Istibsar.
Sunni: Muwatta Malik, Musnad Ahmad, Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan Abu Dawood, Jami Al Tirmidhi, Sunan Nasai.
Branches of their Status:
Shia: Ithna Ashariyya (Believers of Twelve Imams), Ismailis (Believers of Seven Imams) and Zaidi (Believers of Five Imams). The ones before them do not agree to infallibility of Imams’ or even the coming of Imam Mahdi (AS).
Sunni: Four contributing schools of Law: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali. These branches count each other on right path with different way of thinking.
Special Day of worship:
Temporary or Unannounced Marriage:
Shia: Yes, earlier discussed as Mut’ah.
Sunni: Not allowed and deemed as adultery.
Sunni: Ulama also known as Alim Eh Deen
Intercession Permitted or Asking from Prophets, Angels, Saints or Wali a part God:
Shia: Yes, fourteen Infallibles only; from Prophet until the Mahdi, including Fatima, daughter of the Prophet and wife of Ali (AS).
Sunni: No, not allowed, directly from God Himself.
Public Affirmation of the Faith & Propagation of Teachings:
Shia: The Shia allows ‘Taqiyya’: which is to be able to deny faith when under grave danger. This extends to the belief that true meaning of faith is hidden until the coming of twelfth Imam.
Sunni: Little stress on esoteric meaning or Taqiyya. While ‘inner meaning’ of Quran is accepted as existing, stress is on a literal rather than mystic interpretation. Notable exceptions are Sufi schools.
Did Islam achieve its Ultimate Glory:
Shia: No, it was hijacked by hypocrites, especially the first three Caliphs.
Sunni: Yes, mission of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) achieved its glory at the time of first 3 Caliphs and sustained by next three Caliphs including Ali bin Abi Talib.
In some nations the tension between the two has taken physical turn which is common between the Shia and Sunnis and especially around the religious holidays for instance the day of Ashura or some political campaign. Below are some conflicts:
Iraq 2014: Shia militias killing Sunnis in reprisal attacks. (Read Here)
Iraq 2014: Iraqis fear sectarian violence in Baghdad and flee the country. (Read Here)
Pakistan 2014: Bus bombing kills at least 22 people on their way home from religious pilgrimage in Iran. (Read Here)
Bahrain 2013: Sectarian tensions rise in Bahrain amid mosque attacks. (Read Here)
Iraq 2012: Bomb attacks around Iraq target Shiites, killing dozens. (Read Here)
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