How do Sunni and Shia Islam differ?

Saudi Arabia and Iran, the dominant Sunni and Shia powers, often take opposing sides in regional conflicts


John Harney January 04, 2016
Sunnis and Shias praying together on Sunday in Beirut, Lebanon, in protest of the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. PHOTO: AP

Saudi Arabia’s execution of the Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr could escalate tensions in the Muslim world even further. In the Shia theocracy Iran, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Sunday that Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by a Sunni monarchy, would face “divine vengeance” for the killing of the outspoken cleric, which was part of a mass execution of 47 men. Sheikh Nimr had advocated for greater political rights for Shias in Saudi Arabia and surrounding countries. Saudi Arabia had accused him of inciting violence against the state.

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Here is a primer on the basic differences between Sunni and Shia Islam.

What caused the split?

A schism emerged after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in 632. He died without appointing a successor to lead the Muslim community, and disputes arose over who should shepherd the new and rapidly growing faith.

Some believed that a new leader should be chosen by consensus; others thought that only the Prophet (PBUH)’s descendants should become caliph. The title passed to a trusted aide, Hazrat Abu Bakr, though some thought it should have gone to Hazrat Ali, the Prophet (PBUH)’s cousin and son-in-law. Hazrat Ali eventually did become caliph after Hazrat Abu Bakr’s two successors were assassinated.

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Shia pilgrims at the shrine to Imam Hussein in Karbala, Iraq, in December. Each year millions visit the city to mark Arbaeen, the end of the 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein, one of Shia Islam's most revered figures. PHOTO: AP

After Hazrat Ali also was assassinated, with a poison-laced sword at the mosque in Kufa, in what is now Iraq, his sons Imam Hasan and then Imam Hussein claimed the title. But Imam Hussein and many of his relatives were massacred in Karbala, Iraq, in 680. His martyrdom became a central tenet to those who believed that Hazrat Ali should have succeeded the Prophet (PBUH). (It is mourned every year during the month of Muharram.) The followers became known as Shia, a contraction of the phrase Shiat Ali, or followers of Ali.

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The Sunnis, however, regard the first three caliphs before Hazrat Ali as rightly guided and themselves as the true adherents to the Sunnah, or the Prophet (PBUH)’s tradition. Sunni rulers embarked on sweeping conquests that extended the caliphate into North Africa and Europe. The last caliphate ended with the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

How do their beliefs differ?

The Sunni and Shia sects of Islam encompass a wide spectrum of doctrine, opinion and schools of thought. The branches are in agreement on many aspects of Islam, but there are considerable disagreements within each. Both branches include worshipers who run the gamut from secular to fundamentalist. Shia consider Hazrat Ali and the leaders who came after him as imams. Most believe in a line of 12 imams, the last of whom, a boy, is believed to have vanished in the ninth century in Iraq after his father was murdered. Shias known as Twelvers anticipate his return as the Mahdi, or Messiah. Because of the different paths the two sects took, Sunnis emphasize God’s power in the material world, sometimes including the public and political realm, while Shia value in martyrdom and sacrifice.

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Which sect is larger, and where is each concentrated?

More than 85 per cent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are Sunni. They live across the Arab world, as well as in countries like Turkey, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. Iran, Iraq and Bahrain are largely Shia. The Saudi royal family, which practices an austere and conservative strand of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, controls Islam’s holiest shrines, Makkah and Madinah. Karbala, Kufa and Najaf in Iraq are revered shrines for the Shias.

Saudi Arabia and Iran, the dominant Sunni and Shia powers in the Middle East, often take opposing sides in regional conflicts. In Yemen, Shia rebels from the north, the Houthis, overthrew a Sunni-dominated government, leading to an invasion by a Saudi-led coalition. In Syria, which has a Sunni majority, the Alawite Shia sect of President Bashar al-Assad, which has long dominated the government, clings to power amid a bloody civil war. And in Iraq, bitter resentments between the Shia-led government and Sunni communities have contributed to victories by the Islamic State.

This article originally appeared on the New York Times, a partner of The Express Tribune.

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COMMENTS (22)

Lotus | 5 years ago | Reply @muhammad sohail,yr comments are simply pouring out venom against Iran,so pls read history well by neutral but educated historians.common sense says if Iran is so dear to the West then even today the decades old economic and trade sanctions are still there?the real pawn of the west are Saudi and UAE who buy billions of western arms every year simply to be kept in ware houses and next year new arms are again purchased.regarding these countries for their other muslim brethren did you notice not a single Syrian or robing a Muslims was taken by these super rich countries who are busy in building sky scrapers only!
muhammad shoaib | 5 years ago | Reply Afghanistan was a sunni state and iraq was ruled by sunni. Zionist removed both sunni governments of iraq and afghanistan to secure border of iran because minority Iran is used by west to secure weapons deal and cheap oil from all sunni gulf countries. There was no sunni shia divide in 19th century before 1979 shia iran revolution. In words Iran destroyed zionist israel and USA many times and USA destroyed Iran many times but in words only. If Zionist decides then USA has huge weapons of mass destruction that Iran like 1000 countries can be wiped out of world map thousands times. It is IRAN-WEST drama going on. USA can eliminate Sadam in 5 days while that Sadam remain undefeated for 10 years during IRAN-IRAQ war but USA finished him in 5 days. West intentionally avoid attacking iran. Understand minority is alwas used to control majority. Iran is pawn of west to control 55 islamic countries
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