Understanding Islam: Differences between Sunni and Shia

If you as a Westerner can accept the importance of this division among Muslims, you can begin to comprehend the passion from which their hatred has evolved for outsiders over the centuries.

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey (wikipedia)

CHARLOTTE, N.C., June 15, 2015 – Anyone who listens to the news even occasionally has heard analysts debate about Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. Trouble is, they never explain the differences.

For the most part, the schism began pretty much the moment the Prophet Muhammad took his last breath. Over the centuries the differences have grown, and, though they may seem relatively minor from the outside, they have considerable significance for Muslims themselves. So much so that in many cases members of one group do not consider members of the other group to be “true” believers, which frequently explains why Muslims are able to kill other Muslims.

Understanding Islam: A religion born in violence

Sunnis regard themselves as the traditionalist branch of Islam. In fact, the word “Sunni” basically means “the people of the tradition.” Those traditions are the ones practiced by the Prophet Muhammad and those close to him, which require strict adherence to the tenets of the faith as the prophet taught them.

Following the death of Muhammad, there were four rightly guided caliphs: Abu Bakr, the father of Muhammad’s favorite wife Aisha; Umar bin Al Kattab; Uthman bin Afan and Ali bin Abi Talib.

In general, the word “bin” means “son of” in Arabic. Therefore Osama bin Laden would be the “son of Laden” much the same as “Mac” or “Mc” refers to a particular clan in Scotland.

Sunnis comprise 85 to 90 percent of the Muslim population. According to Sunni beliefs, and this is the primary split between the two sects, any practicing Muslim chosen by agreement of the Muslim population, known as the “ummah,” can be the leader.

Shia, however, believe the Muslim leader should be a direct descendant of Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, which ties that group back to the prophet himself.

Understanding Islam: Muhammad, merely a mortal, not divine

Ali, the fourth caliph, was killed as a result of violence and civil war, which damaged his reputation as a leader in the eyes of many Muslims. His sons, Hassan and Hussein, were denied the right to ascend to what they believed was their legitimate claim to the caliphate. Many Muslims of the day believed that Hassan was murdered by Muawiyah, who became the first caliph of the Umayyad dynasty.

On the other hand, Hussein was killed on the battlefield after supporters had promised to swear allegiance to him.

The deaths of Hassan and Hussein gave rise to the Shia concept of martyrdom and the rituals of grieving. There is a distinct messianic element to the faith through a hierarchy of clerics who practice independent and ongoing interpretations of Islamic texts.

The Shia number about 200 million as compared to 1.2 billion Sunnis. Shias believe that imams are divinely guided and are the only legitimate interpreters of the Quran.

Both groups acknowledge the prophecy of Jesus Christ, the virgin birth and his ascension to heaven, but neither accepts the divinity or crucifixion of Christ.

In some locations, Sunni and Shia co-exist with little difficulty. In Yemen, for example, Shia and Sunni often worship at the same mosques and there is little segregation between the two groups in the major cities. Historically, Shia and Sunni have joined together against a common enemy. In Iraq today, Sunni and Shia militias are fighting with the government of Iraq, the government of Iran (which is Shia), Western forces, and the government of Saudi Arabia (which is Sunni) against ISIS, which is Sunni.

In countries governed by one group, the other is often repressed. Shia’s make up a small minority, and are sometimes persecuted for their beliefs in Sunni-dominated countries. Likewise, in Shia-led governments, Sunni’s are sometimes disenfranchised. For example, many analysts believe ISIS grew out of Sunni frustration with the Shia-dominated government in Iraq.

Understanding Islam: A brief explanation of the unclear Koran

Both groups practice the five basic pillars of Islam. Jihad is not a pillar of Islam but is sometimes considered an unofficial “sixth pillar.” Jihad in its purest sense means “struggle,” and to most Muslims that represents the daily “struggles through life.”

The use of “jihad” to mean a “struggle against non-Muslim enemies” is a more recent version of the word. It has been used by both Sunni and Shia.

While the differences between Sunni and Shia may seem insignificant to Westerners, the divide can be extremely deep and bitter. Some Muslims see little difference between members of the opposing sect and non-believers, and must of the bloodshed in the Middle East is not between Muslims and non-Muslims, but between Sunni and Shia.


Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.

Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)

Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

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