The Difference Between Sunni And Shiite Muslims

“The two worlds, Muslim and non-Muslim, Eastern and Western, must, as a matter of urgency, make a real effort to get to know one another, for I fear that what we have is not a clash of civilisations, but a clash of ignorance on both sides.” —Aga Khan IV, 2007

In A Nutshell

Sunni and Shia are the two primary sects of the Muslim religion. They follow most of the same tenets but have some differences in their interpretation of religious texts, known as hadiths, as well as in how they govern themselves and view leadership within the faith. These variations all stem from a disagreement over who was the legitimate successor to Muhammad.

The Whole Bushel

All Muslims believe Allah is God, that Muhammad was his last prophet, and that the Quran is a holy book. However, there are some different beliefs among those in the religion, particularly relating to who should rightfully be the leader of the faith. These disparities have led to two main subgroups within Islam: the Sunni and the Shia.

The split between the two sects originated shortly after the death of Muhammad in AD 632 when Muslims were trying to decide who should replace the prophet as leader. Some Muslims argued that the new leader should be elected, while others claimed the role should stay within Muhammad’s family. Those who supported the idea of election were called Sunni, meaning “one who follows the traditions of the prophet,” and they began following Abu Bakr—the first elected caliph of the Islamic nation. In contrast, Muslims who felt that leadership should stay within Muhammad’s family rejected the first caliph and instead supported Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet. They took on the name Shiat-Ali (“the party of Ali”), which is commonly shortened to Shia.

This divide over leadership has resulted in some varying spiritual practices and traditions over the centuries. Most notably, Sunnis believe the caliph is merely a leader of the Muslim community—his position is not a birthright and can be taken away. On the other hand, Shias exalt the imam (their preferred name for the leader) and regard him on nearly the same level as a prophet. Each imam chooses a successor and passes down spiritual knowledge to that person.

Furthermore, because Shias view those who sided with Abu Bakr during the split as unreliable, they have a different hadith (a collection of oral sayings and teachings relayed by Muhammad’s companions) than the Sunni do. This causes some varying interpretations between the two groups on how to approach things like prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage.

Unlike Sunnis, Shias believe there were 12 imams, most of whom were martyred by the Sunnis, and the last imam (who vanished) will one day return to restore order and justice. Because so many of their imams were killed, they have a unique martyrdom element in their sect where the followers highly revere (some might say almost worship) those who have sacrificed their lives for Islam. For instance, each year, Shias commemorate the murder of Ali’s younger son, Hussein, in a ceremony that sometimes includes violent self-flagellation.

Other, minor variations also exist between the two groups such as how they hold their hands during prayer. Sunnis pray with their hands crossed over their chests or stomachs, while Shias leave their hands by their sides.

In terms of population, Sunnis make up the majority of the Muslim world while only around one-tenth, or 120–170 million, are Shia. Shia Muslims are, however, the majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan and have significant communities in Afghanistan, India, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Pakistan.

Generally the two groups live peaceably together, but violence over geopolitical power still exists in some areas, such as Iraq and Syria.

Show Me The Proof

Al-Islam: The Major Difference Between the Shi’a and the Sunni
BBC News: Sunnis and Shia: Islam’s ancient schism
NPR: The Origins Of The Shiite-Sunni Split

  • oouchan

    I’ve heard that the Sunni are more tolerate as well and that they dress a bit differently than the Shia sect.

    Good info.

    • OldBoris

      That first bit is quite untrue, I think. The Islamic State is Sunni. The Saudi government is Sunni. The Emirati government is Sunni. Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and the Taliban are Sunni. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Caucasus Emirate group are Sunni. Al-Qaeda, the great scare of the last decade, is Sunni.

      In Sunni countries, up to half of the population support some sort of theocracy, and in many Sunni countries a third of the population supports the death penalty for apostasy because Muhammed spoke out in favour of it.

      • oouchan

        I just got it backwards. Thought it was the Sunni sect when it really is the Shia.

      • Jimmy

        I’ve noticed that as well. Why is that? In Christianity, Catholics and Protestants have both had their moments so why does there seem to be this imbalance?

        • OldBoris

          If you ask me, the problem is in the theology of Islam itself. It’s in the Quran and the Hadiths (stories about the life and the words of Muhammed as repeated by his companions in life).

          Compared to the Bible, the Quran is exceptionally clear about the use of violence. It reads a bit like a field manual for military officers and a bit like a very cruel criminal code. If you put the Hadiths next to it, you’ll find that combined the two justify everything the Islamic State has done.

          For example, Muhammed stated – according to all of his companions – that capital punishment should be applied in three cases: (1) in case of unjustified murder, (2) in case of adultery when married, and (3) in case of apostasy. And in another story told by his companions, Muhammed heard that a poet insulted him and sent a few men to murder that poet. And then there is the matter of the Banu Qurayza, whose men were all beheaded and whose women and children were given to Muhammed’s warriors as slaves. And yes, Muhammed himself said that it is allowed to rape all female captives you have.

          • inconspicuous detective

            come on now…you know the bible can be and is equally overt in its key points of violence. this is the typical anti-islam diatribe.

          • OldBoris

            Read both, and you will find that there is no qualitative or quantitative equality between them when it comes to the violent bits.

          • inconspicuous detective

            yes there is, and whether or not one has more or less does not matter. that’s the same old childish argument you get from little kids who are punished (or in this case, called out) and can’t provide an excuse for what they’re up to.

            “but so and so did it first!” yea yea. the bible tells us to kill, too. let there be no mystery as to the possiblity of bias — i’m a proud catholic. but come on. i am so tired of this bullshit islamaphobia (i know you hate that word lol)

          • OldBoris

            Have you read both the Bible and the Quran? I have, and I can tell you that the Quran is much worse.

            It contains very specific rules on war (and yes, offensive war is allowed), treatment of prisoners of war (do not take prisoners until there has been much bloodshed), and formulas for crime and punishment (if someone undermines the authority of an islamic government, then execution is in order, either a plain execution or an execution by crucifixion).

            Tell me about something the Islamic State has done, and I can find you a strong and clear justification for it in the Quran and the Hadiths. Then you can try using the Bible.

          • Faraz Ali

            no you are completely wrong the quran doesn’t say all these things u are lying.
            it is actually the bible which is wrong!

          • OldBoris

            On the matter of war, read the at-Tawbah, the chronological last word on the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, which proclaims that Allah and Muhammed have declared all peace treaties with the non-Muslims void and order the Muslims to “proclaim a grievous penalty to those who reject the faith”, making an exception only for a handful of specific groups of Arabian pagans and only for a set length of time.

            On the matter of the treatment of prisoners of war, Quran, 8:67. The order from your god, to Muhammed but by the extension of the traditions to all who follow him, is to “take no prisoners until [you] have made slaughter in the land”.

            On the specific formula for crime and punishment that I mentioned, Quran 5:33.

          • Faraz Ali


          • Faraz Ali


          • Jojo Jefferson

            Of course… America and Christianity are always wrong

          • Faraz Ali

            the bible is just a copy of the Quran but people changed things they didn’t want to do!

          • OldBoris

            Ah, the delusions of those eager to believe. They transcend time and space.

          • Faraz Ali

            don’t get it

          • Faraz Ali

            your gullable

          • inconspicuous detective

            whether or not people act on it is not a reflection of the text or the religion itself. this makes the bible’s justification of violence equally reprehensible to the quran. neither is worse.

            the same fallacy you’re using now makes hitler a better man than stalin, and stalin a better man than mao. you lost this debate before you stepped out of the gate.

          • OldBoris

            “whether or not people act on it is not a reflection of the text or the religion itself.”

            In many ways, it is. If you are held back from murder or rape only by your own moral objections, but then you started to believe in a text which says that you can murder men who don’t believe in it and take their wives and children and use them as you please, wouldn’t you say that it is

            On a more practical level, find me a photograph of an Islamic State atrocity and I will tell you exactly where in the Quran and the Hadiths they got the idea. Did you see the photos of the men they crucified for ‘being spies’? Quran 5:33. Did you see the footage of the prisoners of war they shot dead one by one and threw in the water before taking their wives and daughters as slaves? It’s inspired by Muhammed’s warriors doing the same thing (but with swords, not pistols) to the Banu Qurayza in 627 AD.

          • inconspicuous detective

            ok, how on Earth is it a reflection on the text if people do/do not act on it?

            you telling me that we’re going to blame an idea and not the people acting on that idea? because again: the same arguments go for the bible that go for the quran.

            you’re holding these books to a double standard. you are not doing a good job of defending that standard.

          • OldBoris

            If the same arguments went for the Bible, there would be a Christian State right now and it could point to clear and specific instructions in the Bible to justify it actions.

            The Islamic State, I will repeat, is basing all of its actions off (1) the text of the Quran and (2) the Hadiths. Christian extremists could not do the same with the Bible, there’s the difference.

          • inconspicuous detective

            so what? they couldn’t hold up their book and justify the creation of a christian state (as opposed to the caliphate), but they could hold it up and justify the slave trade and conquest of central america by the spanish?

            there is only a difference if you really do not want to see christianity talked down, or if you’re looking to make islam out to be the monster that it isn’t.

          • Tim Johnson

            During the slave trade the most adamant voices against slavery were actually fhe most devout christians. The abolitionists were very christian in their reasoning against slavery.

          • inconspicuous detective

            like, everyone was some kind of christian back then. my point is that the bible was used to justify it was much as it was to condemn it (one took longer than the other).

          • Tim Johnson

            The bible wasn’t used by slave owners to justify owning slaves. It was the perceived ‘primitive’ state of africans that was used as a justification.

          • Tim Johnson

            The bible was not used to justify slavery. Priests as early as Columbus openly preached against slavery on the island of Hispaniola. Slave owners typically justified owning slaves by saying the slaves were too stupid to make it on their own.

          • Margaret

            Unfortunately, from the reading I have done recently (e.g., “Why I am not a Muslim”), you are exactly right. While Christians do overlook the more unsavory aspects of the Bible, it does not recommend killing those who leave the faith…as just one example. You clearly know the literature and understand the problems with Islam.

          • jake

            Different views: The west launched nuclear bombs on 2 cities… the us dropped poisonous chemicals in Vietnamese communities.. throughout all conflicts the westbhas been involved with rape and barberic acts were common place. The bible says rape a virgin and you should marry her. The bible said kill everyone to moses when leaving Egypt… Japan wanted their caliphate and committed barberic acts … nazis did… slave traders of old did… People are evil like sheep we heard at any opportunity to exploit to rape and pillage off the weaker… ISIS are no different – like any other group they are a bunch of sheep using their bible as means to justify their evil. Like nazis justified their actions through propaganda ISIS use the quaran…

          • jake

            I personally believe in a creator… however I also feel there are similarities in the bible and koran. In particularly the old testiment. Ie in exetus moses was told to kill everything and everyone including livestock. He was told not to inter breed/marry etc. If he had followed this command no doubt muslims would not exist today. Secondly, it also says if you rape a virgin yiu ought to marry her. This I find interesting. I think Davids and solomans books are probably the best – psalms and proverbs… In particularly his view on all things been meaningless… The problem with the world is greed and power. People are evil and will use any means to justify their actions. Both muslim and Christian faiths have good and bad points in them. Some evil follofoll tend to magnify the bad in order to justify their evil. How will good ever come into the world when the majority of people in the world all strive to get as much as they can for themself. The world belongs to no one yet nations of all creeds and of all generations continue to rape and pillage…. ISIS are no different to the the barberic actions of past groups in history.

          • Gregorio Adantante

            This was for their benefit, because there was giants, and evil offspring from them. Also, it is a foreshadowing and spiritual message to us today to kill ALL evil spiritual influences of sin in our lives. You obviously do not pray for God’s guidance because you are defending evil and going against God’s people. You marginalize what is good and celebrate evil Islam. Your daughters will pay when Islam invades the world.

          • Gregorio Adantante

            You are haplessly spiritually blind. I pray for you.

          • Gregorio Adantante

            Unfortunately, you will have to experience Islam then, at its worst. Christians do not kill. Nor does the Bible command it. Jesus never killed a soul. Neither did He EVER say to kill. Catholics should read the Bible instead of relying on sacraments and rituals. Now, that is what Jesus spoke against. Call no one father, for there is but One Father, and He is in heaven. Call no man Rabbi, for there is but one Teacher.

          • oouchan

            Exactly. It is just as violent, just as oppressive as the quran. The only difference is it teaches a bit more about love.
            That’s it. 😀

          • inconspicuous detective

            they knew they goofed up. that’s why they came up with the new testament way back when, thankfully. you cherrypick what you follow anyway, no matter what religion, since it’s full of contradictions.

          • oouchan

            Very true.

          • Faraz Ali


          • Faraz Ali

            the old testement of the bible said women should wear a hijaab

          • Gregorio Adantante

            Jesus said, when a woman was brought to Him accused of adultery; caught in the Very act, he who is without sin cast the first stone. Jesus also said, pray for your enemies. Your statement reveals that you know little about Christianity and the Bible. Yet, you castigate it nonetheless.

          • Jimmy

            So why is one group more extreme than the other? Is it simply a matter of how literally they follow those teachings?

          • OldBoris

            There’s an element of culture in it, but rather an element of culture that shaped the direction of the two movements in the beginning. Shia Islam developed more freely, while Sunni Islam stuck to the Quran and the Hadiths very firmly. Furthermore, Shia Islam developed under a lot of Persian influence, and the Persians have traditionally been the least enthusiastic about Islam.

            In a way, you could say that Shia Islam is more like Catholicism (much more malleable from a theological point of view, but also with more dubious and unsupported ritualistic practices) while Sunni Islam is Cromwell-esque in its puritanism (to the point where a lot of Sunni Muslims believe that to have a drawing of any animal or person in your house will send you straight to hell).

            The unfortunate thing is that Sunni Islam now dominates the islamic world, with around 80% of the world’s Muslims being Sunni. And within Sunni Islam, there are several different strains, but the more conservative ones (the ones that stick very closely to the Quran and the Hadiths) are winning, both in numbers and in political influence. It’s gotten so bad that the Saudi government has been discussing the idea of digging up Muhammed’s bones (they’ve already demolished his house because it might lead to idolatry and they wanted to revamp the area) and throw him in an anonymous grave, because they fear that his tomb will become a place of worship for the wrong Muslims.

          • Jimmy

            That was a very good explanation and the analogy with Catholicism makes perfect sense.

    • Faraz Ali

      actually sunni and shia dont fight that much

      • oouchan

        I didn’t think they did. I was more interested in who was more tolerant of other religions, people, atheists, gays….some are, some aren’t.

        • Faraz Ali

          oh ok

        • OldBoris

          Here are some pointers. They deal primarily with Sunni Muslims, because those are the vast majority of the world’s Muslims.

          >Think it’s good if Islam plays a large role in politics
          Egypt 95%, Indonesia 95%, Pakistan 88%, Nigeria 88%, Lebanon 72%, Jordan 53%, Turkey 45%

          >Identify with fundamentalists rather than modernizers
          Lebanon 15%, Turkey 11%, Pakistan 28%, Indonesia 33%, Nigeria 58%, Egypt 59%, Jordan 38%

          >Support death penalty for adultery
          Turkey 16%, Egypt 82%, Jordan 70%, Lebanon 23%, Indonesia 42%, Pakistan 82%, Nigeria 56%

          >Support cutting off the hands of thieves
          Turkey 13%, Egypt 77%, Jordan 58%, Lebanon 13%, Indonesia 36%, Pakistan 82%, Nigeria 65%

          >Support the death penalty for those who abandon Islam
          Turkey 5%, Egypt 84%, Jordan 86%, Lebanon 6%, Indonesia 30%, Pakistan 76%, Nigeria 51%.

          >Think that suicide bombings can be justified
          Lebanon 39%, Nigeria 34%, Egypt 20%, Jordan 20%, Indonesia 15%, Pakistan 8%, Turkey 6%

          >Held among Muslims in Britain
          >Focusing on the young Muslims (16-24) specifically, to show you that living in a western country isn’t making them western
          >56% think a Muslim woman should not be allowed to marry a non-Muslim man
          >57% agreed that a Muslim woman should not be allowed to marry without the consent of her guardian
          >52% agreed that a Muslim man could have up to four wives, but a Muslim woman could only have one husband
          >71% agreed that homosexuality is wrong and should be illegal
          >42% said that Islam should not change one bit to fit in more with western values (and 9% did not know).

          • oouchan

            Sounds like the fundies in my state.

        • Faraz Ali

          muslims are are right

      • OldBoris

        You might have overlooked Yemen and Syria, and the way they’re proxy wars between Saudi Arabia (the political defender of the Sunni faith) and Iran (the political defender of the Shia faith).

        • Faraz Ali

          you just think christians are right but your wrong

          • Jojo Jefferson

            First of all, learn some English, second of all just shut up, nobody cares

        • Faraz Ali

          the bible is a fraud!

  • Jimmy

    Islam is like the British weather. Half the time it’s Sunni and the rest it’s Shi’ite.

  • inconspicuous detective

    i love learning about the differences in the religions. fascinating stuff.

    • Faraz Ali

      are you a muslim?

      • inconspicuous detective

        nope. just respectful of all faiths.

        • Faraz Ali

          oh ok

        • Faraz Ali


    • Faraz Ali

      i am! i’m sunni

  • Hillyard

    Interesting. I think the quote at the top is right on target.

  • Malos

    It’s important to also note, very simply, that Muslims have an authentic system in which several scholars of the past have collected a lot of narrations from the Prophet (pbuh) and have spent their entire lives compiling authentic books in which they collectively place all those narrations that they can connect to the Prophet, completely, in a book they titled a “Sahih” which translates into “Authentic”.

    Such scholars were Muhammad ibn Ismail ibn Ibrahim from Bukhara (Modern day Uzbekistan) more commonly known as Imam Al-Bukhari, author of Sahih Bukhari – the most authentic hadith book today.


    Ibn Al Hajjaj Ibn Muslim an naysaburi – More commonly known as Imam Muslim, the Persian, from Nishapuri – who authored Sahih Muslim – another authentic book.

    and other authentic books are written by Abu Dawud and Tirmidhi… these were all renowned scholars who were so devoted in their fields and have committed to memory, specifically in Abu Dawud’s case, 500,000 hadiths – in which he then set out to authenticate those of which he knew for sure that they can be traced back to the prophet through trustworthy, honest people. He managed to narrow down that number to around 5,000 narrations that he is completely sure of, and if he wasn’t he would comment on it saying why, but in a separate book alongside all those other hadiths he came across and ruled out. It’s all explained.

    The system they have developed is so complex and amazing, I would recommend you look into anyone of them, and there are more I haven’t mentioned.

    These are the Sunni scholars. Sunni meaning they follow the Sunnah. The life of the Prophet.

    However, when it comes to Shi’ites, they tried replicating that of which they could but ended up with a book a majority of them follow that goes by the name of “Bihar Al-Anwar” by some dude named Majilsi which is a compilation of both fabricated and authentic hadiths, in which he never bothered to trace back.

    And this is their most authentic source – which is why you often see Shi’ites doing some abnormal rituals which they probably derived from those fabricated ahadith.


    All the Non‐Shiite Muslims in the world have been deceived by the Devil and her

    chosen evil leaders and they do not know it. Why, because the Devil and Her

    chosen evil leaders, who are in control of their government, their press, their

    media, their education, their schools, and their colleges and universities, do not

    want their deceived followers to know who is who and why in order to stay in

    power as long as they can. Why, because, their job is to fight against God and

    His chosen leaders. Why, because, this is how God wanted to be. He gave power

    to the Devil and Her chosen evil leaders to deceive us, to oppress us, in order for

    God to see who is fighting back against them and who is not. Why, because, this

    world is a testing place and we are born to fight against the Devil and Her

    chosen evil leaders in order to rescue ourselves and their deceived followers.

    Why, to serve God, The All‐Mighty, Who is Unseen and Spirit. That is why God

    sent us Prophet Jesus, peace be upon him, to fight against the evil Jews. That is

    why God sent him to us to lead the fight against the evil Jews in order to rescue

    the good ones from the evil ones. Please read the following website and tell everyone in the world to read it. This

    website explains who is who and why. We invite all of you to join the Party of

    God and let us together fight against the Party of the Devil through education,

    which is the key to success in every aspect of life, including religion. God willing,

    at the end, the members of the Party of God, who are the minority in the world

    today, in terms of numbers, will win against the members of the Party of the

    Devil, who are the majority in the world today. When you lie, you know you are

    a liar. So, you have to stop lying to yourself fist before you can stop lying to

    others. You have to educate yourself first before you can educate others. You

    have to know the truth first and then tell the truth to others, instead of

    unknowingly lying and deceiving others and working for the Devil and Her

    chosen evil leaders. You have to respect yourself first before you can respect

    others. You have to help yourself first before you can help others. You have to

    be honest with yourself first before you can be honest with others. You have to

    win your fight against yourself first before you win your fight against others.

    You have to have peace with yourself first before you can have peace with

    others. You have to love yourself first before you love others. You have to hate

    yourself first before you hate others. You have to stop hating yourself first

    before you can stop hating others. God told us through Prophet Jesus, peace be

    upon him that: “If others (your victims) forgive your sins, then you are forgiven.

    But, if the others (your victims) do not forgive your sins, then you are not

    forgiven.” This means that, if your victims do not forgive you, the Justice God

    will take the revenge for your victims and burn you in His hell fire alive forever.

    So, please educate yourself and others and Join the Party of God. Remember,

    the members of the Party of God will end up in Heaven and the members of the

    Party of the Devil will end up in hell fire and burn alive forever. Just let you

    know that God is a Justice God and He does not take any bribe and it does not

    matter how much you offer Him. This is just a warning. God will guide whom He

    will and He will astray whom He will. God bless you.

  • Appreciate you sharing, great article.Much thanks again. Awesome.