90% of the Muslim world is Sunni and 8% is Shia in faith. Shia followers, also spelled Shiite, are commonly found in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and a few other places. The difference between Sunni and Shia arose as a result of a political division, as a result of Shia followers went their separate way. Yet while the split started as a difference of opinion in politics, some major theology differences occurred later; with Shia incorporating many unconventional, foreign concepts into their theology and faith.
The Sunni and Shia division found its origins as a disagreement about the leadership of the Muslim community after the death of Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him. After his death, his companions were forced to choose the next leader, the ruler, the successor of the Muslim community, commonly known as the Caliphate. Sunnis believed that Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him did not explicitly designate his replacement, and that they needed to appoint this leader by mutual consultation. The Shia, by contrast, believed that the Prophet designated his cousin and son-in-law Ali, peace be upon him to resume the role of Caliph.
Sunni Muslims deemed Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s closest companion, the most fit to lead the Muslim community. Abu Bakr hence became the first Caliph and Ali eventually became the fourth, serving in the wake of Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman peace be upon them. Ali himself was well satisfied with the decision to appoint Abu Bakr as the ruler, but others were less pleased with the decision.
Sunni Muslims consider themselves followers of Islam’s orthodox tradition; following the pure, uninfluenced faith taught by Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him. The word ‘Sunni’ comes from the term ‘Sunnah,’ which refers to the teachings and practice of Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him–who in turn was taught by Angel Gabriel, who learned the faith from God himself. The term ‘Shia’ linguistically translates to mean party, sect, supporters, a group of similar minded people. The term ‘Shia’ is an abbreviation for ‘Shiatu Ali,’ which signifies ‘Group or ‘supporters of Ali.’ Shia was a political faction who claimed that the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad should have led the Islamic community as the Caliphate, in place of Abu Bakr.
Originally, this group of Ali’s supporters known as Shia stood against the Umayyads political party but remained purely Sunni in their theology and faith–unlike modern-day Shia. Yet with passing years arose major doctrine/theological differences. The famous 12 Imams who Shia hold in the highest regard were Sunni in Creed–not Shia.
If Ali indeed was explicitly appointed by Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him, as the Shia claim, then that would mean that Abu Bakr was appointed unjustly in the role of a caliph—also meaning that he disobeyed and went against the wishes of the Prophet, despite his role as his closest associate and dearest friend. Additionally, this move would imply that the companions who accepted Abu Bakr as the Caliphate went against the Prophet, peace be upon him, despite earning a high rank and God’s praise in the Holy Quran.
Many of the beliefs of Shiism claim no basis in the religion of Islam. Shi’ism evolved from its role as a political sect supporting and favoring the leadership of Ali and his descendants–whom they label as Imams–over more qualified companions, to a holder of strange ideas foreign to Islam.
Amongst the most significant differences standing between Sunni and Shia is the fact that the mainstream Shia uphold the divinity of 12 imams to which they ascribe powers, privileges, and attributes that belong only to Allah, the Glorious. Shia believe these 12 Imams to be infallible and incapable of committing error. They believe that these 12 imams are all-knowledgeable, all-powerful, perfect, possessing of supernatural powers, and stand in control of the Universe and all of creation. They believe that these Imams are superior to and hold a higher rank than Prophets. Shia also direct many acts of worship to these imams ranging from supplications, sacrifices, and seeking their aid. These acts contradict Islam’s main teaching, which states that there is none worthy of worship and veneration expect the One God, who stands in control of everything with no partners and is the only One that knows the Unseen. The act of ascribing partners to Allah is the biggest sin in Islam and the only sin that would not be forgiven by God if one dies in that state without repenting.
“…Indeed, he who associates others with Allah – Allah has forbidden him Paradise, and his refuge is the Fire. And there are not for the wrongdoers any helpers” (Quran 5:72)
While Shia consider Ahlul Bayt (the family of Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him) above and beyond everyone else in a supernatural, divine way, Sunnis only highly respect the Muslim and righteous of them, and do not ascribe any divine powers to them; as they were only human beings, and thus are unworthy of the worship and veneration owed to Allah Alone.
Another bizarre belief of the Shia is that they do not consider many of the Sahabah (the companions of Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him) to be true Muslims, including the famous Sahabah. They consider them defectors from the folds of Islam. Shia bear hate and animosity towards them and even slander them. They claim that only seven of these companions stayed within the folds of Islam, with the rest qualifying as disbelievers or hypocrites.
Shiites reject the Sunnah (the tradition, teachings, and practice of the Prophet) because the companions of the Prophet were the ones that passed down the teachings to the next generations. Sunnis, on the other hand, respect, and love all of the Prophet’s companions–including Ali and his two sons Hassan and Hussein peace be upon them. The Holy Quran affirms the virtue and status of the companions of the Prophet, this owing to the fact that Allah the Glorious was pleased with them as stated in the Holy Quran.
Another major difference between the Sunni and Shia beliefs lies in the Shiite’s claim that the Holy Quran of our time is deficient and has not been preserved properly. The Shia believe in a book called the ‘Tablet of Fatimah’ that is supposedly three times larger than the Holy Quran. They claim this book was revealed to Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet, after his death, and references the upcoming Imams. The Shia believe that this Book is with the Mahdi, who has been hiding for the past 900 years and will come forth to present its text at the end of times. They believe that the Mahdi is Ali himself.
Sunnis, on the other hand, believe in the One and Only Holy Quran, which was revealed to Prophet Muhammad as the last and final Scripture to mankind. The same One that is read by hundreds of millions of Muslims around the globe, in which is stated the verbatim word of God and will never change. The Holy Quran states that God took it upon Himself to preserve and safeguard His Final Book from any man-made modifications, such as those that occurred to the previous Books, the Gospel and Torah.
“Indeed, it is We who sent down the Qur’an and indeed, We will be its guardian” (Quran 15:9)
These foreign concepts were invented by certain Shia followers who were not able to find any Verses in the Holy Quran to support their strange foreign views.
When Ali became the 4th Caliph, his sons Hassan and Hussain were in attendance to learn from and assist their father, and also stood beside him in three battles. Ali ultimately was assassinated by a group of misguided people known as the Khawarij. After his death, Hassan, Ali’s older son and the Prophet’s older grandson, was given the oath of allegiance by the people of Kufa in Iraq. Simultaneously, Mu’awiyah was given the oath of allegiance by the people of Syria. For the first time in Islamic history, two Caliphates presided at once.
When Hassan and Mu’awiyah were poised to return to battle again, Hassan resigned after six months and moved to Madinah, as he disliked fighting and bloodshed. He resigned for the sake of unity, despite the fact that he stood as the more righteous and qualified Caliphate candidate. Hassan swore allegiance to Mu’awiyah, pledging to listen to and obey him providing that he ruled according to the Book of Allah and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad. There followed in the wake of this allegiance 20 years of peace. Hassan fulfilled the prophecy of Prophet Muhammad when he stated, ‘Indeed, this son of mine is a chief, Allah shall bring peace between two Muslim parties through his hands’ Note our Prophet referred to both of these armies as Muslim in faith.
Hassan later passed away. Then as the death of the current Caliph Mu’awiyah loomed imminent, he appointed his son Yazid to succeed him; this despite the fact that Hussein, the Prophet’s younger grandson, was more righteous and overall more qualified to become the Caliphate. The governor of Medina called Hussein to his house and insisted that he give the Oath of Allegiance in public. Hussein repeatedly refused. The people of Kufa barraged Hussein with letters, asking him to appear before them so that they could swear allegiance; acknowledging him instead as their ruler and the next Caliph. They promised to support him. In response, Hussein sent his cousin out amongst the people on a scouting mission; curious to see if the people of Kufa were serious in their intent. Later his cousin wrote a letter to Hussein summoning him to come immediately, as the tribes of Kufa sent 12,000 people, each person representing a tribe, to offer their oath of allegiance.
Wise men who loved Hussein begged him not to go, but Hussein insisted; and when he arrived at Karbala, his followers abandoned him. Only about 4,000 of the promised 12,000 came forth to offer their oath. His scouting cousin was murdered. Hussein also was killed wrongfully and died as a martyr. Once Yazid heard the news of Hussein’s death, he revealed that his command to his minions was a request to stop Hussein—not to kill him.
Islam and the Holy Quran command no sects nor divisions amongst Muslims. The Holy Quran states:
“And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided…” (Quran 3:103)
The word ‘rope’ here refers to the Holy Quran. Muslims are avowed to unite under the Message of the Holy Quran and the Sunnah.
“Verily, those who divide their religion and break up into sects, you have no concern in them in the least. Their affair is only with Allah, who then will tell them what they used to do.” (Quran 6:159)
Followers of the Sunni ideology use the word Sunni not to divide the ummah (Islamic community), but to differentiate themselves from certain sects that emerged and developed independently, finding no basis in our religion. After the death of Prophet Muhammad, at the time of the Sahabah (companions of the Prophet), conflicts arose between Muslims; as a result, certain groups broke away and gained a different understanding of Islam. Some of these new groups did not accept the Sunnah and Hadith, and some did not believe in predestination–all vital parts of Islam.
Due to the existence of these new groups, Sunnis have to characterize and differentiate themselves so people will not misinterpret their mission and beliefs. Sunnis practice Orthodox Islam, the way taught by our Prophet peace be upon him, and believe in the Holy Quran, Hadith, and pre-destination. Unfortunately, people with evil intentions misuse this term to divide Muslims and spread hate.
The most common form of Shiism today is known as the Twelver Shiism, a sect that believes in the twelve divine Imams. Another form of Shia is known as the Zaidis, who reject the concept of the Divine Imams and represent a minority sect of Shiites mostly found in Yemen. Many modern believers of Shia today are simply ignorant, blind followers of a false faith. Instead of expressing animosity towards them, we should pray to God and ask Him to guide them on His pure, righteous path.