Shia vs Sunni: Difference and Comparison

Shia and Sunni are two major sects of Islam differing primarily in their beliefs regarding the rightful successor to Prophet Muhammad. Shia Muslims believe in the leadership of Ali and his descendants, while Sunnis follow the leadership of the first four caliphs after the Prophet. The division has historical roots in early Islamic history and has led to distinct theological, jurisprudential, and ritualistic differences between the two groups.

Key Takeaways

  1. Shia and Sunni are the two most extensive branches of Islam.
  2. Shia Muslims believe that Ali, the cousin, and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, was his rightful successor, while Sunni Muslims think that the first four caliphs were rightful successors.
  3. Shia and Sunni have different beliefs and practices regarding prayer, religious holidays, and other aspects of the Islamic faith.

Shia vs Sunni

The difference between Shia and Sunni is that the Shia people believe that after Muhammad’s departure, the legal descendant should be the fourth caliph Ali, who was the son-in-law and cousin of the beloved Prophet. At the same time, the Sunni people believe that rightfully the responsibility of leadership should have fallen upon the first four caliphs one by one: Abu Bakr, Omar, Osman, and then finally, Ali.

Shia vs Sunni


Comparison Table

Meaning of Name“followers of the tradition”“partisans of Ali”
Estimated Percentage of Muslims90%10%
LocationMost Muslim countriesIran, Iraq, Yemen
Successorship of the ProphetChosen by the communityDesignated by the Prophet to be his cousin and son-in-law, Ali
LeadershipCaliphs (elected leaders)Imams (hereditary descendants of Ali, considered divinely guided)
Number of ImamsNone12, with the 12th yet to come (the مهدي, al-Mahdi)
Religious TextsQuran and Sunnah (sayings and actions of the Prophet)Quran and Ahl al-Bayt (writings and teachings of the Prophet’s family)
PracticesFive daily prayers, fasting during Ramadan, zakat (charity), hajj (pilgrimage)Similar practices, with some variations in prayer rituals and mourning traditions


Who are Shia Muslims?

Shia Islam, also known as Shi’ism, is one of the two major branches of Islam, alongside Sunni Islam. The term “Shia” originates from the Arabic word “Shi’atu Ali,” meaning “followers of Ali,” referring to Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Shia Muslims believe that Ali, along with his descendants known as Imams, were the rightful successors to Muhammad’s leadership.

Beliefs and Practices

  • Imamate: The central belief of Shia Islam revolves around the concept of Imamate, which refers to the divinely ordained leadership of the Islamic community after the death of Prophet Muhammad. Shia Muslims believe in a line of twelve Imams, starting with Ali and ending with Muhammad al-Mahdi, who is believed to be in occultation and will return as the Mahdi, a messianic figure, to establish justice and righteousness.
  • Authority of Imams: Shia Muslims consider the Imams as infallible and possessing divine knowledge, capable of guiding the community both spiritually and temporally. They regard them as the rightful interpreters of Islamic law (Sharia) and the guardians of the faith.
  • Mourning Rituals: Shia Muslims commemorate significant events in the lives of the Prophet Muhammad and his family, particularly the martyrdom of Ali’s son, Husayn ibn Ali, and his companions at the Battle of Karbala. These rituals include mourning processions, recitations of elegies (majalis), and self-flagellation (matam) as acts of grief and solidarity.
  • Ta’ziyah: Shia Muslims also observe rituals of remembrance and mourning, such as building temporary structures called “Tents of Mourning” (Ta’ziyah) during the month of Muharram, to commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali and his followers.
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  • Twelver Shia: The largest branch of Shia Islam is Twelver Shia, which believes in a succession of twelve Imams, ending with Muhammad al-Mahdi. Twelver Shia is the dominant Shia sect in countries like Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Lebanon.
  • Ismaili Shia: Ismaili Shia, also known as Seveners, follow a line of seven Imams starting with Ismail ibn Jafar and ending with Muhammad ibn Ismail. They have their own distinct practices and beliefs and are primarily found in regions like South Asia, East Africa, and Central Asia.
  • Zaidi Shia: Zaidi Shia, named after Zaid ibn Ali, is a smaller branch of Shia Islam found predominantly in Yemen. They follow a line of Imams descending from Zaid ibn Ali and have unique theological and legal perspectives.

Who are Sunni Muslims?

Sunni Islam constitutes the largest branch of Islam, comprising the majority of the global Muslim population. The term “Sunni” originates from the Arabic word “Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama’ah,” meaning “people of the tradition and the community,” emphasizing adherence to the practices and consensus of the Islamic community. Sunni Muslims trace their beliefs and practices to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, as recorded in the Quran and Hadith (sayings and actions of the Prophet).

Beliefs and Practices

  • Caliphate: Sunni Muslims believe in the legitimacy of the caliphate, which refers to the political and religious leadership of the Islamic community after the death of Prophet Muhammad. They recognize the first four caliphs—Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali ibn Abi Talib—as righteous leaders known as the “Rightly Guided Caliphs.” Sunni Muslims regard the caliphate as a position to be filled by elected leaders from within the community.
  • Ijtihad and Taqlid: Sunni Islam encourages the use of independent reasoning (ijtihad) within the framework of Islamic law (Sharia), allowing scholars to interpret and apply religious principles to contemporary issues. However, Sunni Muslims also recognize the authority of established legal schools (madhhab) and may follow a particular school of thought (taqlid) led by renowned scholars such as Abu Hanifa, Malik ibn Anas, Al-Shafi’i, and Ahmad ibn Hanbal.
  • Five Pillars of Islam: Like all Muslims, Sunnis adhere to the Five Pillars of Islam, which include the declaration of faith (Shahada), ritual prayer (Salah), almsgiving (Zakat), fasting during the month of Ramadan (Sawm), and pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) for those who are able.
  • Islamic Law and Jurisprudence: Sunni Muslims follow a comprehensive legal system derived from the Quran, Hadith, consensus (ijma’), and analogy (qiyas). Legal scholars (fuqaha) within the various Sunni schools of thought interpret these sources to address issues related to personal conduct, family law, commerce, and governance.
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  • Hanafi: The Hanafi school of thought, named after its founder Abu Hanifa, is one of the oldest and most widely followed Sunni legal schools. It is predominant in countries such as Turkey, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and parts of the Arab world.
  • Maliki: The Maliki school, founded by Malik ibn Anas, is prevalent in North Africa, West Africa, and parts of the Arabian Peninsula. It is known for its reliance on the practices of the people of Medina and its flexibility in adapting to local customs.
  • Shafi’i: The Shafi’i school, established by Al-Shafi’i, is influential in Southeast Asia, parts of East Africa, and the Middle East. It emphasizes the primacy of the Quran and Hadith and is characterized by a systematic approach to legal reasoning.
  • Hanbali: The Hanbali school, founded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal, is prevalent in Saudi Arabia and some parts of the Arabian Peninsula. It is known for its strict adherence to the Quran, Hadith, and the views of the early Islamic scholars.

Main Differences Between Shia and Sunni

  • Leadership Succession:
    • Shia: Believe in the leadership of Ali and his descendants, known as Imams, as the rightful successors to Prophet Muhammad.
    • Sunni: Recognize the first four caliphs—Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali— as legitimate leaders, with leadership being chosen by consensus or election from within the community.
  • Concept of Imamat:
    • Shia: Consider Imams as infallible and divinely appointed, possessing spiritual and temporal authority to interpret Islamic law and guide the community.
    • Sunni: Do not attribute infallibility to leaders, recognizing scholars and jurists as interpreters of Islamic law within the framework of legal schools.
  • Mourning and Commemoration:
    • Shia: Engage in mourning rituals, particularly during the month of Muharram, to commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali at the Battle of Karbala.
    • Sunni: While mourning for the deceased is a common practice, Sunni Muslims do not typically engage in elaborate rituals specific to the martyrdom of Husayn or the Imams.
  • Legal Schools and Interpretation:
    • Shia: Interpret Islamic law primarily through the teachings of the Imams, with less emphasis on formal legal schools.
    • Sunni: Follow one of the four main legal schools (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanbali) for jurisprudential matters, allowing for independent reasoning within the framework of established methodologies.
  • Geographical Distribution:
    • Shia: Concentrated in regions such as Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, and parts of South Asia.
    • Sunni: Predominant in countries across the Middle East, North Africa, Southeast Asia, and parts of South Asia, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and Indonesia.
  • Theological Differences:
    • Shia: Emphasize the concept of divine justice and the role of the Imams as intercessors between God and humanity.
    • Sunni: Focus on the concept of divine mercy and emphasize the importance of following the example of Prophet Muhammad and his companions.
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Last Updated : 06 March, 2024

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21 thoughts on “Shia vs Sunni: Difference and Comparison”

  1. I appreciate the breakdown of the key differences between Shia and Sunni Islam. Understanding the nuances of these beliefs is vital for fostering cross-cultural dialogue and cooperation.

    • Absolutely, Alex. This article provides a comprehensive overview of the complexities and distinctions within Islamic traditions.

    • Indeed, Alex. Interfaith dialogue can be significantly enhanced through a deeper understanding of religious diversity.

  2. I’m simply amazed by the depth of theological differences and cultural aspects between Shia and Sunni Islam. This demonstrates the rich diversity within the Muslim world.

  3. I find this comparison of Shia and Sunni beliefs very enlightening. It is interesting to see how their different historical interpretations have shaped their practices and rituals. Thanks for sharing!

  4. The historical and cultural implications of the Shia-Sunni divide have far-reaching impacts on the Muslim world. This helps in understanding the broader context of religious dynamics.

  5. The detailed comparisons provided here really help in understanding the doctrinal differences between Shia and Sunni. It’s important to appreciate these variations to foster greater interfaith understanding and tolerance.

    • Absolutely, Leah. Learning about different religious beliefs and traditions can greatly contribute to building a more harmonious society.

  6. The breakdown of key features and beliefs of both Shia and Sunni Islam is highly informative. It serves as an essential resource for those seeking deeper insights into Islamic traditions.

  7. The distinction between Shia and Sunni forms of Islam is a source of complexity in Middle Eastern politics. It’s essential for policymakers and analysts to comprehend these nuances for effective engagement in the region.

  8. The articulation of the beliefs, practices, and historical contexts of Shia and Sunni Islam is comprehensive and engaging. This contributes to a more informed understanding of religious diversity.

  9. This article sheds light on the religious and geopolitical tensions arising from the Shia-Sunni split, providing valuable insights for understanding the complexities of the Middle East.

  10. The in-depth exploration of Shia and Sunni Islam adds to our understanding of the complex dynamics within the Muslim world. Thank you for such an insightful piece.


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