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The Difference Between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Why It Matters

difference between sunni and shiite Muslims Islam

Lutherans and Baptists are basically the same.

Wrong, and both groups would likely agree on that point. Neither is it true that all Muslims are the same. Of the over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, around 85 percent of them are a sect called Sunni and 15 percent of them are a sect called Shia.

The split is an ancient one—1,387 years old, to be precise. But even today, it threatens the stability of the entire Middle East and offers context to many headlines we see in world news.

So how did this world religion end up with two major sects? It all started when Muhammad, the prophet and founder of Islam, died.

The Dispute Over Muhammad’s Successor

When Muhammad died in AD 632, a great dispute arose over who would claim his position as the leader of the new religion. Islam was more than a private religion—it dictated social and political events. The successor to Muhammad would have powerful influence over society, government and trade.

Some people thought anyone with qualifications could take over. These were the followers of “the way” (sunna) of Muhammad, and they became known as Sunni Muslims. They insisted Muhammad’s father-in-law and friend Abu Bakr take control.

Others believed that only someone from Muhammad’s family would be the rightful leader. This camp favored Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, and they became known as the shi’atu Ali (“party of Ali”), or Shiite Muslims.

In the end, the majority Sunni sect got their way and Abu Bakr became the first official successor, or caliph, to the prophet Muhammad. Even so, the Shiites did not recognize Abu Bakr as legitimate and held fast to their conviction about their allegiance to Muhammad’s descendants whom they called Āl al-Bayt, the “family of the house.”

The Shiite-favorite Ali had two sons named Hasan and Husayn. After Ali and his son Hasan’s deaths, Husayn took over as the spiritual leader of Shiite Islam until AD 680 when he was killed by Sunni Muslims during a battle in Karbala, Iraq. This battle and the death of Husayn is a bitter memory for Shiite Muslims. Even centuries later, this martyrdom and the issue of rightful leadership over Islam is still the heart of the Sunni-Shiite divide.

Similarities and Differences in Religious Practice

Both sects maintain the foundational beliefs and practices of Islam. They uphold the Qur’an as the revelation of Allah and hold to Islam’s Five Pillars: giving to the poor, fasting during the month of Ramadan, practicing daily ritual prayers, taking the pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and professing that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.

Shiite Muslims complete all five daily ritual prayers but squeeze them into three sessions instead of five. When they prostrate for prayer, Shiite Muslims place their face on a clay tablet called a turbah. Many of these tablets are inscribed with the names of Husayn or others from the prophet’s family. For Shiite Muslims, revering the “family of the house” brings you closer to God. Shiites also hold to 10 obligatory acts beyond the basic Five Pillars.

The loss of Husayn and the leadership of Muhammad’s family cast an enduring hue of sadness over Shiite Muslims. They live in mourning, wearing black most of the year. One of the biggest Shiite holidays is the anniversary of Husayn’s death on the holiday named Ashura, the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram. On this day, Shiite Muslims in the Middle East and Asia parade in the street, chanting laments at the death of Husayn, wailing loudly and beating themselves. Some even flail themselves with chains and cut their own heads with swords.