What are the differences between the Sunni and Shia divisions of Islam?

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Sunni and Shia are the two main branches of Islam, representing different perspectives on the rightful leadership and succession of the Muslim community after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The primary difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims lies in their beliefs regarding the rightful successors to the Prophet and certain practices within Islam. Here are some key differences:

  1. Leadership and Succession:
    • Sunni: Sunni Muslims believe that the leadership of the Muslim community should be determined through consensus (ijma) or the community’s choice (shura). They recognize the first four caliphs, or “Rightly Guided Caliphs,” including Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali, as legitimate successors to the Prophet Muhammad.
    • Shia: Shia Muslims, on the other hand, believe that leadership should have been hereditary and passed down through the family of the Prophet Muhammad. They consider Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, as the rightful successor, and subsequent leaders are known as Imams, who are believed to have divine guidance.
  2. Imamate:
    • Sunni: Sunni Islam does not have a formalized concept of Imams with divine authority. While there are religious scholars and leaders, they are not considered infallible or divinely appointed in the same way as the Shia Imams.
    • Shia: Shia Muslims follow a line of Imams who are believed to have special spiritual and temporal authority. The Twelver Shia, the largest Shia denomination, believes in twelve Imams, with the twelfth Imam in occultation and expected to return as the Mahdi.
  3. Practices and Rituals:
    • Sunni: Sunnis and Shias share the fundamental tenets of Islam, including the Five Pillars. However, there are some differences in certain religious practices, such as prayer and supplication.
    • Shia: Shias have distinct practices, including different ways of performing some rituals and commemorating historical events, particularly during the month of Muharram, when they mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, at the Battle of Karbala.
  4. Majority and Distribution:
    • Sunni: The majority of Muslims worldwide are Sunni. Sunni Islam is the predominant branch in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and Indonesia.
    • Shia: Shia Muslims constitute a significant minority within Islam. They are the majority in countries like Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and significant communities in countries like Lebanon, Yemen, and Pakistan.

It’s important to note that within both Sunni and Shia Islam, there are further subdivisions and different schools of thought. Despite these differences, both branches share a common core of Islamic beliefs and practices. The division between Sunni and Shia originated in historical events and political disagreements, but contemporary tensions are often fueled by complex geopolitical and sociopolitical factors.

The Five Pillars of Islam are the fundamental acts of worship and practices that are considered the foundation of a Muslim’s faith and practice. These pillars are obligatory for all Muslims, and they provide a framework for spiritual and ethical living. The Five Pillars are:

  1. Shahada (Declaration of Faith):
    • The Shahada is the fundamental creed of Islam, declaring the oneness of God (Allah) and the prophethood of Muhammad. The declaration is: “La ilaha illallah, Muhammadur rasulullah,” which translates to “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” Uttering the Shahada with sincerity is the first step to converting to Islam.
  2. Salah (Prayer):
    • Salah refers to the ritual prayer that Muslims perform five times a day facing the Kaaba in Mecca. The five daily prayers are Fajr (pre-dawn), Dhuhr (midday), Asr (afternoon), Maghrib (just after sunset), and Isha (night). Prayer is a direct connection between the worshiper and Allah and serves as a means of seeking guidance, forgiveness, and spiritual closeness.
  3. Zakat (Charity or Almsgiving):
    • Zakat is the obligation for Muslims to give a portion of their wealth to those in need. It is considered a form of purification of one’s wealth and an act of social responsibility. The standard amount is 2.5% of a person’s accumulated wealth, which includes savings, investments, and other assets, given annually.
  4. Sawm (Fasting during Ramadan):
    • Sawm refers to fasting during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Muslims abstain from food, drink, smoking, and sinful behavior during the daylight hours of Ramadan. Fasting is seen as a way to develop self-discipline, empathy for the less fortunate, and spiritual growth.
  5. Hajj (Pilgrimage to Mecca):
    • Hajj is the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca that every Muslim who is physically and financially able is obligated to undertake at least once in their lifetime. The pilgrimage takes place during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah. Hajj involves a series of rituals, including the circumambulation of the Kaaba, standing at the plain of Arafat, and symbolic acts commemorating the actions of the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and his family.

These Five Pillars serve as the framework for a Muslim’s life, emphasizing worship, charity, self-discipline, and the importance of community. Observance of these pillars is central to the Islamic faith and reflects the submission (Islam) of a believer to the will of Allah.