Home > Free Essays > Religion > World Religions > Islam: Major Differences Between the Shiite Muslims and the Sunni Muslims

Islam: Major Differences Between the Shiite Muslims and the Sunni Muslims Research Paper

Exclusively available on IvyPanda Available only on IvyPanda
Updated: May 12th, 2020


Islam is one of the major religions and over 1.5 billion people claim themselves to be Muslims. Islam was established in the early seventh century A.D. when Mohammad started preaching and turning people into the monotheistic religion (Singh, 2011).

Noteworthy, Islam was the force that united numerous tribes into a strong community, which was essential for the development of the Arabic world. However, Mohammad’s death brought uncertainty and, eventually, led to the split within the religion (Amos, 2010). Two major denominations appeared, i.e. Shiite and Sunni Muslims. At present, Sunni Muslims constitute the majority.

Thus, between 85% and 90% are Sunni Muslims (Harty, 2011). However, Shiite Muslims constitute majority in some countries, e.g. Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Bahrain (Cooper & Yue, 2008). It is noteworthy that the two denominations are very similar and share basic principles. Nonetheless, the two groups have developed a number of practices and principles which are opposing. These differences are the reason for a variety of conflicts that have taken away lives of thousands of people.

The Split between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims

To understand the differences between the two denominations, it is necessary to take a closer look at the period after Mohammad’s death. The Prophet did not leave a successor and a council had to choose the rightful successor (Harty, 2011). It is important to stress that though blood connection was very important, Muslims cherished authority and experience. These principles affected the council’s choice.

There were two major candidates: Mohammad’s father-in-law, Abu Bakr, and the Prophet’s cousin Ali (Singh, 2011). Both candidates had their supporters. Importantly, Ali was the first converted male Muslim and the second person to be converted as the first individual converted was Mohammad’s wife (Harty, 2011).

Ali was also Mohammad’s daughter’s husband and he was very close with the Prophet. Nonetheless, since authority outweighed blood bonds, Abu Bakr was chosen as the caliph, i.e. “the “deputy” of the Prophet” as he was much older and more experienced (Ali was only 30) (Harty, 2011, p. 2).

This led to certain alienation of some groups. Abu Bakr’s followers proclaimed themselves “Ahle-Sunnat-wal-Jamat” which meant people of the “tradition and assembly” (as cited in Singh, 2011, p. 18). Those who supported Ali were called “the Shiat Ali (followers of Ali), or Shi’te for short” (Fetini, 2009, n.p.). However, there was still unity on the principles of Islam among Muslims.

There had been two more successors before Ali was chosen as the caliph. It is necessary to note that the third successor, Uthman, was a representative of the leading families of Mecca (Harty, 2011). Lots of Muslims were still nomads in the dessert. More so, the new caliph’s soldiers had also been nomads a short time before they started serving him. Uthman appointed many well-off Meccans to the highest posts and this was the reason of his alienation from the influential families of Meddina, the capital of the Prophet (Harty, 2011).

The policies led to Uthman’s assassination. Ali was claimed the caliph. His rule was regarded as successful as he followed basic principles promulgated by Mohammad. Nonetheless, the group of Uthman’s followers formed a minority group Kharajites that demanded revenge on their leader’s assassins (Harty, 2011). Though Ali was not responsible for the assassination, Kharajites assassinated him for his inaction.

The next successor to the caliphate was Husain, Ali’s son. However, he deferred the caliphate to the head of Meccan clan and the governor of Syria, Muawiyyah (Harty, 2011). Husain settled in Medina. Muawiyyah was a wise ruler who managed to create a strong caliphate with close bonds between clans. His death led to another wave of unrest as different groups supported different candidates. Again, Husain, Ali’s son, was one of the candidates.

He started a march to Iraq as he hoped to inspire other Muslims and remind them of the basic values Mohammad had promulgated. However, Husain’s group was massacred by the Syrian soldiers and this was one of the turning points in the history of Islam. Amos (2010) notes that assassination of Ali and his son, Husain, led to the development of the concept of martyrdom which became quite central to ShiiteMuslims’ beliefs and practices.

Therefore, it is possible to note that the initial reason for the split was rooted in the different views on leadership. Some Muslims (later Sunni) believed in authority and wisdom, while some (later Shiite Muslims) tended to focus on the heredity, i.e. they believed only the family of the Prophet was enlightened enough to lead people to revelation. The split was also aggravated by people’s desire to gain more power.

The struggle in the times of the first caliphs is the most suggestive. Thus, numerous leading families tried to gain power and promote their candidates. Irrespective of the reasons for the split, it took place and shaped the development of the humanity. The issues concerning power and religion are still apparent. Murphy (2013, n.p.) claims that “Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran” exploit religious beliefs to achieve hegemony in the region.


Religion and Society

Thus, differences between the two denominations of Islam have led to a variety of conflicts, but before looking into these disparities, it is important to consider major similarities between Sunni and Shia Islam. In the first place, it is necessary to note that the two denominations share the basic concepts (Singh, 2011).

Thus, Sunni and Shiite Muslims believe in Allah and think Quran is the holy book which should be followed. Quran is the primary resource to look for answers to any questions for both Shiite and Sunni Muslims. The two denominations believe in Prophet Mohammad who revealed the true faith and the will of God to people. The also follow Mohammad’s Sunnah.

The Sunni and Shiite Muslims believe in the five pillars of Islam. The first pillar of Islam is shahadah, i.e. the declaration of faith (Harty, 2011). In other words, Muslims admit that there is only one God and that Mohammad is His messenger. The second pillar of Islam is salah, i.e. the five prayers which are done each day.

The Sunni Muslims pray five times a day. The Shiite Muslims also do 5 prayers, but they do the second and the third pray as well as the forth and the fifth together, so it seems that they pray three times (Singh, 2011). Irrespective of this difference, both denominations still stick to the major principles of Islam. The third pillar of Islam is sawm, the fast during the month Ramadan.

The fourth pillar of Islam is zakah or almsgiving. Thus, Muslims have to donate a small part of their wealth to diminish inequality. In other words, well-off Muslims provide financial help to those who are in need. The fifth pillar of Islam is haj, i.e. pilgrimage to Mecca. Importantly, according to Islam any person who performs the five pillars of Islam is a Muslim (Harty, 2011). Therefore, people pertaining to both denominations are regarded as Muslims.

Apart from this, both denominations accept Ali as the forth caliph. Finally, both denominations are divided into several schools. Thus, the Sunni schools are the Hanafi School, the Maliki School, the Shafei school, the Hanbali School. The Shia schools are the Zyadis School, the Ismailia School, the Ithna Asharia School (Singh, 2011).

The division among the Sunnis is largely based on the “different degrees of stress on one or more sources of law” (Singh, 2011, p. 19). The division among Shia schools is largely based on the quite different attitude towards traditions and the degree of compliance with the traditions. Therefore, it is possible to state that the two denominations are similar as they are both divided into schools.

Extremist Groups

It is also necessary to point out that there have been a variety of extremist groups within the both denominations. Kharajite was one of the first extremist minorities within the Muslim society, which was formed by Ali’s supporters (Harty, 2011).

Ironically, a Kharajite assassinated Ali some years later. Similar extremist groups have appeared throughout centuries. In the majority of cases, these groups accuse the majority in heresy. They claim that only they remain faithful to God and His rules. These extremist groups usually want to create a society based on certain rules and principles.

Salih (2012) states that modern extremism long for the beginning of the religious war against the infidel. These groups tend to use terrorism as their major tool. Many innocent people die. Thus, Salih (2012) notes that among modern Shia extremists, Osama bin Laden is the most notoriously known. Mullah is another extremist group that claims their mission to create the rightful Muslim society in the region and in the entire world.

Salih (2012) also stresses that extremist groups can also be found within the Sunni Muslims. Georgy (2012) provides an example of such a group. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (also called LeJ) is operating in Pakistan. This extremist group uses violent activities aimed at destroying the Shia minority. One of the most recent operations of LeJ was trekking down a group of pilgrims in Himalayas. Nineteen Shiite Muslims were slaughtered (Georgy, 2012).

Dorrell and Kwider (2013) emphasize that these extremist groups enflame the hatred and fear among Muslims. These groups make people believe that the differences between the two denominations are incompatible. They also try to make people believe that only rightful faith can exist. Analysts state that the peace between the denominations is possible, but it is unlikely to start in the near future (Fetini, 2009).

The news about military conflicts can be regarded as good examples for this viewpoint. However, it is also necessary to note that there is co-operation between the two groups in such countries as Lebanon and Iran, which can be a good sign and the start of collaboration between the two denominations on the global scale.

Notably, there are extremist groups within both denominations. This is another characteristic in common. Therefore, it is clear that the two denominations have a lot in common. Nonetheless, there are certain aspects they do not share.


Leadership in the Two Denominations

As has been mentioned above, the concept of leadership is one of the major divergences between the two denominations. Aldosari (2007, p. 534) notes that the Sunni Muslims “preferred a political leader” who could lead the created community and reinforce the power over different provinces. Thus, the leader had to have organizational skills and authority. The Sunni Muslims cherished these two qualities above all. They strived for creation of a powerful Muslim state.

However, Shiite Muslims believed that the caliph had to pertain to the family of the Prophet. They reckoned that only blood bonds could ensure sinfulness and wisdom of the leader. The Shiite Muslims believed that only Mohammad’s successors could be the proper spiritual and religious leaders.

These leaders were called imams. Notably, imams were often imputed sinfulness, wisdom and even some super-natural qualities (Monshipouri, 2011). Such concepts as authority and experience were seen as secondary or rather adherent to the individuals who possess the necessary characteristics.

Religious Practices

Apart from different views on leadership, the two denominations are different in terms of religious practices. Thus, the Sunni Muslims do not have “a formal clergy” as they have a myriad of scholars who interpret the Holy texts to handle current issues (Singh, 2011, p. 25).

At the same time, the Shiite Muslims believe their Imam is a “fully spiritual guide” who interpret the laws and traditions and whose guidance should be followed (Singh, 2011, p. 25). It is also necessary to note that Shiite Muslims follow Imam’s writings as they are regarded as equal to the Holy texts.

As has been mentioned above the concept of martyrdom is central to the religious practice of the Shiite Muslims who focus on the assassination of Ali and his son Husain. Ashura is one of the practices that are based on the concept of martyrdom and self-sacrifice (Blanchard, 2009).

This is the 10-day period when the Shiite Muslims commemorate the Battle of Karbala, “with a wailing Imam whipping the congregation up into a frenzy of tears and chest beating” (Singh, 2011, p. 26). The Shiite Muslims also believe that the death of Ali and Husain was the way to show the significance of their doctrines.

There are some differences in the way the Sunni and Shiite Muslims pray. The Shias combine some prays, which is not acceptable for the Sunni. Apart from this, Shiite Muslims do wudu and salat in a different way. For instance, Sunni place forehead onto the prayer mat, but Shias place the forehead onto “a piece of hardened clay from Karbala” (Singh, 2011, p. 26).

Though hadiths are seen as primary sources by both denominations, Sunni and Shias prefer different texts. Thus, the Shiite Muslims prefer texts narrated by Ali or Fatima (Singh, 2011). These are major difference in religious practices.


The differences in the religious practices have shaped the Shia and Sunni societies. Thus, in Shiite societies, Imams are religious as well as political leaders (Aldosari, 2007). The imam has the authority not the state. It is possible to state that the state is governed by religious doctrines.

However, the Sunnis Muslims are led by spiritual leaders, who can be subordinate to the state. In other words, spiritual and social spheres are separated. Religious leaders guide people and help make right choices whereas the state regulates social life in the society.

Interestingly, there is a specific hierarchy of clergy in Sunni Islam, but Shia Muslims do not have such a strict hierarchy. More so, the Sunni follow the holy texts more rigidly, whereas the Shias can often deviate from the texts and alter some traditions to make them fit the contemporary life (Amos, 2010).

One of the examples for such a change is an ongoing debate on in vitro fertilization (IVF). Inhorn (2006) reports that the availability of technology has brought the issue to the fore in Muslim countries. Noteworthy, Shia Islam tolerates IVF while Sunni Islam forbids such a practice when third party donation is used (embryos, sperm, etc.).

Admittedly, the practices became common only a few decades ago and the holy book does not have direct answers to the questions raised. The contemporary clergymen from both denominations try to interpret the holy texts to make people understand whether this practice is sinful or not. Thus, development of technology and globalization are affecting the Muslim world. These changes show that the two denominations have different views on the development and the future of the religion and the society.

Interestingly, while introducing new concepts, Shias of ten tend to reintroduce old ones. One of such examples is the concept of Muttah, “fixed-term temporary marriage” (Singh, 2011, p. 26). The Sunni Muslims forbid Muttah. However, the Shias Muslims are involved into a lasting discussion on the reintroduction of this practice.

Supporters of this practice claim that the practice was common in the days of the Prophet, and therefore, it is rightful and acceptable. Remarkably, feminist and conservative clergy support the idea as they oppose the recent “obsession with female virginity” stating that only one of the Prophet’s wives was a virgin (Singh, 2011, p. 26). However, there is not a single view on the matter within the group of the Shiite Muslims.


In conclusion, it is possible to state that there a number of similarities as well as differences between the Shiite and Sunni Muslims. The two denominations share core principles and religious practices, e.g. the five pillars of Islam, basic holy texts, etc. The two groups are not homogeneous as they are divided into several schools.

However, there are quite significant differences associated with the concept of leadership and societal order. Thus, the Sunni religious leaders remain spiritual guides for people and do not intrude into the sphere of the state power while the Shia imams often dictate the way to live on the state level.

Notably, Islam is based on the principles of proliferation of the good and peace. Nonetheless, the difference between the two denominations let groups to use violence to pursue certain goals. Extremist groups have occurred within both denominations and they have caused a lot of trouble and led to numerous deaths.

The vast majority of Muslims (from both denominations) condemns actions of the extremist groups. The Shiite and Sunni Muslims understand that all people should live in peace irrespective of some differences. Though researchers claim that the two groups are unlikely to collaborate in the nearest future, it is necessary to start promoting ideas of unity and cooperation. People should focus on principles and concept they share.

Reference List

Aldosari, A. (2007). Middle East, Western Asia, and Northern Africa. New York, NY: Marshall Cavendish.

Amos, D. (2010). Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, exile, and upheaval in the Middle East. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.

Blanchard, C. M. (2009). . Web.

Cooper, W. W., & Yue, P. (2008). Challenges of the Muslim world: Present, future and past. Oxford, UK: Emerald Group Publishing.

Dorrell, O., & Kwider, A. (2013). . Huffington Post. Web.

Fetini, A. (2009). . Time World. Web.

Georgy, M. (2012). . Reuters. Web.

Harty, S. T. (2011). Sunnis, Shiites: Islam’s schism. Web.

Inhorn, M. C. (2006). Making Muslim babies: IVF and gamete donation in Sunni versus Shia Islam. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 30(1), 427-450.

Monshipouri, M. (2011). Muslims in global politics: Identities, interests, and human rights. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Murphy, C. (2013). . Global Post. Web.

Salih, M. (2012). Which poses a greater threat? Islam Watch. Web.

Singh, R. K. M. (2011). Textbook on Muslim law. New Delhi: Universal Law Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd.

This research paper on Islam: Major Differences Between the Shiite Muslims and the Sunni Muslims was written and submitted by your fellow student. You are free to use it for research and reference purposes in order to write your own paper; however, you must cite it accordingly.
Removal Request
If you are the copyright owner of this paper and no longer wish to have your work published on IvyPanda.
Request the removal

Need a custom Research Paper sample written from scratch by
professional specifically for you?

Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar

certified writers online

Cite This paper
Select a referencing style:


IvyPanda. (2020, May 12). Islam: Major Differences Between the Shiite Muslims and the Sunni Muslims. https://ivypanda.com/essays/islam-major-differences-between-the-shiite-muslims-and-the-sunni-muslims/


IvyPanda. (2020, May 12). Islam: Major Differences Between the Shiite Muslims and the Sunni Muslims. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/islam-major-differences-between-the-shiite-muslims-and-the-sunni-muslims/

Work Cited

"Islam: Major Differences Between the Shiite Muslims and the Sunni Muslims." IvyPanda, 12 May 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/islam-major-differences-between-the-shiite-muslims-and-the-sunni-muslims/.

1. IvyPanda. "Islam: Major Differences Between the Shiite Muslims and the Sunni Muslims." May 12, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/islam-major-differences-between-the-shiite-muslims-and-the-sunni-muslims/.


IvyPanda. "Islam: Major Differences Between the Shiite Muslims and the Sunni Muslims." May 12, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/islam-major-differences-between-the-shiite-muslims-and-the-sunni-muslims/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "Islam: Major Differences Between the Shiite Muslims and the Sunni Muslims." May 12, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/islam-major-differences-between-the-shiite-muslims-and-the-sunni-muslims/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Islam: Major Differences Between the Shiite Muslims and the Sunni Muslims'. 12 May.

Powered by CiteTotal, best essay bibliography maker
More related papers