History of Sunnis and Shias
A study By: Timothy M. Youngblood
Presented by: The Master's Table Web Site


The division between Sunnis and Shias dates back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and the question of who was to take over the leadership of the Muslim nation. Sunni Muslims agree with the position taken by many of the Prophet's companions, that the new leader should be elected from among those capable of the job. This is what was done, and the Prophet Muhammad's close friend and advisor, Abu Bakr, became the first Caliph of the Islamic nation. The word "Sunni" in Arabic comes from a word meaning "one who follows the traditions of the Prophet."

On the other hand, Shia Muslims share the belief that leadership should have stayed within the Prophet's own family, among those specifically appointed by him, or among Imams appointed by God Himself. Shia Muslims believe that following the Prophet Muhammad's death, leadership should have passed directly to his cousin/son-in-law, Ali. Throughout history, Shia Muslims have not recognized the authority of elected Muslim leaders, choosing instead to follow a line of Imams which they believe have been appointed by the Prophet Muhammad or God Himself. The word "Shia" in Arabic means a group or supportive party of people. The commonly-known term is shortened from the historical "Shia-t-Ali," or "the Party of Ali." They are also known as followers of "Ahl-al-Bayt" or "People of the Household" (of the Prophet). From this initial question of political leadership, some aspects of spiritual life have been affected and now differ between the two groups of Muslims.

Differences in beliefs

Shia Muslims believe that the Imam is sinless by nature, and that his authority is infallible as it comes directly from God. Therefore, Shia Muslims often venerate the Imams as saints and perform pilgrimages to their tombs and shrines in the hopes of divine intercession. Sunni Muslims counter that there is no basis in Islam for a hereditary privileged class of spiritual leaders, and certainly no basis for the veneration or intercession of saints. Sunni Muslims contend that leadership of the community is not a birthright, but a trust that is earned and which may be given or taken away by the people themselves.

Shia Muslims also feel animosity towards some of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad, based on their positions and actions during the early years of discord about leadership in the community. Many of these companions (Abu Bakr, Umar, Aisha, etc.) have narrated traditions about the Prophet's life and spiritual practice. Shia Muslims reject these traditions (hadith) and do not base any of their religious practices on the testimony of these individuals. This naturally gives rise to some differences in religious practice between the two groups. These differences touch all detailed aspects of religious life: prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, etc.

It is important to remember that despite all of these differences in opinion and practice, Shia and Sunni Muslims share the main articles of Islamic belief and are considered by most to be brethren in faith. In fact, most Muslims do not distinguish themselves by claiming membership in any particular group, but prefer to call themselves simply, "Muslims."

Shia vs Sunni Demographics

Sunni Muslims make up the majority (85%) of Muslims all over the world. Significant populations of Shia Muslims can be found in Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and Lebanon.

Shia-Sunni Conflict

In June 2012, attacks on Shiite targets in Iraq killed scores of people. In January 2012, The Economist reported that there was a growing sense of unease in the global Shia community because of attacks on them by Sunni extremists. They cited the attacks on Ashura and later in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bahrain. In Bahrain, the Shia majority is ruled by a Sunni minority, a government that has grown to become highly unpopular. In Syria, a regime dominated by Alawites, an esoteric offshoot of Shia Islam, is bloodily failing to suppress an uprising largely led by members of the Sunni majority.

Theological differences

Most statements about Islam apply to Sunni Islam, which represents the vast majority of the Muslim population. Although the differences between Sunni Islam and the various Shiite sects started out as political, the distinction between the two groups has gradually become more and more theological as well. Shia Muslims continue to hold the same fundamental beliefs of other Muslims, with the principle addition being that they also believe in an imamate, which is the distinctive institution of Shia Islam. The doctrine of the imamate was not fully developed until the 10th century and other dogmas developed still later.

Sunni Muslims view the caliph as a temporal leader only and consider an imam to be a prayer leader, but for the Shia the historic caliphs were merely de facto rulers while the rightful and true leadership continued to be passed along through a sort of apostolic succession of Muhammad's descendants, the Imams (when capitalized, Imam refers to the Shia descendant of the House of Ali). The conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam can thus be said to be fundamentally about the nature of religious authority: is it conferred and transmitted through rational, legal institutions or does it include a charismatic, mystical element?

Religious Authority

Sunni - Rationality & Legality

In principle, Sunni Muslims' relationship with God is direct and is not mediated by anything like a priest or pope (A rabbi is a teacher not a mediator). Some religious figures may exercise a great deal of political or social power, but committees of socially important believers in each community are generally responsible for the management of the mosque and its land. The real ecclesiastical power lies with the four orthodox schools of legal thought because they define the boundaries of Islamic law, theology, and belief.

The Maliki school is centered around Medina and Malik's law book is the earliest known Muslim legal text. The Hanifi school is located in Iraq and stresses the use of individual opinion in rendering legal judgments. Shafii was a member of Muhammad's Quraysh tribe and was a distant relative of his. Shafii studied under Malik in Medina, but ended up following his own path, creating rules of analogy for the purpose of reaching legal opinions on matters which were not covered in direct statements made by Muhammad. Hanbal's legal school is centered in Baghdad and became prominent in Saudi Arabia because it is the only school accepted by the Wahhabi Muslims. It places the primary emphasis on the Hadith as the source of law and rejects later innovations made by other schools, scholars, and religious figures.

Shia - Inherited & Mystical

Unlike the Sunnis, Shia Muslims have from the start regarded inherited, mystical elements as fundamental to the nature of religious authority. The term Shia is a shortened form of Shiat Ali, which means "the party of Ali." At the time of Ali's death in 661, that is probably all it was: a party or tendency of people who supported Ali's claims to the caliphate. Ali was Muhammad's first cousin, in some ways Muhammad's adoptive brother, the husband of his daughter (Fatima) and father of his favorite grandsons. Moreover, Ali was regarded as more authentically representative of what Muhammad stood for and fought for, especially in contrast to the wealthy and worldly Umayyads. After Ali died, his role was believed to have passed to his two sons, Hasan and Husain, who were also Muhammad's grandsons. Despite this, they did not take over the caliphate - that position went to Mu'awiya, who founded the Umayyad dynasty. After this time, the descendants of Ali became a principle focus of dissent and opposition to the Umayyads. Many came to believe that the Umayyads and following Islamic rulers were corrupt and had fallen away from the path set by Muhammad. Those who believed that justice and good government would only replace tyranny and corruption when the rightful heirs of Muhammad took control came to be known as the Shiites.

Timothy M. Youngblood

The Master's Table