I tried to get the difference from different sources but couldn't get the correct answer.

I want to know: What is the difference between Shia and Sunni Islam?

  • 3
    Hi! Welcome to Islam.SE. There's some articles online, e.g. TheEconomist and About.com, which may be useful. Are you able to elaborate on what you know? This would give an answerer a starting point for answering the question. – Rebecca J. Stones Feb 1 '17 at 12:14

There are different ways of approaching this question and in every case much can be said about the differences between the Sunnis and Shias. Standard answers usually start by highlight the difference over who must've succeeded the Prophet, Abu Bakr or Ali ibn Abi Talib and finish by naming some key differences in rituals. But below are some qualitative elaborations that you could see as coming from a Shia perspective.

Shias believe that for Islam to have been preserved authentically and implemented properly until realization of the promise of a universal Utopian Islamic society, the Ummah (the Islamic community) must have had continued to be ruled by Divine saints after the passing of Prophet of Islam. So it was imperative for a wise God to appoint a successor to the Prophet on the same basis that He inspired the Prophet in the first place. Sunnis don't recognize this necessity for the Divine appointment of the successor and believe that the fallible Ummah knew better how to rule itself thereafter because the Book of Allah and the Sunnah (that is the collection of sayings and guidelines) of the Prophet as established during his lifetime were sufficient guides. Umar, the companion who brokered and supported Abu Bakr's caliphate after the passing of the Holy Prophet, apparently invoked the same idea when he declined Prophet's request on his deathbed for writing a spiritual will by saying that "Allah's book is sufficient for us."

Shias to the contrary argue that, first, the ideas and incidents pertaining to the doctrine of Divine succession are mentioned in the Quran itself. Secondly, when Quran is the central guide for Muslims, it can be interpreted in many ways and it contains profound truths that are not evident to average and fallible Muslims. Hence the need for God-supported saints, who Shias identify with Imams of the "Ahl al-Bayt" (People of the House of the Prophet) starting from Ali ibn abi Talib, who carry on the theoretical and practical elaboration of Divine truths for Muslims after passing of the Holy Prophet.

But in absence of this infallible interpretative and leadership function after the Prophet, Muslims left to their own devices could fall into all sorts of wrong beliefs and mistakes while thinking that they are following the Quran and the Sunnah.

For Shia, the political and later theological disputes that befell the Islamic Ummah after the passing of the Prophet is a testimony to importance of rightful succession as decreed by Allah and the Prophet.

An example of this wisdom finds a rhetorical expression in the Battle of Seffin when Ali and his army of average Muslims had to fight against a rebellious cunning governor, named Muawiya -- who claimed to be fighting Ali on a just Islamic cause. Muawiya when saw himself almost defeated resorted to a deceptive scheme. He ordered his army to raise the copies of Quran on their spears in order to undermine the faith of Ali's soldiers who then saw themselves fighting against an army that symbolically associated itself with paper copies of the Quran. The Ali's army ultimately wavered despite Ali's urge to continue the war when he cried "I'm the talking Quran!" implying that the army of Muawiya were only associating themselves with some inked papers when violating its content and spirit, whereas Ali was the one who was acting and speaking according to the true spirit of the Holy Scripture.

Sunnis however tend to view this and other wars that erupted between the former companions of the Prophet as having been just honest mistakes; that the warring Sahaba didn't harbor any mischief but only acted according to their own interpretation of Islam! But Shias argue that the very idea that companions of the Prophet may have meant good but acted so evil is itself a testimony to the necessity of infallible authority after the Holy Prophet for genuine commitment to Islam.

Later on Ali also had to fight another righteous-looking army in the Battle of Nahrawan: the so-called Khawarij, a group of "puritanical" Muslims who could recite the entire Quran from the heart and had their foreheads' skin darkened as a result of long prostrations during worship, declared aggressive war on anyone who they viewed as having deviated from Islam. Most Khawarij used to be in Ali's army during the Siffin and the same people who forced Ali into ceasefire and peace treaty with Muawiya but had now "repented" after seeing Muawiyah for his true colors. But to make up for this grave mistake they now declared war on both Muawiyah and Ali by arguing that "there is no rule except for Allah" citing a Quranic verse in support of an anarchic state, rejecting the idea of caliphate altogether. To this another recurring resort to Quranic legitimacy, Ali's response was: "That's a true word, but meant wrongly. Rule (that is institution of law) is only for Allah but they are taking "rule" as "government" meaning that there's no government except by Allah. But governance is inevitable for the Ummah be it righteous or unrighteous" explaining how anarchy is impossible.

Ultimately, Shias believe that Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt in contrast to other fallible Muslims, embodied the qualities of a perfect man. They were perfect in wisdom, faith, courage, compassion as they all had been raised by a perfect man in a pure household, starting from Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was raised from childhood under Prophet's oversight and fully inherited Prophet's Divine knowledge, to the next Imams who were all born to and raised by an infallible saint inheriting the accumulated knowledge and virtues of the Prophet and the intervening Imams.

But Shias believe that the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt were not received positively by the community from the beginning. As a result of jealousy or ignorance or both, their unique virtues were denied and their status was ignored. This was partly due the original introduction of Islam into an uncivilized pagan society many of its influential members resisted Islam until they had the means to fight it. In the Quran, verses that rebuke Muslims for their hypocrisy, fear and wavering support for the Prophet are ample, whereas the traditions that Shia consider to be authentic paint Ali as a specially revered, unwavering and consistent comrade of the Prophet from the beginning of his ministry to the last. This unique personality they think invoked the jealousy and dissatisfaction of many of the "companions" of the Prophet including even some of his wives. They tended to view Prophet's special respect for the young Ali and appointing him as his successor as influenced by some sort of a tribal preference on the part of the Prophet. Indeed even in his last days Prophet had stressful times when he wanted to publicly declare Ali as his successor on his return from the Last Pilgrimage. But Allah, according to Shia narrative of the incident at Ghadir Khumm, ensured the Prophet protection from his malicious companions.

But despite the declaration at Ghadir, the fears of the Prophet ultimately came true when the succession of Ali was not realized as a result of the schemes of some of his companions. Ultimately Ali like many other notable companions was forced into a belated admission of the outcome of the Saqifa assembly which declared Abu Bakr as the caliph. During the coming years, Ali had to endure a lot of pain and sadness not just for injustices committed against himself and his family due to his resistance against the de facto caliph but more importantly at the grave deviation that affected the Ummah of the Last Prophet. In a moving sermon during his belated halfhearted caliphcy 25 years after the passing of the Prophet, he described his conditions during the years as "that of a man who had a stick in the eye and a bone fragment in the throat" witnessing the injustices of the time.

Shias believe that the marginalization of the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt as true perfect representatives of Islam culminated in the Battle of Karbala, where Ali's grandson Hussein and his small band of family and companions were slaughtered by the Yazdi's army after rejecting his illegitimate tyrannical rule. Hussein's heroic sacrifice is credited for having spelled the doom of the Ummayad dynasty by exposing their savage character to the Muslim Ummah and for only partially rehabilitating true Islam from their grave deviations. But except for the short transitional period between the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties, the political atmosphere continued to be tough and repressive towards Imams of the Ahl Al-Bayt and their Shias (i.e. supporters) until Allah had to order the last Imam, Hujjat ibn al-Hassan, al-Mahdi, into a long occultation to be protected until his return in the End Time for the restoration of a promised global Utopian society of virtue on Earth. This is in contrast to Sunnis who don't identify any particular person with the Promised Mahdi that is foretold in their own sources. Shias also hold that during the period of occultation of the Promised Mahdi, the task of leading the community of believers is assumed via proxy by their religious scholars.

Finally Shias consider their Imams to posses knowledge of esoteric aspects of faith (as reflected in unique themes of their particular hadiths books), to have supernatural abilities, to receive a particular form of Divine inspiration distinct from Prophet revelation, to have the power of intercession, and to both directly and indirectly guide their faithful followers to face the tough challenges of the period of occultation. But many Sunnis especially the Wahhabis tend to view these beliefs to be heretical. However many Sunnis also tend to show reverence for the Imams of Ahl al-Bayt due to their recognition of historical evidences that point to their remarkable knowledge and piety in their times as well as shared Prophetic hadiths that urge respect for his family members. However they don't regard them as having any central religious authority and status as do the Shias.

  • 1
    Comments for downvotes appreciated! – infatuated Feb 1 '17 at 18:35
  • 1
    Nice answer @infatuated. You have a great knowledge in history. – Santanu Debnath Sep 28 '17 at 11:17

All the Muslims agree that Allah is One, Muhammad (SAW) is His last Prophet, the Qur’an is His last Book for mankind, and that one day

Allah will resurrect all human beings, and they will be questioned about their beliefs and actions. There are, however, disagreements between the two schools in the following two areas:

  1. The Caliphate (successorship/leadership) which the Shi’a believe is the right of the Imams of Ahlul-Bayt.

  2. The Islamic rule when there is no clear Qur’anic statement, nor is there a Hadith upon which Muslim schools have agreed.

The second issue has root into the first one. The Shi’a bound themselves to refer to Ahlul-Bayt for deriving the Sunnah of Prophet (S). They do this in conformity with the order of the Prophet reported in the authentic Sunni and Shi’i collections of traditions beside what the Qur’an attests to their perfect purity.

The disagreement about the caliphate should not be a source of division between the two schools. Muslims agree that the caliphate of Abu Bakr came through election by a limited number of people and was a surprise for all other companions. By limited number, I mean, the majority of the prominent companions of prophet had no knowledge of this election. ‘Ali, Ibn Abbas,

Uthman, Talha, Zubair, Sa’d Ibn Abi Waqqas, Salman al-Farsi, Abu Dharr,

Ammar Ibn Yasir, Miqdad, Abdurrahman Ibn Owf were among those who were not consulted nor even informed of. Even Umar confessed to the fact that the election of Abu Bakr was without consultation of Muslims. (See sahih al-Bukhari, Arabic-English, Tradition 8.817)

Source for further reading

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.