What’s the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims?


SHARE What’s the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims?

Dear Straight Dope: What is the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims? What exactly are the points of theology on which they differ? Matthew Bates

SDStaff Dex replies:

The differences are more political than doctrinal, dating back to the early days of Islam. But the divide is every bit as deep as the one separating Martin Luther’s adherents from the Pope’s.

Warning: for almost every statement I make here, you’ll find some sect or group in Islam that takes issue with it, either as a matter of fact or interpretation. In the interest of telling a coherent story not clogged with footnotes and asides, I relate the the most commonly accepted version.

Also note that there are many different English spellings or versions of names, since Arabic doesn’t use the Roman alphabet. I use the older, more familiar forms rather than the newer ones, which in many cases are closer to the Arabic; thus, Shi’ite rather than Shia.

To start at the beginning: Mohammed the Prophet heard revelations from the angel Gabriel in the year 620. He viewed himself as the last in the line of Judeo-Christian prophets beginning with Abraham, Moses, David, and extending through Jesus. He didn’t want to be viewed as divine, and didn’t think he was starting a new religion; he was simply the messenger of God (Rasul Allah), clarifying the message that had been garbled in earlier revelations. He wanted no pictures or images of himself (still a major tenet of Islam).

In the year 622, Mohammed and his family and followers emigrated (or were forced to flee, depending on your point of view) from Mecca to Medina — this event is known as the Hijra, and is commemorated as Year 1 AH of the Islamic calendar. Mohammed managed to unite the quarrelling tribes in Medina and by 630 had conquered not only Mecca but the entire Arabian peninsula.

By the time Mohammed died in 632, Islam had emerged as a potent military and religious force but as yet had no formal doctrine or rules. There were only the sayings (Revelations) given to the Companions (Sahaba), the Prophet’s friends and followers. There was already considerable dispute about some of the fine points of theology and law.

The immediate problem in 632 was the succession. Mohammed had eleven wives but no surviving male offspring. His first wife Khadija had given him a daughter called Fatimah, who married a cousin named Ali ibn Abi Talib. Ali was the first male convert to Islam (Khadija was the first convert); he was 30 years younger than Mohammed, a strong warrior and the Prophet’s standard-bearer in battle. Fatimah bore Ali two sons, Hussayn and Hasan, the grandsons of Mohammed, born in 625 and 626 respectively.

On the death of Mohammed, a conference of elders (shura) met to select a new leader. One faction pushed for Ali, but instead the shura selected Mohammed’s close-in-age friend and Companion Abu Bakr; he was called Khalifa Rasul Allah (Successor of the Messenger of God) — all Muslim leaders thereafter took the title caliph, meaning successor or follower. Ali was given no leadership role. Possibly under pressure, he swore allegiance to Bakr.

When Bakr died two years later, Umar ibn al-Khattab was elected the new caliph, reinforcing the idea that the leadership was elected rather than hereditary. Again, Ali swore allegiance, although whether voluntarily or under duress is disputed. The empire continued to expand. Around 636, Umar’s armies conquered Jerusalem and Damascus; the latter became the capital of the empire. Umar was assassinated in 644; on his death bed, he appointed a committee to choose his successor.

Ali then asserted a hereditary right to the Muslim leadership as cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. This was contested by the remaining Companions of Mohammed, who wanted to elect a successor and chose Uthman ibn Affan. One story holds that both Ali and Uthman were called before the council and asked whether they would rule by the principles of the Koran and the Prophet; both said yes. However, when asked whether they would follow the precedents set by the two prior caliphs, Uthman said yes but Ali said no — he would only follow God. Western and Sunni commentators tend to view this as mere politics, while Shi’ites see it as emblematic of a deeper religious conflict.

In any case, Uthman became caliph and proceeded to install his relatives in positions of authority throughout the empire. He declared one interpretation of the Revelation valid and ordered others suppressed. This caused considerable dissension and confusion, and civil wars erupted.

Ali and his family were furious — Uthman had gone too far. Many, including merchants and non-Arabs, were unhappy with Uthman’s rule and flocked to Ali, urging him to be caliph.

Thus began a war between the two parties. Ali’s supporters, called Shiate Ali, wanted hereditary leadership with Ali as rightful successor to Mohammed. Uthman’s supporters wanted the leadership elected under religious law, based on merit and the will of the community; these were later called Sunni (from the Arabic word sunnah meaning “law” or “path.”)

Ali called himself “Commander of the Faithful,” shunning the title caliph. He was also called the Imam, a title somewhere between Messiah and Messenger — the closest analogy in Christianity might be the Roman Catholic Pope. He is considered by his followers to have been a model of Islamic piety, and to have had direct conversations with God. Today, any prayer leader in Islam is called imam, but the Imam means Ali and his descendants.

Ali was successful militarily, and set up his capital (which he called the capital of all Islam) near Karbala in what is now Iraq.

In 656, Uthman was killed and Ali became caliph, supported by both parties. However, Uthman’s nephew Muawiyah seized power in the Levant, establishing what became the Umayyad dynasty. In 661, when Ali was assassinated, his followers proclaimed his oldest son Hassan as hereditary successor. However, Muawiyah, who controlled Syria and Egypt and commanded the largest army in the Muslim empire, claimed the caliphate. What happened next depends on who’s telling the story. Sunni version: Hassan made a deal with Muawiyah, retired and died soon after from natural causes. Shi’ite version: The deal was coerced and Hassan was poisoned by his wife on orders from Muawiyah.

Ali’s second son, Hussayn, gathered an army to fight Muawiyah. In 680, Hussayn was trapped in the city of Karbala, surrounded by thousands of Uthman’s followers. The water supply was cut off and Hussayn’s son died of thirst. Hussayn charged into the middle of the opposing army, slaughtering left and right. He was soon slain himself and cut to pieces, and his family was enslaved, tortured, or killed.

This martyrdom happened on the tenth day of the first month of the year, already a fast day called Ashura. For the Shi’ites, this became a day of mourning, with the martyrdom of Hussayn a symbol of rebellion against tyranny and oppression. For the Sunnis, Ashura is a voluntary fast for self-improvement based on the Revelation from Mohammed. (Incidentally, this is one of a number of ideas in the Koran drawn from the Hebrew and Christian bibles — a self-improvement fast on the tenth day of the first month was an Old Testament, i.e., Jewish, tradition.)

After the death of Hussayn, Ali’s remaining followers pulled away, creating their own imams from Hussayn’s descendants. This marked the final split between Sunni and Shi’ite.

For the Shi’ites, there were eleven imams; the twelfth in the line of Mohammed’s descendants vanished in the 800s. About 80 percent of Shi’ites believe this missing heir will return as a messiah-like figure, bringing peace on earth; they are called “Twelvers.”

Over the centuries, lacking a direct hereditary descendant to unify them, the Shi’ites have splintered into many small groups with different religious practices, laws, etc. Shi’ites represent about 20 percent of all Moslems.

The Sunnis meanwhile didn’t look for saintliness in their leaders, but strong political abilities. They shaped laws based on the words of Mohammed and the three “righteous caliphs” (Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman, although some add Ali as the fourth). By the 900s, the Sunni caliphate had split into regional dynasties and local royal families.

The Shi’ites take a more fundamentalist approach to their religion, accepting laws only from Mohammed and the Koran, not the caliphate; they look to the imams as the best source of knowledge and tradition. There are essentially no differences in ritual between Shi’ite and Sunni; nonetheless, many Sunni believe Shi’ites are not real Muslims.

One difficulty faced in some Arab countries is the split between the government and the population. In Iraq, for instance, Sunnis constitute only 20 percent of the population but dominated the government for decades, including the regime of Saddam Hussein. The Shi’ites now lead the U.S.-backed government, while the Sunnis are the backbone of the insurgency. Here’s how things shake out in some other Muslim countries:

CountryDominant Group
in Population
Dominant Group
in Government
Saudi ArabiaSunniSunni
United Arab EmiratesSunniSunni

Source: USA Today

Personal aside: I was in Bahrain during Ashura in 2006, and was privileged to have a student take me around to watch the celebrations, beginning around 10 PM. I gave up around 1 AM, but the ceremonies went on all night and most of the next day. It was an unforgettable experience. The student’s family was very welcoming and friendly; they knew I was American but not that I was Jewish, although I’m not sure it would have made a difference.

The celebration included around 150,000 people (roughly 25 percent of the population of the island) gathered in the souk (marketplace.) There were foodstalls, lectures, parades, etc. I saw a short movie about the martyrdom of Hussayn – very dramatic, and interesting since the faces of the actors were always hidden or blurred to avoid depicting the family of the Prophet.

I saw young people, probably high on drugs, cut themselves to bleed in sympathy for the martyrs; the student who was my guide handed out leaflets telling them to go to a hospital to donate blood instead. I saw a parade of children, marching to a drum beat, whipping themselves with toy tinsel whips. I heard part of a sermon in English that theocracy is the best form of government, because God’s laws are the only laws that are truly just.

Although the majority of the population of Bahrain is Shi’ite, the government is Sunni. To the majority of the population, this festival commemorated a tragic martyrdom. To the government, it was a minor fast day. The newspaper the next day carried the story of the celebration on page 9, focusing on how well the police kept order. I will never take our free press for granted again.

SDStaff Dex, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.