Difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims

Key Difference: Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims have different theological beliefs. Shias believe that only the people in the direct line of the Prophet should lead the Muslims. There are many small differences such as how many times a day to pray, how to pray, how they should interpret the Qur’an, etc.

Islam is the second-largest religion and one of the fastest growing religions in the world. It is only succeeded by Christianity. Islam is a monotheistic and Abrahamic religion that is guided by the Qur’an. The Qur’an is composed of the word of God and the teachings and examples of Muhammad, the last prophet of God. A follower of Islam is known as a Muslim. Many Muslims believe that their sole purpose is to worship and serve God, for which they have established five pillars of Islam that guides a Muslim on almost every aspect of life and society.

Due to differences, Muslims have been divided into two primary sects: The Sunnis and the Shias. These two sects have many similarities and both consider themselves are Muslims, following the will of God. However, they are also different from each other in certain aspects. Both the Sunnis and the Shias, agree on the fundamentals of Islam and share the same Holy Book. However, according to experts the division stems from their different historical experiences, political and social developments, as well as ethnic composition.

Before the division, both the Sunni and the Shia were considered as Muslims, who followed the word of the last prophet, Muhammad. Following the death of Muhammad, it was unclear as to who will lead the Islamic community forward. This is where the two differed. The BBC website states the entire story behind the division in detail. The Sunnis believed that Muhammad had picked his close ally and father-in-law, Abu Bakr to continue leading the Muslims. However, the Shias believed that leadership should remain within the family of the Prophet and his cousin and son-in-law, Ali should be the next leader of the community. Following multiple discussions, Abu Bakr was elected leader democratically, which was looked down upon by the Shia community.

Following the election of Abu Bakr, Ali initially did not pledge allegiance to him. However, a few months later he readily accepted Abu Bakr as the new leader. When Abu Bakr was dying he appointed The Second Caliph, who on his death bed appointed The Third Caliph. However, The Third Caliph, Uthman ibn 'Affan was murdered during his term. After which Ali was appointed as The Fourth Caliph. Ali’s Caliphate was opposed by Aisha, wife of Muhammad and daughter of Abu Bakr. She claimed that Ali should be more rigid in trying to bring justice to the killer of Uthman. She led a battle against him known as the Battle of the Camel, where Aisha lost. She later apologized but the differences had already been created. The governor of Damascus, Mu'awiya, challenged the caliphate of Ali. Although, they tried to reach a settlement, it did not prove very effective. Ali was killed by other forces, following which Mu'awiya assumed the Caliphate.

Unlike the previous Caliphate, Mu'awiya was monarchical and on his death bed he passed on his Caliphate to his son Yazid. Around this time, the people of Kufa invited Hussein, Ali’s youngest son to become their leader. However, on route to Kufa, Yazid’s forces intercepted Ali and his followers, who refused to pay allegiance to Yazid. This resulted in a battle, in which Hussein is said to have died sacrificing this life for the survival of Shi'a Islam. The Shia Muslims commemorate his sacrifice to this day by mourning on the Day of Ashura. They even participate in acts of self-flagellation to honor him.

This is one of the major reasons of the separation of the Sunnis and the Shias. The Shias were further divided into Ismaili and The Twelvers. This is named because they believed there are twelve divinely appointed Imams descended from the Prophet in the line of Ali and Hussein. The final Imam was hid in a cave to avoid persecution; however he disappeared. The Shias believe that he is hidden by God and will return at the end of time.

Although, originally the difference was a result of who would lead the Muslim community, the Sunnis and the Shias have now come to differ theologically as well, such as interpretation and acceptance of the Hadith and the Sunnah. The Sunnis believe all of the Hadith and Sunnah narrated by any of twelve thousand companions to be equally valid. However, the Shias only credit the Hadith and Sunnah by the Prophet's family and close associates. Another difference lies in the belief of The Mahdi, a person who would be righteously guided by God and will be a descendent of the Prophet. According to the Sunnis, the Mahdi has yet to arrive on Earth and will come directly during the end of time, while the Shias believe that the Mahdi has already been on Earth, but was hidden by God and will emerge again during the end of time.

The Sunnis believe that there is no one greater than God and no one else should be given precedence. If a person wants something, he should directly ask God. However, the Shias believe that God is too great to be directly spoken to him. They speak to God through the Imams. The Shias also believe in building shrines, while the Sunnis don’t. The Shias also believe in self- flagellation to commemorate the sacrifice of Hussein. However, the Sunnis state that the act is a sin. There are many other small differences that are noted in the table below.

Information for the table has been taken from Diffen.com






From teachings of Prophet Muhammad, a 7th century Arab religious and political figure.

From teachings of Prophet Muhammad, a 7th century Arab religious and political figure.

Places most closely associated with independent history of the faith

Madinah (Medina), Makkah (Mecca)

Kufa, Karbala


1.2 billion

20 million

Adherents called

Sunni, Ehl-e-Sunnah

Shiites, Shia, Shii, Ehl-e-Tash'e

Geographic Presence

Majority in most Muslim countries. Minority spread across the world.

Majority in Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Lebanon. Minority spread across the world.

Articles of Belief

One God, Angels, Revealed Books of God including the Quran, Messengers, Day of Judgement, Prophethood

One God, Angels, Revealed Books of God including the Quran, Messengers, Day of Judgement, Prophethood, Imamah

Pillars of faith

Testament of Faith; Prayer; Mandatory alms, 2.5% for needy (zakaat); Fasting; Pilgrimage; Struggle in the way of God to promote good and stop bad.

Prayer; Fasting; Pilgrimage; Mandatory Alms [one-fifth for Imaam and the needy (khums)]; Jihad, Promotion of good; Dissuasion from bad; Re-affirmation; Disassociation from the enemies of Islam starting from first Caliph.

View of other Abrahamic religions

Christianity and Judaism are "People of the Book."

Christianity and Judaism are "People of the Book."

View of Jesus

Jesus is a prophet, not son of God.

Jesus is a prophet, not son of God.

Belief of God

Only one God (Allah)

Only one God (Allah)


God created angels from light. They do not have their own free will and always obey the commandments of God.

Angels obey God's commandments. They have limited free, though no drive to sin.

Imams identified as

Saints. Considered as persons with strong faith in Quran and Sunnah.

Infallible. Considered as the only legitimate interpreters of the Quran.

Required lineage for ruler

Can be any practicing Muslim chosen by agreement of the authorities of the muslim populace (ummah).

Must be a male child from the lineage of Muhammad.

Muhammad’s nominated successor

His cousin and son-in-law Ali.

His father-in-law Abu Bakr

Successors after the Prophet

Abu Bakr, Umar, Usman, Ali, Hassan, Muawiah.

12 Infallible Imams; Ali, Hassan, Hussain, Ali ZainulAbideen, Muhammad AlBaqir, Jaafar AlSaadiq, Musa AlKaazim, Ali AlRaza, Muhammad AlTaqi, Ali AlNaqi, Hasan AlAskari, Muhammad AlMahdi (hidden).


Caliph, Imaam (Saint), Mujtahid, Allamah, Maulana

Imaam (Infallible), Ayatollah, Mujtahid, Allamah, Maulana

Beliefs regarding revealed scriptures

Belief in the Quran

Belief in the Quran

Continuation of authoritative revelation

No, authoritative revelation ended with Prophet Muhammad.

Yes, Imaams or pious followers receive revelation. The purpose is to explain and safeguard the current faith.

Propagation of Islamic teachings

Narrated by Muslims openly in public in Mosques and Madrasahs/Pesantren.

Secrecy of faith and its principles is acceptable when speaking to uninitated. Ultimate meaning of Islam will be revealed with the coming of Twelfth Imaam.

Collection of religious narrations from Imaams and Mujtahids

Muatta Maalik, Musnad Ahmad, Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan Abu Dawood, Jami al-Tirmidhi, Sunan Nasae.

Nahajul Balagha, Kitab al-Kafi, Man la yahduruhu al-Faqih, Tahdhib al-Ahkam, Al-Istibsaar

Did Islam achieve ultimate glory

Yes, mission of Muhammad achieved glory at the time of first three Caliphs and sustained by next three Caliphs.

No, it was hijacked by hypocrites, especially the first three Caliphs.

Branches and their status

Four Schools of Thought: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi and Hanbali. Two Schools of Creed: Ashari and Maturidi. These branches count each other on right path with different way of thinking.

Ismaili, Druze, Sufism, Twelvers, etc. These branches count each other on wrong belief.

Holy days

Eid al Fitr, Eid al Adha, Eid-e-Milaad-un-Nabi

Ashura, Eid al Fitr, Eid al Adha, Eid al ghadeer

Use of statues and pictures

Not permitted

Not permitted

Place of worship

Mosque, Eidgah

Mosque, Imambarah or Ashurkhana, Eidgah


Men can marry up to 4 women.

Men can marry up to 4 women.


Are required to cover up in a burqa or a hijab.

Are required to cover up in a burqa or a hijab.

Special Day of worship




Five times a day, with an hour break between each prayer.

Five times a day, but prayers can be combined to only three times a day.


Is done straight on the prayer mat.

Head is not directly touched to the mat, a clay stone is placed between on the mat.

Offshoot religions

Ahmadiyya (Ahmedi) - a sect of Islam

Baha'i - a separate religion

Temporary unannounced Marriage

Not allowed, termed as adultery.


Name of the practice means

"well-trodden path" or "tradition"

"party" or "partisans" of Ali

Current leaders

Imaams (not in the same sense as Shi'a, where Imaams are infallible)


Intercession permitted

Major groups of Sunnis do not accept express intercession. However, the method of prayer at dargahs (tombs of saints) may be considered close to intercession.

Yes (14 Infallibles only - From Prophet until the Mahdi, including Fatima, daughter of the Prophet and wife of Ali)

Self Flagellation

No, considered as a sin.

Yes, used to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein. It is usually done on the 10th day of the Muharram month.

Building/Visiting Shrines permitted



Building/Visiting Mosques permitted



Original Language(s)


Arabic, Farsi

Al Mahdi

Will come in the future

Is already present on earth, hidden by God and will return at the end of the world.

Image Courtesy: shiamultimedia.com, shafaqna.com

Most Searched in Health Most Searched in Electronics
Most Searched in Games and Recreation Most Searched Non-Alcoholic Drinks
Microevolution vs Macroevolution
Samsung Galaxy Mega 5.8 vs Galaxy Note II
Stillbirths vs Miscarriages


Hi, tank's for your web site
I'm shia from iran.
in the table the opinion of shia and soni about "Muhammad’s nominated successor" is incorrect. they are displaced

Add new comment

Plain text

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.