What is the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims?

A recent question from a highly intelligent tdaxp reader made me think about the arrogance of much of the blogosphere. Many of us bloggers have been dismissive of politicians who confuse Shia and Sunni, but we never take the take to actually lay-out those differences.

The difference between Sunni and Shia is the difference between the Holy Roman Empire and the Priori of Sion (from The DaVinci Code). Like the Holy Roman Empire, the Sunni Caliphate was determinedby “elections” which were designed to make sure that powerful elements in the community were OK with the new leader. This may have lasted for a short while, but quickly it became a title that was passed, father-to-son, in some family. In the Holy Roman Empire the family were the Habsburgs, and in the Sunni Caliphate the last family to own the title were the Ottomans. Humorously, just as the Holy Roman Empire ended life as a secular German confederacy during the Napoleonic Wars, the Sunni Caliphate ended its life in in the secular Turkish republic following World War I. After the fall of the last Caliph, some individuals tried to revive the title (for themselves), but nothing came up this. So there is no current Caliph, just as there is no current Holy Roman Emperor.

Meanwhile, the Shia Imamate (like the secret society in the DaVinci Code) is based on blood-descent from a Holy Figure (Jesus Christ through Mary Magdeline, or Muhammed’s son-in-law Ali through his daughter, Fatima). Both the Priori of Scion and Shia believe that their current leader (or “Imam”) is hiding. Shia additionally believe that this Imam is several hundreds of years old, persecuted by the wicked religious establishment (in this case, the Sunnis), and perhaps hiding in a well. The Imam, like the leader of the Priori of Scion, will reveal himself when the time is right.

Now, in spite of the quirky Shia view of leadership, actual religious Shia organization makes more sense to me. A Shia Muslim “Ayatollah” is a combination of a Bishop and a Doctor of Theology. The reason that no one calls Sadr an “ayatollah” is that he hasn’t completed the coursework. So he’s a cleric which, like political priests, are a dime a dozen. Shia Islam is run similar to the Catholic Church, except with no strong “Pope.”

Ayatollah Khomeini called himself “imam,” or “leader,” but claimed that this was separate from Imam, the hiding guy. In a similar way, the Catholic Church calls its leader Papa, or “Father,” while recognizing this is a very different title than God-the-Father. This didn’t catch on though, and the title has not remained in use. So Shia Islam is where the Catholic Church would have been if the First Vatican Council — which established papal infallibility — had failed.

Meanwhile, the Sunni Muslims run their religion similar to low-church protestants. How do you get to be a Sunni Muslim cleric? Say you are, and get other Sunni Muslims to follow you. Thus Osama bin Laden is a real Sunni Muslim cleric in the same sense that a KKK prayer-leader was a real baptist cleric.

In short: Sunni Muslims have to wait until some mass movement declares a new Caliph — an event exactly as likely as the European Union naming some person Holy Roman Emperor. Shia Muslims, for their part, have to wait until their hidden Imam reveals himself and the world ends. In the meanwhile, Sunni Muslims operate similarly low-church protestants while Shia Muslims operate similarly to Lutherans.

And that’s the difference between Sunni and Shia.

32 thoughts on “What is the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims?”

  1. I haven't read the Da Vinci Code, but that looks like a pretty good summary. The split seems like something that should be common knowledge, but I don't think I had any idea before college.

  2. This is some of pure ignorance. You have just reduced a multifarious and highly complex religious tradition to a political division. The Shi'i tradition is the source of Islamic esotericism.

  3. ali hussayni.
    I believe TDAXP's motives were not to do this under any negativity but to give a basic understanding to those who know nothing what so ever between Sunni and Shia. TDAXP would not claim this is everything, only a beginning.

  4. Ali Hussayni,

    I agree with Catholicgauze, and I do not mean any disrespect. Both the Shia and Sunni communities are diverse, but I tried in this post to help explain where the two major sects come from. Are there any errors I can correct?


    “I haven't read the Da Vinci Code,”

    You didn't miss much! 🙂

    If you are interested in the mythos, “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” is a much better starting point. Plus you can get a short introduction to the Dark Ages, and not some pseudo-pagan feminist nonsense.


    Hopefully someone can write a “difference between victims and genocidal regimes” to help them sort out their morally bankrupt Iraq policy as well!

    Thanks for the link [2], by the way.


    Thanks! And how about a link to this post from your brand-spanking-new blog? :-p [3]


    I've written dozens of posts with charts, and this is the first one to be dugg. [4] So maybe I'll be sparse on the charts for a little bit, hehe 🙂

    [1] http://www.amazon.com/Holy-Blood-Grail-Michael-Baigent/dp/0440136482
    [2] http://soobdujour.blogspot.com/2006/12/shiasunni-here-is-courtesy-of-dan-at.html
    [3] http://hiddenunities.wordpress.com/
    [4] http://digg.com/world_news/What_is_the_difference_between_Shia_and_Sunni_Muslims

  5. I find it ironic that you failed to understand the nature of the two groups.

    Sunni believe in following the sunnah (traditions) of the Prophet & determining their leadership based on
    the most knowledgeable being the Caliph.

    NOT, may I say again… NOT the “powerful elements in the community were OK” as you defined it.

    It is based on the concept of knowledge & skills, plus the leader must not seek the position. For this reason the majority of Sunni Muslims do not even recognize most of those whom you claimed as “caliphs” as being such. They wanted their positions, thus by so doing, nulled their status as candidates. Its no different than some putz in the US figuring he is President & claiming it though he wasn't elected to be such.

    The Muslim Sunni community isn't sitting idle waiting for someone to just appear. It has been discussing the issue of qualitifications of those showing leadership, etc for decades. We have specific guidelines that must be followed. One fact being that the Caliph will re-establish an Islamic government (caliphate). Thus each new attempt is analyzed by the Muslim world to decern if that state has fulfilled Islamic requirements of justice, etc as it must to be defined by the world wide “Ummah” (ie Muslim community) as a caliphate. With todays fear of everything Islamic, I doubt our secret government (CIA) will permit such formation without it working hard to undermine it.

    As for Washington understanding anything… I doubt it! They still haven't figured out that the majority of Muslims don't live in the Middle East! Let alone anything more complex like the philosophy behind selection of leaders within the two branches of Islam.

    Also the terms “cleric” are western terms being used & may work for the non-Muslim world, but they mean nothing.

    “Imam” means prayer leader within the Sunni community, while Imam is used within several Shia masjids to also mean prayer leader.

    Anyone who is Muslim can at any moment be an “imam” if he or she leads prayers. Thus a woman leading a prayer of other women is a prayer leader for that prayer. The miss use of Muslim terms is rampant (ie jihab, Imam, sheikh) & only is confusing people more. While your comparisons may have “made sense” to the non-Muslim, the fact that Ali & I (both Muslim) see the flaws in it, illustrates that you didn't really get it yet.

  6. Anish,

    Thank you for your important words on Islam. It is great to hear from a fellow South Dakotan who is knowledgeable on the question.

    Your exegesis on the word “imam” on the term “imam” (meaning leader) is correct. I mentioned how “Imam” is two different titles in Shia Islam, and compared this to how “Father/Papa/Pope” is used within the Christian faith. All Catholics believe that their priest is to be called Father, the Pope is to be called Father, and they pray to God with “Our Father…” Likewise, Anglicans recognize the first and third use of the term “Father” but not the second.

    I think you read my words on the process of selecting a Caliph too negatively. The Pope is elected by the College of Cardinals (“the Princes of the Church”), and the importance of different factions in the College is well known (the Italians, voting as a block, managed to have a string of Italian Popes for centuries). This in no way detracts from as selected Pope's authority or moral weight.

    Similarly, I think your words that “They [Caliphs] wanted their positions, thus by so doing, nulled their status as candidates.” should be taken with a grain of salt. Again in the Catholic faith, a new Pope traditionally cries on being elected, a show of humility. However, it's unrealistic to think that a Pope (or a Caliph) is not elected as a function of his popularity among his constituency. If the choice is made by God, then it is done through this constituency.

    I think you have more faith in the powers of the CIA than is warranted. [1]


    Do you believe that shii esotericism is a good thing or a bad thing?

    [1] http://zenpundit.blogspot.com/2004/07/reform-ic-really-needs-more-humint.html

  7. How do you recognise the 'physical' difference between a Sunni and a Shia?? Or perhaps I should ask how does a Sunni know who is a Sunni and who is a Shia? and Vice Versa?

    As a Westerner, I can't even tell who is Protestant and who is Catholic. There is no obvious difference to my eyes. Yet if the sectarian violence in Iraq is anything to go by, there must be some way in which a Sunni recognises who is Sunni and who is Shia and vice versa??

  8. Peter,

    The Catholic / Protestant split is a good analogy, regarding physical apperance. You can guess that most people who look Latin are probably Catholic, and that most people who look Norwegian are probably Protestant. But for ethnicities were both are common (say, American or German) it may be impossible to tell.

    So really, all you are left with are clues. Does he carry a rosary? Then he's probably a Catholic. Does his name contain the name of a famous protestant (Wesley, Luther, or Calvin)? Then most like he's a Protestant.

    Likewise, an Iranian is probably Shiite, because most Iranians (who look European) are Shiite. If the Muslim is black or oriental then he probably is Sunni, simply because most black and oriental Muslims are Sunni. For dividied cultures with Iraq, you are left with names: “Ali” (named for the first Shiite Imam) is probably a Shia, while “Abu Bakr” (named for the first Sunni Caliph) is probably a Sunni.

    The lack of physical differences is one reason for the paranoia. Many Shia think the only way they can be safe is if /all/ Sunnis are removed from their neighborhoods (so there are no potential enemies who can walk into crowds with bombs), while many Sunnis believe the same thing about Shia.

  9. Interesting read. But I feel compelled to correct you on two points in your last post:

    “But for ethnicities were both are common (say, American or German) it may be impossible to tell.”

    American is NOT an ethnicity; it is a term defining one's national origin.

    “If the Muslim is black or oriental then he probably is Sunni, simply because most black and oriental Muslims are Sunni. “

    People are ASIAN; things are ORIENTAL.

    I understood your fundamental intent, but you lose credibility when you don't have your facts straight.

  10. Janna,

    Thanks for stopping by! I think we agree on the substance of the Sunni / Shia split, so I'll just address your terminological concerns.

    “American is NOT an ethnicity; it is a term defining one's national origin. “

    I would disagree. It's very easy to spot ethnic “Americans” overseas, regardless of their skin color. American whites, blacks, and asians act different than European whites, blacks, and asians. But this isn't purely a function of citizen or national origin. One can be born in the United States and possess American citizenship without being ethnically American (if one lives in an ethnic ghetto, for example).

    The census also recognizes an American ethnicity [1], but I think that's another matter…

    “People are ASIAN; things are ORIENTAL. “


    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:USMapCommonAncestry2000.PNG

  11. I am still confused on the differences between sunni and shia islam.
    This article is somewhat slanted towards ac roman catholic related analogoes.
    I had read somewhere on the shia side they regarded the sunnis as blaspemous due to a number of their customs especially in relation to their honouring of their saints so to speak and the dead .
    I can find no reference to it in this article

  12. Badger,

    While folk saints exist in every religious tradition, the Shia venerate individuals much more than the Sunnis do. While the Sunnis will say that Mohammed is a perfect man and a model, the Shia go father, giving veneration and adoration to his family-line (his daughter Fatima, her husband Ali… all the way to the disappeared 12th Imam).

  13. I don't know enough about Islam to know if your depictions of Sunni and Shia are accurate. (Although I know it's wrong to speak of Islamic “clerics”. Islam has no priesthood and no sacraments. Its religious leaders are simply prayer-leaders and teachers.) But it is obvious that you have perpetuated a couple of silly anti-Catholic urban myths, and also you're mistaken about European history.

    The First Vatican Council did NOT “establish” papal infallibilty. It precisely DEFINED it, in terms which are in fact far more RESTRICTED than many Catholics had previously believed. Catholics have always believed that formal doctrinal or moral definitions issued by a Pope are divinely protected from doctrinal or moral error. The ancient and medieval Popes would have found it ludicrous to hear that this protection, and by your implication any universal acknowledgement of the Popes' formal teaching authority over Catholics, would not be “established” until the 19th century.

    The Holy Roman Emperors NEVER had any religious authority, they were purely secular rulers. Their empire was not in any sense a branch of the Catholic Church, nor vice versa. The word “Holy” in “Holy Roman Empire” served only to indicate that its citizens were Christians, unlike the ancient pagan Roman Empire. The phrase “Roman Catholic” was invented as an anti-Catholic insult by English Anglicans in the 17th century and is virtually never used in non-english speaking countries.

    The HRE did NOT “end its life as a secular German Confederacy during the Napoleaonic wars.” The German Confederation was formed from the German States OUTSIDE the HRE, and some of them were ruled by Catholic and Lutheran bishops. The successor of the HRE was the Austrian Empire which was carved up at Versailles in 1919-23. The current successor to the HRE throne, Prince Otto von Hapsburg, has been a prominent force behind the creation of the EU and is commonly called “the Father of Europe” and “the first citizen of Europe”.

    Also your statement “the importance of different factions in the College of Cardinals is well known (the Italians, voting as a block, managed to have a string of Italian Popes for centuries” is nonsense. There was no such thing as “the Italians” until 1870. There were numerous independent countries in the peninsula called “Italy”. As all voting is secret you have no idea whether anyone voted as a bloc. And as until 1946 an absolute majority of Cardinals were from the Italian peninsula, there would have been no need for them to form a bloc.

  14. In actuality there is no difference between shia and sunni. If Imam Ali or Caliphate Abu Bakr were alive, they wouldn't be bothered if one of them was chosen to be the caliphate of the Muslims, yes imam Ali was called Caliphate Ali and was elected to his place. and since both enjoyed a profound knowledge of Islam, Quran tafseer ( interpretation) and politically geniuses, then both are equal to rule. Not to mention that we all belive in the 5 pillars and in one Allah, prophet Muhammad( P.B.U.H) and all other prophets along with angels and jinnis. Another point about the Hidden Imam Mahdi, sunni believe in his apperance along with Jesus Christ


    Saman Nasser

  15. Saman Nasser,

    Where does that leave Imam Hossien as my limited understanding of the division between Shia and Sunni sees him as the catalyst as opposed to Ali and Abu Bakr?

  16. thank you for this kind of info, but still questions are seem unlimited to arise is there any sign or writtings that who should be the next caliph after the prophet (saw), basically it should be came from the holy quaran. i beleive there is some passage or even a symbol needs to be identified by our schoolar (muslim).. pls help me finding my way to salvation….. searching the truth and to whom should i follow….. imam ali or caliph abu bakr……. am waiting for the answer! pls e-mail to barogo1976@yahoo.com

  17. your article is interesting, and has some facts in it, although it does not portray the whole story. Sunni muslims believe in a democratically elected leader, who represents the community and who is able to lead and guide the community. hence following the prophet muhamed’s death, muslims (no shia or sunni at the time) chose abubakir to become the next ‘leader’ and so on. shia believe that this was incorrect and that it must be a blood relative of the prophet who must rule, simialr to a kingdom. all sunnis respect and love the prophets relatives, most of all ali. the reason he wasnt chosen 1st after the prophets death but fourth is of two elements 1) he wasnt present at time of “elections” and 2) he was too young and it was judged others wuld be wiser. he infact became the fourth caliph or leader, but was chosen by merit rather than purly due to his relation with the prophet, which in my opinion would seem like a more respectful and honorable position, highlighting all his attributes. however, the radical ideas of shia islam that one person (ayatollah) can communicate with god through almahdi (a man alive gfor 1400yrs) is ridiculous, and actually originated well after ali’s death, and only became wat it is in the last 300yrs or so, purely because of perisan advertisement and adoption of this idea because it suites their culture. they moulded the idea so that it can further their ambition of controlling the area; one only needs to see that the current descendent of muhmaed is ayatollah khomeini who has somehow became iranian; ridiculous since muhamed was an arab.

  18. Excellent entry! (Maybe I should just surf the database of TDXP to find gems like this?)

    Omar Ali albaghdadi
    While I understand the Muslim communities desire not to establish a hereditary kingship, or mulk, but is it really justified in repeating these arguments still today? Sure he was of only thirst years of age and considered “untried” to take M. A. Shaban’s Islamic History in mind. Yet, considering he was preparing for the burial of the Great Prophet when the election/oath of allegience, or bay’ah, of Abu Bakr took place seems a touch shady. The decision was certainly not unanimous, The Banu Hashim fumed since the shura was not fully represented without Ali there. He had also proven his military prowess as the personal secretary and standard-bearer in many important battles. Also, he was the only one allowed to assist the Prophet in the cleansing of the Ka’ba for God. While the Bedouin Arabs might have disliked the hereditary kingship, it was quite common for the aristocratic Quraysh. All these thoughts in mind, was Ali really not qualified?

  19. thank you for your reply. i hope i have not created a misunderstanding in that i never meant to put doubt on ali’s valor, courage, or intelligence. i was not saying he was not fit; far from it, the fact that he became the fourth caliph shows that he was equally deserving. however, he may have been younger than the others who were also nominated, and that he was not present at the time of voting. however, surely the decision cannt be unanimous. if you compare even todays elections, there is no such thing as 100% unanimous voting for one leader in any country. however, one must also remember that ali himself gave his oath of alligience to abu bakr, omar and othman all before him. in addition, his position in the islamic community goes far beyond that of simply a caliph. as you stated in your article, he was a very strong warrior, highly spiritual, and one of the ten people of paradise (in that he was guaranteed a place in heaven, also with abubakir and omar and othman). so the mere fact of receiving leadership in this physical world to a man this spiritual would probably be of modest importance, and i am sure his priority was to ensure the muslim community be guided by the right man rather than for personal greed for power. furthermore, even during abu bakir’s ruling, ali was appointed highest religious council, a position which in that community was probably higher than simply caliph, as he was considered one of the wisest people lerned in islam (note the distinction between him being learned in islam, as the sunni believe, and having direct communication with god, as shia believe the ayatollah to be). however, in my article i was merely pointing out in the previous entry that the ideology that shia adopt today is more politically motivated that spirtually motivated, and that most definately, if muhamed, ali, hussein and hassan were present today, they would not agree to their practices (tuqia -lie to conceal real motives-; obsession with death and frequent visitings to the grave, self harm, iisam – that is, their ayatollah is never wrong, to name a few).

  20. i am sorry, i should have clarified that my argument is against the shia ithna ashar, and similar sects, and not the zaydi shia sect. the zaydi shia sect argue that ali was more fit to become the first caliph, but agree that the other caliphs were equally qualified and hold them in very high regard. however the ithna ashar consider them thiefs, liars and have cursed them, and it is this group who i am aiming my article towards.

  21. Hi Jay Soob,

    If you would follow the shia in Iran and Iraq and other spots in the world, Imam Ali (peace upon him) should of been the kaliph of the Muslims right after the death of the prophet. They back it up in the ghadeer khumm incident where the prophet peace be upon him ordained the kilapha to Imam Ali and also the quote by the prophet “Im the city of knowledge and Ali its Gate” and it continues “and you only enter the cityfrom its gate”. Now regarding your question about Imam Hossien (Peace upon him) and to Shia school of thought he should of been the muslim Kaliph after his elder brother Imam Hasan. I didn’t understand though what you meant by a “catalyst”?

  22. dear Omar,

    I as Muslim do not take my orders from an Ayatollah since islam is an individual religion, a one-to-one basis with Allah.

    Visitation of the graves of al aima al saleheen is out of respect and to contemplate these companions roles in developing and strengthing the religion of Islam. I can speak of certainity regarding my family and myself and some people in Najaf.

    and finally why does it have to be the iranian propoganda to control the middle east. The streets of Iraq has witnessed the shedding of blood by al-qaieda and those proclaiming ansar al sunna to kill and bestow harm on others since Shia are some sort of astryed people in need of self awakening back to the true Islam! if we keep up with history we would find that it was al saud the hashimates who sold their unifying ottoman empire to the harsh rulings of the British and French and not Khomieni and his advertising. again Omar or Ali, Abbas or Mua’wya we are all Muslims and thats what matter. and i agree with you that the prophet and the companions would’ve been extremely angry if they see how a muslim shed the blood of other on a name, a sect and a way of prayer calling.


  23. Shias and sunni are culturally, religiously and socially seperated from each other. They have different colonies in Iraq , pakistan and India. They hate each other. They celebrate different festivals and have different holy places other than Makka & Medina. Even though considerded as person of wisdom, the prophet of islam died without appointing his successor and left th muslim world into trouble. Shia sunni dispute is a nonsense arab family dispute over the successorship of political & religious power of Mohammad
    Such disputes are very common all over the world but nonsense muslims jumped into this family affair and shed blood on the streets. If islam stands for brotherhood, why they shed blood against each other ? Simple reason is that islam was never and is never religion of peace.

  24. Jitendra : The prophet os Islam did in fact appoint FOUR successors. All of them ruled. The Shia Sunni issue is not a family issue as you say but it is actually a dispute on the basics of the religion. With time this also turned into a political and economic dispute. It has nothing to do with Islam itself, but rather how people have decided to interpret it. How you start with mis-concieved information about a what you call a family dispute and conclude that the religion is not a peaceful one is way beyond me. As if I hear you say that because predominantly Christian countries can fight each other, then Christianity is also not a religion of peace?

  25. Amr,

    Thank you for your interpretation of events. I am sure it will help people understand the issue from other sides.

    I don’t recall saying that Islam is not a religion of peace because predominantly Muslim countries fight each other.

    If you are interested in the history of Christianity, however, you might enjoy my post on Christianity as the older than Judaism [1] (which I think would make it the oldest semitic religion, as Samaritanism lost its high priesthood some centuries ago [2])

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2010/12/11/christianity-is-older-than-judaism.html
    [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samaritan

  26. tdaxp: Thanks for the headup re your post, will give it a look for sure. Regarding my comment above, it was meant as a comment on what Jitendra has said in an earlier comment and not the main article. Sorry if it is not put in the right spot.

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