World Faiths & Religions

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between Sunni and Shiite Islam?

Sunnism and Shiism are two different visions of religious and political authority in Islam. When the Prophet Muhammad died in 632, the Muslim community was faced with the crisis of who would define Islamic faith and practice and who would lead the Muslim community. A group of Muhammad's followers believed that it was his family that should inherit this authority, in particular his son-in-law and cousin Ali. This group developed into Shiite Islam, which itself is divided according to which branches of Muhammad's family should hold religious authority. Most Shiites belong to the ‘Twelver,' or Imami branch, which assigned religious leadership to a series of twelve male descendents (called imams) of the Prophet, starting with Ali and proceeding through his descendents until the last imam disappeared into mystical seclusion in 874 CE, waiting to return as a messianic figure at the end of time. These imams were infallible religious authorities, although within a century and a half of Muhammad's death they gave up any political ambitions. Since the disappearance of the twelfth imam, Shiite scholars act as regents in his stead. The majority of Muslims (about 85-90%) believe that it was the Muslim community as a whole that inherited Muhammad's authority. These are Sunni Muslims, who believe that whomever the Muslim community chooses to lead it (or, more realistically, whoever asserts rule over them) is the legitimate ruler. It is the body of the Muslims as a whole, as represented by the scholars (ulema), who define Islamic law and dogma. If Muslim scholars reach a consensus on a matter of doctrine, Sunnis believe that their opinion is infallible. Of course, Sunni and Shiite have solidified into communal identities that may have nothing to do with their actual beliefs. Although Sunnis and Shiites have lived side by side in peace in most times and places in history, in places like Iraq today they are two groups fighting for control over power and resources, much like two rival gangs. Economic, political and social conflict takes on religious dress.