Shiites and Sunnis: Do you know who they are?

In Islam, as in any other religion, there are different currents. Muslims, mainly, recognize two branches: Shia and Sunni. Understanding this division is essential to understand the war conflicts that many countries in the Middle East are suffering in recent years.

Shiites and Sunnis: a separation on the grounds of succession

These two branches of Islam emerged very early. Muhammad died in 632 without male offspring. This fact generated inheritance conflicts.

For some, the successors had to be chosen by the Muslim community. These were the Sunnis, who followed the teachings of the prophet collected in the Sunna. Meanwhile, others considered that the legitimate successor was Ali, his cousin and son-in-law. These are the Shiites.

After Muhammad's death, the caliphs Abu Bakr, Omar and Uthman followed. After the murder of the last, Ali claimed his inheritance rights for being the cousin, son-in-law and father of the grandsons of the prophet. Ali was elected, not unanimously, as a fourth caliph (656-661).

Mu'awiya, governor of the territory that is now Syria and a member of the Umayyad clan, opposed stubborn opposition to Ali's government. Following this, in 657 both groups clashed in the battle of Siffin. Ali's supporters lost and Mu'awiya kept the caliph position.

Subsequently, in the year 661, Ali was killed and his supporters recognized his son Hussein as his legitimate successor. In 680, Hussein died in the battle of Kerbala. This was the beginning of the division of Islam into these two currents whose differences, at present, focus mainly on the way of interpreting the sacred texts. Let's see it in more detail.

The Sunnis, devotees of the Sunna

Sunnis are the majority Muslim group. They represent 85% of the world Islamic community. These are governed by the interpretations that the ulemas make of the sacred sources of Islam: the Koran and the Sunna.

They themselves are considered the most orthodox and traditional branch of Islam, as reflected in the expression where the Sunni name comes from: Ahl al-Sunna (people of tradition).

Tradition is understood as the actions of the Prophet Muhammad and his relatives. Thus, Sunnis venerate all the prophets mentioned in the Quran, but especially Muhammad, considered the last prophet. Consequently, subsequent Muslim leaders are understood as temporary figures.

The Sunna is, along with the Quran, a text of vital importance to the Sunni community. In these writings, sayings and facts attributed to Muhammad were compiled. These are integrated into so-called stories. hadith whose set forms the Sunna (way of life of the prophet).

We know few things about the Sunna's elaboration process, but what is clear is that was born because of the need to complete the Quran or to interpret it, since certain aspects of the Quranic scriptures were ambiguous.

The Shiites, supporters of Ali

Etymologically, the name Shia comes from the term chíat-u-Ali, What does Ali's supporter mean?. This branch represents approximately 15% of the world Islamic community. As we saw, Sunnis are the majority, but in countries like Iraq or Iran, Shiites are the majority.

Much importance is attached to knowledge transmitted orally by mullahs, mediating religious authority between God and the person. Some mullahs have a special authority for the interpretation of Sharia or Islamic law, the Ayatollahs.

For Shiites, imams, mullahs and ayatollahs act as transmitters of all Islamic knowledge and their interpretations are considered infallible.

Shiite leaders are powerful by themselves, act independently of governments. They also have some economic independence, since they are the ones who receive the zakat, alms that every Muslim should give, not like the Sunnis, who depend economically on the state structure. Therefore, their leaders have little interference in political affairs, except if they are part of the power.

Differences and similarities between Sunni and Shia


Both branches share veneration and religious obligations towards certain sanctuaries and sacred places like Mecca, Medina and the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. The Shiites also consider some places related to Ali's life sacred, such as the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf and the Iman Husayn Mosque in Kerbala, both in Iraq.

Other differences of Sunni Islam against Shiite are that the latter worship the dead, venerate the martyrs and there is a reduction in daily prayers to three. In addition, although both are based on the five pillars of Islam, Shiites are also based on the practical mandates of Islam.

The fundamental pillars of Islam are:

  • The profession of faith
  • The sentence
  • The azaque or zakat (alms)
  • The fast of Ramadan.
  • The pilgrimage to Mecca.

Meanwhile, the practical mandates of the Shiite tradition are ten:

  • The prayer (prayer)
  • The fast
  • The Jums (fifth)
  • The mandatory alms (zakat)
  • The pilgrimage (hach)
  • The effort in the way of God (jihad),
  • Ordering good
  • Forbid evil
  • Friendship
  • The exemption

Conflictivity in the contemporary world

Esplanade of the Mosques in Jerusalem

The differences in the Muslim world are obviously much more complex. But we have been able to observe that Shiites and Sunnis follow the same religious traditions, they read the Koran and are based on the five pillars of Islam. Despite this, it seems that the conflicts between the two are irreconcilable.

As the experts indicate, The conflicts that exist today in the Middle East between these two branches of Islam are due to the colonial distribution that the British and the French of this territory did. New countries were created in which communities that were divided from the same origin were forced to live together.

Iraq is a clear example. Within that new national territory, Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities were forced to live. They had to cohabit in a common territory under the same laws.

Video: Breaking down conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites (December 2019).