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The Major Differences between the Shi’i and Sunni Schools


By Mufti Yaseen Shaikh


It is commonly known that the major differences within the Muslims started to occur in the era of Uthmaan (may Allah be pleased with him). Until then, the Muslims never had any major differences that would make them differ in their faith. Maybe, there were a few instances in which the Companions of the Prophet might have differed, but none were such that would divide them into different sects.

This division in the Ummah in the form of Shi’as started according to some at the time of Uthmaan’s martyrdom and some say it started at the time of the battle that took place between Ali and Ayesha called ‘The battle of the Camel’. Some say this group or sect was formed at the time of the battle between Ali and Mu’awiyah called ‘The battle of Siffeen’.

The people were unanimous upon the selection of Uthmaan for the Caliphate until a few people emerged. They tried to cause some friction in the Muslims and they found their way through to this by making a claim that Ali should have been the successor to the Caliphate and not Uthmaan due to the fact that Ali is also a close relation of the Prophet. This view of there’s was not only incorrect but also it was against the fundamentals of the religion. Islam abolished these customs in which family connection would be regarded. Instead, Islam has made ‘taqwa’ (fear of Allah) the basic and fundamental quality, which should be found in a person and not family ties. If family ties were made the basis then there would be no difference between the Islamic doctrine and monarchy.

The Majority of Muslims is Sunni and the Shi’as are a minority. The reason for this is very clear and needs no explanation. Shi’as are mainly found in Iran and also in areas of Iraq and Syria.

In this essay I would like to discuss the major differences between the two main sects of the Muslims that are still relevant today. Before that I would like to mention, that in the hadith of Rasoolullah in which he states that my Ummah (nation) will be divided into seventy-three sects, it doesn’t necessarily state that there will be seventy-three and no more or no less. Instead, it means that many changes will come about in the beliefs of my Ummah such as the differences that came in the ‘People of the Books’ before us.

In the Shi’as themselves there has been major differences that have divided them into many sects. At the end of the day they all come back to one primary belief, which is, the Caliphate and Imamate of Ali straight after the demise of the Prophet. Basically, this is the tree of Shi’ism and all the other different sects are its branches.

There are five main sects in the Shi’a School. Each of these consists of many. Shahrastani has outlined this in the contents list of his famous book ‘Al-Milal wal-Nahl’. The five main sects are, Kaysaniya, Zaydiya, Imamiya, Ghaliya and Isma’iliya.

Some of these fives sometimes incline towards some of the fundamentals of the Mu’tazilites and sometimes the fundamentals of the Sunnis and sometimes the fundamentals of Anthropomorphism in theological aspects of belief.

A brief introduction to all five:
1.Kaysaniya- A shi’te group, who maintained that after the death of Hussein, the Imam was another son of Ali, Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya (d. 81/700)
(Glossary of Islamic Terms, p.187 Aisha Bewley, London 1998)
2. Zaydiya- The’fiver’ Shi’a. They followed Zayd ibn Ali, the grandson of Hussein. They say that any of the Ahl al-Bayt can be Imam. They are Mu’tazilite (rational) in doctrine and rather puritanical. Sufism is forbidden by them.
(Ibid p.195)
3.Imamiya- The ‘twelver’ Shi’as. They believe that after the Prophet, twelve Imams have come and they had the same authority of legislation as the Prophet had himself. The majority of the Shi’as we find today are Imamiya.
(Taken from ‘Differences of the Ummah and the straight path’, Urdu, p.19 Maulana Yusuf Ludhyanwi, Deoband)
4. Ghaliya- They are very extreme in regards to their beliefs about the Imam. Sometimes they exaggerate and raise the status of a particular Imam to that of God and sometimes they degrade the status of God and bring him down to the level of the Imam. (Al-Milal wal-Nahl p.140 v.1, Shahrastani, Beirut, 2000)
5. Isma’iliya- The ‘sevener’ Shi’as, the followers of Ismail, son of Ja’far as-Sadiq (d. 148/765). Many of their doctrines were influenced by those of the Manicheans. They assert that Ismail completed the cycle of seven Imams after which the era of the hidden Imams began, and these Imams send out emissaries. They believe that if the Imam is not manifest (qa’im), then his emissary or proof (hujja) must be manifest.
(Glossary of Islamic terms, p.186 Aisha Bewley, London 1998)
Shahrastani writes, “ The ‘Ismailiya’ differ from the ‘Musawiya’ and the ‘twelvers’ by proving the Imamate of ‘Ismail’ who was the oldest son of Ja’far as-Sadiq.”
(Al-Milal wal-Nahl p.155 v.1, Shahrastani, Beirut, 2000)

Above was a brief introduction to the schools within the Shi’ite sect. These schools vary in many aspects of belief but at the end come back to one primary belief regarding the Imamate of Ali and his succession to the Caliphate directly after the Prophet without the inturruptence of Abu Bakr, Umar or Uthmaan. There are various schools within these five. They have differences amongst them but none are such that would take them out of the fold of their own sect.

After briefly elaborating on the various Schools amongst Shi’ites themselves, now I would like to discuss the major differences that these schools hold with the mainstream sect of Islam, ‘The Sunnis’.

The first and foremost difference amongst the two sects is regarding the Caliphate and leadership after the demise of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Sunni’s believe that the Prophet Muhammad died without appointing a leader who would be his rightful successor. The companions of the Prophet later made this appointment in a huge gathering that consisted of major figures from amongst them. If the appointment of Ali was made by the Prophet himself in his lifetime then this would have been known by the companions and they wouldn’t have done such a thing to seize this from him for they were very pious people who have been praised time and time gain in the Qur’an. Allah Ta’ala says:

“And the first and the early ones to lead the way, of the Muhajirin and the Ansar, and those who followed them in goodness Allah is well pleased with them and they are well pleased with him and he has made ready for them gardens underneath which rivers flow, wherein they will abide forever. That is the supreme triumph.” (Surah 9, verse 110)

The status of the companions of the Prophet and moreover the very companion that migrated with him, Abu Bakr, is clearly visible from this verse in which Allah has praised them and promised for them entry into paradise. How then can one claim that these very people who on one hand are guaranteed entry into paradise are crooks and evil people who seized Ali of his leadership. Any open-minded person will surely not be deceived by this claim.

The Shi’as believe that the Prophet himself made the appointment of the leadership in his lifetime.

Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai writes: The Prophet also displayed great interest in the problem of succession and never failed to appoint a successor when necessary. Whenever he left Medina he would appoint a governor in his own place. Even when he migrated from Mecca to Medina and there was as yet no idea as to what would occur, in order to have his personal affairs managed in Mecca for those few days and to give back to people what had been entrusted to him, he appointed Ali as his successor. In the same way, after his death Ali was his successor in matters concerning his debt and personal affairs. The Shi’ites claim that for this very reason it is not conceivable that the Prophet should have died without appointing someone as his successor, without having selected a guide and leader to direct the affairs of Muslims and to turn the wheels of Islamic society. (SHI’A, Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai, p. 175. published in Qum, Iran)

In the light of the above-mentioned, Shi’as believe that all those persons who stepped up to the leadership before Ali were crooks who snatched the leadership from him. The proof for their view is the above-mentioned. We may ask a question here as to under what basis did you take this to be an instruction from the Prophet for the succession of Ali to the leadership? If we can take this to be an instruction for the appointment of Ali then how about the appointment of Abu Bakr as the deputy of the Prophet on his Hajj mission? Also, how about the appointment of Abu Bakr for leading the prayers while the Prophet Muhammad was in the illness that caused his death due to which he was unable to lead the prayers? Prayers are one of the most important aspects of the religion. If Abu Bakr was made the leader by the Prophet himself for this great duty then most definitely he is a man who possesses such qualities, which make him rightful for the succession to the leadership. Ali was asked whilst on the pulpit of the Jami’ Mosque of Kufah, why did you people make Abu Bakr the leader and Caliph after the Prophet? He answered, “ The most important of the religious affairs is Prayers. The Prophet appointed Abu Bakr as our leader in prayers whilst he was on his deathbed. Even though I was present and the Prophet also acknowledged my presence but for this great mission the Prophet didn’t remember me, instead he ordered Abu Bakr to lead the Prayers. Thus, the same person whom the Prophet chose to be in charge of our religious affairs (prayers) we chose him to be the leader of our worldly affairs.” (Difference of the Ummah and the straight path (Urdu), Maulana Yusuf Ludhyanwi, p. 17,18, Deoband)

Furthermore, the Shi’as have tried to strengthen their claim by mentioning various narrations regarding the Prophet saying at a place called Ghadeer-I-Khum whilst raising the hands of Ali that “Ali is the ‘Mawla’ of whosever’s ‘Mawla’ I am.
(Al-Milal wal-Nahl p.131 v.1, Shahrastani, Beirut, 2000)
There are many meanings of the word ‘Mawla’. It can either mean protector, master, lord, patron, client, friend, companion or associate. (The Hans Weir, Arabic-English Dictionary, the third edition, p.1101, New York 1976)

We have to see which of these meanings would fit the Prophet that would also fit Ali and the best possible meaning, which would fit the two, is friend, companion or associate. That is why Umar is reported to have said when facing Ali, “ Glad tidings to you oh Ali! You have become the companion of every believing man and woman.”
(Al-Milal wal-Nahl p.131 v.1, Shahrastani, Beirut, 2000)

Not only do Shi’as believe in Ali to be the rightful successor to the leadership, but also they have gone one step ahead and have said that Ali is an Imam of the people. An Imam in the Shi’a school of thought holds a great significance and a great status. The Imamate doctrine forms the core of Shi’ite theology. Now we will go on to explain the Imamate doctrine and the role of an imam in the Shi’a School together with all the other differences between them and Sunnis.

IMAMATE– This is the core element of Shi’a faith. Anyone who doesn’t have faith in the Imamate is not a Muslim according to the Shi’as.

Allamah Tabatabai has defined an Imam as follows: “ Imam or leader is the title given to a person who takes the lead in a community in a particular social movement or political ideology or scientific or religious form of thought. Naturally, because of his relation to the people he leads, he must conform his actions to their capabilities in both important and secondary matters.”
He goes on to say: “ Thus the Imamate and religious leadership in Islam may be studied from three different perspectives: from the perspective of Islamic government, of Islamic sciences and injunctions, and of leadership and innovative guidance in the spiritual life. Shi’ism believes that since Islamic society is in dire need of guidance in each of these three aspects, the person who occupies the function of giving that guidance and is the leader of the community in these areas of religious concern must be appointed by God and the Prophet.” (SHI’A, Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai, p. 173. published in Qum, Iran)

It is necessary in the Shi’a faith that this Imam be designated and appointed by the Imam who preceded him.
This is totally different from the Sunni school of thought in which the concept of leadership of the Muslim community is essentially a temporal leadership.

Moojan writes explaining the concept of leadership in the Sunni school, “ The Caliph is a first among equals, elected ideally by consensus, although later the hereditary principle became the norm.
(An Introduction to Shi’i Islam, p. 147, by Moojan Momen. Published by Yale University Press 1985)

The Shi’as also believe that Imamate is a continuous chain. Some Shi’i traditions even give the names of all the Imams going back from Muhammad to Adam. (An Introduction to Shi’i Islam, p. 148, by Moojan Momen. Published by Yale University Press 1985)

According to Shi’a faith, the imamate is a continuous chain ending on the ‘Promised Mahdi’. Tabatabai writes: “ The previous discussions lead us to the conclusion that in Islam, after the death of the Holy Prophet, there has continuously existed and will continue to exist within the Islamic community an Imam (leader chosen by God).”
(SHI’A, Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai, p. 189. published in Qum, Iran)

The question we may ask here is, that if these so called Imams were chosen by God then why is it that after Ali ibn al-Hasan the Shi’as are not united upon the selection of the Imams. Why is it that some sects of the Shi’ites consider some and other sects consider others to be the chosen Imam? Surely this is a question that is unanswered.
Shahrastani writes: “ The Imamiya do not attest or confirm in appointing an Imam after Hasan, Husayn, and Ali ibn al-Hasan to any one particular one. Rather, contradictions amongst themselves are many.
(Al-Milal wal-Nahl p.132 v.1, Shahrastani, Beirut, 2000)

According to the Shi’as, this Imam is not only chosen, but he also possesses certain characteristics and qualities which make him of that caliber and status of being a role model. These qualities are as follows: A. The conferment of the Imamate by designation or covenant (which has already been discussed). B. Ma’sum (Immunity from sin and error). C. He is the best of man.
(An Introduction to Shi’i Islam, p. 1153,154,155, by Moojan Momen. Published by Yale University Press 1985)

Other attributes of the Imam are Ilm (knowledge) and Walaya (spiritual guidance)

Knowledge means general and religious knowledge. Some have gone so far as to say that they also possess knowledge of the unseen. This is completely against the fundamentals of the religion of Islam as only Allah alone possesses this type of knowledge and nothing is unseen to Allah. This type of knowledge is called unseen according to man. Most Shi’i theologians have agreed, however, that the Imams do not inherently possess knowledge of the unseen (Ilm al-ghayb), that is to say what is in the future and what is in men’s minds, although glimpses of this knowledge are occasionally given to them by God out of his bounty.
(An Introduction to Shi’i Islam, p.156, by Moojan Momen. Published by Yale University Press 1985)

Due to the knowledge that this Imam possesses, Shi’as believe that he has the right to legislate and to cancel out any previous rulings and orders set in the Qur’an thus raising him to the status of the Prophet.

Maulana Yusuf Ludhyanwi writes: “Ponder for a moment. On one side between Isa and Muhammad there’s a gap of approximately six centuries in which there was no spiritual guide sent by Allah and on the other hand, according to the Shi’as, as soon as the Prophet Muhammad, who was a universal guide for mankind until the day of judgment, dies then without a pause, Allah lifts up an Imam who has the authority to legislate and cancel out previous rulings. Not one, but twelve Imams of this nature and when two and a half centuries past then this chain suddenly stops. Rather, this twelfth Imam is also made disappeared from the age of two. Can a person who has faith and belief in the Prophet hood, and according to that faith believes that the Islamic laws and rulings are to stay and shine until the last day cope with this doctrine of Imamate for one second? Most certainly not. This doctrine of Imamate is a conspiracy against the eternity and finality of Islam. This is the very reason that right from the very first till the present Ghulam Ahmad Mirza Qadiyani whosoever claimed Prophet hood borrowed their views from this doctrine of Imamate.

This doctrine in itself is incorrect. For this reason, the Shi’as couldn’t hold up the weight of this belief for too much of a long time, so instead they cut the chain at the twelfth Imam and got rid of him in some cave called ‘surra man ra’a’. From the time he vanished till today, eleven and a half centuries have passed but no one is aware of this Imams traces or his state.”
(Difference of the Ummah and the straight path (Urdu), Maulana Yusuf Ludhyanwi, p. 17,18, Deoband)

The above mentioned is enough for one to understand this concept.

Taqiyyah (Dissimulation)

Tabatabai has defined Taqiyya saying: Our aim is to discuss that kind of Taqiyya in which a man hides his religion or certain of his religious practices in situations that would cause definite or probable danger as a result of the actions of those who are opposed to his religion or particular religious practices.
(SHI’A, Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai, p. 223. published in Qum, Iran)

Even according to the Sunni School there are some situations in which a man is allowed to hide his faith in order to save him from getting killed. This is under the verse of the Holy Qur’an, “ Anyone who, after accepting faith in Allah, utters unbelief, except under compulsion, His heart remaining firm in faith.” (Surah 16, verse 106)

However, the Sunnis refer to this as ‘Ikraah’ (compulsion) and not ‘Taqiyya’. This doctrine of Taqiyya is a part of the Shi’a faith and is very wide in the Shi’a School. It may be practiced quiet frequently, whereas, according to the Sunnis to hide ones faith or to utter words of disbelief while the heart is firm and strong on Islam is only acceptable in situations where if not practiced then there will be fear of getting killed. The conditions to practise this act are found in numerous Sunni books. An example is ‘Al-Jami’ li Ahkaam il-Qur’an by Qurtubi under the above-mentioned verse in volume 10 pages 120 onwards. (Published in 1993, Beirut, Lebanon)

After allowing Taqiyya, this makes it lawful for a man to even lie or to indulge in prohibited acts at times.
(A comprehensive Encyclopedia of the religions of the World, Urdu, p. 264. Translation of a book in Arabic called, ‘Al-Mawsu’ah al-Maysirah fil Adyaani wal-Mazaahib al-Mu’aasirah’. Published in Karachi, Pakistan 2001.

None of the Imams ever claimed Imamate. Shi’as believe that they were practicing Taqiyya. This is a far-fetched claim.

Tabarra- (To free or to exempt)

This is one of the practices adopted by the Shi’ites in relations to the Companions of the Prophet Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthmaan and many more. They believe that these people were merely there for power and nothing else and after the death of the Prophet they renounced Islam. For this reason the Shi’as exempt and free themselves from them.

The Shi’as like to slander the rightly guided Caliphs that preceded Ali and also they slander Aisha the wife of the Prophet with all sorts of abuses.

Mut’ah (Contract or temporary marriage)

According to Shi’as this is not only lawful but also recommended that a man can marry a woman with the intention of divorcing her after a period of time which could even be a couple of days. According to the Sunnis, this is totally unacceptable.

Tabatabai has tried to justify this by saying that even people in permanent marriages sometimes fall into illegitimate sexual relations. So for this reason the way out is that we make this legal for him by making the contract marriage permissible. We may ask, what is the difference between this and prostitution? Also, from his statement we come to know that this is permissible according to Shi’as so that one can satisfy his desires for a short time whereas Allah states in the Qur’an after mentioning those women who are not allowed to be married by a man, that apart from these women you are allowed to marry with the condition that you seek them with your wealth in honest wedlock, not debauchery. From this we come to know that temporary marriage is strictly disliked because there is no intention of honest wedlock. Instead, it is only temporary satisfaction.

Some other differences

Majority of the Shi’as believe that the Qur’an present today is incomplete and that the remaining part is with the hidden Imam in the cave. This belief is indeed against the Qur’anic teaching in which Allah says: “ Lo! We even we, reveal the reminder, and lo! We surely are its Guardian.” (Surah 15, verse 9)

Also, there is a difference of interpreting the Qur’an between the two schools. According to the Shi’as there is an inward meaning of each verse and each verse has an allegorical interpretation that is known by the Imams. Sunnis believe that there are some verses that have a deeper meaning that may oppose the outward meaning but the whole Qur’an is not of this kind.

There are also differences between the two in accepting the authenticity of the Prophetic Traditions. Both have their own collection of Traditions.

There is also a difference in proclaiming the faith. Sunnis do it by saying, “ there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” Shi’as add on a couple of sentences saying, “ Ali is the friend and companion of Allah, Caliph of Rasoolullah with out without detachment or severance.”

There are also differences in rituals as well. According to the Shi’as five daily prayers are performed at three times whereas according to the Sunnis, all five are performed at there prescribed times. Also, according to the Sunnis, the Friday prayer holds great importance whereas the Shi’as believe that the twelfth Imam has the right of the Friday prayer.

In fasting there is a little difference where the Shi’as break their fast when the sun sets completely a few minutes after the Sunnis.

There are certain religious practices that are kept up by the Shi’as alone such as the ‘Rawdah-Khani’. This is a combination of sermons, recitation of poems and verses of the Qur’an. This takes place during the months of Muharram and Safar to remember the tragedy of the Martyrdom of Hussein. Also other forms of showing grief have taken form in the name of Ta’ziyah, which means to sympathize. In this, the people cry, chant and even beat themselves in compassion to show their love for Hussein. This is not practiced at all in the Sunni School.

Also, visiting of the shrines of the Imams and other pious saints is an act that is given great importance in the Shi’ite School and is never overlooked. Whereas according to the Sunnis it doesn’t play a part in the role of a person’s faith.

These were some of the major differences between the ‘Two Mainstream Schools’ of Islam. From the above-mentioned one is able to grasp the true understanding of their differences. If one looks carefully and studies these differences then he will surely come to the conclusion that the one that is in more accordance to the Qur’an and Prophetic teachings is the School of the Sunnis.


SHIA: Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai. Published in Qum, Iran
AN INTRODUCTION TO SHI’I ISLAM: Moojan Momen. Published by Yale University press in 1985
AL-MILAL WAL-NAHL: Shahrastani. Published in Beirut, Lebanon, 2000.
DIFFERENCES OF THE UMMAH AND THE RIGHT PATH: Maulana Yusuf Ludhyanwi. Published in Deoband, India.
A COMPREHENSIVE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE RELIGIONS OF THE WORLDS. (Urdu). Translated by Maulana Abu Tahir Muhammad Siddique. Published in Karachi, Pakistan, 2001.
ALJAMI’ LI AHKAAMIL-QUR’AN: Qurtubi. Published in Beirut, Lebanon.1993

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