Sunni and Shia

January 20 2008

The last post looked at the origin of the Sunni-Shia divide.

Any non-Muslim will then say: There must be more to Shiism than an attachment to the Prophet’s descendants and a feeling that those who were attached in the seventh century were betrayed. What holds Shiites apart? I’m not sure that this post is about to answer the question.

Neither denomination disputes the Quran, the Prophet’s hadith or sayings, or the sunnah, his actions. Both accept the five pillars of Islam: the recitation of the creed (“There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet”); the salat, recitation of prayers five times a day; zakat, obligatory giving of alms to the poor according to one’s means; fasting during the holy month of Ramadan; and the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a Muslim’s lifetime, means permitting.

Sunnis accept that the first four Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali) were the rightful followers of Muhammad. But, like Protestants in Christianity, they do not grant the same status to their clerics that Shiites do with their imams. Shiites believe (to put it simply) that imams are divinely guided to preserve the message of the Prophet, something that secular political leaders will not always do. If the Prophet was divinely inspired, then his rightful successors were his descendants, or at least imams. Shiites are a little less worldly than Sunnis. But the word imam is not peculiar to them.

Islam has no codified laws per se outside the Quran. It has schools of law. Sunni doctrine is more rigidly aligned to those schools, but Sunni Islam often falls under state, rather than clerical, control. In Shia Islam, doctrines are more open to interpretation, but the clerical hierarchy is more defined. In Iran, the ultimate authority is the imam, not the state.

I’ll look later at the attitude of Shiites to the later Caliphs, and to the abolition of the Caliphate altogether in 1924.

Shiites are divided into Ismailis, Twelvers, Zaidis and other groups. Sunnis and Shiites break down into smaller sects. Sunni Wahhabism is prevalent in Saudi Arabia. The Druze of Lebanon, Syria and Israel are an offshoot, rather than a sect, of Shia Islam.

It is helpful to think of the bloody self-flagellation that occurs in the Ashura not as a sign of fanaticism, but as a passion play.

3 Responses to “Sunni and Shia”


  1. The institutional structures are also very different. I just came across a good description of how the Shia system works:

    Shi’ism has a highly coherent system of rulemaking. Independent seminaries are organized in Najaf, headed by some limited number of Grand Ayatollahs. As the Grand Ayatollahs pass on, others rise to replace them from the seminaries, determined partly by their reputation within the religious community and partly through the respect accorded them in the lay community, who tithe 20% of their earnings to the Grand Ayatollah whom they have selected as their own source of rules. (Each lay person must select a Grand Ayatollah, and independent interpretation is strictly forbidden by those who have not trained in the seminaries). Each Grand Ayatollah is independent of the other, in the sense that each makes his own rules through the exercise of his own interpretive effort from foundational text, and yet, given that they operate in the same location, with significant intermingling of seminary students, an interpretive community is formed.

    The post goes on to discuss how this applies to Islamic economics.

    http://www.opiniojuris.org/posts/1201552157.shtml

  2. davidderrick Says:

    This chart is moderately helpful in summarising the differences:

    http://themuslimvoice.wordpress.com/2009/04/23/829/


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