Comparison of Sunni and Shia Islam

What's the Difference?

islam symbol

There are two main sects in Islam: Sunni and Shi'ite. Sunni Islam is the largest denomination, although in some countries it is a minority. Sunnis have their historical roots in the majority group who followed Abu Bakr, an effective leader, as the successor of Muhammad, instead of his cousin and son-in-law Ali.

The Sunnis are so named because they believe themselves to follow the sunnah or "custom" of the Prophet. Shi'ites are those Muslims who followed Ali, the closest relative of Muhammad, as Muhammad's successor.

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Adherents called
Shiites, Shi'i
Meaning of name
"well-trodden path" or "tradition"
"party" or "partisans" of Ali
Current adherents
940 million
120 million

See Religion Statistics by Adherents and Religion Statistics by Growth Rate

Percentage of total Muslims
Primary locations
most Muslim countries
Iran, Iraq, Yemen
none, but four major schools of Muslim law are recognized
Ithna 'Ashariyah (Twelvers; the largest), Isma'iliyah and Zaydiyah
c. 632 CE; theology developed especially in 10th cent.
c. 632-650 CE; killing of Ali's son Husayn in 680 CE is major event

Did Muhammad designate a successor?

Learn more about Muhammad

True successor of the Prophet
Abu Bakr, father of the Prophet's favoured wife, 'A'ishah (elected by people of Medina)
'Ali ibn Abi Talib, husband of the Prophet's daughter Fatimah (designated by the Prophet)
Qualifications for ruler of Islam
tribe of the Prophet (Quraysh); later, any qualified ruler
family of the Prophet
Current leaders
Identity of imams
human leaders
infallible manifestations of God and perfect interpreters of the Qur'an
Al Mahdi
will come in the future
was already on earth, is currently the "hidden imam" who works through mujtahids to intepret Qur'an; and will return at the end of time

Learn more about the Mahdi here

Religious authority other than the Qu'ran
ijma' (consensus) of the Muslim community
infallible imams

Learn more about the Quran here

Concealing faith for self-protection (taqiya)
affirmed under certain circumstances

See the Five Pillars of Islam here

Temporary marriage (mut'ah)
practiced in the Prophet's time, but now rejected
still practiced
Holy cities
Major holidays