Compare Shia and Sunni Islam

In Islam, there are two main sects: Sunni and Shi'a. Sunni Islam is the largest sect, 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'a Muslims or Shi'ites are those Muslims who followed Ali, the closest relative of Muhammad, as Muhammad's successor. The following chart compares some basic facts about Shi'a and Sunni Islam.

Shi'a   Sunni  
etymology Arabic, "party" or "partisans" (of Ali) "well-trodden path" or "tradition"
adherents (world) 120 million 940 million
main locations Iran, Iraq, Yemen most Islamic countries
branches Ithna 'Ashariyah (Twelvers; the largest), Isma'iliyah and Zaydiyah none, but four major schools of Muslim law are recognized
history c. 632-650 CE; killing of Ali's son Husayn in 680 CE is major event c. 632 CE; theology developed especially in 10th cent.
successor of prophet 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, husband of the Prophet's daughter Fatimah (designated by the Prophet) Abu Bakr, father of the Prophet's favoured wife, 'A'ishah (elected by people of Medina)
messiah was born in 869, is currently the "hidden imam" who works through mujtahids to intepret Qur'an; and will return at the end of time will come in the future; identity is known only to Allah
imams infallible manifestations of God and perfect interpreters of the Qur'an human leaders
religious authority Qur'an, then infallible imams Qur'an, then ijma' (consensus) of the Muslim community
taqiya (concealing faith) emphasized affirmed under certain circumstances
mut'ah (temporary marriage) accepted; was abolished not by Muhammad but the second caliph rejected; was abolished by Muhammad
important places Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, Najaf, Karbala Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem
holidays Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr, Ashura Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr