Key Differences Between Sunni and Shia Islam

Sunni and Shia are two different denominations of Islam. After the prophet Muhammad's death in 632 AD, the Sunni and Shiite split occurred. The Sunnis became more of a secular and conservative group, whereas the Shiites remained more traditional and orthodox. While they have the same fundamental views on Islam, there are many differences between Sunnis and Shiites.  

You might be thinking, they both revere Allah as God, believe Muhammad to be the the Prophet, and they both follow the teachings in the Quran--so how are Sunnis and Shiites different? Interestingly enough, there are significant differences between Sunni and Shia Islam, but that is part of what makes religion so fascinating. Both groups have interesting views on the world, and interpret their religion differently.

Here are 10 ways Sunnis and Shiites differ from one another.

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  • There Are More Sunnis Than Shiites

    Approximately 85% of Muslims are Sunnis, leaving the Shiites to make up about 15% of the Muslim population. There are 1.6 billion Sunnis and a little fewer than 200 million Shiites. However, Shiites are more centrally located geographically, with the majority concentrated around the Middle East, whereas Sunnis are spread throughout the Muslim world, from West Africa to Indonesia.
  • They Disagree on Who Should Have Succeeded Muhammad

    This is the main reason for the two sects existing in the Muslim community. The Sunnis believed that a qualified and devout individual should be the successor to the Prophet, whereas the Shiites believe the successor should have a direct bloodline to Muhammad. Abu Bakr was the first successor of Muhammad, but the Shiites disagreed with this decision. They believed Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, should have taken over.
  • Sunnis Have a Simpler Religious Hierarchy Than Shiites

    Shiites have complete control over their hierarchy, and the clergy always stems from a direct line of Ali. This sect also relies on religious endowments; therefore government involvement is unnecessary. The Sunnis, however, allow government involvement, and appointing leaders is a big community process. In fact, within the Sunni clergy, no hierarchy actually exists.
  • Their After-Life Philosophies Differ

    Both the Sunnis and Shiites believe that in the afterlife there is either Paradise or Hell. The split comes when deciding how one gets there. For the Shiites, if one believes and follows Muhammad as well as the Twelve Imams, then Paradise is guaranteed. The Sunnis believe that they must have faith in Allah, His prophets, believe in the righteous deeds presented in the Quran, and accept Muhammad as the final prophet in order to have a chance at Paradise. But even if they do all of the above, they are still at the mercy of Allah.
  • Shiites Pray Differently Than Sunnis

    Sunnis and Shiites pray differently, both in how they pray physically and in how frequently they pray. Both believe in saying the five prayers a day, but the Shiites condense all five prayers into three sessions. The Sunnis say each prayer separately, so they pray five times a day. Shiites also pray with their arms to their sides, while Sunnis pray with arms crossed over their chest.
  • Shiites Believe Imams Are Divinely Guided

    Imams in the Shiite sect are God-appointed only. They are also the only legitimate interpreters of the Quran, according to the Shiites. The Sunnis, however, refer to imams more as saints. These imams must have a strong faith in the Quran and Sunnah in order to be appointed by the Sunni community.