Why are There Two Sects of Muslim? What is the Difference Between Sunni and Shia?

Two separate branches of Muslim predominate this faith. 90% of the Muslim world is Sunni, and 8% is Shia in faith. The followers of Shia are commonly found in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and a few other places. The difference between Sunni and Shia arose because of a political division at the time in history when Shia followers went their separate way. Yet, while the split started as a difference of opinion in politics, some significant theological differences emerged later, with Shia incorporating many unconventional, foreign concepts into their theology.

The Sunni and Shia split found its origin in a disagreement about the leadership of the Muslim community after the death of Prophet Muhammad PBUH. After his death, his companions were forced to choose the next leader, the ruler, and the successor of the Muslim community, commonly known as the Caliphate. Sunnis believed that Prophet Muhammad PBUH did not explicitly designate his replacement, and they needed to appoint this leader by mutual consultation. The Shia believed that the Prophet PBUH designated his cousin and son-in-law, Ali PBUH, to assume the role of Caliph.

Sunni Muslims deemed Abu Bakr R.A., the Prophet’s closest companion, as the fittest to lead the Muslim community. Abu Bakr became the first Caliph, and Ali eventually became the fourth, serving in the wake of Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman, peace be upon them. Ali was well-satisfied with the decision to appoint Abu Bakr R.A. as the ruler, but others were less pleased.

The word Sunni comes from the term Sunnah, which refers to the teachings and practice of Prophet Muhammad PBUH, who in turn was taught by Angel Gabriel — who, for his part, learned the faith from God. Sunni Muslims consider themselves followers of Islam’s orthodox tradition, adhering to the pure, uninfluenced faith taught by Prophet Muhammad PBUH. Shia linguistically means party, sect, supporters, or a group of similar-minded people. Shia is an abbreviation for Shiatu Ali, which signifies a group or supporters of Ali. Shia was a political faction that claimed the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, PBUH, should lead the Islamic community as the Caliphate in place of Abu Bakr R.A.

Initially, this group of Ali’s supporters, known as Shia, stood against the Umayyads political party but remained purely Sunni in their theology and faith, unlike modern-day Shia. Yet, with passing years, significant doctrine/theological differences arose. The famous 12 Imams that certain Shia holds in the highest regard were Sunni in Creed, not Shia.

If Prophet Muhammad PBUH explicitly appointed Ali PBUH, as the Shia claim, that would mean Abu Bakr was appointed unjustly in the role of a caliph. It means he disobeyed and went against the wishes of the Prophet, PBUH, despite his role as his closest associate and dearest friend. Additionally, this move implied that the companions who accepted Abu Bakr R.A. as the Caliphate went against the Prophet PBUH despite earning a high rank and God’s praise in the Holy Quran.

Many beliefs of Shiism claim no basis in the religion of Islam. Shiism evolved from its role as a political sect supporting and favoring the leadership of Ali and his descendants, who they label as Imams, over more qualified companions, to a holder and conveyor of strange ideas foreign to Islam.

Among the most significant differences between Sunni and Shia is that the mainstream Shia upholds the divinity of 12 imams to which they ascribe powers, privileges, and attributes that belong only to Allah, the Glorious. Some Shia believes these 12 Imams to be infallible and incapable of committing an error. It is believed that they are all-knowledgeable, all-powerful, perfect, possessing supernatural powers, and stand in control of the Universe and all of creation. They believe these 12 Imams are superior to and hold a higher rank than Prophets. Sunnis, of course, don’t believe any of this.

Shia also directs many acts of worship to these imams, ranging from supplications to sacrifices and seeking their aid. These acts contradict Islam’s central teaching, which states that only Allah is worthy of worship and veneration. The act of ascribing partners to Allah is the biggest sin in Islam and the only sin God would not forgive if one died in that state without repenting.

“…Indeed, he who associates others with Allah — Allah has forbidden him Paradise, and his refuge is the Fire. And there are not for the wrongdoers any helpers” (Quran 5:72)

While Shia considers Ahlul Bayt (the family of Prophet Muhammad PBUH) above and beyond everyone else in a supernatural, divine way, Sunnis only highly respect the Muslims of them — considering them righteous but ascribing no divine powers to them — as they were only humans and thus unworthy of the worship and veneration owed to Allah alone.

Another bizarre belief of some Shia is that they do not deem many of the Sahabah (the companions of Prophet Muhammad PBUH) true Muslims, including the famous Sahabah. They consider them to be defectors from the folds of Islam. Shia bears hate and animosity toward the Sahabah and even slander them. They claim that only seven of these companions stayed within the folds of Islam, with the rest qualifying as disbelievers or hypocrites.

The Holy Quran affirms the virtue and status of the companions of the Prophet, declaring Allah the Glorious was pleased with them. Shiites reject the Sunnah (the tradition, teachings, and practice of the Prophet PBUH) because the Prophet’s companions passed down these teachings to the next generations. Sunnis respect and love all of the Prophet’s companions, including Ali and his two sons, Hassan and Hussein, peace be upon them.

Another significant difference between Sunni and Shia beliefs lies in the Shiite’s claim that the Holy Quran of our time is deficient and has not been preserved properly. The Shia believe in a book called the “Tablet of Fatimah,” which is supposedly three times longer than the Holy Quran. They claim that this book was revealed to Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet, after his death and referenced the upcoming Imams. The Shia believe this Book is held by the Mahdi, who has been in hiding for the past 900 years and will come forth to present its text at the end of times. They believe the Mahdi is Ali.

Sunnis believe in the One and Only Holy Quran, revealed to Prophet Muhammad PBUH as the last and final Scripture to humanity, the same One read by hundreds of millions of Muslims around the globe, that contains the verbatim word of God and will never change. The Holy Quran states that God took it upon Himself to preserve and safeguard His Final Book from any man-made modifications, such as those made to the previous Books, the Gospel, and the Torah.

“Indeed, it is We who sent down the Qur’an and indeed, We will be its guardian” (Quran 15:9)

When Ali became the 4th Caliph, his sons, Hassan and Hussain, were in attendance to learn from and assist their father, having stood beside him in three battles. Ali R.A. was ultimately assassinated by a group of misguided people known as the Khawarij. After his death, Hassan, Ali’s older son and the Prophet’s older grandson was given the oath of allegiance by the people of Kufa in Iraq. Simultaneously, the people of Syria gave Mu’awiyah the oath of allegiance. For the first time in Islamic history, two Caliphates presided at once.

When Hassan and Mu’awiyah were poised to return to battle, Hassan resigned after six months and moved to Madinah, as he disliked fighting and bloodshed. He resigned for the sake of unity, although he stood as the more righteous and qualified Caliphate candidate. Hassan swore allegiance to Mu’awiyah, pledging to listen to and obey him, providing that he ruled according to the Book of Allah and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad PBUH. There followed in the wake of this allegiance 20 years of peace. Hassan fulfilled the prophecy of Prophet Muhammad PBUH when he stated, Indeed, this son of mine is a chief; Allah shall bring peace between two Muslim parties through his hands. Note: Our Prophet PBUH referred to both armies as Muslim in faith.

Hassan later passed away. Then, as the death of the Caliph Mu’awiyah loomed imminently, he appointed his son, Yazid, to succeed him, even though Hussein, the Prophet’s younger grandson, was more righteous and overall more qualified to become the Caliphate. The governor of Medina called Hussein to his house and insisted that he give the Oath of Allegiance in public. Hussein repeatedly refused. The people of Kufa barraged Hussein with letters, asking him to appear before them to accept their vow of allegiance, acknowledging him instead as their ruler and the next Caliph.

They promised to support him. In response, Hussein sent his cousin out among the people on a scouting mission, curious to see if the people of Kufa were serious in their intent. Later, his cousin wrote a letter to Hussein, summoning him to come immediately as the tribes of Kufa sent 12,000 members, each representing a tribe, to offer their oath of allegiance.

Wise men who loved Hussein begged him not to go, but Hussein insisted. When he arrived at Karbala, his followers abandoned him. Only about 4,000 of the promised 12,000 representatives came to offer their oath. His scouting cousin was murdered. And ultimately, Hussein was killed wrongfully and died as a martyr. Once Yazid heard the news of Hussein’s death, he protested that his command to his minions had been a request to stop Hussein, not to kill him.

Islam and the Holy Quran command no sects nor divisions among Muslims. The Holy Quran states:

“And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided…” (Quran 3:103)

The word “rope” here refers to the Holy Quran. Muslims are avowed to unite as one under the Message of the Holy Quran and the Sunnah.

“Verily, those who divide their religion and break up into sects, you have no concern in them in the least. Their affair is only with Allah, who then will tell them what they used to do” (Quran 6:159)

Followers of the Sunni ideology use the word Sunni not to divide the ummah (Islamic community) but to differentiate themselves from certain sects that have emerged and developed independently, finding no basis in our religion. After the death of Prophet Muhammad PBUH, at the time of the Sahabah (companions of the Prophet), conflicts arose between Muslims. Certain small groups broke away and gained a different understanding of Islam. Some of these small new groups did not accept the Sunnah and Hadith, and some did not believe in predestination — all vital parts of Islam.

Sunnis practice Orthodox Islam, the way taught by our Prophet PBUH, and believe in the Holy Quran, Hadith, and predestination. Due to these new groups that are different in belief, Sunnis characterize and differentiate themselves so people will not misinterpret their mission and beliefs. Unfortunately, people with evil intentions misuse this term to divide Muslims and spread hate.

The most common form of Shiism today is Twelver Shiism, which beliefs in the twelve divine Imams. Another form of Shia is known as the Zaidis, who reject the concept of the Divine Imams and represent a minority sect of Shiites mainly found in Yemen. Many modern believers of Shia today are ignorant, blind followers of false faith. Instead of expressing hatred towards them, we should pray to God and ask Him to guide them on His pure, righteous path.

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