McAfee SECURE sites help keep you safe from identity theft, credit card fraud, spyware, spam, viruses and online scams

The difference of Sunni's and Shiat's in Islam

"There is no god but Alláh, Muhammad is the Messenger of Alláh, Alí is the Friend of Alláh. The Successor of the Messenger of Alláh And his first Caliph." (The Shia shahadah - declaration of faith)

The crux of the Shia/Sunni split is the relationship that Shia's have with Ali, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad. Historically, the split occurred in the decades following the death of the Prophet in 632 AD (Amin, 2007, Huda, 2007). Although Sunnis and Shias agree on the core fundamentals of Islam (the Five Pillars) and recognise each other as Muslims there are practical, theological, political and significant geographical differences between the two facets of Islam. It is more accurate to refer to the split as representing two facets of Islam rather than two sects. This distinction needs to be made primarily because of the debate on the nature of the schism, which some authors refer to as having created an inexorable divide, or contrary to that position many authors suggest that aspects of Shia practice have been slowly imbued by Sunni practice, thus blurring Shia/Sunni boundaries.

The Shia experience in many parts of the world varies, as does the nature of social protest. In Afghanistan, for example, of the three groups of Imami Shias that are prevalent in the country, the largest population, the Hazaras, inhabit the harshest parts of the country, and are consequently some of the poorest groups (Edwards, 1986). With the establishment of centralised political structures in Afghanistan many of these nomadic tribes were forced to relinquish authority and autonomy to the central state, enabling Shi'i dissent to be expressed through shared experiences of oppression, thus giving birth to social movements expressed through the lens of Shi'i Islam, based largely in political and economic oppression. In Saudi Arabia, for example, with a six percent minority, the Shia experience is based around a historically antagonistic relationship with the Wahhabi Sunnis (Goldberg, 1986). With the assault on Karbala, a major source of dissent between the Shia and Sunni populations in Saudi Arabia, much of the conflict between the two sects has revolved around the manner in which Shia's practice Islam. Nonetheless, the status of Shia Muslims as second class citizens in the country, compounds the conflict already grounded in disagreements over religious practices. Early dissent grounded in religious conflict, Goldberg (1986) suggests, has today metamorphosed into political conflict relating to the potential links between Iran and the Shia Muslims and the influence the Iran-Shia alliance may have on their political efficacy within Saudi Arabia.


Although the main schism between Shia and Sunni occurred over the importance given to Ali as a caliph, the differences between the two forms of Islam have been reinforced and reformed through social, political and economic divisions as is clearly seen in the Iraqi experience and the role that Iran is seen to play in reinforcing Shia loyalties, forms of dissent and protest. The religious and theological differences physically manifested in the form of the twelvers and their religious legitimacy is probably the most visible difference between Shia and Sunni practices. Much of the conflict between Shia and Sunni, rooted in a deep-seated historical rift has been transformed into expressions of political and economic protest legitimised by pre-existing religious schisms. This does not suggest that all forms of religious divisions have been taken over by political and economic divisions. However, the differences on which the conflict has been traditionally based, has now become murky given the impact of the changing nature of political and cultural structures. It is no longer adequate to assume that conflicts expressed through the Shia/Sunni lens are completely religious in nature. The nature of political and economic efficacy now reinforces the divide.

Related Links
To Top