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Christians in the process of learning about Muslim beliefs and practices may be aware that Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims (also known as Shia Muslims) make up the two major sects of Islam. If so, it’s helpful to understand how Islam came to be divided into these groups and how their history informs their distinct approaches to the faith today. First, it’s important to note that Sunnis and Shiites uphold the same essential beliefs and five pillars of Islam. In both sects, you will find individuals whose commitment to Islam ranges vary from quite secular to more fundamentalist.


Generally speaking, Sunnis and Shiites have different ideas about which aspects of faith should be the primary driving forces in matters of authority, teachings, practices, and rituals. Here’s a brief history of Sunni and Shiite origins and how they are manifested in religious practices today

The Original Schism

The original schism (split) among Muslims is ancient in origin and mainly political, not religious, in nature. After the Prophet Muhammad died in 632, there was disagreement as to who should become the caliph (civil and religious ruler, not prophet, of the Muslim caliphate) and how this should be decided. Some thought he should be a qualified leader chosen by the people; some thought he should be a genetic descendant of the prophet—specifically, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali.

The role was first given to Abu Bakr, the prophet’s close friend, but he and two of his successors were assassinated. Later, Ali became caliph. Then he and his sons, his would-be successors, were also killed, along with many of their relatives. Those who believed Ali was the rightful caliph mourned him as a martyr and became what are now called Shiites (from Shiat Ali, or followers of Ali). Those who believed that Abu Bakr was the rightful caliph became known as Sunnis (from Ahl-as-Sunnah, or people of the tradition). 

The Main Differences Between Sunni and Shiite Beliefs Today

Today, over 85% of Muslims in the world are Sunni. Sunnis live in over forty Muslim countries as well as parts of Asia and Europe. Only Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain are predominantly Shiite, although there are also significant populations in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. It’s important to remember that the cultures of Muslim-majority nations—and, therefore, approaches to practicing Islam—naturally vary in both sects by continent, country, and region. However, there are some general key differences between Sunni Muslim beliefs and Shiite beliefs to be aware of:


  • Scripture vs. human authority. Sunni Muslims place the most importance on correctly interpreting Quran scriptures and other holy writings in order to guide their faith and practices. They focus on understanding Allah (God) through these texts. Shiites, however, place more emphasis on the Prophet Muhammad and his genetic successors as living embodiments of Allah’s teachings. They venerate and emulate these figures.


  • God’s power vs. the power of sacrifice. Sunni Muslim teachings tend to focus on the power of Allah in the world, including in public and political contexts. Shiites, on the other hand, most revere sacrifice and martyrdom as spiritual experiences. 


  • Simple vs. complex religious hierarchy. Because Shiites venerate the genetic descendants of the caliphs as primary sources of authority and as saints, it stands to reason that their religious hierarchy is more complex. For them, Imams (prayer leaders) are infallible manifestations of God. Sunnis do not elevate Imams or human clerics to this status, and they believe that in principle, any qualified Muslim may become a caliph. Apart from Imams, Sunnis have no religious hierarchy.


  • Pilgrimages to shrines vs. abstaining. The 10th day of Muharram (the month that marks the Islamic new year) is called Ashura. On this day, Shiites honor the death of Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, by making pilgrimages to holy shrines. Although Muharram is important to all Muslims, Sunnis generally do not acknowledge visiting saints’ shrines as a valid practice under the laws of Islam.


To learn more about Islamic beliefs and to befriend your Muslim neighbors, consider connecting with a local organization whose mission is aligned with building friendly connections between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Make New Muslim Friends With Neighborly Faith

Neighborly Faith is a student-led organization committed to bringing Christians and Muslims together and creating real friendships with neighbors of all faiths. We share the expertise of Evangelical scholars and practitioners to train a generation of leaders to love and lead like Jesus in a diverse world.


Our Boundless Program connects Christian students with influential Muslims in their field in online and in-person learning and networking opportunities. NF Media trains evangelicals to lead and love across faiths. What Went Wrong? tackles the big questions about polarization, and offers real solutions. Our Fellows Program is a competitive fellowship that will equip a cohort of Evangelical college students to lead initiatives that seek justice for and build friendships with people of other faiths in their communities.

If you’re interested in leading with a neighborly faith, contact us today!

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