Differences between Sunnis and Shias

Islam is the religion of Muslims, it was founded by Mohammed in the 7th century and has two main branches: the Sunni or Orthodox tradition, followers of the first successor caliphs of Mohammed, and the Shiites, followers of Mohammed’s son-in-law, Ali.

Their differences are doctrinal and political, which have now been increased by the current tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Sunnis represent 90% of the Muslim world, with 1.2 billion believers, and the Shiites only about 100 million in contrast. In this article we present a brief description of each of these branches of Islam and their basic differences.


The Sunnis are the practitioners of the current of Islam, which follow the tradition or sunna, after the death of the prophet Muhammad in the year 632. The Sunnis respect the Koran (holy book of Muslims) and follow the collection of sayings and facts attributed to him. They start from the idea that the religious authority is held by the companions of Muhammad (Sahaba), therefore, they are followers of the first caliphs.

The majority of Muslims follow the precepts of this doctrine, it is estimated that of the 1,500 million Muslims in the world, 90% belong to this community, so we would be talking about around 1,200 million faithful. Sunnism is the current great current among Muslims, present in countries such as Saudi Arabia (their main stronghold), Syria (where they are the majority although they do not govern), Oman, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Egypt , Tunisia, Qatar, Libya and Turkey.

The Sunni tradition emphasizes the importance of religion in shaping public policy and the following precepts:

  • The first four caliphs were the legitimate rulers of the primitive community.
  • From them derive the four main schools of Sunnism.
  • Faith and works are inseparable.
  • Everything happens according to the divine plan.
  • God will be seen in the afterlife and the prophet and his revelation are of the highest authority.


The Shiites are the practitioners of this current of Islam, who feel devotion to the family of the prophet, in particular to Ali and his two sons Hasan and Hussein. Shiites regard Ali as the first successor of the prophet and regard him and his eleven successors (Imams) as role models.

Shiite Islam has a hierarchical clergy, with religious of different ranks (imam, ayatollah) and they consider that the twelfth successor of the prophet who has disappeared will return to earth to establish justice and peace before the day of reckoning. The Shiites are a minority compared to the Sunnis, since it is estimated that their precepts are followed by between 150 and 200 million Muslims distributed in Iran, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iraq and Lebanon.

Shiite belief emphasizes the power of the Ayatollah, a spiritual leader with executive powers in the state, whom they consider infallible in all matters. The imams are considered intermediaries between God and the people, they await the arrival of the Twelfth Imam who will become a Muslim leader, the messiah who will come to install the kingdom of God in this land of sin.

As can be seen, there are important differences between these two currents or doctrines of Islam, which are summarized below:

  • For the Sunnis, the imams are not of such importance, but for the Shiites, the imams are respected and revered for being intermediaries between God and the people.
  • The Shiites believe in the power of the Ayatollah (spiritual leader with political power) but for the Sunnis there is no such union between spiritual leaders and political power.
  • For the Shiites, the succession is an exclusive right of the family of the prophet, but for the Sunnis, the succession of religious authority is held by the companions of Muhammad.

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