Articles > The Peoples of Islam > 2015 > Sunnis and Shiites: Their Differences and the Origin of an Ancient Divide

Sunnis and Shiites: Their Differences and the Origin of an Ancient Divide

To diffuse the conflict in the Islamic world, the religious and secular spheres should be differenciated

by Martino Diez.

Sunnis and Shiites now respectively compose 85 percent and 15 percent of the Islamic world. What is the basic difference between them?

Before speaking of differences, it worth nothing that both Sunnis and Shiites are Muslims: they believe in the Qur’an as the final revelation of God to humanity and in Muhammad as his final prophet, they pray five times a day, fast during the month of Ramadan, pay alms, go on pilgrimage to Mecca, etc. However, they have different views on religious authority. For Shiites, when Muhammad died, this authority passed to his cousin and son-in-law ‘Alî and then to his family. For Sunnis, however, authority has remained in the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet and his first companions (the sunna), as interpreted by the community and its religious experts. Shiites argue theologically that the revelation of the Qur’an consists of an outer, literal sense and an inner, spiritual core, the latter being taught by ‘Alî and his descendants, the Imams: thus, full understanding of the Qur’an can only be gained through recourse to them, because “there is one in your midst who fights for the interiority of revelation as I,” Muhammad is reported to have said, “fight for its exteriority. And that someone is ‘Alî.” For Sunnis, however, “God’s hand is with the community”: Muhammad remains the original witness of revelation and believers have direct access to the sacred text through imitation of his behaviour, in the chain of generations.

So, is it just a matter of religion?

No, at least not in the sense we give to the word “religion” today in the West. In the first Islamic community, there was no distinction between religious and political authority. The conflict over religious authority therefore had an immediate political implication. According to the Shiites, Muhammad appointed ‘Alî as his successor (Caliph) to guide the Islamic community, whereas Sunnis believe that Muhammad made no specific provisions and that his companions freely chose a leader for the community, with purely “administrative” functions: first Abû Bakr, then ‘Umar, then ‘Uthmân. In political terms, therefore, Shiites are the party of ‘Alî (“party” is also the meaning of the Arabic word shî’a, from which “Shi’ism” derives).

A view predominant among Western scholars goes further and argues that the divergence between Sunnis and Shiites began as something purely political and only later acquired a theological dimension. In other words, the Muslims reputedly first argued over who should succeed Muhammad, then the party of ‘Alî, politically defeated, sought a theological revenge by placing more and more emphasis on the spiritual importance of the imams. This explanation, however, seems to be an anachronistic projection of our own conceptual distinction between politics and religion onto a very different context.

How are these two communities distributed geographically?

Shiites are concentrated in the central areas of the Islamic world. Their heart is in Iran, where Shi’ism became the state religion in the 16th century. They are also the majority in Iraq, and form a relative majority in Lebanon. Substantial Shiite minorities are also found in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia. The Sunnis, however, are largely predominant in North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt, Turkey (where there is also a large non-Sunni minority), Central Asia and the Far East.

No one in the Islamic world has ever tried to overcome this division?

On the contrary, there were moments in which it came close to being resolved. The first opportunity came on the death of the third Caliph, ‘Uthmân, who was killed in 656. The Islamic community chose ‘Alî as his successor. The rift therefore seemed to be healed. However, one of ‘Uthmân’s relatives, named Mu‘âwiya, who was governor of Syria, accused ‘Alî of involvement in ‘Uthmân’s murder and therefore refused him obedience. After ‘Alî’s death, Mu’âwiya, who remained alone, was proclaimed Caliph. This was the start of the Umayyad dynasty, which lasted until 750 and harshly persecuted the supporters of ‘Alî, in particular killing the third imam, Hussein. Shiites consider Hussein as the martyr par excellence and commemorate his death annually on the feast of ‘Âshûrâ’.
After the demise of the Umayyads, a second chance for reconciliation came during the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258). In 818, the Caliph al-Ma’mûn appointed ‘Alî al-Ridâ, the eighth Shiite Imam, as his successor. However, the imam died under mysterious circumstances shortly afterwards, and since then the family of ‘Alî was obliged to renounce all direct political claims.

There were also several attempts to bring Sunnis and Shiites closer together during the 20th century, particularly the recent Amman Message of 2004. These attempts are based on the fact that the two communities are very similar in terms of practical behaviour. With regard to religious law, the Shiites could in fact be viewed as another “school of law” alongside the four already accepted by Sunnism. At a theological level, however, the differences are greater and the division remains.

Who is the imam of the Shiites today?

Most Shiites recognise a series of 12 Imams. The last of these, however, due to increasing hostility from the Abbasid caliphs, allegedly went into hiding (or Occultation, as the Shiites say) in 874. Initially, he continued to communicate with the faithful through intermediaries, but then even this bond was broken. Hence, today, the vast majority of Shia believe that the twelfth imam is alive, but hidden, and will return at the end of the world to restore justice on earth. Other groups, such as the Ismailis, have different series of imams or, like the Zaydis in Yemen, interpret this figure in a way much closer to the Sunni concept of Caliph.

Does this mean that the visible chain has been broken for most Shiites?

Yes, exactly. As might be imagined, this fact had a destabilising effect on a community that was organised around devotion to the physical figure of the imam. A minority argues that, after the Occultation, Shiism has to become totally spiritual: the faithful are called to nurture the relationship with the hidden Imam in their hearts as they await his final manifestation, while refraining in particular from involvement in politics. However, the majority gradually transferred the role of the imams to the experts in religious studies, thus gradually creating a clergy, with its own hierarchy. This is a process that continued for over a thousand years and its final outcome can be seen in the figure of Khomeini. For the father of the Islamic Republic of Iran, all the authority of the Imam during his Occultation passed to the experts in religious law (and, in practice, to the person of the Supreme Leader). This is the core idea of wilâyat al-faqîh, the doctrinal foundation of present-day Iran. It is interesting to note, however, that this doctrine is challenged not only by secular opponents, but also by a section of the Shiite clergy, including, for example, the Iraqi Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

When did Sunni Islam started?

Sunnis ancient roots are found in the majority of the first community who chose Abu Bakr as Muhammad’s successor and accepted Mu‘âwiya as Caliph after the death of ‘Alî, mainly to put an end to the civil discord. Modern scholars refer to them as “Proto-Sunnis”, to emphasise the fact that true Sunnism began later, towards the 9th century, around the experts on the sayings of Muhammad.

The American scholar Jonathan Brown uses an evocative image in this regard: he describes Sunnism as a tent that expanded over the course of the centuries. It began, as we said, around the study of the sayings of Muhammad, the hadîth. From this core, it then extended to include other juridical and theological schools that placed greater emphasis on the use of reason, ascetics of various origins and, at a later stage, the Sufi mystics and various forms of popular piety. The recognition of ‘Alî as the fourth legitimate (“rightly guided”) Caliph and a prominent religious figure is part of the same tendency, which today might be described as “ecumenical”. However, since the 18th century this trend has been reversed and the tent is becoming narrower once more. The so-called reformist movements, beginning with Saudi Wahhabism, insisted on a return to the core of Sunni Islam: thus modern Salafi groups arose, which gradually expelled Sufi mysticism and returned to exclusive focus on the hadîth.

So is the present-day conflict the result of a trajectory spanning over several centuries?

Certainly. On the one hand, we have the whole movement that led to the Khomeini revolution, involving the abandonment of traditional Shiite quietist approach for an aggressive militancy. On the other hand, we have a progressive narrowing of the “tent of Sunnism”, which has meant that this kind of Islam, at least in its Salafist form, is now much less tolerant of diversity, including internal diversity, than it used to be.

However, the picture would remain very incomplete without the addition of a third factor: the emergence, since the 1960s, of political Islam, namely a form of militancy in which religion is seen as an all-encompassing political system, which provides the basis for an alternative model of the modern state to that proposed by the West. This idea has fascinated both Sunni and Shia thinkers, and its more violent forms has given rise to radical groups such as the Islamic Jamâ’at and Hezbollah. It has also created a crossbreeding of ideas and practices, such as the cult of the martyr (traditionally Shiite, but now also central to Sunni radicalism) and the new importance of the concept of jihâd also in Shiite circles.

This “mimetic” overflow among radical Sunni and Shiite groups has gone hand in hand with a growth in mutual hostility, seen first in the activities of al-Qaida in Iraq and now in the Islamic State. There is nothing surprising in this: bringing doctrinal differences directly into the political sphere makes them much harder to resolve. It is no exaggeration to say that we have returned to a mixture of religion and politics comparable to that of the nascent community, but with the addition of modern technology and its destructive potential.

Is the Sunni-Shiite division sufficient to explain everything that is happening in the Middle East?

No, it is a simplification. At the start of the Arab revolutions, commentators were speaking of a new Middle East, the Middle East of Facebook and Twitter, in which the religious past had been shelved once and for all. Syria exposed this as an illusion in just six months. Now, however, we should not fall into the opposite error of thinking that everything can be explained through the rivalry between ‘Alî and ‘Uthmân in the mid-seventh century. Historically, these communities have fluctuated between moments of coexistence in relative stability and periods of fierce opposition, and this occurred not only due to the free choice of individuals, but also as a result of changes in political circumstances.

If this view is correct, however, we should draw the logical conclusion: to defuse the religious conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, it must be reduced in intensity, by removing its political component, with both sides rejecting identification of the religious and secular spheres, which has always been the leitmotif of political Islam. This will hopefully happen through the discovery that this combination leads not to a utopian religious saeculum but to sacralised politics, in which conflicts are by definition non-negotiable.


For more information

Jonathan Brown, Hadith. Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World, OneWorld Oxford 2009. Read the review.

Mohammad-Ali Amir-Moezzi and Christian Jambet, Qu’est-ce que le shiisme, Fayard, Paris 2004. Read the review.

Shiite Icons representing Holy People of Islam

  • The Prophet with two companions

  • 'Ali and his two sons, Hasan and Husayn

  • The Prophet Muhammad with the four Rightly Guided Caliphs

©2016 Fondazione Internazionale Oasis C.F. 94068840274 - email: - Privacy Policy - Credits