Do You Know the Reasons of the Conflicts Between Shia And Sunni?


The Shia and Sunni are the two sects of Islam. There is a spiritual and political difference between the two branches. Despite the fact that most of their beliefs and religious practices are the same the two sects have been at conflict since ages. In the middle-east, the tension between the two sects has even resulted in violence and insurgence. In the passage, the basic difference between the two has been explained.

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The Basic Difference between Shia and Sunni

Some of the major differences between the two branches of Islam categorized broadly:

1) The Historical Divide

The two sects began to rise aftermath of Prophet’s Muhammad’ death. Prophet (PBUH) had no male heir to take on the role of a religious and political leader for people. The followers of Islam were not in agreement to who should be appointed as their leader. One sect which belonged to the Quraysh Tribe (Prophet’s original tribe) wanted someone from their own tribe to take on the leadership role. On the other hand, a different faction wanted someone from Prophet’s bloodline, to become the leader.

Eventually, it was Abu Bakr, who became the successor of Prophet Muhammad as the political and religious leader of the Muslims in Arabia. Abu Bakr was a friend and advisor to Prophet. He was also Aisha’s father, the Prophet’s wife. He belonged to Quraysh tribe. This decision obviously did not fit well with the people of the other faction.

People of Quraysh tribe and their descendants came to be known as Sunni whereas the other faction became Shia.

 The term Shia is derived from "Shi'at Ali," which means the ‘Party of Ali’. Ali was Prophet’s cousin and his son-in-law. The Shia sect firmly believes that Prophet had clearly asked Ali to replace him. Ali became the fourth Caliph, eventually. He is well-respected by both the sects.

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There is no clear evidence relating to whom Prophet wanted as his successor. The matter is still debatable.

2) The Differences in Beliefs

Both sects believe in Quran and follow its teachings. Both the sects consider Muhammad as the Prophet. Despite this, there are some traditional and fundamental differences. These differences are better prevalent in the nations which are plagued by these conflicts and both sects indulge in violence. Iraq is one example of such countries. In other countries such as Kyrgyzstan, both sects identify themselves as Muslims.

3) Perception of Caliphs

 The main cause of the division was the difference in opinion on the appointment of a religious leader or a Caliph. Therefore, there is an obvious divide how the two sects perceive the succession. Sunni sect recognizes Ali as the fourth Caliph whereas a sect within the Shia sect, known as Twelvers rejects the first three Islamic caliphs.  They perceive Ali as the first and the righteous leader after Prophet. The conflict lies in the perception that who really deserved power and leadership. Twelvers also believe that Sunni Caliphs murdered some of the initial Imams.

4) Discernment of Imams

Most of the Shia Muslims consider Imams as directly selected by the Almighty Himself. They are considered devoid of any sin and they are the direct descendants of Prophet. The perception of Imams is similar to the perception of Pope by the Catholics.

The Sunni sect considers Imam quite differently. They consider them as their spiritual leaders but do not perceive them as unfailing. They are highly respected but are not considered incapable of committing sins.

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5) The Difference in Hadiths

The Hadiths are the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W). These teachings were collected and written in the records by the scholars who were present at the time of Prophet. Although the hadiths are extremely important and Muslims all over the world consider them as guidelines for following Islam, the Qur’anic text takes superiority when the two are in conflict.

Some of the hadiths are interpreted differently by the Shia and Sunni. The Sharia Law is followed differently among the two sects in different nations.

Shia sect denies the all-five hadiths of Sunni Islam which are known as ‘Kutub al-Sittah’ whereas Sunni sect denies the ‘The Four Books’ in Shia Islam.

6) Day of Ashura

Shia Ashura
Shiite Procession of the day of Ashura in Bahrain.

The day of Ashura or the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali is mourned differently by the two sects. The Shia Muslims puts a special prominence on Prophet’s bloodline. Husayn ibn Ali was Prophet’s grandson. He was killed mercilessly in the Battle of Karbala. The Shia Muslims mourn the day of his martyrdom by inflicting self-harm and wearing black clothes. On the other hand practice of self-harm is not only rejected by the Sunnis but it is also considered un-Islamic.

7) The Basic Principles of the Religion

Some of the fundamental principles of Shia Islam are:

  • Tawhid: It means believing in monotheism. Considering Allah as the Almighty and nothing equals him.
  • Adl: Believing in the divine justice of Allah.
  • Nubuwwah: The idea that the Prophets are appointed by the Almighty.
  • Imamate: Just like Prophets, the Imams are chosen divinely. This principle is interpreted differently among the sect.
  • Mi'ad: The resurrection of Humanity on the day of Judgement.

Supplementary Practices in Shia Islam

The Ancillaries of faith are similar to the five pillars of Islam. Sunnis also have the same beliefs but these practices are not considered utmost important.

  • Salat: The ritualistic prayer and its requirement five times. In Sunni Islam, failing to pray five times makes someone a sinner.
  • Sawm: The importance of fasting during Ramadan, the holy month.
  • Hajj: The pilgrimage to Mecca by the Muslims, if they are financially or physically able.
  • Zakat: The charity which is a must give away to the poor and underprivileged.
  • Khums: A different type of charity on the business surplus or income.
  •  Jihad: The concept of self-struggle towards righteousness and path towards Islam. Avoiding things that are evil and fighting against injustice.
  • Tawalla: the commandment which requires all Muslims to love the successors of Muhammad (SAW)
  •  Tabarra: Isolating oneself from someone who does not believe in Allah and considers Prophet his messenger.

Five Pillars of Sunni Islam

Sunnis share most of the above-mentioned beliefs when it comes to following their faith.  However, there are five most important practices which must be followed by every Sunni Muslim. These five practices are considered as the Five Pillars of Islam.

  • Shahadah: It is the first and the most common principle of accepting the Islamic faith. It requires the person to take a pledge according to which he is required to believe in monotheism and Prophet. The Shahadah is a belief according to which there is only one God, Allah and Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) is his messenger.
  • Salat: The ritualistic prayer and its requirement five times. In Sunni Islam, failing to pray five times makes someone a sinner.
  • Zakat: The charity which is a must give away to the poor and underprivileged. It is advisable to give away Zakat in the holy month of Ramadan, however, it can be given at any time of the year.
  • Sawm: The importance of fasting during Ramadan, the holy month.
  • Hajj: The pilgrimage to Mecca by the Muslims, if they are financially or physically abled at least once in their lifetime.

8) Wali (Saints)

Both the sects consider the holy figures, known as the Walis important. There is an intra-sect disagreement among Shia and Sunni Muslims whether the prayers need to be offered to these deceased saints.

9) Nikah Mut’ah or the Temporary Marriage

A few sects of the Shia Islam believe and follow the concept of temporary marriage. It is like a contract of marriage known as Nikah mutual. According to this form of Nikah, a man and woman can get married temporarily and can get a pre-marriage trial. If these marriages work out then the pair can marry permanently. In Sunni Islam, there is no concept of Nikah Mut’ah.

10) The Apocalyptic Beliefs

Just like other religions, the Islam also believes in an impending apocalypse. The Shia and Sunni Muslims have similar apocalyptic Beliefs. Both sects believe that Isa (A.S.), an Islamic name for Jesus will return to the earth.

11) Demographics

shia sunni demographics

The Sunni Islam is much-widely followed than the Shia Islam. The 85 to 90% of world’s population following Islam are the ones belonging to the Sunni sect. In some of the countries such as Bahrain and Iran, the majority constitutes Shia Muslim.

In the United State, the majority of the Muslim population is Sunni. Illinois has the highest percentage when it comes to the Muslim population in the United States.

12) The Conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims

The conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslim is not only restricted to the political and spiritual differences. In some of the countries, it has taken the form of violence and physical fights. There has been some major turmoil during certain events, specifically during the Day of Ashura or other political events.

Some of These Conflicts Are Mentioned Below

  • 2006: A Shia shrine was bombed in Iraq resulting in sectarian violence.
  • October 2014: According to the reports by Amnesty International Shia militias were killing and abducting Sunnis in Iraq.
  • June 2014: During the sectarian violence, hundreds of Iraqis had fled their homes and took shelter as refugees in the neighbouring countries. The Shia Mosques in Mosul were destroyed by ISIS.
  • January 2014: A bus was attacked in Pakistan in which 22 Shia Muslims were killed.
  • July 2013: The tension between the two sects grew in Bahrain resulting, both the faction attacking mosques belonging to the other.

The Shia-Sunni divide is one of the major reasons for the resurgence in the middle-eastern countries. Most of these countries have been at unrest and the victim of sectarian violence. One of the key examples of this unrest is the Syrian Civil War. The war which has killed quarter-million people and displaced the equal amount began as a peaceful protest demanding Bashar al-Assad to resign from the presidential post.




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