Between 85 and 90 percent of the world’s Muslims follow Sunni Islam.

It is the largest branch of that religion by far. The Arabic language refers to the followers of Sunni Islam as ahl as-sunnah wa I-jammah. This title means “the people of the Sunnah and the community.”

In Islam, Sunnah is the practice and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. They are an example for other Muslims to follow. So how does Sunni Islam differ from Shia? Read on to find out.

What Is Sunni Islam?

Sunnis believe that the Prophet Muhammad died without selecting a replacement. Someone had to lead the Muslim ummah or community. The lack of a successor caused much confusion. It led to the selection of Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s father-in-law and dear friend, as the first caliph.

Sunni Muslims see the first four caliphs as Muhammad’s rightful successors.

These caliphs were:

  1. Abu Bakr Siddique
  2. Umar ibn al-Khattab
  3. Uthman ibn Affan
  4. Ali ibn Abi Talib

In contrast, Shias believe that Muslim leadership belonged to Ali ibn Abi Talib. Ali was Muhammad’s son-in-law, and they felt he and his offspring alone were the rightful heirs. Sunni orthodoxy emphasizes the views and customs of the majority of the community. It does not take the opinions of peripheral groups into account.

History of Sunni

The rift between Shias and Sunnis is the oldest in the history of Islam. Followers of the two factions have coexisted for centuries. They share several essential practices and beliefs. Yet, they differ in ritual, doctrine, theology, law, and religious organization.

The Sunnah guides all Muslims, but Sunnis stress its importance. This split caused the various factions of the Islamic faith to clash in a civil war. Known as the Fitna, this war took place 30 years after Muhammad’s death. Another sect, the Khawarij, broke away during that conflict. They opposed both the Shias and Sunnis, often with violence.

The second and third caliphs were assassinated. War broke out when Ali became caliph, and he, too, died in action near the town of Kufa (in present-day Iraq) in the year 661. The war and violence divided the small Muslim community into two factions. These branches would never reunite.

What Do the Sunnis Believe?

Shia and Sunni share the belief that Islam has five pillars:

  1. The viewpoint that there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet
  2. The obligation to pray five times a day
  3. The moral imperative to fast during Ramadan
  4. The duty to give alms
  5. The rule to make the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca

Apart from these pillars, Sunni Muslims have six articles of faith found in the Hadith:

  1. Belief in one God (Tawhid)
  2. Belief in angels (malaikah)
  3. Belief in holy books (kutub)
  4. Belief in the prophets (nubuwwah)
  5. Belief that there will be a Day of Judgement and the afterlife (Akhirah)
  6. Belief in predestination (al-Qadr)

The Sunni/Shia rift dates back to the year 632. Muhammad died in that year, and a debate emerged about who should be his successor.

The Shia felt that Muhammad’s replacement should be somebody in his lineage. They chose Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. Thus, they became known as Shiat Ali, followers of Ali, or simply Shia.

The Sunnis felt that any devout individual could fill the role. Anyone who would follow the Prophet’s customs was acceptable.

Mahdi is Arabic for “guided one.” Like the Shia, Sunnis believe that the Mahdi is the sole ruler of the Islamic community. The Shia believe that he has already been born (in 869 AD) and will return to Earth under Allah’s orders. The Sunni hold that he has not yet been born, and they look forward to his arrival.

Another one of the Sunni Muslim beliefs is that the Shia fixation on the House of Muhammad is a false Islam. It places unwarranted worship on the Prophet’s family.

Sunni Islam claims to represent the Muslim consensus about the Prophet, and it follows his habits and teachings. The sect has avoided fundamental divisions, unlike the Shias. Their disagreement over the legitimate leader led to further splits into sub-branches. Instead, Sunni Islam allows for “pluralism within a unitary system.”

Sunnis believe that Muhammad was the last individual to receive divine inspiration. They think that the caliphs were only protectors of religious integrity. They were also safeguarding the political independence of the new Muslim community.

They argue that the selection of the caliphs was not divine. Nor did they have any exceptional religious insight. Yet, they have a romantic view of the first four caliphs, all men who had known or were kin to Muhammad. They see them as al-Khulafa’ur-Rashidun or the four “rightly-guided caliphs.” They come from an Islamic golden age.

Sunnis believe that one could gain the position of caliph democratically. One only has to gain a majority of votes. After the Rashidun, the caliph turned into a hereditary dynastic rule. That happened because of the divisions started by the Umayyads and others.

Most Sunnis acknowledge the validity of the two later dynastic caliphates.

These caliphates were:

  1. The Umayyads of Damascus
  2. The Abbasids of Baghdad

They ruled individual Muslim countries afterward.

Sunni Muslims believe in one God, a belief known as “Tawhid.” Allah is a supernatural being with supreme power. All creation must show him the utmost respect. He is the sole creator of the world and everything within it.

Sunnis believe that Allah is:

  • Immanent, or close by
  • Omniscient, with all knowledge – human beings can hide nothing from him
  • Beneficent, or always kind
  • Merciful: he forgives his people when they are sorry
  • Just: on the last day, he will judge his people with fairness
  • Transcendent: above and beyond everything that exists, making him difficult to understand

– Sunni Islam Definition

A Sunni is a Muslim who considers the caliph Abu Bakr to be the rightful successor to Muhammad after his death. Sunnis view the first four caliphs as the legitimate successors to Muhammad.

People often label Sunnis as mainstream Muslims. Yet, some different customs exist within that branch of Islam. The Sunnis and the Shia have fought since the death of Muhammad in the year 632. Both sects share a belief in the teachings of the Koran. Sunnis stress the importance of Sunnah as a basis for law.

Differences in Shia and Sunni Religion

Knowing the distinctions between the two most populous divisions of Islam is vital. It will help you to understand many of the geopolitical fights in the Middle East. It will also shed light on civic conflicts in diasporic societies in the West.

Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 (and even earlier in the 1970s), tension has been growing, and Middle Eastern Sunnis and Shias have been fighting since.

Many followers of both the Sunni and Shia groups believe in the Mahdi, who will materialize at the end of the world to generate a fair, untainted Islamic society. The Twelver branch of Shia Islam believes that the Mahdi will be the Twelfth Imam. He will return from the Occultation, where Allah has hidden him since 874.

Mainstream Sunnis, in contrast, believe that the Mahdi’s name will be Muhammad. He will be the Prophet’s descendant, and he will revive the faith. Sunnis do not connect the coming of the Mahdi with the end of the world.

Shias believe that God always offers a leader. First are the imams and then ayatollahs, or sages. The latter have broad interpretive authority, and the people seek to emulate them.

Sunnis use the Koran and the traditions of Muhammad as the basis of their authority. Sunni religious leaders exert far less power than their Shia counterparts.

Sunni Islam has four subdivisions (madhabs):

  1. Hanafi
  2. Maliki
  3. Shafii
  4. Hanbali (which has spawned the Salafi and Wahhabi movements in Saudi Arabia)

Sunnis base their religion on the Sunnah and the Koran. Most of the community understands their teachings under the structure of these four schools of thought.

Some people understand these madhabs as different sects, but they are not. They differ only in minor issues of application. Evolving societies pose many questions, and the madhabs continue to seek to find Islamic answers, regardless of time or place.

Shia and Sunni have lived beside each other in relative harmony for most of history. Despite their differences, they found ways to coexist. Then the split intensified beginning in the late 20th century and burst into violence in several parts of the Middle East. Shia and Sunni extremists fought for both civil and religious sovereignty.

Saudi Arabia is the home of Islam, and it is the heart of the Sunni sect. Sunni Muslims live across the Arab world in countries like Turkey, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. Iraq, Iran, and Bahrain are Shia. Iran and Saudi Arabia are the leading Shia and Sunni powers in the Middle East. They often take opposite sides in regional conflicts.

In Saudi Arabia, all the government clerics are Sunni. They often refer to Shia as rawafidh or rafidha (rejectionists). They also denounce their practices and beliefs. They have also criticized intermarriage and mixing.

Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body is the Council of Senior Religious Scholars. A member of this council replied in a community meeting to a question about Shia Muslims that “they are not our brothers … rather, they are the brothers of Satan …”

In some other countries, the prevailing view is that Shias are not members of the Islamic faith. This view is standard in the Middle East and North Africa. For example, you’ll find it in Morocco, where there is a predominantly Sunni population.

You’ll find a natural contrast in Shia countries. For example, the majority of Sunnis in Lebanon and Iraq affirm that the Shia are Muslim. Sunnis also tend to be more accepting in countries outside North Africa and the Middle East. That is especially true in places that are home to large Shia populations. For example, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and Russia are all accepting of Shia.

Salafi Branch of Islam

The Salafi Movement is an ultra-conservative faction within Sunni Islam. It emerged during the second half of the 19th century. It claims to advocate a return to the traditions of the “devout ancestors” (salaf). However, most Muslim scholars consider Salafists to be outside the fold of Sunni Islam.

Salafists are staunch followers of the Saudi Ulema of Najd. They also follow Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab and Ibn Taymiyyah.

The level of extremism in the Salafi group is very high as compared to other groups of Muslims. They reject all new ideas as religious innovation or bi’dah. They support the implementation of the Salafi interpretation of sharia or Islamic law.

The members of the terrorist group ISIS are faithful followers of Salafi ideology. Scholars often describe the Salafi movement as being synonymous with Wahhabism. But, Salafists consider the term Wahhabi to be derogatory.

Sunni Leader

Islam is a heterogeneous religion, which recognizes no authoritative source of doctrinal interpretation (such as the Pope). Muslims believe in direct communion with God. Human mediators are not essential for followers to have a relationship with God. Muslims do not have a “clergy” in the Christian sense.

We compared Islamic clerics to religious leaders/clergy of the other Abrahamic faiths. We found that they resemble rabbis and not priests. We’ve already examined the role of the caliph, one who is head of the Muslim community. Among Sunnis, the chief community leader became known as a caliph. The caliphs succeeded Muhammad in his political and administrative, but not religious, functions.

Most people are also familiar with the term “Imam,” an Arabic word meaning “Leader.” The imam is the official who leads the prayers at the mosque. Singapore, Malaysia, and Brunei recognize anyone who leads any prayers in any place, such as at home, as an imam. The “Grand Imam” or “Imam of imams” of the al-Azhar Mosque and University is a prestigious Sunni Islam title in Egypt.

According to Islam, before Judgment Day, a “divinely guided leader,” al-Mahdi, will appear. He will bring God’s justice and peace on earth. Shiites believe that he will return as the “Hidden Imam,” but Sunnis do not believe that doctrine. Aside from some scholars, Sunnism has no formal structure of clergymen. Any Sunni may lead prayers in a mosque. A Muslim trained in Islamic law usually fulfills this role.


Members of the two main factions of Islam had lived alongside each other in peace for centuries. They’ve had periods of conflict and periods of peace. Much of the recent violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims has come up in the last 50 years. The split has remained and is now one of the most critical factors in the upheavals that have ravaged the Middle East.


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