The main difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims is based on whether or not they believe that Prophet Muhammad explicitly designated a successor.
Sunni Muslims believe that the Prophet did not explicitly declare a successor. Shia Muslims believe that the Prophet publicly designated his cousin and son-in-law, Hazrat Ali (peace be upon him), as the first in a line of hereditary Imams from the Prophet’s family to lead the community after him.
Sunnis consider the caliphs as the immediate successors of the Prophet. The early leaders were companions of the Prophet who became caliphs through different processes to lead the Muslim community. Sunnis call the first four leaders after the Prophet the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” (khulafa rashidun). These caliphs were Hazrat Abu Bakr, Hazrat Umar, Hazrat Uthman, and Hazrat Ali.
After Hazrat Ali died in 661 CE, the first Muslim dynasty of caliphs from one family began, known as the Umayyad caliphate. The Umayyads ruled over the Muslim world until 750 CE. They were overthrown after several internal rebellions, leading to the establishment of the Abbasid caliphate, the second dynasty of caliphs.
The early Sunnis viewed the caliphs as having both religious and political authority. Over time, the caliphs came to be seen mainly as political rulers, while the scholars (ulama) who had knowledge of matters of faith came to be viewed as religious authorities and interpreters.
Sunnis are formally known as Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jama‘a or “the people of the Prophet’s way and the community.” The term Sunni derives from the followers of the sunna, which are the sayings and actions of the Prophet. They rely on the consensus of opinion of the scholars of the community for guidance in matters of religion. Sunnis strive to live according to the example of the Prophet as found in medieval records of the sunna.
There are many different communities of Sunnis today. They live in different parts of the world and speak many different languages. They also have different interpretations of religious beliefs and practices.
There are four major recognised schools of law (madhahib) today: Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, and Shafi’i. In addition, most Sufis, who are Muslims who emphasise personal spiritual search, are Sunnis belonging to various Sufi tariqahs.
The Shia also strive to live according to the sunna, or example of Prophet Muhammad, as interpreted by the teachings of their hereditary Imams. In addition, they recognise the ongoing leadership and strive to follow the guidance of the Imams, who are responsible for interpreting the faith, as well as improving the quality of life of those who refer to them.
The Shia affirm that the Prophet declared Hazrat Ali as his successor to lead the Muslim community on several occasions. The most well-known of these is the Prophet’s declaration at Ghadir Khumm.
The Prophet and his followers were returning from his final pilgrimage to Mecca when he asked them to stop at an oasis called Ghadir Khumm. It is recorded in both Shia and Sunni hadith collections that Prophet Muhammad spoke to the gathering. Towards the end of his address, he raised Hazrat Ali’s hand and said, “he whose mawla I am, Ali is his mawla” (man kuntu mawlahu fa Aliyyun mawlahu).
The word mawla can be interpreted to mean friend, client, or master. Based on several contextual reasons, the Shia accepted it to mean “master,” and that Hazrat Ali was designated to assume the leadership of the Muslims after the Prophet’s death.
The Shia also believe that the Holy Qur’an mentions the higher spiritual status of the Imams from the Prophet’s family. For instance, Allah says that He wishes to purify the Ahl al-Bayt, the people of the Prophet’s household (Qur’an 33:33).
In the Qur’an, Allah has also raised Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) and his descendants above all mankind (Qur’an 3:33-34; 4:54). Prophet Abraham is believed to be the ancestor of many Prophets, including Prophet Moses (Musa), Prophet Jesus (Isa), and Prophet Muhammad. This means that the Imams from Prophet Muhammad’s descendants are among those whom Allah has raised in status.
The elevated status of the Ahl al-Bayt is also supported by a well-known saying of Prophet Muhammad known as Hadith al-Thaqalayn, or the Hadith of the Two Weighty Matters. The Shia uphold that the Prophet is reported to have said, “I am leaving among you two matters of great weight, the Book of Allah and my kindred, the People of my House (Ahl al-Bayt).” Similar versions of this saying are found in both Shia and Sunni hadith collections, including the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal and Sahih Muslim of Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj.
Other sayings of the Prophet explain Hazrat Ali’s role as a spiritual guide. One such saying is, “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate. Whoever desires knowledge should enter the city by that gate.”
Over the centuries, several branches of the Shia have emerged, primarily as a result of disagreements on succession. The largest branches today are the Ithna’asharis, the Ismailis, and the Zaydis.
His Highness the Aga Khan is the present Imam of the Shia Imami Nizari Ismaili Muslims, tracing an unbroken lineage back to Prophet Muhammad through Hazrat Ali and Bibi Fatima (peace be upon them), the Prophet’s beloved daughter.
- Nanji, Azim. The Penguin Dictionary of Islam. London and New York: Penguin Books, 2008.
- Faith and Practice in Islamic Traditions, vol. 1 (Student Reader). London: Islamic Publications Limited for The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2015.
- Article: What is Shi’a Islam? by Farhad Daftary and Azim Nanji
- Article: The Ismaili Imamat by The Institute of Ismaili Studies
- Video: A Guiding Light: The Imamat of the Shia Ismaili Muslims by The Ismaili TV
- IIS Secondary Curriculum: Faith and Practice in Islamic Traditions, vol. 1
- Article: Al-Suyuti on the Merits of Imam ‘Ali by Stephen R. Burge