Sunni? Shia? Or Just Muslim?

sunnishiaWhat is a Sunni? What is a Shia? These two labels–which many still struggle to clearly define–have been used to explain some of the most violent confrontations in recent years. Now it seems that discussions on the conflict in Iraq, for example, require framing the discourse with the colorings of sectarianism. In the mainstream media, it seems that the explanation for all intra-religious fighting is solely the result of longstanding discord between these two main divisions of Islam.

Personally, I never thought of myself as anything but Muslim. I suspect many other Muslims also share that sentiment. It was only in high school that I even became aware of the division. I would give talks with my friends about Islam and the question “Are you Sunni or Shia?” started to come up. Of course, your family and community play a big role in what you come to know and how you know it. Since my family was of Sunni background, I was raised in that tradition. However, I was never taught to hate or harbor ill will towards the Shia. They were Muslims who shared much with Sunnis but had certain religious doctrines that we just agreed to disagree about.

Many people do not realize that the divide between Sunni and Shia (the two largest branches of Islam with several other groups  resulting from this initial divide) was sparked initially by a political disagreement over who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad as the leader of the new Muslim community. It was not a fundamental rift in religious ideology. Those who were later to be called the Sunnis believed that he did not designate a successor and left it to the community to decide; while those who would later be called the Shia believed that Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, was chosen by the Prophet to succeed him. Early on, though, there weren’t any doctrinal differences. Over time, this split developed and eventually there arose some points of religious disagreement.

Sunnis and Shia share the core beliefs of Islam: the belief in the absolute oneness of God, the Prophet Muhammad, the pillars of Islam, and the Qur’an.  The main source of doctrinal differences stems from the question of legitimate succession. For the Shia, authority should have remained within the Prophet’s household, Ahl al-Bayt. Their understanding of the household is narrower than the Sunnis and comprises only Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, her husband Ali, and their sons Hasan and Husayn. The family connection is central to the Shia notion of who can claim knowledge and guidance:  first, the direct family of the Prophet and then a series of Imams from the same lineage. The Sunnis, on the other hand, love and respect the family of the Prophet; however, what constitutes Ahl al-Bayt includes the wives of the Prophet as well (meaning not just blood connection). There is also an emphasis on egalitarianism so that anyone who is able to lead because of a virtuous character and knowledge can become the leader and can be a source of knowledge. Thus, Sunnis consider Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali all to be the Rightly Guided Caliphs and believe that anyone who has achieved a certain level of scholarship can interpret the Qur’an. In other words, the Shia will look to the Imams, descendants of the Prophet, for guidance while Sunnis look to the scholars, the Ulama, without regard to lineage. This difference in emphasis has resulted in much of the doctrinal variation between the two groups.

The question for me, though, is: do the historical rift and and subsequent religious differences now explain what is going on in Iraq, for example, or define Islam as a whole? I would venture to say no. The historical trend has often been to simplify anything having to do with Islam to a few basic elements, which more often than not involves discord and violence. It is very problematic to assign a few factors to explain complex problems. If, for example, the fighting in Iraq can be attributed mainly to the conflict between the Sunnis and the Shia, then how can one explain the fact that before the 2003 war, the two divisions mixed freely and inter-group marriages were quite common? In fact, as noted in a recent MSNBC article, Sunni-Shia marriages are now being encouraged financially in an effort to heal the divide caused by the war. Being Sunni or Shia is an identity, a label. As such it fluctuates and can be a reason for conflict but can also be a point to find commonalities.

One example of an attempt towards unity is the Amman Message, in which scholars from both groups came together  in 2004 to write a resolution that stated that followers of the four Sunni schools of thought and the two Shia schools are all Muslims.  I don’t pretend that there has been conflict between the divisions; however, I don’t think it  defines Islam’s history. More often than not, I would argue, a Muslim just wants to be called a Muslim and to leave politics aside.

What do you know about the difference (and commonalities) between Sunni and Shia? Do doctrinal differences always lead to violence? Can one find similarities or differences in other faiths? Please leave your comments.

17 thoughts on “Sunni? Shia? Or Just Muslim?

  1. Pingback: Sunni, Shia or Just Muslim? « A Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice

  2. It’s fine that people have different interpretations of Islam. Yes, there are many things that are clearly defined within Islam but there is also a lot of flexibility and a lot of room for rational reasoning and personal interpretation. As Muslims, we should educate ourselves on these differing interpretations in Islam and be open to them. By doing so, we can recognize that when it all comes down to it, our core beliefs are the same.

  3. Assalamu’alaikum,

    In my opinion “JUST MUSLIM” is better Shia, Sunny because it would be strengthen the tie of brotherhood among Muslims, but not wrong to set up Islamic organizations on the condition that the organization must be in accordance with the Quran and Sunnah and not to overestimate one stream to another.


  4. Sunni…Shia…does not matter. We should not ponder on things that makes us look different from one another. We should rather dwell on things that is common to us and that is believing in one true God.

  5. My question is can a sunni become a shia? Can a sunni marry a shia? How can a sunni become a shia?

  6. thr is no difference between sunni and shia
    i am a muslim
    and i can prove by many reasons tht thr is no difference between sunni and shia

  7. yes hira my answer is yes of all ur questions
    before also i told tht thr is no diffrnce between sunni and shia i can prove

  8. and hira why a sunni cannot marry shia
    shia r also muslims
    thy had one god allah
    and thesame prophets the same quran
    thy r nt nonmuslims

  9. I am a new Muslim I did my Shahada two years ago Islam is for all races I consider myself just Muslim .But I feel discrimanation because I am a white American I know Allah knows my heart but please let us all be a family in Islam

  10. Shia -Sunni differences started due to political differences and continue to remain the same till date. There are elements in every community who want to take advantage by exploiting differences to gain power and following; they come into prominence whenever there is breakdown of law and order and involve in instigating voilence due to vested interest. I saw it happen in India amongst Hindus between castes and also among muslims.
    The average common allways wants to find common ground to resolve differences because these so called representatives do not want that to happen as it will remove the only reason for their existance (by instilling fear and hatred) as leaders.
    However if majority opinion can be changed by using media and scholors from both sides then we may hope for some dilution in any further schism.

  11. Dear Brothers

    I agree with yuda’s comments

    Basically, lot of us don’t know the basics of Islam and trying to divide us in many communities to gain their political benefits.
    If we take sample of few muslims and ask their views on some issue, they may have different views because of not aware about basics, should we divide them as different groups in Islam
    NEVER, Muslims are only muslim who beleive in One ALLAH and his Profet (PBUH), not this or that.
    It’s very clear
    Quetion of marriage with each other is baseless, as we know even muslim can marry christian. Because we beleives in other profet sent by ALLAH, even teachings and sunnah are superceded by the teachings of last prophet “Mohammad Rasullullah “(PBUH)
    Correct me if I am wrong

  12. I believe we are only Muslim. We should learn from all sects and scholars, but not identify oneself to any particular sect. Creating sect is shirk that is an unforgivable sin. So we are Muslims only. Brothers, historical differences are part of history, and that cannot be corrected. We are responsible for the present and future of our deeds. What people of the past did will be answerable to Allah, and so will we. Good qualities of all sects are true Islam, and differences are not part of Islam, as that divides the Ummah. May Allah unite us all like one body.

  13. Assalamu alaikkum,
    Sunnis are followers of Islam who believe in the teachings of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Shiites are those who follow some others. Actually, Shiites perform unwanted rituals and rites that are authentically against Islam in some countries, especially in India. You should just see what some people do in the name of offerings to Allah. There is no division as such in Islam as far as I know. I came to know that I’m a Sunni only some two years ago. I’m a little child (16), not an adult. But I don’t like this division. In India, the majority of Muslims are so called Shiites. In Gulf countries, most Muslim immigrants are Sunnis, Like myself. I was a Non-Resident Indian from birth until 2010. All my friends in Kuwait were Sunnis. But back in India, all are Shiites!

    To be a Muslim, it’s quite simple. First, perform all what has been said in the ‘Five pillars of Islam’. Second, believe in the six things stated. Do only what’s Halal. Refrain from doing or using anything that’s Haram! Easy, why should one perform unwanted rituals? That’s Shirk!

  14. Salam. Sunnis and Shiites are both Muslims and there should be a unity between them in order to strengthen Islam. The common things between them are many, but absolutely we can not totally ignore the idea that there are differences between them.
    “Yanisha”: Islam is much more than what you said, because these duties that Islam asks us to do must be our way to be closer to God, and to reach God we must do every thing right. That’s why we should know which parts of Muslim groups are right, because there must be only one that is following the real rules of the real Islam ( I mean if you think logically, you can’t say that the first side is right and that the opposite one that has an opposite opinion is also right). So Muslims must love each other, but there’s nothing called “just a Muslim” without knowing exactly what Islam we are following.

  15. I am neither Sunni nor Shia, nevertheless a common connection would prevail as a bond that I consider significant.
    Many Countries such as Britain have variants of many religions, as yet the differing aspects and interpretation is not a stumbling block that divides this culture.
    As stated, these two interpretations of the Islamic faith have not been a problem until more so as a recent phenomena.
    I suggest a reason for distention is forces that manipulate this religion for purpose that are exterior to this religion, such as political power and or economic.
    It would seem Mohamed would stress tolerance, this may be the key to the solution of conflict and the path to peace.