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Sunni Vs Shiite Muslim: What's the Difference?

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Even though both Sunni and Shiite Muslims are sects of the Islamic belief, the two are different in various aspects.

What's the difference between a Sunni Muslim and a Shiite Muslim?

The main difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims originates from a disagreement over the succession of the Prophet Muhammad upon his death in 632. The Shiite community believes in the succession of Muhammad by Imam Ali, his son-in-law. However, the Sunni community did not believe in this concept; they chose to follow the path of Abu Bakr, Prophet Muhammad's advisor and close friend.

Walkthrough the entire article to discover every aspect that sets the Sunni and Shiite Muslims apart.

What is a Sunni Muslim?

Great Mosque of Kairouan, the heartland of Sunni Islam throughout the Muslim West

Islamic population consists of two primary branches: Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim. The Sunni community is the major of the two branches, with around 80% to 90% of Islamism followers practicing this form of Islam. There are in total 900 million Sunni practitioners in the world. The two massive movements connected with Sunni Muslims are the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabis movements. They've reformed Sunnisim by strict adherence to the holy Quran and conservatism.

The individuals belonging to the Sunni community have orthodox ideologies. They give more prominence to their customs. The consensus body established by the Sunni Muslim community under the name Ijma includes practices and traditions that are not cited in the Quran.

What is a Shiite (Shia) Muslim?

Mosque of Imam Hussein, one of the holiest places of Shiite Islam in Kerbala, Iraq

A Shiite Muslim is an individual who is a member of one of the two primary branches of Islam. They're Muslims who pursue some specific religious background. The Shiite communities are the second-largest Islamic branch, after Sunnis. They believe that Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, Imam Ali, was his legitimate heir and regard Ali as their religious and political leader.

As per the Shiite community, Imam Ali has three main functions: the first is to rule over the Islam religion, the second is the understanding of religious law and science, and the third is to be a spiritual leader, helping people to understand their inner meaning. 

Differences Between Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim

Number Of Followers

According to the data of 2017, there were around 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, making up approximately 25% of the total population. About 85% of Muslims belong to the Sunni community, whereas only 15% are followers of the Shiite community.

There are currently 1.6 billion Sunnis, and fewer than 200 million people belong to the Shiite community. Although Sunnis are spread all over the Muslim communities worldwide from West Africa to Indonesia, the Shiite communities are located in the center geographically, with most of them residing in the Middle Eastern countries.

Religious Hierarchy

The Shiite community has full control over their spiritual hierarchy, and the caliph always arises from a direct connection with Imam Ali. This section also depends on religious foundations, so there's no need for government involvement.

On the other hand, the Sunni community allows the involvement of government bodies. Leader appointment is a big community process for the Sunnis. Moreover, there exists no hierarchy within the Sunni community.

Afterlife Philosophies

Although Sunni and Shiite Muslims believe that there's either Hell or Paradise in the afterlife, the difference comes when it's about how one gets there. The Shiite community believes that if they follow Prophet Muhammad and the Twelve Imams and have complete faith in them, then they'll surely get to enter Paradise after their death.

The Sunni community thinks that if they've believed in Allah, his prophets, faith in the righteous actions cited in the holy Quran, and accept Prophet Muhammad as their final Prophet, they'll have a chance to get into Paradise afterlife. However, even if they do all this, the result will depend on the mercy of Allah.

The Successor of Prophet Muhammad

One of the primary reasons behind the existence of two branches in the Islamic community is the difference in their beliefs on who should have succeeded Prophet Muhammad. On the one hand, Sunnis believed that a religious and knowledgeable person should be the heir to Muhammad; on the other, the Shiite community believes that the heir should have a direct ancestral relation to the Prophet.

Abu Bakr was the first heir of Prophet Muhammad; however, the Shiite community opposed the decision. From their point of view, Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, should've taken over.


Self-flagellation is an act where people flog their own backs, hit their chest with their hands, or use chains and knives. While the Sunnis believe that the practice of self-flagellation is a sin and they never participate in such acts in any capacity, the Shiite community agrees with the practice of self-flagellation. They do these acts to honor the martyrdom of Hussein.

Worship at Graves

The Sunni Muslims strongly oppose the practice of praying at gravesites. They view it as a sin (or shirk) since it relies on someone apart from Allah for help. However, the Shiite community is fine with this practice; they literally encourage it. They believe that a Shiite soul has passed away, and they're still the followers of Allah. It's like asking someone (dead or alive) to pray for oneself.

Temporary Marriages

Temporary marriage is an ancient Islamic tradition where men and women were united as husband and wife for a specified and brief period. This practice was carried on when a man needed to travel far distances. While the Sunni Muslims view this practice as adultery, the Shiite community accepts it.

The Lifestyle of Angels

Although both the Sunni and Shiite communities have complete faith in the concept of angels and that they were created from light by Allah, the way they think angels live their lives is diametrically opposite. The Shiite Muslims believe that angels obey Allah's commands; however, they can disobey. But as they've no desire to commit any sin, they remain divine anyway. On the flip side, Sunnis believe that angels always obey Allah's commands because they don't have any free will.

Comparison Table: Sunni Muslim Vs Shiite Muslim

FactorsSunni MuslimShiite Muslim
Number of Followers1.6 billion200 million
Religious HierarchyNo hierarchy within the Sunni communityThe caliph of the Shiite community always arises from a direct connection with Imam Ali
Afterlife PhilosophiesIf they believe in Allah, his prophets, have faith in the virtuous deeds mentioned in the Holy Quran and accept Prophet Muhammad as their last prophet, then they have a chance to enter ParadiseIf they follow the Prophet Muhammad and the twelve Imams and have complete faith in them, then they will surely enter Paradise
The Successor of Prophet MuhammadBelieves that a religious and knowledgeable person should be the heir to MuhammadBelieves that the heir should directly relate to the Prophet
Self-FlagellationDisagrees with the practice of self-flagellationAgrees with this practice
Worship at GravesStrongly opposes the practice of prayer on gravesTolerates this practice
Temporary MarriagesThe Sunnis view temporary marriages as adulteryThe Shiites, to this day, believe in it and glorify it
The Lifestyle of AngelsBelieves that angels always obey the orders of Allah because they have no free willBelieves that angels obey Allah's orders; however, they may disobey. But since they have no desire to commit any sin, they are still divine

Frequently Asked Questions

Who are more orthodox, the Shiites or the Sunnis?

Although both Islams, the Sunni Muslim and the Shiite Muslim, are orthodox, the former considers itself the more orthodox branch of Islam.

What is the cause of the division between Sunnis and Shiites?

After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, a dispute over succession divided his relatives. Groups were formed and doctrines developed, giving rise to the two main branches of Islam, Sunnism and Shiism.

In a simple way, those who chose Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law, became the Shiites, while those, the majority, who preferred to follow Abu Bakr, Muhammad's companion, became the Sunnis.

What are the Shiite Muslim countries?

Four countries in the world have a Shiite majority: Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan. The area from the Middle East to North Africa is the oldest in terms of establishment but it represents only 20% of the Muslim population.

Wrapping Up

Although they agree on many fundamental aspects of Islam, the Sunni and Shiite movements have many differences that have been accurately presented in this article.


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About the Author: Nicolas Seignette

Nicolas Seignette, who holds a scientific baccalaureate, began his studies in mathematics and computer science applied to human and social sciences (MIASHS). He then continued his university studies with a DEUST WMI (Webmaster and Internet professions) at the University of Limoges before finishing his course with a professional license specialized in the IT professions. On 10Differences, he is in charge of the research and the writing of the articles concerning technology, sciences and mathematics.
All Posts Written By Nicolas Seignette

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