16 Jan 2023


The Shiite and Sunni: A History of Conflict

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Academic level: College

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Little known by most people, the Muslims are divided into two sections namely the Shi’ite and the Sunni. The two Muslim factions are much like any other divisions on tribal or religious grounds. The Shiites are the fewest in number as compared to the Sunnis. In 2007, the Shiite were said to make up an estimated 10-15% of the total Muslim population in the world. This number amounts close to 250 million compared to the 1.6 billion Muslims said to exist in the world at that time. The Sunnis are the largest Muslim faction making up the other 80-90% of the population. The Sunnis’ influence over the Shiites has been overwhelming due to their dominance. So as to understand these two factions, it is paramount to looks at the origin of the split between the two, their differences and similarities, and the grounds of their bitter relationship. 

Cause of the Split 

In the 7th century, the Muslims lived as one people. They were headed by one sovereign leader who was named Mohammed. Mohammed was a pillar of strength for the Muslims and his leadership embodied togetherness. Upon his death in 632 AD, a heated debated emerged from the people over who was supposed to become his successor (Schuster, 2007). A section of the Muslims argued that Mohammed’s successor had to be someone from his bloodline whereas another advocated for the appointing of a pious person not necessarily from the line of Mohammed. The group that advocated for Mohammed’s successor to be adopted from his bloodline made the now known Shiite Muslim faction whereas the rest made the Sunnis (Schuster, 2007). 

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Abu Bakr became Mohammed’s successor following opposition from the Shiites who advocated for the appointing of Ali Bin Abi Talib, who was the deceased prophet’s cousin (Schuster, 2007). Later on, Ali came to be the fourth Caliph in 656 AD following the assassination of Uthman and was faced with a strong opposition from the Sunnis. Ali was assassinated later on in 661 following a long chain of violence and turmoil (Schuster, 2007). Ever since then, the two Muslim divides have never had proper relations to date. 

Differences between the Shiite and Sunni 

The first and significant difference between the two is the one resulting in their split. The Shiites believe that the Muslim leader must be a descendant of Prophet Muhammad (Chuck, 2016). They believe that leadership should be a birth right to those that belong to Prophet Muhammad’s bloodline. The Sunnis, on the other side, believe that the leader should be a religious person and not necessarily one from Muhammad’s blood line (Chuck, 2016). Sunnis argue that leadership should not be a birth right but rather a trust that one earns from the people. They also believe that the people are the ones who should have the power take away or put in place the leader. 

Further, the Shiite believe that the leader chosen is perfect and sovereign, not capable of making mistakes and all powerful (Chuck, 2016). This is because according to them, the leader is chosen by God. The Sunnis, on the other hand, believe that the Imam is going to be imperfect and is prone to making mistakes (Chuck, 2016). This is the reason why they over watch Imam’s activities to make sure that they correct where they go wrong. When the Shiites have matters that they need to be resolved, they rely on the Imam’s infallibility whereas the Sunnis rely on the consensus of the community. 

When it comes to practice, both divides approach them differently. In a day, the Sunni Muslims hold prayers pray five times, i.e. the fajr, the zohr, the asar, the Maghrib, and the isha. On the other hand, the Shiites pray thrice in a day (Morning, midday, and during sunset). Additionally, the Shiites also permit fixed-term temporary marriage which is also referred to as Mutah a practice that the Sunnis highly criticize (Chuck, 2016). Moreover, the Shiites spend a lot of time training religious scholars (Chuck, 2016). The training involves numerous years of instruction in Muslim law and theology. This practice is common amongst them because they believe in a top-down approach when it comes to decision making on Islamic practice. The Sunnis do not believe in the top-to-down approach (Chuck, 2016). They make decisions at the local level. 

Today, the two groups are also differentiable by their areas of residence. The Sunnis are widely located in many areas of the world today. They occupy large parts of North Africa and the Middle East. They are found in large numbers in countries like Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and in North African countries like Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia. The Shiites are not distributed worldwide and are mostly found in Iran, Iraq, India, and Pakistan. 


Despite their vast differences, both groups also have common grounds. For instance, the all believe in Prophet Muhammad (Janney, 2017). Both the Shiites and Sunnis believe that Muhammad is God’s messenger to them. They believe in one God, Allah, to whom they all pray. Additionally, they also believe in and practice the five ritualistic pillars of Islam (Janney, 2017). They all declare their belief in Allah as the one true God of Prophet Muhammad, practice fasting on Ramadhan, engage in daily prayers, involve themselves in giving charity and doing good deeds, and also observe the Hajj. 

Moreover, both sects also use the Quran. They accept the Quran as the Muslim Holy Book which gives the indisputable will of Allah and his plan for the entire human race (Janney, 2017). They all follow the teachings of the Quran and use it during their ceremonial proceedings as well as in the mosques. The Quran is the source of their law, and it influences their way of living in every detail. Shiites and Sunnis believe that the laws of the Quran surpass any other law in the world. 

Further, there also believe in Islam as the one true faith (Janney, 2017). They believe in Islam as not just a belief but also a way of life. They all criticize other religions as not being true, and this has resulted in the religious rifts between them and other religions. The view other religions as falsified and vague. 

Another significant similarity between the two is that they both do not use the depiction of human forms in their art. They do not uphold the representation of Allah or Prophet Muhammad in images or drawings (Janney, 2017). This is considered idolatry by both sects, an act that the Quran describes as a sin. This explains why their temples do not have decorations of images of either Allah or Prophet Muhammad lie in the Hindu or Buddhist temples. Temples of both the Shiites and Sunnis are always filled with decorations that are of a complex nature and are written in Arabic calligraphy. 


Today, the two groups still have very vast differences and are in constant violent opposition to one another. In 2014, the Shiites and Sunnis in Syria engaged in a bitter war against one another over political leadership. Syria, which is largely dominated by the Sunnis, was facing constant opposition from members of the Shiite sect who were against the government. The wave of the fights spread to Iraq, which is largely Shiite occupied but with segments of Sunni rebels. What started as a religious conflict between the Muslims has now developed to become a string of political divides and animosity between the two. 


Chuck, E. (2016). What are the differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims? NBC . Retrieved on 25 February 2017, from http://www.nbcnews.com/news/mideast/what-are-differences-between-sunni-shiite-muslims-n489951. 

Janney, P. (2017). Shiite & Sunni Muslim Similarities . People of Our Everyday Life . Retrieved on 25 February 2017, from http://peopleof.oureverydaylife.com/shiite-sunni-muslim-similarities-1969.html. 

Schuster, M. (2007). The Origins of the Shiite-Sunni Split. NPR . Retrieved on 25 February 2017, from http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2007/02/12/7332087/the-origins-of-the-shiite-sunni-split. 

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