Sunni and Shia Islam – All you Need To Know – Islam 101

You’d have to be living on another planet not to hear about the seemingly endless troubles in the Middle-East.  To many in the west, Muslims are Muslims but it is much more complex than that with an ancient schism dominating the religion and threatening to engulf the world whether we know about it or not.

Islam predominantly falls into two main branches, Sunni and Shia Islam.  For centuries the two have cycled between uneasy peace to outright hostility with tensions never far from the surface.  With the execution over the weekend of 47 people in predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia including an Iranian Shia cleric, all hell could break out at any moment.

The split originates in a dispute soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad over who should lead the Muslim community. The vast majority of Muslims are Sunnis with estimates in the region of between 85% and 90%.


Sunni and Shia Muslims agree on the importance of the 5 Pillars of Faith

The Pillars of Faith

Both branches share many of the same beliefs and practices notably The Shahada or Declaration of faith which states “There is no god but God (and) Muhammad is the messenger of God”.  Prayers or Salat towards Mecca, preferably in a Mosque and in the direction of Mecca. Zakat or Alms Giving / Charity with a proportion of your income being given away.   The observation of Fasting during the month of Ramadan unless travelling or sick.  Finally The Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca which every able bodies Muslim is obliged to make if physically and economically possible.

Sunni and Shia Islam have their key differences in the areas of doctrine, ritual, law, theology and religious organisation.


Map of the Islamic World

Sunni Islam


Sunni Muslims regard themselves as the orthodox and traditionalist branch of Islam.   The word Sunni comes from “Ahl al-Sunna”, the people of the tradition. The tradition in this case refers to practices based on precedent or reports of the actions of the Prophet Muhammad and those close to him.

Sunnis venerate all the prophets mentioned in the Koran such as Abraham, Moses and Jesus has a special place however it is Muhammad as the final prophet or seal of the prophets who is most revered. All subsequent Muslim leaders are seen as temporal figures.  In contrast to Shia, Sunni religious teachers and leaders have historically come under state control.  The Sunni tradition also emphasises a codified system of Islamic law and adherence to four schools of law.

Shia Islam

In early Islamic history the Shia were a political faction – literally “Shiat Ali” or the party of Ali.

The Shia claimed the right of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and his descendants to lead the Islamic community.

Ali was killed as a result of intrigues, violence and civil wars which marred his caliphate. His sons, Hassan and Hussein, were denied what they thought was their legitimate right of accession to caliphate. Hassan is believed to have been poisoned by Muawiyah, the first caliph (leader of Muslims) of the Umayyad dynasty.

His brother, Hussein, was killed on the battlefield along with members of his family, after being invited by supporters to Kufa (the seat of caliphate of Ali) where they promised to swear allegiance to him.

These events gave rise to the Shia concept of martyrdom and the rituals of grieving.

There is a distinctive messianic element to the faith and Shia have a hierarchy of clerics who practise independent and ongoing interpretation of Islamic texts.

Estimates of the number of Shia range from 120 to 170 million, roughly one-tenth of all Muslims.

Shia Muslims are in the majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Azerbaijan and, according to some estimates, Yemen. There are large Shia communities in Afghanistan, India, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Qatar, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

In countries that have been governed by Sunnis, Shia tend to make up the poorest sections of society. They often see themselves as victims of discrimination and oppression. Some extremist Sunni doctrines have preached hatred of Shia.

Sunni Muslims agree with the position taken by many of the Prophet’s companions at the time, that the new leader should be elected from among those capable of the job. This is what was done, and the Prophet Muhammad’s close friend and adviser, Abu Bakr, became the first Caliph of the Islamic nation.

On the other hand, some Muslims believe that leadership should have stayed within the Prophet’s own family, among those specifically appointed by him, or among Imams appointed by God Himself.

The Shia Muslims believe that following the Prophet Muhammad’s death, leadership should have passed directly to his cousin/son-in-law, Ali bin Abu Talib. Throughout history, Shia Muslims have not recognized the authority of elected Muslim leaders, choosing instead to follow a line of Imams which they believe have been appointed by the Prophet Muhammad or God Himself. The word “Shia” in Arabic means a group or supportive party of people.

The differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims are mainly expressed through different religious practices.

For example, there are festivals which Sunnis and Shias do not celebrate in the same way, such as Ashura. For Shias, Ashura is a day of mourning which commemorates the martyrdom of the Imam al-Husayn. This is considered to be the defining event in Shia history. But for Sunnis, Ashura is a fasting day to remember the day Nuh (Noah) left the ark and the day that Musa (Moses) was saved from the Egyptians by Allah.

Shia Muslims also believe that the Imam is sinless by nature, and that his authority is infallible because it comes directly from God. Therefore, Shia Muslims often venerate the Imams as saints and perform pilgrimages to their tombs and shrines in the hopes of divine intercession.

Sunni Muslims counter that there is no basis in Islam for a hereditary privileged class of spiritual leaders, and certainly no basis for the veneration or intercession of saints. Sunni Muslims contend that leadership of the community is not a birthright, but a trust that is earned and which may be given or taken away by the people themselves.

Shia Muslims also feel animosity towards some of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad, based on their positions and actions during the early years of discord about leadership in the community. Many of these companions (Abu Bakr, Umar ibn Al Khattab, Aisha, etc.) have narrated traditions about the Prophet’s life and spiritual practice. Shia Muslims reject these traditions (hadith) and do not base any of their religious practices on the testimony of these individuals. This naturally gives rise to some differences in religious practice between the two groups. These differences touch all detailed aspects of religious life: prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, etc.

20th century politics and nationalism has worsened the schism with the Iranian revolution of 1979 launching a radical Shia Islamist agenda that was perceived as a challenge to conservative Sunni regimes, particularly in the Gulf.  Tehran’s policy of supporting Shia militias and parties beyond its borders was matched by the Gulf states, which strengthened their links to Sunni governments and movements abroad.  During the civil war in Lebanon, Shia gained a strong political voice because of the military activities of Hezbollah.

In Pakistan and Afghanistan, hardline Sunni militant groups – such as the Taliban – have often attacked Shia places of worship. The current conflicts in Iraq and Syria have also acquired strong sectarian overtones. Young Sunni men in both countries have joined rebel groups, many of which echo the hardline ideology of al-Qaeda.  Meanwhile, many of their counterparts from the Shia community have been fighting for – or alongside – government forces.

Saudi Arabia – The Ally that fosters Islamic terrorism.

It is often forgotten that the majority of adherents to Islam are not Arabs and yet due to the foundation of Islam in the Middle-East, many supposed aspects of Islam are infact only cultural artefacts from certain countries.  For example women wearing a Niqab is the norm in very conservative Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia despite it not being mentioned in The Koran.  However as Saudia Arabia is very rich and spreads its peculiar sect of Wahhabi Islam overseas not just to Muslim lands but to the West, this cultural aspect becomes a religious one though really it isn’t.


The current flare up between Iran and Saudi Arabia is precisely due to the Sunni and Shia split.  Iran is predominantly but not wholly Shia and its leadership since the 1979 revolution has been ideologically against the existence of Israel which doesn’t go down very well in certain quarters of the United States.

As such the West and United States in particularly strongly favoured Iraq and Saddam Hussein during the 1980’s Iran/Iraq War…. that and for oil and weapons contracts as Dick Cheney has been serially embroiled in but not embarrassed about.


Britain fares equally poorly in this regard to Saudi Arabia, selling billions in weapons to the country if only for fear that France, Germany and the United States would if they could sell them their weapons instead.


However the West allies itself with Saudi Arabia for reasons that are almost as illogical as the American whole-hearted support of Israel over the Palestinians.  The Saudis supply us with oil and spend much of their oil money on our weapons.  The fact that Saudi Arabia is in almost every way a rogue state is conveniently ignored.  Just this weekend the British Prime Minister when pushed on the matter said that we are allies with the Saudis as they provide us with intelligence against terrorism, despite their ideology being largely responsible for this same terrorism.  You can watch this fascinating short extract of the interview here:

Of course the excuse the Prime Minister gives is wholly pathetic and he notably avoids any and all of the issues mentioned above.  To me, there is very little difference between ISIS and Saudi Arabia except one is already established and one isn’t and that one has helped create the other.  Staying friends with Saudi Arabia because they tip-us off with terrorism whilst being the source of so much of it makes no sense at all (without the oil and weapons contracts).

Why not just be friends with ISIS and everyone else and then no-one would want to attack us?  Because that would be wrong and somewhere a line has to be drawn.  The many vested interests put Saudi Arabia on our side of the line and Iran on the other but really it should be the other way round.

There has always been a constant battle for dominance between Sunni and Shia Islam and much of what happens in the world today is just the latest episode of that.

I have always been of the opinion that Western policy should revolve around Iran and not Saudi Arabia or Israel.  It is worth bearing in mind that Iran is not an Arab country but rather genetically and culturally one of the cornerstones of the Indo-European civilisation.   The recent treaty between the leading global nations and Iran is in the process of normalising the relations with Iran, something which the Gulf States have always been strongly against.


It was Saudi Arabia where the 9/11 bombers came from, not Iran.  Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that doesn’t allow women to drive cars.  You can easily go to Iran on holiday, in fact it is one of the most recommended destinations for adventure and cultural tours.  In Saudi Arabia, there isn’t even a tourist visa…. it is impossible to holiday in Saudi Arabia.  They don’t want visitors because it would unravel their whole system of dictatorial rule.   Saudi Arabia is also an Absolute Monarchy, Iran is a parliamentary democracy with strong theocratic strains.

You can see my blog of about 2 years ago on the destruction of historical and cultural Mecca by Saudi Arabia because it doesn’t fit in with the beliefs bizarre and puritanical Wahhabi sect… incidentally one of my most popular blog posts ever.  Iran however values its long and extremely distinguished cultural and religious history.


I hope you found this very complicated subject relatively easy to understand and the role it plays in the Middle-East today and the terrorist threat that seemingly overhangs us all.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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11 Responses to Sunni and Shia Islam – All you Need To Know – Islam 101

  1. Rosemarie says:

    Thanks for this, Stephen. I don’t know much about Islam. I know I hate the burqa for the way it dehumanizes women. Right after 9/11 I read a book about women in Arab states and learned that they had many more rights in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq than any other middle Eastern country. What a mess G.W. wrought with his fake war.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As Islam is one of the few things I’m an expert on (I’m not Muslim though) I thought now was as good a time as ever. Yes that war just made a bad situation very much worse. It just goes to show how little some politicians understand the area, how can the West support Saddam, give him the weapons to massacre the Kurds and commit war-crimes against Iran just because of oil and him being “our-guy” before turning on him when he is lead to believe he can do anything and take more oil…. only for the country to fall apart creating a form of Islam much worse than the Ayatollahs and backed by our supposed strongest ally before we then fall on supporting the Kurds who 30 years earlier we watched get eliminated from illegal poison gas and chemicals. In all of this only one country is consistent and it ends up being Iran of all places.


  2. SciFiFanBoy says:

    Stephen – a great article! Informative and a little confronting. Discourse that’s insightful, intelligent and seeks to bring about understanding rather than perpetuate fear is so important right now. I really enjoyed reading this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank-you. Yes, so many people just spread rumours or biased information. I like to share what I know but its hard as I know its serious stuff and not everyone is interested and you can get bad emails from those who disagree or think they know better!


  3. Diane Tibert says:

    Although I know more about this now, I don’t feel any more positive about the future. It feels like a time-bomb, and we don’t know if it will go off next year, ten years from now or fifty. For the life of me, I can’t understand why they continue to fight after all these centuries. You’d think there would be some moment in time when a leader stood up and said, “Enoughs enough. Let’s make peace. Religion is not as important as all the deaths it causes.”

    But sadly, religion appears more important to them than life itself, their life and all the lives of their family.

    As for the way this religion treats women: the more it spreads, the more I worry about my rights and that of all women in the world. I am not a shadow servant.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes I agree. You would think in a reasonable world that people would let what happen centuries ago rest. If someone got killed when they shouldn’t have done and you’re religious then surely let God or Allah deal with it rather than perpetuate the cycle. The next century will certainly be an interesting one. I’d like to know how it turns out but on the other hand don’t want to be round if it all falls apart. Again with women, when Islam was founded it was by far the most progressive religion but sadly as with other things, it now has the cultural baggage of many treating women in a certain way. There is nothing in the Koran to support it but it comes with the Saudi Petro dollars.


  4. Ankur Mithal says:

    Very informative and timely post. And we thought Islam is at war with Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, et al. But one has to wonder where it is headed…

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a funny thing how often with these things, the only thing that unites people is their hatred of outsiders. When I studied these things, I often heard that Israel was the only thing that united many in the Middle-East and otherwise there would be plenty of infighting. It’s interesting even now how governments so easily get out of trouble by picking a petty fight with a neighbouring Islamic country with lots of marches and flag burning. In the U.K. we call them rent-a-mob!


  5. Dave Miller says:

    Thanks Stephen. Insightful as ever. It is surprising to learn that Sunnis form around 80% of all Muslims.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I knew about the percentages but even I didn’t realise just how many of the extremists are Sunni. Due to the whole American-Iran situation, everybody thinks that Iranians are particularly extreme or intolerant when in actuality going on civil rights, extremists, dictatorships and terrorists they stand out as being stable and “reasonable”.


  6. Very eye opening. It’s something I had wondered about, but had never bothered to learn about, thanks for making it understandable.

    Liked by 1 person

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