Sunni and Shia: Detailing the Different Branches of Islam

Sunni and Shia: Detailing the Different Branches of Islam

Since 9/11, Muslims have been spotlighted on the political stage on a consistent basis. From Syrian refugees seeking safety in America, to radical jihadists violently killing people around the globe, Islam is a highly-discussed religion that many americans don’t truly understand.

Much like Christianity can be divided into various subgroups including Protestant and Evangelical, Islam has branches of its own. Sunnis make up the vast majority, about 85 to 90 percent. With over 1.5 billion followers worldwide, Sunnis view themselves as the orthodox branch of Islam and are mostly located in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. The name Sunni translates into “people of the tradition,” referencing their practices based on Prophet Muhammad.

The other 10% of Muslims, an estimated 154 to 200 million, are called Shias and are largely based in Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, Afghanistan, and Syria. The Shias started as a movement in early Islamic history and the name is a shortening for “Shiat Ali,” or “followers of Ali.”

A man sits and prays in the library of the Fahad Mosque in Culver City, Calif.
A man sits and prays in the library of the Fahad Mosque in Culver City, Calif.

A man sits and prays in the library of the Fahad Mosque in Culver City, Calif.

All followers of Islam acknowledge the Quran as their holy book and the prophet Muhammad as a messenger of God. One common belief all Muslims share is the Sunnah: Prophet Muhammad’s original teachings, sayings, and silent approvals or disapprovals.

The division between the two largest Islamic branches is rooted back in early history, following the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD. The Shias believed only the descendants of Muhammad could inherit the caliphate, or leadership, while the Sunnis believed a majority vote should elect the head.

Eventually, the title went to Abu Bakr, second-in-command in Muhammad’s absence, even though some strongly persisted it should have gone to Ali, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. After Abu Bakr’s successors were assassinated, Ali subsequently became leader.

The next decades were marked by civil war and Ali was assassinated in the year 661. His sons Hassan and Hussein, who viewed the caliphate as their legitimate right, had the same fate as their father. Muawiyah, the first caliph of the Sunni-based Umayyad dynasty, poisoned Hassan in 680. The Umayyad then killed Hussain in battle the following year.

Inside of the Fahad Mosque in Culver City, Calif.
Inside of the Fahad Mosque in Culver City, Calif.

Inside of the Fahad Mosque in Culver City, Calif.

These events orchestrated the primary divide at the time, where Shias adopted values of martyrdom, sacrifice, and grieving, while the Sunnis focused more in God’s influence and power on the earth. Despite their dispute over the heir of the caliphate, the Sunnis do recognize Ali and the three caliphs before him as rightly guided. On the other hand, Shias consider Ali and the leaders who came after him as imams, or those responsible of spreading the prophet’s words upon his death and lead the prayers and services.

According to Ali Miyajan, a Sunni SMC student from India, the difference is how they translate the Quran. Miyajan said, “The Sunnis go for the literal meaning of the Quran. The Shias interpret it and make it their own rules. For us [Sunnis], we just pray for Allah.

We don’t ask for any other. They ask Ali. In prayers also, they will say ‘in the name of Ali,’ while we always pray ‘in the name of Allah.’ We have to believe it is all about Allah.”

This method of interpretation refers to the custom of Shias following the Quran by the understandings of the imams. A Shia SMC student, Mohammed Al Shammari, elaborated on this.

“Shias have a reference they have to go to do anything they want to do. So, let’s say, for example, tattoos. You have to go to your reference, which is the imam, and ask,” Al Shammari said. “Some references tell you it is okay to put a tattoo, except where you wash on the religious rituals. But some others say it is okay. My reference says it is okay to put it anywhere.”

"If a Shia comes in here, of course I am not going to turn them away. They are welcome to pray and welcome to discuss with me on the different issues.”

Apart from their differences which resulted from Prophet Muhammad’s death, two other main factors separate these two branches of Islam. First, the Sunni and Shias have different holy shrines. For a Shia, the sacred sanctuaries are the Karbala, Kufa, and Najaf, all located in Iraq. Mecca and Medina are the holy sites for the Sunni, which are controlled by the Saudi Arabian royal family.

Second, the Sunni believe the Messiah will come to the earth one day while the Shias believe Muhammad’s religious guidance and command were passed to twelve descendants.

The last of the twelve, who vanished during the ninth century in Iraq, is believed to be a boy who disappeared into a cave below a mosque, after his father was murdered. It is believed the boy did not die, but is actually in hiding, waiting to return as the Mahdi (Messiah) to bring justice upon this earth.

The partition of Sunnis and Shias kept growing, highlighted by the Iranian revolution in 1979. Tehran, the capital city of Iran, announced new policies supporting Shia militias and forces past its borders. The Sunnis did not take this approach lightly, seeing it as a challenge to especially conservative Sunni nations. Since then, great tension has arisen in the Gulf region, which separates Saudi Arabia, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, and Iran by just a body of water.

Despite their differences, a lot of modern Muslims are open-minded and willing to accept each other with open arms. Although many older Islamic believers emphasize this divide, Muslims such as Sheikh Ahson Syed, the imam for King Fahad’s Mosque in Culver City, believes otherwise.

Two men shake hands after leaving their mid-day prayer at the Fahad Mosque.
Two men shake hands after leaving their mid-day prayer at the Fahad Mosque.

Two men shake hands after leaving their mid-day prayer at the Fahad Mosque.

Syed said, “If Shias come here, they are most welcome to come and pray. I am the imam for the Sunni, so I preach according to my Sunni beliefs. But if a Shia comes in here, of course I am not going to turn them away. They are welcome to pray and welcome to discuss with me on the different issues.”

With Republican candidate Donald Trump casting a negative light on muslims, proposing a stop on immigration "from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism,” anti-muslim advocates have grown brave enough to voice their opinions.

Sheikh Ahson Syed has no anger or hostility against those who practice Islamaphobia.

“When people who have the wrong ideas about Islam, these anti-Muslim feelings due to what they have read or what they watch on the news, or whatever they have, they are filled with this hate based on misinformation,” said Syed. “The beautiful thing is that when they do actually come and speak to a Muslim and clarify those misconceptions, almost every time they leave that conversation with a whole new outlook.”