The division between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam goes back to a dispute within the early Muslim community over the rightful successor to Muhammad. However, the differences in their culture and customs are not just ancient history. Sunni and Shiite traditions are distinct in several important ways, from sources of religious authority to religious rituals and holidays.
Shiite and Succession
The name Shiite reflects the continuing importance of the fitna, or strife, that split the early Muslim community into two conflicting camps. After Muhammad's death in 632 C.E., a number of Muslims believed that his successor (khalifa, or caliph) should be chosen by community consensus. Others, however, contended that the line of succession should go through the Prophet's family, in particular, his son-in-law Ali. The Shiat of Ali -- literally, the partisans of Ali -- are the spiritual ancestors of today's Shiite believers. Shiite traditions also regard Ali and the religious leaders, or imams, descended from him to be sinless and infallible.
Sunna and Sunni
The name Sunni illustrates the impact of this struggle over succession on Islamic culture. Sunni is derived from Sunna, a major source of Islamic law besides the Quran. The Sunna is based on hadith, accounts of incidents and sayings from the life of Muhammad. While Shiite Islam draws primarily from accounts reported by Muhammad's family as well as the sayings of a line of infallible imams that continued through the ninth century C.E., Sunni Islam looks to a wider range of hadith from both Muhammad's family and his companions. In addition, Sunni culture continues to emphasize community consensus, or ijma, as opposed to the binding authority of medieval imams and modern ayatollahs.
Despite sharing many of the same core beliefs, Sunni and Shiite Muslims have somewhat different traditions in how they live their faith. For example, both Shiite and Sunni Muslims say the shadaha, or affirmation that "there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God." However, Shiite Islam includes an additional line affirming that "Ali is the friend of God." In addition, although Shiite and Sunni Muslims both agree that performing salat, the daily cycle of obligatory prayers, is a fundamental of the faith, Sunni Muslims pray at five separate times of day while Shiites group the prayers in such a way as to require only three separate prayer times.
As the "Encyclopedia of Islam" observes, holidays are a significant means by which Shiite Muslims express a distinct identity. One particularly prominent tradition is the commemoration of the martyrdom of the third Imam, Ali's son Husayn, during the holiday of Ashura, a period of fasting and reflection previously established by Muhammad. Shiites also have holidays not held in connection with the shared Islamic calendar, such as the commemoration of Muhammad's announcement of Ali as his success and the celebration of the birthdays of its infallible imams.
- The Encyclopedia of Islam; Juan E. Campo, ed.
- An Introduction to Islamic Law; Wael B. Hallaq
- The Encyclopaedia of Islam, New Edition; Clifford Edmund Bosworth, ed.
- Congressional Research Service: Islam: Sunnis and Shiites
- Al Islam: A Shi'ite Encyclopedia: The Major Difference Between the Shia and the Sunni
- Al Islam: A Shi'ite Encyclopedia: Joining Prayers and Other Related Issues
- Religious Holidays and Calendars: An Encyclopedic Handbook; Karen Bellenir, ed.
- The New Cambridge History of Islam; Chase F. Robinson, ed.
- Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images News/Getty Images