Sunni and Shia Muslims share many aspects of Islamic teachings in common and also have their differences. This article serves as a brief overview of the similarities and differences between the two groups.

Are most Muslims Sunni or Shia?

Sunnis make up the larger population of Muslims. Approximately 87-90% of Muslims are Sunni while the remaining 10-13% are Shia.

Where are they concentrated?

Both Sunni and Shia Muslims live throughout the world. However, Sunnis are heavily populated in countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia. Shia Muslims make up a majority or significant population of countries like Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.

What do they believe?

These differences stem from the extreme claims on both sides. Once this political difference took place, both Sunnis and Shias developed slight differences on larger theological issues. However, Sunni and Shia Muslims believe in the same Qur’an. They agree on the major elements of faith such as the belief in God, angels, Prophets, books, and the hereafter. Both groups share the main practices of Islam such as praying five times a day, fasting the month of Ramadan, performing hajj, and paying charity.

How do they differ in practice?

Islam is based on the Qur’an and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him. The teachings of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him were preserved and reported by his Companions. Differences between the two groups stem from which sayings of the Prophet Muhammad they accept. Shia Muslims tend to feel distrust toward certain Companions of the Prophet, such as Abu Bakr, Umar, and Aisha, based on their stances during the early days of discord concerning leadership. These Companions narrated traditions about the Prophet’s life, teachings, and spiritual actions. Shia Muslims do not accept the narrations of some Companions and therefore differ in some elements of religious practice.

How did the Sunni Shia Split Originate?

The difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims began as a political question in Islam’s early history. After the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him died his Companions needed to decide who became the leader of the Muslim community. Sunnis believe that the Prophet peace be upon him did not explicitly designate anyone to become the ruler after it. Shia Muslims, on the other hand, maintain that the Prophet peace be upon him did explicitly designate his cousin and son in law Ali to be the ruler after his passing.

Sunni Muslims believe that Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s closest Companion, was most fit to lead the Muslim community. Shia Muslims believe that the leader should have been Ali. Ali himself was not dissatisfied with the decision for Abu Bakr to be the ruler, but some remained dissatisfied. Abu Bakr was the first caliph, Ali eventually became the fourth. The theological differences between the two groups came from this political difference. If Ali was explicitly designated by the Prophet peace be upon him, that would imply that Abu Bakr unjustly usurped the right of the caliph.

Difference over Leadership

Sunni Muslims find this unacceptable because Abu Bakr, in Sunni tradition, is one of the best Muslims. If he usurped the caliph from Ali, this would imply that Abu Bakr was disobeying the commands of the Prophet. Furthermore, it would imply that the Companions who accepted Abu Bakr’s leadership were also disobeying the Prophet. Sunnis hold this view to be problematic because they hold all of the Companions in high regard based on the Qur’an’s praise of them. It is important to note that Ali is also important in Sunni thought.

Ali, like the second and third caliphs, was assassinated. His sons Hassan and Hussein, the grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him, claimed the title of caliphs. However, Hussein and many in his family were massacred. Although both Sunni and Shia Muslims mourn the murder of Hussein, Shias mark a specific day in the Islamic month of Muharram to mourn his murder on an annual basis. Most Shia Muslims believe that after Ali there are 12 imams, the last of which disappeared in Iraq in the 9th century. They believe that he will return as a Messiah. Shia Muslims believe that imams always have a direct line from Ali whereas Sunnis do not have any hierarchy among clergy.


Some have compared the Sunni-Shia split to that of Catholics and Protestants in the sense that they share the same religion but differ on some important elements. It is important to note that despite their differences both groups have more in common than they do in difference. They ultimately share the same faith and are considered brethren in Islam.