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Sunni vs. Shia: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Updated on October 3, 2023
Sunni and Shia are the two main branches of Islam, differing primarily over leadership succession after Prophet Muhammad. Sunni accepts the community-elected caliphs, while Shia supports Ali and his descendants.

Key Differences

Both represent the two predominant branches of Islam, making up the vast majority of the Muslim population worldwide. While both follow the core beliefs and practices of Islam, they have historical, theological, and jurisprudential differences.
The rift originated over the leadership succession after Prophet Muhammad's death. Sunni Muslims believe that the leadership of the community after Prophet Muhammad should be a matter of consensus and have accepted the leadership of the community-elected caliphs. Shia Muslims, on the other hand, believe that leadership should stay within Prophet Muhammad's family, starting with his cousin and son-in-law, Ali.
From a theological perspective, Sunni Islam emphasizes community consensus and is more diverse in its beliefs and practices. Shia Islam places greater emphasis on the role of certain key figures in Islamic history, like Imam Ali and the other Imams, and has distinct rituals and practices tied to commemorating them.
Geographically, Sunni Muslims form the majority in countries like Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Shia Muslims, however, are predominant in countries like Iran and Iraq. Over the centuries, political struggles have sometimes amplified the sectarian differences.
Despite their differences, it's essential to remember that both Sunni and Shia Muslims share many core beliefs and practices, such as the Five Pillars of Islam, reverence for the Quran, and the importance of the Hajj pilgrimage.

Comparison Chart

Root Origin

Comes from "Ahl al-Sunna," meaning "people of the tradition."
Derived from "Shi'atu Ali," meaning "partisans of Ali."



Usage in Sentence

Often used as an adjective (e.g., Sunni Muslims).
Typically used as an adjective (e.g., Shia Muslims).

Plural Form

Shias or Shiites

Associated Nouns

Sunnism (referring to the beliefs/practices)
Shiism (referring to the beliefs/practices)

Sunni and Shia Definitions


A Muslim who adheres to the teachings and practices derived from the Prophet's sayings and actions.
Sunni mosques often have a diverse congregation from various cultures.


A follower of the Islamic tradition that places emphasis on certain key figures in Islamic history.
Shia neighborhoods are often adorned with banners and flags during religious commemorations.


A member of the largest branch of Islam that recognizes the first four caliphs as legitimate successors to Prophet Muhammad.
The majority of Muslims in Egypt are Sunni.


An adherent who recognizes a line of spiritual leaders known as Imams descending from Ali.
Shia communities often gather for lectures during the month of Muharram.


Pertaining to the tradition and practices upheld by the majority of the Muslim world.
Sunni jurisprudence is diverse with multiple schools of thought.


An adherent of the teachings and practices derived from a distinct lineage of Islamic leaders.
Shia scholars have contributed immensely to Islamic literature and jurisprudence.


An adherent of the mainstream beliefs and practices of Islam as understood by the majority.
Sunni teachings emphasize community and unity in the faith.


A Muslim who believes leadership should remain within Prophet Muhammad's family, especially with Ali.
Shia Muslims annually commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.


A follower who believes in the leadership chosen by consensus after the Prophet's death.
Sunni history is filled with tales of scholarly endeavors and caliphs.


Pertaining to one of the two main branches of Islam, characterized by reverence for the family of the Prophet.
Shia traditions are rich with stories of the Imams.


The branch of Islam that accepts the first four caliphs as rightful successors of Muhammad.


(Used with a pl. verb) The Shiites.


Pl. Sunni or Sun·nis A Muslim belonging to this branch; a Sunnite.


(used with a sing. verb) A Shiite.


A member of the branch of Islam that accepts the first four caliphs as rightful successors to Muhammad




One of the two main branches of orthodox Islam


One of the two main branches of orthodox Islam; mainly in Iran


How did the Sunni and Shia split begin?

It began over leadership succession after Prophet Muhammad's death.

Do both Sunni and Shia follow the Quran?

Yes, both Sunni and Shia revere and follow the Quran.

Which group, Sunni or Shia, has a larger global population?

Sunni Muslims comprise a larger portion of the global Muslim population.

Are there doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shia?

Yes, there are theological and jurisprudential differences between Sunni and Shia.

What language do Sunni and Shia prayers use?

Both Sunni and Shia conduct prayers in Arabic.

Which countries are predominantly Sunni?

Countries like Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are predominantly Sunni.

Are there different sects within Sunni and Shia Islam?

Yes, both Sunni and Shia have various sects or schools of thought.

What are Sunni and Shia?

Sunni and Shia are the two primary branches of Islam.

Are relations between Sunni and Shia always strained?

No, while there are historical and political tensions, many Sunni and Shia live in harmony, intermarry, and share communities.

Which countries have a significant Shia population?

Iran and Iraq are two countries with a majority Shia population.

How do Sunni and Shia practices differ during Ramadan?

Core practices are similar, but there might be differences in traditions, prayers, and community events.

Do both Sunni and Shia go on Hajj?

Yes, both Sunni and Shia perform the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

How do Sunni and Shia views on leadership differ?

Sunni believes in community-elected leadership, while Shia believes in leadership from Prophet Muhammad's family.

Are there cultural differences between Sunni and Shia communities?

While religious differences exist, many cultural differences are regional rather than strictly Sunni or Shia.

Are the Five Pillars of Islam the same for Sunni and Shia?

Yes, both Sunni and Shia adhere to the Five Pillars of Islam.

Can Sunni and Shia marry each other?

Yes, Sunni and Shia individuals can and do marry each other, though cultural and regional factors can influence this.

How do Sunni and Shia views on the caliphs differ?

Sunni accepts the first four caliphs, while Shia does not recognize their leadership as legitimate.

What are the main festivals for Sunni and Shia?

Both Sunni and Shia celebrate Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Additionally, Shia specifically commemorates events like Ashura.

How do Sunni and Shia views on the Mahdi differ?

Sunni believes in a future Mahdi, while Shia typically associates the Mahdi with the Twelfth Imam.

How do Sunni and Shia jurisprudential schools differ?

Sunni has multiple schools like Hanafi and Maliki, while Shia predominantly follows the Ja'fari school.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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