Who are most educated Shias or Sunnis

Historical Division Between Sunnis and Shias

At the time of Muhammad's death in 632 CE, Muhammad had no male heirs to carry on the political and spiritual leadership along the Arabian Peninsula that Islam had come to dominate in his lifetime. There was no clear agreement as to who should succeed him. Those who would later be known as Sunnis believed a devout member of Muhammad's original Quraysh tribe should become the next leader, while those who would eventually be known as Shias believed Muhammad's successor should be directly related to Muhammad by blood.

Abu Bakr, who was Muhammad's friend, advisor, and father-in-law (he was Aisha's father), became the first Muslim caliph, or spiritual leader, following a gathering (see shura) that elected him to the position. Like Muhammad, Abu Bakr was from the Quraysh tribe, an important point for many who wanted to see him rise to power. This went against the wishes of those who wanted to see Muhammad's direct bloodline retain the leadership role.

Shia Islam gets its name from "Shi'at Ali," which roughly means "Party of Ali." Ali was Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. Shia believe Muhammad explicitly requested Ali to replace him in his teachings (e.g., see the hadith of position and hadith of the pond of Khumm). Ali later became the fourth caliph, and he is well respected by Shia and Sunni alike. However, the Shia view him as the most important historical and religious figure following Muhammad. Ali is similarly vital to Sufi Islamic beliefs.

Historically, there is no clear, unbiased evidence to definitively know who Muhammad wanted to succeed him. Modern Islamic theologians and spiritual leaders still debate the matter.

Differences in Sunni and Shia Beliefs

Though all Muslims follow the Qur'an and Muhammad as a prophet, different traditions and beliefs have developed out of the two branches of the faith. There are moderate and fundamentalist sects within each branch.

Differences are more apparent in countries where Sunnis and Shias have major conflict and physically fight one another. For example, differences are more noticeable in Iraq than they are in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, two countries where Muslims are less likely to identify as either Sunni or Shia, but rather simply as Muslim.

Perception of Ali

As the division between Sunni and Shia is about Muhammad's successor, there are differences in how the two branches view the historical succession. Sunni Muslims recognize and respect Ali as the fourth righteous caliph who replaced Uthman ibn Affan, the third caliph. In contrast, the largest sect of Shia Islam, known as Twelvers, tends to reject the first three Sunni caliphs, or at least downplay their role in Islam's development, and instead sees Ali as the first true leader, or imam, of Islam.

The difference of opinion regarding who and when certain men were (or are) supposed to be in power can sometimes be a source of conflict between the two branches. For example, many Shia Twelvers believe several of their initial imams were murdered by Sunni caliphs.

Perception of Imams

In most Shia Islam, imams are seen as spiritual leaders chosen by Allah who are thought to be free from sin (see 'Ismah). They are direct descendents of Muhammad. As such, the word of imams and their interpretation of theological matters is considered to be holy and final in a sense that is similar to how some Catholics view the words of the Pope.

Sunni Islam sees imams very differently. Imams are often important spiritual prayer leaders in the community, but they are not seen as infallible and are not venerated upon death, as often happens to imams in Shia Islam. In Sunni Islam, there is little mysticism involved in how caliphs are viewed; however, they are highly respected.

Different Hadiths

Hadiths are collections of reports regarding Muhammad's teachings and life, as remembered by a variety of narrators (and written later by others). Though the Qur'an takes precedence over hadiths, these texts are often used in Islamic law, especially to settle disputes. Shias and Sunnis sometimes recognize or reject different hadiths, or interpret the same hadiths differently, which further and subtly divides them through Sharia law on a variety of issues.

Shia Islam rejects Sunni Islam's Kutub al-Sittah, or the five allegedly original hadiths, and rejects hadiths attributed to Muhammad's wife, Aisha, who Shias feel defied Ali. Likewise, Sunnis reject Shia Islam's The Four Books.

To see more differences in Shia and Sunni hadith collections, visit this Wikipedia category and its subcategories.

Day of Ashura (Holiday)

On the Day of Ashura, Muslims — both Sunni and Shia — mourn the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, who was Ali's son and Muhammad's grandson. Because Shia Muslims put emphasis on Muhammad's bloodline, the Day of Ashura is often seen as a more important holy day for Shia Islam than Sunni Islam. It is common for Shias to mourn by way of chest-beating and self-flagellation; the latter practice is often rejected by Sunnis and sometimes even banned by law.

In places where the Shia-Sunni divide is great, sectarian violence is common on the Day of Ashura.

Basic Tenets

The Sunni's Five Pillars of Islam lay out the basic beliefs and practices required of every Muslim. While Shias may agree with some of the same concepts (particularly the "oneness" of Allah), their accepted tenets are different and include five basic beliefs (see Theology of Twelvers) and ten basic practices (see Ancillaries of the Faith). Tenets differ further among sects of both main Islamic branches (e.g., see Seven Pillars of Ismailism).

Principles of the Religion (Shia Islam)

The following are the core principles of Shia Islam. There is some overlap between these concepts and those found in the Ancillaries of the Faith, as well as Five Pillars of Islam.

  1. Tawhid, or the belief that nothing is equal to Allah's uniqueness; this also goes for other gods.
  2. Adl, or the concept of Allah's divine justice.
  3. Nubuwwah, or the notion that Allah divinely appoints prophets and messengers.
  4. Imamate, or how imams are divinely chosen. Different Shia sects interpret this principle in a variety of ways.
  5. Mi'ad, or the belief that all of humanity will be resurrected at the end of the world to be judged by Allah.

Ancillaries of the Faith (Shia Islam)

Shia Islam's Ancillaries of the Faith is essentially the Five Pillars of Islam found among the Sunnis, as well as five beliefs unique to Shia Islam's main tenets. Sunnis often have similar beliefs or practices, but they are not necessarily seen as the most important.

  1. Salat, or the requirement of ritualistic prayer five times daily. Some Sunnis believe that failing to perform the daily prayer ritual makes someone a non-Muslim or a sinner.
  2. Sawm, or the importance of fasting, especially during the holy month of Ramadan.
  3. Hajj, or the requirement that all able-bodied individuals must make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in life.
  4. Zakat, or a form of charitable giving that results in a form of wealth redistribution.
  5. Khums, or another type of charitable giving that is like a "tax" specifically on business income or surpluses.
  6. Jihad, or belief in "struggling" toward Allah and righteousness; the concept frequently applies to military actions, but can include spiritual concepts, too.
  7. Forbidding what is wrong, or striving to encourage virtue and subdue vice.
  8. Forbidding what is evil, or the importance of fighting injustice; usually applies to social and political issues.
  9. Tawalla, or the commandment that Muslims must love the (rightful) successors of Muhammad.
  10. Tabarra, or the belief that Muslims should isolate themselves from those who do not believe in Allah or who oppose Muhammad as a prophet.

Five Pillars of Islam (Sunni Islam)

Sunnis have five main concepts of Islam. Though they share most of the same beliefs that Shias do, the below are considered the most important beliefs and practices that a Muslim can have, according to Sunnis.

  1. Shahadah, or the belief that there is no god other than Allah and that Muhammad was his messenger.
  2. Salat, or the requirement of ritualistic prayer five times daily. Some Sunnis believe that failing to perform the daily prayer ritual makes someone a non-Muslim or a sinner.
  3. Zakat, or a form of charitable giving that results in a form of wealth redistribution.
  4. Sawm, or the importance of fasting, especially during the holy month of Ramadan.
  5. Hajj, or the requirement that all able-bodied individuals must make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in life.

Wali (Saints)

Though both Shia and Sunni Muslims revere important holy figures from Islamic history, Shia Muslims are much more likely to pray to these deceased saints — many of whom were once imams — in a way that is similar to the prayers Catholics offer up to their saints.

Temporary Marriage

Some sects of Shia Islam have a concept of a temporary marriage contract known as nikah mut'ah. These contracts allow a man and woman to date and spend time together and often have set beginning and ending dates and guidelines. Some temporary marriages that go well are turned into long-term marriage. Though the acceptance of temporary marriage has varied throughout history and different sects in Shia Islam, nikah mut'ah can still be found in some Shia communities today.

Sunnis reject the practice of nikah mut'ah, which they consider sinful. However, Sunnis do have nikah 'urfi, a type of marriage contract which has some similarities to nikah mut'ah (in some countries).

Apocalyptic Beliefs

Both Shia and Sunni Muslims believe in an impending apocalypse. Many of the supposed signs of this apocalypse are very similar to apocalyptic signs found in Christianity. Likewise, both branches of Islam believe in Isa — Islam's name for Jesus — will return to the earth after having spent thousands of years in heaven with Allah and kill Islam's "antichrist" figure, who is known as Masih ad-Dajjal.

Where Shia and Sunni beliefs mainly differ on this subject is when it comes to the identity of Mahdi, a vital figure in Islam's interpretation of the "final days." Sunnis view Mahdi as a successor of Muhammad who will lead the world toward Islamic righteousness; some believe he will not be sent by Allah, but rather will simply be a devout man. Views on his importance vary, and in most cases Shia Muslims have a much more elaborate set of beliefs surrounding this figure.

Shia views differ by sect, but Twelvers, who make up the majority of Shia Islam, believe the Mahdi will actually be Muhammad al-Mahdi returning from the place Allah has hidden him (see The Occultation). Muhammad al-Mahdi was meant to be the twelfth imam in Shia Islam, but he disappeared when he was six years old.


With somewhere between 80% and 90% of the world's Muslims identifying as Sunnis, Sunni Islam is much more common than Shia Islam, but Shias make up the religious majority in a few countries like Iran and Bahrain.

The vast majority of Muslims in the U.S. are Sunni, but most choose not to focus on the Shia—Sunni schism. With nearly 3% of its population claiming to be Muslim, Illinois has the highest percentage of Muslims found in any state. This chart shows the presence of Muslims in the U.S. as a percentage of the population in each county.

Conflict Between Shia and Sunni Muslims

In some nations, tension and even physical conflict is common between Shias and Sunnis, particularly around important religious holidays (e.g., Day of Ashura) or significant political events and turmoil.

More recent conflicts include the following events:

  • October 2014: Amnesty International releases report on Shia militias in Iraq abducting and killing Sunnis.[1]
  • June 2014: As sectarian violence worsens in Iraq, countless Iraqis flee and become refugees in neighboring countries.[2] Extremist Sunnis in ISIS bomb and destroy Shia mosques in Mosul, Iraq.[3]
  • January 2014: A bus bombing in Pakistan kills 22 Shia Muslims.[4]
  • July 2013: In Bahrain, sectarian tensions result in Shia and Sunni vandalizing and attacking each other's mosques.[5]
  • June 2012: Sunni-led bomb attacks on Shia targets kill dozens.[6]
  • January 2012: Shia Muslims express growing anxiety from being targeted by Sunni extremists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bahrain.[7]

Recent Shia and Sunni News


Shia and Sunni Islam have evolved into many different sects.
Multiple and different schools of Shia and Sunni Sharia law exist. Click to enlarge.
Only a few countries have Shia majorities.

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