What are the differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims?
The distinction between Shia and Sunni Islam began after the death of Islam's founder Muhammad. Sunni Muslims believed Muhammad did not name a successor to lead Muslims after his death. As a result, they elected a new leader. The first four leaders, called the Rightly Guided Caliphs, began the Sunni tradition, though no global Sunni leader has been in place since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
In contrast, Shia Muslims followed Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad, as the rightful successor of Islam. While this movement has developed into many sub-groups, Shia Muslims emphasize the special spiritual and political leadership of imams (Muslim religious leaders) to Muslim nations.
In terms of size, Sunni Muslims are the largest group of adherents within Islam, with close to ninety percent of Muslims coming from Sunni heritage. However, in certain countries, including Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iran, and Iraq, Shia Islam is considered the majority group. The group known as Hezbollah is also Shia.
Spiritually, both groups practice the Five Pillars of Islam. Sunni Muslims pray five times each day, while Shia Muslims have three official prayers. Some Shia Muslims also continue the practice of temporary marriages called muttah. Further, many Shia Muslims accept the belief in the Twelfth Imam who has already been born but is hidden and will play a major role with his return in the last days.
Each group also has other unique traditions as part of its religious customs. For example, Shia Muslims observe the Day of Ashura, a day to commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn ib Ali, grandson of Muhammad.
Sunni Muslims follow the many Hadith that are considered authenticated sayings of Muhammad to help interpret the Qur'an. Shia Muslims do not accept the authority of the six major Hadith collections of Sunni Islam but instead follow the three Hadiths they call the Three Muhammads.
In a religion as large as Islam, many additional subgroups also exist within Sunni and Shia Islam. These differences note some of the major distinctions. Yet all Muslims continue to follow Allah as the one true God, the Five Pillars of Islam, and share many important spiritual and cultural customs related to their religions.
Interestingly, both Sunni and Shia Islam accept the Muslim teaching that Jesus is one of many prophets in Islam. Yet the New Testament is the book in which many of the historic teachings of Jesus can be found. Muslims interested in learning more about the person and teachings of Jesus can discover more in the Gospel of John, especially John 3 in which a spiritual teacher comes to Jesus at night to discover more about this important man. As you do, perhaps you will discover as Nicodemus did that Jesus was more than a prophet, but one who offers eternal life to all who believe (John 3:16).
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