Main Differences Between Sunnis & Shiites
The root of the differences between Sunnis and Shiites is more political rather than doctrinal, even though those differences were later codified as differences in doctrine. The main group of Shiites is known as ‘The Twelver-Shiites’ or ‘Ja’fari Shiites.’ They believe that the Prophet Muhammad, God bless and grant him peace, foretold that 12 people of his bloodline will issue before the end of time who will possess the infallible interpretation of the religion and scripture. 11 of them have already appeared and died. But the last of them Muhammad ibn Al-Hasan Al-‘Askari – who also appeared – will return before the end of time to fill the world with justice.
- Sunnis believe that the Prophet Muhammad, may Allah bless and grant him peace, designated no particular person as his successor to command the nation of believers before his death.
- Shiites believe that he instructed his companions to appoint his paternal cousin, Ali b. Abi Talib, as his successor after his death. But, Muhammad’s companions disobeyed and elected three caliphs (Muslim supreme rulers) prior to reluctantly accepting the appointment of ‘Ali as the fourth caliph of Islam.
- Sunnis believe that the divinely protected and infallible (ma’sum) interpretation of Holy Scripture was transferred from the Prophet to the unanimous agreement of the highest-ranking Muslim scholars, called Mujtahids.
- Twelver-Shiites on the other hand hold that the infallible interpretation of scripture was transferred to the supreme Imam who happens to be one of the 12 already mentioned.
- Mainstream Sunnis believe that a person will be rewarded or punished by God based on the condition of the heart and the choices made by the person regardless of whether or not the action materializes.
- Shiites believe that a person is rewarded and punished by God because of his/her deeds, not the state of the heart.
- Sunnis believe that it is a religious obligation (fard) for the Muslims to appoint a supreme religious ruler and unifier of all Muslims (caliph). And not doing so would merely mean that all Muslims are sinners until someone carries out the tasks.
- Shiites consider it to be a chief tenet (rukn) of the faith to believe in the infallible Imams. And not to believe that would be unbelief serious enough to expel one from the fold of Islam.
- Mainstream Sunnis validate the sovereign rule of all three caliphs who preceded ‘Ali as caliph. And they believe that after the Prophet Muhammad, the best of his nation were the first three caliphs of Islamic history. Their superiority is determined in the exact same order of their respective reigns.
- Twelver Shiites do not consider the rule of any of the three to be valid. And they consider them to be sinful for accepting rule before ‘Ali. And in their view, no person is better than ‘Ali, after the Prophet, may God bless and grant him peace.