Sunni Vs Shia Difference


“After the Prophet’s (s.a.w.a.) demise, the Muslims were divided into two groups: the caliphate school (Sunnis) and the Ahl al-bayt (as) school (Shias). The caliphate school claimed: After the Prophet’s demise, Allah and His messenger left the leadership of the Ummah (nation) at the discretion of the people. This school maintains that the caliphate till the last Ottoman caliph (died in 1336 A.H., 1924 C.E.) to be in accordance with the Islamic law. They believe that the sources of Islamic Shariah (religious laws) are the Quran, the Prophet’s Sunnah and the Ijtihad (independent judgements) of the prophet’s companions (particularly, the independent judgements of the first three caliphs). Soon after the Prophet’s demise, they were ready to learn the Prophet’s Sunnah from anyone who claimed to be the ‘Sahabi’ i.e., the Prophet’s companion.

The Ahl al-bayt (as) school (Shia) believes: After the Prophet, Allah has appointed twelve guardians to lead the Islamic Ummah and the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) has conveyed this matter to the Ummah in clear and lucid terms. This school believes the true Islamic sources are the Quran and the Prophet’s Sunnah. And after the Prophet’s demise, they receive the Prophet’s Sunnah from his twelve legatees. This school also accepts narration of traditions from the Prophet’s faithful companions.

Besides, during the last part of the 40 A H, one group separated from these two schools. It branded the Muslims as infidels and polytheists and attacked them with swords. This group was named the “Khawarij”.

Gradually, the caliphate school divided into various sects the most famous among them being the Mu’tazilah, Asharite and Salafiya (in matters of belief). The Wahabiya sect is an offshoot of the Salafiya sect. And in matters of Ahkam (precepts), the most famous sects in the caliphate school are the Malekiyah, Hanafiya, Shafiya and Hanbali sects.

As for the Ahl al-bayt (as) school, their differences among the followers were confined to only two stages: differences during the Imams’ lifetime and differences during the major occultation of the twelfth Imam. During the Imams’ lifetime, occasionally few Shias were at loss to understand the truth after their Imam’s demise. This was because they had no access to the subsequent Imam and their knowledge about the Prophet’s hadith and the hadith of his legatees was limited. This uncertainty continued until a few learned among them would meet the Imam and the issue would become clear for them. Besides, the Imams would constantly strive to guide the Shias in matters of Islamic beliefs and precepts. During the era of the Imams (as), nobody thought of propounding a new sect among the followers of this school. In fact, when the era of the 12th Imam began, all the Muslim sects were entirely familiar about the twelve legatees by name, lineage and character. Besides, all the Islamic sciences were recorded in books by the students of the Ahl al-bayt school and were accessible to everyone. Thus, the propagation of the Imams was concluded and the period of major occultation began.

During the lifetime of the Imams (as), no controversial sects could raise its head among their followers because of the diligence exhibited by the Imams.

As for the Zaidiyah sect, they barely acquired their creeds from the Ahl al-bayt school while a major portion of their beliefs was extracted from the caliphate school. They combined these together and formed the Zaidiyah sect. Thus, they are neither Sunni nor Shia sect but rather form a third sect among the Muslims.

As for the Ismailiyah sect, they are like the Bani-Hunaifa and the followers of Musailamah, the liar who at first were Muslims but following their belief that Musailamah has become a prophet like Muhammad (s.a.w.a.), they turned apostates. Thereafter, they no longer could be recognized as a Muslim sect as they left the domain of Islam.

Similarly, the Ismailiyah sect too, after they believed in the Imamate of the deceased Ismail, they exited from the domain of Shiasm. Gradually, by legislating certain laws contrary to the Islamic precepts, they exited from Islam too. Thus, one cannot count them to be a sect among the Muslims.

The same holds true about the Ghulat where they cannot be called Muslims.

As for the imaginary sects like the Sabaeeyah, Kaisaniyah and Gharabiyah, the authors of Milal wan-Nihal have falsely attributed them to the Ahl al-bayt (as) school whereas such sects did not have any existence at all in history. In this regard, we quote a famous saying:

“I am powerless against the liar who fabricates lies against me!”

This was the gist of differences between the followers of the Ahl al-bayt (as) school during the lifetime of the Imams (as). Even when the major occultation of the twelfth Imam (a.j.t.f.) commenced, the names of the twelve Imams (as) were so well known among the Muslim sects that nobody could dare to claim the Imamate. Rather, the power-hungry individuals could only claim the deputyship of the twelfth Imam, which was concluded by the Imam after the death of his fourth special envoy. Under the circumstances, those who claimed the deputyship were dismissed from Shiasm and Islam like, the Ba’hai sect in Shiah and the Qadiyaniah sect in Sunnis. The followers of the Ahl al-bayt (as) school wrote such insightful and comprehensive treatises and compiled books of hadith narrated from the twelve legatees that no sect could dare to stake a claim among the Shias. However, differences of opinion did exist among the Shia jurists concerning hadith as a result of which some were named Akhbari and some as Usuli. Presently, the Shia jurists are Usuli and there is no separate group called as Akhbari.

General overview of our discussion

In the previous discussions, we examined the manner in which the Caliphs treated the Prophet’s Sunnah. God-willing, in this discourse, we will review the mode and method followed by the Prophet’s legatees in their efforts towards the revival of his sunnah. These reviews can be summarized on the following four basis:

  • At Allah’s behest, the Holy Prophet inculcated and entrusted Hazrat Ali (a.s) with the actual interpretation of Quran, his sunnah, various sciences and other vital informations. Hazrat Ali (a.s) devoted his entire life under the special training and guidance of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.). Subsequently, Hazrat Ali passed on the trust to his eleven successors one after the other.
  • For the safeguard and dissemination of Islam until the day of judgement, Allah appointed Ali and his eleven descendants as the Prophet’s legatees. The Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) decisively and repeatedly introduced these 12 venerable persons to the Islamic nation so that they may recognise their leaders and guides. Thus the religion of Islam attained perfection and Allah completed his favours on the mankind.
  • After the holy Prophet’s demise, his legatees remained upright and protected the exegesis of Quran, the Prophet’s sunnah and the Islamic precepts and beliefs from all kinds of distortions and misinterpretations. They relentlessly strived and struggled for three centuries and succeeded in conveying the trust of the Holy Prophet (saw) including the true exegesis of Quran, the genuine set of Islamic traditions and the divine sciences and gnosis within the reach of the people of the world.
  • Each of the infallible Imams (A.S.) endeavoured to protect Islam and remained accessible to the people until their last breath in this world. Their sacrifices and efforts for protection of Islam has made them indispensable.

By God’s Grace and Help, we shall discuss and explain these four important issues in the following discussions. (1)”

The differences of opinion that existed among the Shia jurists concerning hadith as a result of which some were named Akhbari and some as Usuli is explained as follows. The Akbari movement believed in the separation of church and state whereas the Usuli movement did not. The Akbari movement also did not believe in ijtihad (independent reasoning); this was a major problem since with the advancement of science that would see man go to space, as well as the development of nuclear weapons and stem cell research, religious opinions were needed. Eventually, the Akbari movement obviously became antiquated and gradually disappeared. The Usuli movement which did not believe in separation of church and state and maintained the need for ijtihad (independent reasoning) eventually prevailed.



1: “The Role of Holy Imams in the revival of Religion” by Allameh Seyed Murteza Askari, Volume 3 Pages-254-262

Sunni Vs Shia Difference