Sunni and Shia Islam are the two major denominations of Islam. The demographic breakdown between the two groups is difficult to assess and varies by source, but a good approximation is that 80-90% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni and 10-20% are Shia, with most Shias belonging to the Twelver tradition and the rest divided between several other groups.
Shias make up the majority of the population in Iran ( around 95 % of all muslims ), Azerbaijan ( around 85 % of all muslims ), Iraq ( 60 – 70 % of all muslims ) and Bahrain ( around 70 % of all muslims ). Around 46 – 48 % of Yemenite muslims are Shias. Around 30 – 40 % of Kuwaiti muslims are Shias. Around 20- 30 % of Turkish muslims are Alevi Shias. Around 21 – 28 % of Lebanese population are Shias. Around 15 – 20 % of Saudi Arabian muslims are Shias. Around 10 – 20 % of Pakistani muslims are Shias. Around 10 – 19 % muslims of Afghanistan are Shias. Around 13 % of Syrian population are Shias. Around 7 % of Senegalese population are Shias. Around 5 % of Uzbekistani muslims are Shias. Around 5 % of muslims of Niger are Shias. Around 3 % of population of Tajikistan are Shias.
Shias are about 10-to-15 percent of the entire Muslim world. We don’t have accurate statistics because in much of the Middle East it is not convenient to have them, for ruling regimes in particular. But the estimates are that they are about 10-to-15 percent of the Muslim world, which puts them somewhere between 165-to-190 million people.
The overwhelming majority of that population lives between Pakistan and Lebanon. Iran always had been a Shia country, the largest one, with about 60 million population.And, potentially, there are as many Shias in India as there are in Iraq. Vali Nasr, October 18, 2006
Sunnis are a majority in other Muslim communities in Southeast Asia, China, South Asia, Africa and the rest of the Arab World.
Over the years Sunni-Shia relations have been marked by both cooperation and conflict, often with deadly violence. A period of relative harmony during most of the 20th century has been replaced by conflict, particularly following the start of the Iraq War.Today there are differences in religious practice, traditions and customs as well as religious beliefs.
The historic background of the Sunni–Shia split lies in the schism that occurred when the Islamic prophet Muhammad died in the year 632, leading to a dispute over succession to Muhammad as a caliph of the Islamic community spread across various parts of the world which led to the Battle of Siffin. Sectarian violence persists to this day from Pakistan to Yemen and is the most common element of friction throughout the Middle East.
Sunnis think that Abu Bakr was Muhammad’s rightful successor and that the method of choosing or electing leaders (Shura) endorsed by the Qur’an is the consensus of the Ummah, (the Muslim community). Shiites state that Muhammad divinely ordained his cousin and son-in-law Ali (the father of his grandsons Hasan ibn Ali and Husayn ibn Ali) in accordance with the command of God to be the next Caliph making Ali and his direct descendants Muhammad’s successors.
Sunnis follow the Rashidun “rightly guided Caliphs”, who were the first four caliphs who ruled after the death of Muhammad: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali. Shia theology discounts the legitimacy of the first three caliphs and believe that Ali is the second-most divinely inspired man (after Muhammad) and that he and his descendants by Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah, the Imams, are the sole legitimate Islamic leaders.
The Imamate of the Shia encompasses far more of a prophetic function than the Caliphate of the Sunnis. Unlike Sunni, Shias believe special spiritual qualities have been granted not only to Muhammad but also to Ali and the other Imams. Twelvers believe the imams are immaculate from sin and human error (ma’sūm), and can understand and interpret the hidden inner meaning of the teachings of Islam. In this way the Imams are trustees (wasi) who bear the light of Muhammad (Nūr Muhammadin).
While Shias and Sunnis differ on the nature of the Mahdi, many members of both groups, especially Sufis, believe that the Mahdi will appear at end times to bring about a perfect and just Islamic society. Twelvers believe the Mahdi will be Muhammad al-Mahdi, the twelfth Imam returned from the Occultation, where he has been hidden by God since 874 CE.
In contrast, mainstream Sunnis believe the Mahdi will be named Muhammad, be a descendant of the Prophet and will revive the faith, but will not necessarily be connected with the end of the world.
The Shias accept some of the same hadiths used by Sunnis as part of the sunnah to argue their case. In addition, they consider the sayings of Ahl al-Bayt that are not attributed directly to Muhammad as hadiths. Shias do not accept many Sunni hadiths unless they are also recorded in Shia sources or the methodology can be proven of how they were recorded. Also, some Sunni-accepted hadith are less favored by Shias; one example is that because of Aisha’s opposition to Ali, hadith narrated by Aishah are not given the same authority as those by other companions. Another example is hadith narrated by Abu Hurairah, who was is considered by Shias as enemy of Ali. The Shia argument is that Abu Hurairah was only a Muslim three years of his life before his death and he managed to record ten times as many hadiths as Abu Bakr and Ali each. Shias also believe that every single hadith must end with a verse from the Qur’an that relates to its subject.
Mainstream Sunnism has been said to be “about” Sharia, sacred law. In contrast, the Shia also follow Islamic law with great “vigilance”, but their belief is added with Ijtihad “Research” in the light of teachings of the Qur’an.
Shiism and Sufism
Shiism and Sunni Sufism are said to share a number of hallmarks: Belief in an inner meaning to the Qur’an, special status for some mortals (saints for Sufi, Imams for Shias), as well as veneration of Ali and Muhammad’s family.
Many distinctions can be made between Sunnis and Shiaīs through observation alone:
When prostrating during ritual prayer (Salah), Shias place their forehead onto a piece of naturally occurring material, often a clay tablet (mohr), soil (turbah) or at times sand from Karbala, the place where Husayn ibn Ali was martyred, instead of directly onto a prayer rug. There is precedence for this in Sunni thought, as it is recommended not to prostrate on a non-natural surface.
Some Shia perform prayers back to back, sometimes worshipping two times consecutively (1+2+2 i.e. fajr on its own Dhuhr with Asr and Maghrib with Isha’a), thus praying five times a day but with a very small break in between the prayer, a tradition Muhammad followed according the Sunni scholar Muhammad al-Bukhari and which is also followed by Muslims all over the world while performing Hajj, instead of five prayers with at least one hour gap between them as required by Sunni schools of law.
Shias and the followers of the Sunni Maliki school hold their hands at their sides during prayer; Sunnis of other schools cross their arms (right over left) and clasp their hands, although it is commonly held by Sunni scholars that either is acceptable.
The Shia permit mut’ah or Nikah mut‘ah—fixed-term temporary marriage—which is not acceptable within the Sunni community and is believed a planned and agreed rape. Mutah is not the same as Misyar marriage or ‘Arfi marriage, which has no date of expiration and is permitted by some Sunnis. A Misyar marriage differs from a conventional Islamic marriage in that the man does not have financial responsibility over the woman by her own free will.
Hijab and dress
Devout women of the Shia traditionally wear black as do male religious leaders. Mainstream Shia and Sunni women wear the hijab differently. Some Sunni scholars emphasize covering of all body including the face in public whereas some scholars exclude the face from hijab. Shias believe that the hijab must cover around the perimeter of the face and up to the chin. Some Shia women, such as those in Iran and Iraq, use their hand to hold the black chador, in order to cover their faces when in public as Sunnis.
Shia are often recognizable by their names which are often derived from the proper names or titles of saints. Shias who trace their ancestry back to the prophet, through his daughter Fatimah carry the title Sayyid.
Sunni Theology: The Five Pillars of Islam is the term given to the five duties incumbent on every Muslim. These duties are Shahada (profession of faith), Salah (prayers), Zakat (giving of alms), Sawm (fasting, specifically during Ramadan) and Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). These five practices are essential to Sunni Muslims.
Shia Theology: Shia Theology has two concepts that define religion as a whole. There are Roots of Religion (Usūl al-Dīn) and Branches of Religion (Furu al Din). The Five Pillars are also accepted as essential rituals and practiced by Shias.
Abbasid era: The Umayyads were overthrown in 750 CE by a new dynasty, the Abbasids. The first Abbasid caliph, As-Saffah, recruited Shia support in his campaign against the Umayyads by emphasizing his blood relationship to Muhammad’s household through descent from his uncle, ‘Abbas ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib. The Shia also believe that he promised them that the Caliphate, or at least religious authority, would be vested in the Shia Imam. As-Saffah assumed both the temporal and religious mantle of Caliph himself. He continued the Umayyad dynastic practice of succession, and his brother al-Mansur succeeded him in 754.
The sixth Shia Imam died during al-Mansur’s reign, and there were claims that he was murdered on the orders of the caliph.(However, Abbasid persecution of Islamic lawyers was not restricted to the Shia. Abu Hanifah, for example was imprisoned by al-Mansur and tortured.)
Shia sources further claim that by the orders of the tenth Abassid caliph, al-Mutawakkil, the tomb of the third Imam, Husayn ibn Ali in Karbala, was completely demolished and Shias were sometimes beheaded in groups, buried alive, or even placed alive within the walls of government buildings still under construction.
The Shia believe that their community continued to live for the most part in hiding and followed their religious life secretly without external manifestations.
Shia-Sunni in Iraq
Many Shia Iranians migrated to what is now Iraq in the 16th century. “It is said that when modern Iraq was formed, 75% of the population of Karbala was Iranian”. In time, these immigrants adopted the Arabic language and Arab identity, but their origin has been used to “unfairly cast them as lackeys of Iran. Other Iraqi Shias are ethnic Arabs with roots in Iraq as deep as those of their Sunni counterparts.