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Insight into Islam: Sunni vs. Shi’ite

June 30, 2014

Recent turmoil in the Middle East and Asia centers on conflicts between the two major sects of Islam, Shi’ite and Sunni. You may wonder about the differences between the two groups and why they hold animosity toward one another. You may also consider how best you can pray for them during this time of unrest and war.  

For insight, we turn to CIU Professor of Intercultural Studies, Dr. Ed Smither. Smither served for 14 years in intercultural ministry working primarily among Muslims in France, North Africa, and the United States. Smither responded with this email Q&A.    

What are the historic differences between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims?

The origins of Shia (anglicized Shi’ite) and Sunni Islam begins with the question of who should lead the Muslim community. Shias claim that before Muhammad’s death in 632, he appointed Ali, his blood relative, to lead the community; however, Abu Bakr was elected instead to be the caliph (political and spiritual leader). Eventually, Ali would be set apart as the fourth caliph (656-661); however, he would be assassinated in 661 which brought about a formal split between Sunnis and Shias. In short, Shias believe that the leader of Islam should be a blood relative of Muhammad while Sunnis believe that the leader can be any member of the community. 

Are there differences in religious practices?

Generally speaking, Sunnis and Shias pray and practice Islam in a similar manner, but there are some differences. Historically, Sunni Muslims were led by a caliph; while Shias have preferred to be led by an imam (prayer leader). Shias believe that God’s light (nour) is passed down from imam to imam in leading the community. If we look closely, we find that there are some additional verses in the Shia Qu’ran and even the call to prayer from a Shia mosque will include a word about Ali. Finally, while all Muslims should make the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), Shias seem to place more value on pilgrimages to Najaf and Kerbala (both in Iraq) where the slain sons of Ali — Hassan and Hussein — are buried. Sunni Muslims regard themselves as orthodox Muslims.

 Are there regional differences? / Which group is larger?

About 85-90 percent of Muslims in the world are Sunni Muslims with most of the world’s Shia Muslims living in Iran (about 90 percent of the population) or Iraq (60 percent of the population). There are also significant Shia populations in Syria and Yemen.

 Why does their relationship remained strained after all these years?

Part of the strain certainly goes back to the violence and betrayal associated with the seventh century split. In recent years in Iraq, Saddam Hussein led a Sunni government that actually oppressed the Shia majority. The current Iraqi leader, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is Shia and there is great mistrust on the part of Sunnis. Things were certainly strained further in another way as Iraq (Sunni led) and Iran (Shia) were embroiled in a war for most of the 1980s.

How can Christians best pray for the violence taking place among Muslims?

We can certainly pray for peace and an end to fighting and testify to our Muslim friends about the peace that our Messiah, the Lord Jesus has brought — that when we are reconciled with God, we can also be reconciled to our enemies and love them. We can also pray for leaders in the Middle East that they will have wisdom. Also, we should lift up other mediators — including Western political leaders — that they would advise and influence with cultural understanding.

Does it matter whether a Muslim is Sunni or Shi’ite when it comes to our Christian witness to a Muslim?

Well, it certainly helps to know about the doctrinal differences between Sunnis and Shias and perhaps to craft our witness in light of those differences. However, I think the most important part of our witness to Muslims is to show them friendship, love, and hospitality, to share our story of how we have met Christ, and to patiently explain the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ giving time to answering our Muslim friends’ questions.

For more insight on Islam, check out the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies at Columbia International University: http://www.ciu.edu/muslimstudies.