To outsiders, the difference between the Sunnis and the Shiites seems rather vague and esoteric. They both absolutely believe and venerate the Qur’an (aka Koran), the holiest book of Islam. They both call themselves Muslim. They both go on Hajj every year to Mecca, in Saudi.
But, they seem to have spent the last 13 centuries killing each other.
I won’t go too deeply into the differences here. A deeper discussion can be found in the links at the end of this piece. But, I will discuss some general differences in character.
Shia Islam arose from a political disagreement over the succession of Ali ibn Abu Talib, the fourth Caliph. That political disagreement in the 7th century has turned into the religious movement of today.
Approach to Islam
The word Sunni essentially means ‘the followers of the traditions’ – coming from the word Sunnah, meaning tradition.
The word Shia means ‘follower’ originally from ‘Shi’at Ali’, or ‘the followers of Ali [ibn Abu Talib]’.
The Sunni tend to be more literal in their approach to Islam. They tend to feel that the interpretation of Sunnah as having been closed.
The Shia tend to be more mystical, with a more open interpretation of Islam and the holy books. For instance, the Sufis, the ascetic mystical movement within Islam that most of you probably know about, comes from the Shi’a movement.
We will talk about the coming of the Mahdi in more detail at another time. Just think of it as the Islamic version of the coming of the Messiah.
Anyway, the Shi’a believe that the Mahdi was the twelfth Imam, Muhammad ibn Hassan, who the Shi’a believe disappeared mystically around the early 10th century. They believe that the Mahdi will one day return and establish Islam throughout the world.
The Sunnis don’t even believe that Muhammad ibn Hassan ever existed. The Sunnis believe that the Mahdi will be (or may already have been) born in Medina to someone named Abdullah.
The Shia have been a persecuted minority in Islam for more than a thousand years which I believe is part of the reason why they are often so much more militant and extreme. I also believe that their mysticism feeds directly into that extremist tendency.
On the other hand, there are sects in Sunni Islam that are far more extreme and violent that the Shi’a. The Wahhabi sect of Islam, the predominate form of Islam in Saudi, is far more extreme and violent than most, if not all, Shi’a. For instance, Al Qaeda is Wahhabi.
Okay, that is the roughest of rough overviews. For more info go here:
note: I don’t actually consider the Wikipedia articles as definitive. You will find better sources at the bottom of THOSE articles – and by doing google searches on names found here.