Sunni and Shiite Muslims What Is the Difference?


There are two branches within Islam: Sunni and Shiite. Like the Catholic/Protestant split, the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims is theological in nature, although both branches uphold the same basic tenets of faith.

The primary difference between the two branches is their divergent belief in religious succession. The Sunni branch believes that legitimate religious leaders are those appointed by consensus. They believe that the heirs of those leaders are connected to Muhammad’s first four successors, his caliphs.

Shiites, on the other hand, believe that religious leaders must descend directly from Muhammad’s bloodline. His forth caliph was Ali, the husband of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima. Shiite Muslims believe that Ali is the true source of Islam and all religious leaders should descend from him.

The Sunni branch comprises the vast majority of the Muslim population today — up to 90 percent. The Shiite minority is concentrated in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.