The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey.
The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey.

Shia and Sunni mosques are essentially the same. The mosque is a Muslim house of worship. "The Oxford Dictionary of Islam" reports that the word, "mosque" originates from the Arab word masjid, which translates to "place for (ritual) prostration." All mosques, no matter their affiliation with Sunni or Shia Muslims, generally have a similar physical set up, and universally contain a niche on the wall called a "mirhab" that points worshipers toward the direction of Mecca.

Origins of Sunni Shia Divide

The Sunni and Shia divide occurred after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD over the question of his succession. Most of his followers, the Sunnis, believed Abu Bakr -- the father of the Prophet’s wife Aisha -- was the Prophet's rightful successor. Sunnis also believed the consensus of the Ummah, or the Muslim community, is necessary for electing leaders. The minority group of Shias believed the succession should stay within the family of the Prophet, and favored the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali, who was also the Prophet's cousin and closest male relative, as his rightful heir.

Differences in Custom

Both Sunni and Shia believe Allah is the only God and that Muhammad is his messenger. Both groups also follow the five pillars of Islam and share a holy book, the Quran. However, while Sunnis primarily rely on the teachings of the Prophet, known as the Sunnah, for their spiritual guidance, the Shia see their religious teachers, the ayatollahs, as reflections of God on earth, according to "The Economist."

Differences in Prayer

While all devout Muslims are required to pray five times a day, Shia practice permits combining some of those into three daily prayers, according to the BBC. Unlike Sunnis, Shias place their head on a naturally occurring material – often a clay tablet -- mohr -- or soil from Karbala, the place where Ali's son Hussein was martyred – during prostration, instead of directly on the prayer rug.

Demographics

Shias only make up between 10 to 13 percent of the world’s Muslim population, according to the Pew Research Center. Most Shias live in four countries: India, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan. Iran was home to up to 70 million Shias in 2009, representing almost 40 percent of world’s Shia population.