Sunnis and Shiites assign symbolic meaning to different figures in Islamic history.
Sunnis and Shiites assign symbolic meaning to different figures in Islamic history.

No specific symbols are widely recognized as either Sunni or Shiite, but things with symbolic value help to differentiate the two major sects of Islam. Abu Bakr, the first caliph, or successor to Muhammad, is an important figure for Sunnis. Shiite symbolism usually revolves around Ali, the first infallible Imam, and his son, Hussayn.

Difference Between Sunni and Shiite Muslims

The Sunni-Shiite divide dates back to Muhammad's death in 632. The Shiite view is that Muhammad had already chosen Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, as his successor. The Sunni view is no clear successor existed at the time of Muhammad's death. Abu Bakr ultimately became the first successor to Muhammad, or caliph, and it's an ascension that Sunnis consider rightful and Shiites consider illegitimate. The main issue between the two is the source of authority -- Sunnis believe authority lies with the community, while Shiites believe special authority is passed down through the family of Muhammad.

Sunni Symbols: Abu Bakr and the Rightly-Guided Caliphs

Abu Bakr's ascension is a symbol of Sunnism because he represents the sect's archetype of the post-Muhammad leader -- a first among equals who is chosen by the community. A passage from the Abu Dawud collection, which is one of the canonical collections of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad, states that the Muslim community would not agree on an error. This statement is given great weight in the Sunni tradition, and it justifies Abu Bakr as a legitimate ruler. The same is also true of the "rightly-guided caliphs" that followed him: Umar, Uthman and Ali.

Shiite Symbols: Ali and the Imams

The word "Shiite" means a party, a faction or followers, and the name "Shiite" is short for "party of Ali." Shiites believe Ali had special authority, passed down from Muhammad, to interpret Islam. Ali was the first Imam, or righteous leader, of Shiite Islam, and this authority extended to Ali's sons, Hasan and Hussayn. Their descendants would be considered infallible Imams as well. Twelver Shiitism, the most common form of Shiite Islam, has 12 Imams. The first 11 were martyred, but the last is hidden and will return one day to establish justice on Earth.

Shiite Symbols: Hussayn, Karbala and the Day of Ashura

Shiites celebrate the Day of Ashura every year, commemorating the massacre of Hussayn, Ali's son and the third Imam, and his family at the Battle of Karbala in 680. The importance of this event in Shiitism cannot be overstated -- Karbala is considered a microcosm of the battle between good and evil. For example, the slogan of the Shiite website Ashura.com is: "Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala." Shiites celebrate the Day of Ashura with weeping, signs of grief and sometimes blood-letting to show their solidarity with Hussayn.