When Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, died, the majority of Muslims believed that power should be passed down through elected leaders. A small minority, later called the Shia, rejected these elected officials and instead chose to follow the blood descendants of the Prophet himself or imams chosen by God, creating the Sunni-Shia split. Today, Sunnis still comprise the vast majority of Muslims -- around 85 percent. Although the centuries-long political conflict between the two has informed the spiritual fabric of both sects, Shias and Sunnis irrefutably share essential beliefs and practices.
One True Faith
To both Sunnis and Shias, Islam is considered the one true faith. Other religions are condemned by Muslims, for whom Islam is more than just a belief, it is a way of life. This belief in the possession of the one true faith has created the conditions for the historical and contemporary struggles between Muslims and those of other faiths.
Belief in One God
Sunni and Shia are purely monotheistic; they believe in only one god, Allah. While some denominations of Christianity elevate their prophet Jesus Christ to the status of God and indeed include him as part and parcel of the holy entity, Muslims regard their prophet Muhammad as inspired, but human.
Both denominations accept the Koran, or Qur'an, the Muslim holy book, as the indisputable will of Allah and His plan for humanity. Both Sunnis and Shias believe that the body of Koranic laws (called sharia) supersedes worldly laws.
Five Core Acts
Sunni and Shia Muslims all embrace the Five Pillars of Islam, five core acts that are considered essential to commitment to the faith. These include the declaration of belief in Allah as the one true god and of his one prophet Muhammad, daily prayer, charitable deeds or alms giving, ritual fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Art and Architecture
Depictions of the human form are viewed as idolatry by both sects, considered a sin in the Koran. In the art and architecture of Sunni and Shia holy sites, you will not find representations of Allah or the Prophet Muhammad as you might expect to find artistic renderings of Krishna or Vishnu in a Hindu temple. In stead, both Sunnis and Shias decorate their mosques with complex geometric patterns and quotations in Arabic calligraphy.
- Herb Patchell, M.A.; Faculty, Boston University; Boston, MA
- BBC Religions: Sunni and Shi'a
- Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images News/Getty Images