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Sunni, Shiite, or Wahhabi: What’s the Deal?



Reply Date

Oct 05, 2016


Respected scholar, as-salamu alaykum. I have a question concerning different beliefs in Islam. I recently came across individuals who have confused me into accepting that what they believe is correct. One is a Wahhabi person and another a Shiite. Both of them have opposing views. I myself have been bought up to be a Sunni but still don't understand fully the difference. I am ashamed to say this is due to my lack of Islamic knowledge which I am trying to strengthen. So my question to you is: what differentiates a Sunni from a Shiite and a Wahhabi? And what are the fundamental differences?



Sunni, Shiite, or Wahhabi: What Is the Deal?

Salam Dear Sister,

Thank you for your question and for contacting Ask About Islam.

In the Quran, Allah says:

{And hold fast by the covenant of Allah all together and be not disunited, and remember the favor of Allah on you when you were enemies, then He united your hearts so by His favor you became brethren.} (Aal `Imran 3:103)

This divine command categorically makes it binding on all Muslims to be united as one Ummah (community of believers). And for this reason all forms of schism and sectarianism become un-Islamic.

But it is a fact of history that there have arisen over the centuries, differing interpretations of some of the verses of the Quran and of the meaning of some Prophetic traditions.

These interpretations have caused a few sects to be formed within the fold of the Muslim community. But Islam is luckier than other belief systems as the number of sects in Islam is by far very few.

One may note that the Sunnis and the Shiites are the two major groups among Muslims. But most Sunni and Shiite believers recognize each other as genuine Muslims (except for a few deviant sects).

Both the Sunni and Shiite followers believe in Allah Almighty, in Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) and in the Day of Judgment as exemplified in the Quran in the verse that means:

{The Messenger believes in what has been revealed to him from his Lord, and (so do) the believers; they all believe in Allah and His angels and His books and His messengers; We make no difference between any of His messengers; and they say: We hear and obey, our Lord! Your forgiveness (do we crave), and to you is the eventual course.} (Al-Baqarah 2:285)

In fact, the division between Sunnis and Shiites happened immediately after the death of Prophet Muhammad. The question arose at the time as to who was to take over the leadership of the Muslim nation.

Sunni Muslims held the view, along with most of the Prophet’s Companions, that the new leader should be elected from among those capable of the job. And Prophet Muhammad’s close friend and advisor, Abu Bakr, was chosen the first Caliph of the Islamic nation.

But there was a group of Muslims who held the view that the leadership of the community should have gone to a member of the Prophet’s own family, or to some one specifically appointed by him, or to an Imam appointed by God Himself.

These people further argued that the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali (may Allah be pleased  with him) should have been elected leader. The word “Shiite” comes from the expression, ‘Shiat Ali’ or ‘the Party of Ali’. From this initial question of political leadership, some aspects of spiritual life have been affected, and hence the differences between the two groups of Muslims.

An overwhelming majority (85%) of Muslims today are Sunni and the rest Shiite. Despite the differences, most Muslims — whether Sunni or Shiite — share the main articles of Islamic belief, read the same Quran, turn to the same Kabah for prayer, and prefer to call themselves, “Muslims”.

The famous scholar Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi has written:

“It is important for the Sunnis to concentrate on the points of agreement, not difference, when having dialogues with the Shiites, especially that the points of agreement are on the fundamental issues of religion, while the points of difference have to do with the minor ones…

The most important point to be taken into account is that there is a great deal of agreement between the Sunni jurisprudence and the Shiite one. This is because both depend on the same sources, the Quran and the Sunnah, and also because their aims in conducting research on religion are similar, that is, establishing Allah’s justice and mercy among people.” (Sunnis & Shiites: Overlooking Differences, last accessed March 9, 2009)

On Wahhabism, one western journalist wrote:

“ also became apparent that the spread of Wahabism, whose most famous adherent is Osama bin Laden, should be taken seriously.”

And in the next paragraph we read this:

“Even many Muslims consider Wahabism an extremist sect, but its followers — who include Saudi Arabia’s ruling House of Saud – insist they are simply practicing the “true” Islam.

Wahabism gained a foothold in the Muslim world in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, as the Saudis, tacitly encouraged by the United States and its allies, used their enormous financial resources to ensure that radical Shia Islam did not spread to the Sunni Muslim world..” (Carole O’Leary, Extremists in a Moderate Land, Washington Post, Sunday, August 11, 2002, last accessed March 9, 2009)

Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab of the nineteenth century, was a reformer who focused on tawheed (monotheism) and fought the polytheistic practices that had somehow returned to his people, such as praying to saints, making sacrificial offerings to holy persons etc. His students began to refer to themselves asmuwahhidun (unitarians), while his critics called them “Wahhabis” — with a bad connotation.

We can see that what is called ‘Wahhabism’ was a genuinely Islamic movement that was named after Ibn Abdul Wahhab who initiated a reform movement in Arabia to retain the pure and original form of Islam against several innovations introduced by the so-called Sufis at that time.

He upheld the ideas of the two notable Islamic figures, Sheikh Ibn Taymiyah and his disciple, Ibn Al-Qayyim, and followed the juristic opinions of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, in creedal as well as juristic matters. And his movement did make significant contributions to Islam at that time, by removing a lot of deviant and decadent practices that had crept into the Muslim society.

As a result of his work, former heresies, innovations, and evil practices disappeared from among the Muslims of Arabia. For instance, he chopped down the trees that people used to worship and pray to in Najd. They used to ask those trees things that only Allah Almighty is capable of giving.

Ibn Abdul Wahhab also demolished the domes that people took as temples for pagan rituals. But self-appointed advocates of innovations sowed seeds of hatred against him and his followers, who actually adhered to the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of his Messenger Muhammad.

The foregoing means that Wahhabism does not really have anything to do with any kind of terrorism, especially of the kind attributed to them by the western ‘experts’.

I hope this answers your question. Please keep in touch.


About Professor Shahul Hameed

Professor Shahul Hameed is an Islamic consultant. He also held the position of the President of the Kerala Islamic Mission, Calicut, India. He is the author of three books on Islam published in the Malayalam language. His books are on comparative religion, the status of women, and science and human values.

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