Short Answer: In terms of faith, there is no difference between Sunnis and Shiites. In terms of politics, the story started with the difference of opinion among the Companions of the Prophet as to who should follow the Prophet as the political leader of the young Muslim nation. Muslims, after 14 centuries of these events, should refrain from making them a reason behind any division today, let alone behind fighting.
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Today, in the beginning of the 21st century, we are witnessing sharp divisions between two categories of Muslims that like to call themselves Sunnis and Shiites, even though most of them do not really know the basic differences between the two schools.
Many politicians, especially in powerful countries, and a number of media outlets prefer to perceive this division as a sectarian division, for various motives.
Therefore, they like to call these categories sects rather than schools, and they try to enforce these sectarian divisions through laws and policies.
Differences Are Not New
The differences between Sunnis and Shiites are not new.
However, what could be new is that many of today’s scholars, and I agree with them, realize that these differences fall in two realms, namely, politics and fiqh, rather than in the realm of basics of faith.
Below, I will try to argue for this very important distinction and categorization exercise.
First, this categorization is not just a mere academic exercise because the consequences of mixing these categories of politics and faith are drastic, on the ground, for the whole Ummah of Islam.
Historically speaking, mutual accusations of heresy or apostasy, not just error in political decisions or even in fiqhi ijtihad, frequently occurred between followers of both schools, who had different opinions about what they held were essential parts of Islam.
Throughout Islamic history, a number of bloody Sunni-Shiite conflicts that harmed the whole Ummah were instigated by such accusations.
I did some research once on the frequency of battles between Sunnis and Shiites in Islamic history only between the tenth and twelfth century CE, and only within the area that we call Iraq today.
I found out that repeated battles had occurred between the two groups, which led to the repeated “destruction, looting, and burning” (according to Ibn Kathir, Ibn Khaldoun, Ash-Shaibani, and many other historians) of the cities of Baghdad, Basra, Karkh, and Rayy in 962, 972, 974, 981, 1008, 1015, 1031, 1041, 1047, 1079, 1184 CE.
(For details, refer, for example, to Isma`il ibn Kathir, Al-Bidayah Wal-Nihayah, vols. 11 and 12, and Ali Ash-Shaibani, Al-Kamil fi Al-Tarikh, vols. 2, 8, 10.)
History Repeats Itself?
Today, history repeats itself.
Again, what we are facing as an Ummah in Iraq is (partly, on our side as Muslims) due to mixing matters of politics and fiqh (which could be right or wrong) with matters of faith and heresy; hence the (un)holy fights!
In terms of politics, the story started with the difference of opinion among the Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) after his passing away as to who should follow the Prophet as the political leader, or Caliph (Successor), of the young Muslim nation.
Many Sunnis gave priority to Abu Bakr or `Umar ibn Al-Khattab as a matter of faith, and many Shiites also took the imamah (leadership) of `Ali ibn Abi Talib as a pillar of faith.
However, many scholars from both sides would also agree that although the unity of Muslims under a leader is a religious duty, the personality and the process of choosing this leader is a matter of ijtihad that could naturally bear differences of opinion.
In any case, Muslims, after 14 centuries of these events, should refrain from making them a reason behind any division today, let alone behind fighting and bloodshed.
On the fiqhi level, every Muslim knows that there could be more than one way of understanding and practicing Islam, and that they could all be right.
I am not trying to water down the differences. However, these differences are not significant enough to be considered basic differences over matters of faith.
In terms of faith, there is no difference between Sunnis and Shiites.
In terms of the Quran, there is not a single difference between Sunnis and Shiites.
One Shiite jurist, a few centuries ago, held the opinion that the current Quran is missing a large number of chapters and verses related to the succession of `Ali ibn Abi Talib, and held the Companions “responsible for hiding these sections.”
None of the Shiite references, whether in the early days or today, endorse this opinion and they all condemn it.
For more on this, refer to Mohamed El-Awa, Al-`Alaqah bayn Al-Sunnah Wal Shi`ah (The Relationship between Sunnah and Shi`ah) (Cairo: Safeer International Press, 2006).
Furthermore, there is no single fiqhi opinion in various Shiite schools of law (and their books are everywhere) that is based on verses or chapters outside the Quran as every Muslim knows it.
In terms of Hadith, there are clear divisions in terms of trusted narrators, between the Sunni schools (Malikis, Shafi`is, Hanafis, Hanbalis, and Zahiris) and the Shiite schools.
Sunni schools accepted all Companions and their students, including all imams and all students of the Companions (who were labeled as Sunni and Shiite centuries later).
For Sunni scholars, however, later generations of Shiites, Ibadis, and Mu`tazilis are not generally acceptable as trusted narrators of Hadith because of their alleged innovations.
On the other hand, Shiite schools accept only the narrations of a few Companions who were considered part of the Prophet’s household, with the exception of the Prophet’s wives who were alive at his death.
This disagreement is largely due to all the (political) events between the Prophet’s passing away and the civil war in AH 37/657 CE.
Nevertheless, narrations from Shiite sources produced fiqhi rulings that are by and large similar to all other Sunni rulings.
There are some differences between Sunni and Shiite schools of law, which are as much as the differences between any other two Sunni schools.
I believe that if the differences between Sunnis and Shiites are understood within the above correct framework, there will be peace in Iraq and other places of Muslim-Muslim conflicts and the Islamic civil society will develop into a genuine and stable form of democracy in Iraq and elsewhere.
I hope this answers your question. Thank you and stay in touch.
(From Ask About Islam archives)
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