The differences between Sunni and Shia Islam are political in origin, and remain so to this day. The way that Muslims are positioned throughout the world (70% Sunni, and 20% Shia) has heavily informed the politics of various countries and created much geopolitical tension and associated extremism between the two sects. Since the bitter conflict between these two branches of Islam features so prominently in current news, I thought it worth doing a short blog, simply outlining the similarities and differences between the two sects, and the root of the split. As I am not a Muslim myself, I apologize in advance for any mistakes which I may have made. Please correct me in the comments section, when required.
Although most discourse focuses on the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam, it's worth remembering that they are both in agreement regarding the 5 pillars of Islam which they believe form the foundation for Muslim life. These are:
1) Shahadah: That means reciting the basic statement of the Islamic faith "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger."
2) Salat: the performing of obligatory ritual prayers in the proper way five times each day facing Mecca.
3) Zakat: systematically giving a proportion of your wealth to charity, to benefit the poor and the needy, and self-purification. This is in addition to individual charitable donations.
4) Sawm: fasting during the month of Ramadan (amongst other things this teaches self-discipline, spiritual strength, and thanks to God).
5) It is obligatory for all Muslims to complete the Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca.
As well as the above, all Muslims, regardless of sect, believe that the only god is Allah, and that he is infallible, and that the prophet on earth was Muhammad. They believe that Muslims should follow the behaviour prescribed by the Quran and that on judgement day, based on one's earthly behaviour, God will make his judgement about one's fate. Click here if you'd like an explanation of what exactly Muslims (well, most Muslims) believe happens on judgment day.
The main difference between these two sects of Islam spawns from a differing of opinions about the successor-ship to Muhammad, the first prophet, and founder of Islam, and the greatest of the prophets of God, who died in 632 AD.
When Muhammad died, the majority of the Muslim community believed that the rules of the Quran should be followed, and that the Ummah (Muslim community) should elect the next leader based on who they considered most 'able' to rule. Abu Bakr was the father of one of Muhammad's wives Aisha, and he was seen by these Muslims as Muhammad's rightful successor, and the next rightful caliphate.
These Muslims later become known as Sunnis (a contraction of 'ahl-a-sunnah' the people of tradition, which denotes the traditional Arab method of leadership appointment). Whilst Sunnis revere their Muslim leaders, they hold that the role of the caliphate is purely functional- to maintain Muslim law and order (this differs from how Shias view Imams).
The remainder of the Muslim community (who became known as Shias) believed that only direct descendants of Muhammad should be Islamic leaders. After Muhammad died, they wanted Ali, Muhammad's cousin, close friend, and trusted aid to be the next leader of the Muslim community. The word Shia derives from 'Shiat Ali' meaning Ali's party. Shias also believe that the direct descendants of Muhammad were Imams, and share the infallible nature of the first prophet. They believe that Imams are linked to the divine, are immune to human error, and can read the Quran in a unique way to reveal its deeper meaning.
Both sides put forward a strong case.
Sunnis justify their belief that the position of caliph should have gone to Abu Bakr (which it did) because he was chosen by the Prophet Muhammad to lead prayers whilst Muhammad was dying.
The appeal of Shia Muslims is that the Prophet Muhammad was on his journey home from his final Hajj when he stood up and spoke to his companions, taking Ali's hand and calling him the master and spiritual guide, saying, 'all you who worship me, must worship Ali.'
The majority of Sunnis and Shias are moderate, but both sides have an extremist wing (and many subsidiary groups). The Al-Qaeda, Taliban & all of their subsidiaries identify themselves as Sunni Muslims. Hezbollah, a state backed Shi'a Islamic militant group and political party based in Lebanon, is known as a radicalized version of Shi'a ideology.
However, although extremist factions hark from Sunni and Shia tenets, many Muslims regard them as non-Muslims, on the grounds that they oppose violence in the name of Islam.