What’s the difference between Sunni’s and Shiites?
The word Sunni refers to one who follows the Sunnah (i.e. ways and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad). Shiite (Arabic: Shi’a) means party, group or supporters. After the Prophet Muhammad’s death, a few felt leadership of the community (caliphate) should always come from the Prophet’s family, beginning with his cousin Ali.
Though Ali himself is thought to have shared this opinion, he gave his support and maintained his love for other leaders (even naming two sons after the first two caliphs). As the decades passed, however, a few individuals from the outer territories of the early Muslim state began a political movement urging the caliphate of Ali (though Ali himself was not affiliated with them).
Thisshi’a (party)soon developed an ideology which, over generations, evolved into a theology quite different from the doctrines of the mainstream Muslim community. Several sects within Shiism also emerged over time.
However, Shiites claim there was a grand conspiracy against Ali and his family by nearly the entire Muslim community and that the true teachings of Islam have been suppressed from the world by Sunnis. Among these teachings, they maintain, is the concept of Imamate wherein Ali and anointed Imams of his lineage were assigned a special role in Islam by God and the Prophet. The Imams are also believed to possess supernatural powers.
Sunnis deny all this as absurd and lacking in any historical or scriptural evidence.
The differences between Sunnis and Shiites extend to fundamental issues of creed as well as significant differences in law and even religious rituals. The two attend separate mosques (except for the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina), do not usually pray together and generally do not intermarry.
Sunni’s make up over 90% of the Muslim population worldwide. Most of the rest is considered Shiite. Various sects of Shiites are found in many parts of the Muslim world; but the most numerous are the Twelvers who are concentrated in Iran, the largest majority Shiite country.
(This site takes a Sunni perspective.)