What is the Shia-Sunni divide?

A boy is evacuated during an attack on the Iranian parliament in central Tehran, Iran, on June 7, 2017. Photo by Omid Vahabzadeh/TIMA via Reuters

(The Conversation) The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for two attacks that claimed at least 12 lives in Iran on Wednesday (June 7). With this, the flaring tensions between Sunnis and Shias are once again in the news.

Iran is a Shia Muslim majority state often in tension with Sunni states and extremist groups like the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. These attacks are the latest chapter in the story of the centuries-long strained relationship between Sunnis and Shias.

As a scholar of Islam and a public educator, I often field questions about Sunnis, Shias and the sects of Islam. What exactly is the Shia-Sunni divide? And what is its history?

History of divide

Both Sunnis and Shias – drawing their faith and practice from the Quran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad – agree on most of the fundamentals of Islam. The differences are related more to historical events, ideological heritage and issues of leadership.

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2 replies

  1. This model of continuous Divine Guidance reinterpreted in every time is the same model of Divine Guidance used by Prophet Muhammad when he recited the Qur’an to the Community and gave guidance. The Prophetic-Qur’anic Guidance model is a model of CONTINUOUS, PROGRESSIVE, and RESPONSIVE guidance – that means, whatever the situation of the early Community, both the Qur’anic guidance recited by the Prophet and the Prophet’s own guidance on all matters including ritual practices would CHANGE and UPDATE and EVOLVE as new situations arose and circumstances changed – and this is an undeniable historical fact proven from the Qur’an itself:

    The number of prayers changed from 2 times in Makkah to 3 times in Madinah;
    The rules on drinking alcohol changed at least 3-4 times;
    The guidance for warfare changed several times as the circumstances changed;
    The practices of fasting – how to fast and when to fast – changed at least 2-3 times.

    The Quran and Prophet were changing and updating the Divine Guidance to the Community in an ongoing manner as times and circumstances changed – and all this happened only over 23 years. The Prophet Muhammad KNEW that Divine Guidance would have to continue after his death – that is why he said that the Kitab of God (meaning Divine Guidance) and his Ahl al-Bayt would never separate from one another and told the Community to follow Imam Ali as the Mawla (Master) because the Imams continue giving Divine Guidance to the Community that is also CONTINUOUS, PROGRESSIVE, and RESPONSIVE. The Qur’an even says that the Imams in the periods before Prophet Muhammad had the Divine authority to establish the form of prayer for the Believers:


    • Quran supersedes all other previous kitaab and is the last kitaab. Hence the ultimate Divine Guidance is complete.

      Quran was indeed revealed gradually over 23 years that is why some laws were updated.

      However the Ultimate Divine Guidance has been completed according to Quran 5:3, the “Deen is complete”.

      Quran only mentions Prophets as having the authority to establish the form of prayer.

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