differences between Sunni and Shi'a Islam?
July 26, 2007 1:15 PM   Subscribe

What are the functional and modern differences between Sunni and Shi'a Islam?

I'm already familiar with the story behind the split, but after 1300 years of separation, I imagine there are some differences beyond the argument over who should and should not lead Islam. But beyond that, and beyond the geopolitics of which sect is more populous where... what are the actual differences?

Oddly enough, one doesn't find much of an explanation in many school textbooks. They tell you the origins of the split and really that's it. Is it really too technical to be worth the time or something?
posted by scaryblackdeath to Religion & Philosophy (7 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
There are different schools of jurisprudence regarding Islamic Law.
posted by gimonca at 1:35 PM on July 26, 2007

I found this TIME magazine article from this past February to be helpful: Behind the Sunni-Shi'ite Divide.

This chart is also helpful: Comparison of Sunni and Shia Islam .

Kinda related -- I also recall this interesting article from Newsweek (in March): Love in a Time of Madness -- A Sunni and a Shiite fall in love in Iraq.
posted by ericb at 1:38 PM on July 26, 2007

They have some different holidays and traditions, as well, and Shi'ites tend to be a little more like Roman Catholics, rather than Evangelicals, in that Shi'a has a fairly strong tradition of venerating historical Imams, praying to them for intercession, etc. that's at least vaguely similar to the Roman Catholic Church's practices toward the Saints. Again, this is a pretty lose interpretation; I am not a Muslim scholar.
posted by infinitywaltz at 1:40 PM on July 26, 2007

Shiites are kind of like the Catholics of Islam. They have various "saints" or whatever that they may pay their respects to.

For instance, ashoora is the event that marks the death of Ali. Shiites cut themselves to commemorate the event.

Shiites believe descendents of the prophet Muhammad are somehow (searching for the right word here...) elevated. Many Shiites follow a spiritual leader who claims, without significant proof usually, that he is a descendant from Muhammad. Oftentimes in Shiite mosques you'll see an actual photograph of the spiritual leader (supposed descendent of Muhammad) inside the prayer room. Displaying photos inside the mosque is generally prohibited. You would never see pictures of anyone inside a Sunni mosque.

Becaue Shiites so revere self-proclaimed descendants of Muhammad, they generally are more lenient in the passing of Islamic rulings.

This is kind of difficult to explain, but Sunnis have kind of a system of making religous rulings. Things are based on what's said in the Qu'ran and next what's said in the Hadith (sayings of Muhammad). They also rank the legitimacy of the Hadith sayings as well. Most of the Hadith is sayings of Muhammad as reported by other people. Naturally, they try to determine the authenticity of the saying by judging the credibility of the person, if there were other witnesses to report the same thing, whether this reported event would counter another event previously recorded, etc. They even have kind of a star rating, where one star would suggest "the story is probably bullcrap" and four stars would suggest authenticity. (Of course, they don't call them stars).

People use these rulings to make moral decisions in their life. They consult such rulings for all kinds of decisions on their household, what they eat, how they handle money, etc.

Shiites have this system as well, but oftentimes the claimed descendent of Muhammad will unilaterally make a ruling that people will follow nonetheless.

An example from current events is called Mutah, or a pleasure marriage. A Mutah is almost like prostitution. It's a very short (one week, one night, one hour, etc) marriage that exists purely for sex (since it is legal to have sex with your spouse and forbidden to have sex outside of marriage. Sunnis, being more conservative, are typically against it but Shiites believe it to be perfectly legal. It is one of the many cultural issues plaguing Iraq now, because Shiites have the ability to pass their own laws. Here is a recent article about it.

Kind of a long winded answer.
posted by b_thinky at 1:48 PM on July 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

Slightly off topic, but I want to mention that Morocco is a Sunni country, but they also "believe descendents of the prophet Muhammad are somehow elevated." There are terms for this in both Arab and Berber traditions, such as Moulay/Lalla and Aggourem/Taggouremt.

Also a very strong tradition of saints (marabouts) in Moroccan history.

The star rating analogy is hilarious, thanks for a good chuckle.
posted by Liosliath at 4:58 PM on July 26, 2007

b_thinky Ashoura marks the death of Imam Hussien, the son of Imam Ali. Ali died in the month of Ramadan, while Ashoura takes place in month of Muharram.

In brief, Shia believe in the 12 Imams starting with Ali and ending in Mehdi. Sunni's don't. You can research Ali on your own, plenty of information online.

The sunni practice Islam based on what the prophet did, or said. The shia believe that Islam can be a religion for every time and place, thus they modify the practice accordingly by doing "ijtihad" which is research by scholars regarding new issues that arise, for example, cloning, or certain medicines or medical procedures, grooming habits, how to split properties among children, prayer times, marriage and divorce, etc... There are many examples that can illustrate that.

If you have specific answers, contact me or ask here, it is just difficult to give a straight answer in here, too much things to talk about.
posted by convex at 12:04 PM on July 27, 2007

The sunni practice Islam based on what the prophet did, or said. The shia believe that Islam can be a religion for every time and place, thus they modify the practice accordingly by doing "ijtihad" which is research by scholars

The "ijtihad" system exists in Sunni Islam, but it uses the Quran and Hadith to lay down the general guiding rules and style of thinking to derive newer and more contemporary rules. So you can't really claim that "The shia believe that Islam can be a religion for every time and place.." while the Sunna don't.
posted by howiamdifferent at 4:33 PM on July 27, 2007

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