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Regarding the Difference Between Shiites and Sunnis


What is the difference between Sunnis and Shias? Please make a clear distinction b/w the ideas of these two groups of Muslims. Are the Shias "Muslims". How can we say that Shias are not right in their beliefs. Please give a complete view about this matter, and how we can convince Shias towards the right believes? I hope your answer will be very helpful to understand and accept the reality.

Question from Pakistan

In one of my earlier responses to a similar question I had written:

There are a number of differences in the Shia and the Sunni Juristic opinions. But these differences cannot be termed as the "basic differences" in these two major sects of Islam. The basic difference in the two sects is that of the Shiite faith regarding the system of "Imamat". The Shiite faith of "Imamat" implies that after the Prophet (pbuh), there shall be no other prophet, but the only true leader of the Muslims, at a given time, is an "Imam" who, like the prophets of Allah, is directly appointed by Allah. Allah made the appointment of the first "Imam" through the last prophet (pbuh) and Allah through the "Imam" who precedes him appoints every subsequent "Imam". Another qualification of the "Imam", according to the Shiite belief is that he shall belong to the family of the last prophet (pbuh). The Shiite belief holds that the "Imams", like the prophets of Allah, are "masoom" (sinless, innocent) and therefore should be obeyed in all matters and under all circumstances. The "Imams", according to the Shiite faith, are thus not just the political leaders of the Muslims but also their religious leaders and clergy. The Sunni school, on the other hand, does not hold any such belief.

This may, at first sight, seem to be a trivial difference between the two schools. But a close analysis reveals that it amounts to a difference of the sources of religion for the two schools. The Sunni school, because of its lack of belief in the institution of "Imamat" holds the last prophet of Allah and the book revealed on him as the two primary sources of Islam, while the Shiite school, because of the importance and position it gives to the "Imams" holds them to be an autonomous source of their religion. Anything that an "Imam" says, any thing that he does and anything that he narrates is "religion" for the Shiite school. Differing with an "Imam" in any matter is of about the same consequence as differing with a prophet. Not submitting to the directions of an "Imam" is as grave a sin as refusing to submit to the directions of a prophet of Allah.

In my opinion, the stated difference is the basic and the primary difference among the two schools. All other differences in the two schools either stem from this basic difference or are basically juristic in their nature. By juristic differences, I mean differences that are also widely present in the various sub sects of the Sunni school or the Shia school.

As far as the question that whether Shias are Muslims or not is concerned, I strictly believe that it is not the jurisdiction of the scholars of religion to declare an individual or a group "non-Muslim". The job of the scholars of Islam is to inform people of the true teachings of the Qur'an and the Sunnah. Declaring an individual or a group "Muslim" or "non-Muslim" is a legal matter, as far as the life of this world is concerned. Only the legal authorities that are competent for this purpose should therefore, be referred to for such declarations. In my opinion, because this issue pertains to the whole Muslim community, therefore such declaration should be made by the collectivity of the Muslim community. Scholars of Islam should strictly refrain from declaring each other "non-Muslims", as such actions would only result in breaking the already weakened Muslim community into further smaller pieces.

You ask:

How can we say that Shias are not right in their beliefs? ... and how we can convince Shias towards the right beliefs?

In my opinion, there is no need to refute anyone's beliefs. The thing that should actually be done is to understand and promote the true teachings of the Qur'an and the Sunnah. Our affiliations should not be with any sect or sub-sect of Islam, it should be with Islam itself. I believe that if we want to convince our brethren of the true teachings of Islam, we should first of all try to rid ourselves of all sectarian biases and prejudices and try to study and understand Islam with an open mind. It is only after we, ourselves, rid ourselves of all kinds of sectarian biases and prejudices that we should expect others to do the same.

May the Almighty help us all in understanding His deen.

I hope this helps. In case any further explanation is required, please feel free to write back to me at your convenience.


Moiz Amjad
December 27, 2000

Answer published by Moiz Amjad