What is the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims?

Sunni and Shia Islam are the two major sects comprising Islam. They differ in their religious beliefs, practices, and interpretation of the Quran. Despite their shared ancestry, these Islamic divisions have significantly different beliefs, and their differences have led to significant historical and contemporary conflicts throughout the Muslim world. This essay aims to highlight the salient differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

The primary difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims is their view of the authority of religious leaders. Shia Muslims believe that leadership of the Muslim community after prophet Muhammad's death should have passed on to Ali, the prophet's cousin and son-in-law, through lineage. They also believe that Ali's descendants, known as Imams, possess spiritual and political authority inherited directly from the prophet. In contrast, Sunni Muslims believe that political authority should be given to the person best suited to lead the community according to the example of the prophet Muhammad.

Another significant difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims is their religious practices. Although both sects share many religious traditions, Shia Muslims have different holy days and a different religious calendar than Sunni Muslims. For instance, Shia Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Ali on the tenth day of Muharram, known as Ashura, and the death of the Prophet's daughter, Fatima, on the fifth day of Jumad-ath-thani.

Additionally, there are differences in some of their religious practices. For example, in Shia Islam, pointing fingers during prayer is a crucial ritual when taking an oath, while it is not mandatory in Sunni Islam. Likewise, Shia Muslims perform prayer three times a day, while Sunni Muslims offer five daily prayers.

Moreover, Shia Muslims commemorate their Imams' deaths, while Sunni Muslims do not, claiming that commemoration in such a manner is unnecessary and not part of the teachings of the Prophet.

Furthermore, Sunni and Shia Muslims have different opinions on various theological concepts, such as the nature of the Quran, the Imamate, and the concept of saints. For example, Shia Islam teaches that the Quran has both an apparent (zahir) and an inner (batin) meaning, whereas Sunni Muslims believe the Quran is clear and straightforward. Similarly, Shia Muslims believe that the Imamate, or the spiritual and political authority, is a divine appointment, while Sunni Muslims believe that leadership is based on consensus.

In Conclusion, the fundamental differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims are rooted in their beliefs around leadership, religious practices, and theological concepts. It is essential to understand these differences which have been the source of historical conflicts, mutual understanding and respect can lead toward a greater unity, falling under the overarching umbrella of Islam.