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The Sunnis and the Shiites are the two main groups of Muslims. They have many things in common, but here we focus on the differences. Bias warning: I lean towards the Sunnis, but I'll try to be objective as I can.

  • Both agree on the primary source, the Qur'an.
  • Shiites believe that Ali, the cousin of Muhammad should have taken over leadership of the Muslim community. Sunnis feel that what happened historically was acceptable. (Aside: The name Shiites comes from this fact. "Shia" in arabic means "faction" or group. Shiites refers to the faction of people supporting Ali). This is probably the key difference, everything follows from this.
  • They differ on the Hadith (narrations on the actions of Muhammad) and what constitutes valid hadith. In particular, many Shiites reject Bukhari, which is considered by Sunnis to be the most reliable source of Hadith.
  • Shiites believe that to lead the Muslims you have to be from Muhammad's family. Sunnis believe that anyone having the qualities of the leader, regardless of lineage, has the right to lead.
  • Shiites believe in twelve religious leaders called imams will rule, and that the last of these is currently sleeping in a cave. Sunnis have no such belief, and feel that these imams are imbued with powers that only God has, which is not acceptable for Sunnis.
  • Shiites have slightly different laws. For example, Shiites are allowed to have temporary marriages (marriage for a fixed time), Sunnis are not -- marriages have to be made with the intention of permanence.
  • Shiites have slightly different ritual practices. For example, the Shiites pray with their arms by their sides, Sunnis pray with their arms folded at the sternum.
Geographically, Shiites are most dominant in Iran, with significant minority populations in Iraq, Bahrain and Dubai. They represent approximately 10 per cent of the Muslim community. Sunnis are dominant everywhere else. A little known fact is that only 20 per cent of Muslims are Arab and the world's largest Muslim-majority country is in fact Indonesia.