The New Muslim’s Guide to
“Sunni or Shia?”
My dear brother/sister in Islam, congratulations on your conversion! Your struggle against yourself, family, friends, and society, must have been an excruciating one, but rest assured, Allah (glory be to Him) will reward you for your struggles.
Since you are reading this, you are probably at a loss, since you are faced with another tough question: Sunni or Shia? I feel for you. Making the jump to Islam was hard enough, but now, you are being pushed to choose a sect. Some of you are probably asking yourself, “Can’t I just be a Muslim instead?” In this short article, I’ll try to answer some frequently asked questions while portraying both sects in the fairest manner.
How are Sunnis and Shias Similar?
Both schools are very diverse. For the most part, the views that Sunnis and Shias hold on topics that range from the nature of Allah (glory be to Him) to minor rulings of sharī`ah are not exclusive to either sect. In other words, the diversity of opinions in both schools can lead to the same conclusions in ideology and jurisprudence.
Ex. The vast majority of Shias pray Maghrib prayers upon the disappearance of the redness of the Eastern sky. The Sunnis, on the other hand, pray Maghrib when the disc of the sun disappears. However, the diversity in Shiasm, in the form of the school of Fadlallah, views that Maghrib occurs when the disc disappears, just as Sunnis.
How are Sunnis and Shias Different?
In a nutshell, the main difference between Sunnis and Shias is the concept of Imāmah. According to Shias, the Prophet (peace be upon him) appointed twelve Imāms (leaders) from his household to lead the Muslim world politically and spiritually. Shias also believe that the Twelve are infallible. In other words, they cannot sin, forget, or make mistakes, very much like the Prophets. They also believe that the earth cannot exist without an Imām and that the world will always have an Imām. The current Imām of our times is the Twelfth Imām and he’s been hidden for over a thousand years.
The belief in the Imāmah has led to other differences of opinions. It has led Shias to see the companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) in a negative light. This is natural since the companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not accept the concept of Imāmah. Shias will argue that a small number did, while the majority turned their backs on the last will of the Prophet (peace be upon him).
The concept of Imāmah also led to the existence of two separate sets of hadīth collections for both sects. Sunnis mainly rely on the Six Books which include Sahīh Al-Bukhārī and Sahīh Muslim. These works mainly focus on the hadīths of the Prophet (peace be upon him). Shias, on the other hand, mainly focus on the hadīths of Al-Bāqir and Al-Sādiq, who were the descendants of the Prophet (peace be upon him). Shias mainly rely on books like the Four Books, which include Al-Kulaynī’s Al-Kāfī.
Can’t I just be a Muslim? I can’t make a decision!
Well, I have some good news and some bad news here. Imāmah is such a significant issue that one cannot simply choose a middle path or be “just a Muslim.” However, the good news is that you have already made a decision!
By submitting to Allah (glory be to Him), accepting His Messenger (peace be upon him), the Qur`ān, His angels, and the Day of Judgment, you have already embraced Sunnism by default. It is only by accepting the concept of Imāmah, as an additional tenet of faith, that you become Shia.
What does the Qur`an say?
While the inimitable word of Allah (glory be to Him) brings up the topic of leadership briefly, it mentions absolutely nothing about the Imāmah of the Twelve. The Imāmah of the Twelve is exclusively found in Shia hadīth collections.
Tell me more about Imamah
While the concept of an infallible Imām existed early on in Shia Islam, Shias differed in regards to the identities and numbers of the Imāms. Some Shia sects believed in four, others in six, seven, eight, eleven, twelve, or thirteen Imāms. Each of these sects emerged upon the death of an Imām and they would differ in regards to the identity of his successor. This led to the formation of tens of Shia sects. Today, the most popular of these sects is the Twelver sect. An exhaustive list of these sects can be found in Al-Nawbakhtī’s “Shia Sects”.
Wasn’t `Ali bin Abi Talib Appointed by the Prophet (peace be upon him)?
The Shia position is that `Alī, the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) cousin, was appointed as a caliph.
It is vital for new Muslims to be aware that merely believing that `Alī is the first caliph does not make one Shia. Twelvers require for one to believe in all Twelve Imāms in order for them to enter the fold of Twelver Shiasm. Moreover, if one were to merely accept that `Alī was supposed to be the caliph, but wasn’t given that position (without attributing to him the concept of infallibility), then this would be an innovative belief, but one would still fall under the umbrella of Sunnism. It should be noted that the Sunnis revere `Ali and rely on him for a lot of rulings.
However, Sunnis do not hold the view that `Alī was appointed for the following reasons:
- There are no hadīths that meet Sunni standards that prove this.
- `Alī ultimately pledged allegiance to the first caliph Abū Bakr.
- The companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not choose `Alī as the first caliph.
Why am I a Muslim again?
For many converts the history of Islam revolves around eye-witness accounts. The prophecies of the Prophet (peace be upon him), his miracles, his character, his message, the Qur`ān, pretty much anything that brought you to Islam, has come to you through the reports of hundreds of eye-witnesses. Without the companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him), Islam wouldn’t have survived.
The Shia narrative relies and revolves around the household of the Prophet (peace be upon him). In other words, the proofs for Islam exclusively come from the testimonies of the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) cousin, his grandchildren, and their direct descendants.
On the other hand, the proof for Islam, in Sunnism, is not exclusive from his relatives, but come through other members of his family, his friends and Companions, whether they be from opposing tribes, strangers from the peninsula, and even his enemies that embraced his message in the end. Again, Sunnis rely on hundreds of eye-witnesses.
In other words, dismissing eye-witnesses is not only problematic historically, but hurts the very foundations of the message of Islam.
Any final thoughts or suggestions?
Yes. Read the Qur`ān and ask Allah (glory be to Him) for guidance. That is the best and fastest way to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion without delving too deeply into responses, counter-responses, and responses to those counter-responses.
The Mahajjah website is also a great resource for translated material for those interested in thorough research.
For those that have any specific question, I can always be contacted via my twitter account @farid_0v. Again, welcome to Islam. May Allah (glory be to Him) keep you steadfast upon His religion.