What is the Difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims?

Sunnis and Shia differ about the idea of religious authority after the prophet Muhammad. These differences are fundamental.
When Muhammad died he was both spiritual and political leader. His death led to different ideas about:
  • which person is his true successor
  • whether the successor of Muhammad should be divinely appointed by Muhammad or whether the community elders should select a leader
  • whether muhammads successor is entitled to religious authority as God's representative, political authority, or both.
The Shia:
  • believe that Muhammad's successor is divine appointed;
  • that Muhammad by divine inspiration appointed his cousin & son in law Ali as his successor;
  • that the true successors of Muhammad hold religious authority as the Vicars of God and are entitled to political authority too;
  • that further successors, whom they call Imāms, must be similarly divinely appointed and come from the bloodline descendants of Muhammad and Ali.
  • that the Imāms or successors of Muhammad are infallible in religious matters and their guidance on ritual and belief and spiritual truth is the true Islam.
The Sunni:
  • believe that Muhammads successor can be chosen by community consensus
  • that Muhammads successors, whom they caliphs, are only entitled to political authority not religious authority
  • that the legitimate religious authority is held collectively by the sunni religious scholars and clerics (called ulama, Muftis, and Faqihs).
  • a sunni ought to obey the caliph in political matters and obey the religious scholars in religious matters of ritual and theology.
Because of these differences the Sunni and Shia develop totally different traditions in law, theology, philosophy, ritual and spiritual life. Historically the Sunni were in political power and Shia were persecuted minorities. Among Sunni and Shia there are more divisions.

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