There are differing views as to when the schism between Sunnism and Shi’ism, the two major sects, took place. The main differences between them can be summarized as follows:
- Shi’ites maintain that the Koran is a created thing, while for Sunnis the Koran is the Word of Allah.
- According to Sunni Muslims, on Judgement Day Allah will appear to His Muslim believers. According to Shi’ites, Allah will not appear on the Day of Judgement.
- Shi’ite theologists have the right to interpret religious law, and also are responsible for the faithful. Decisions reached by high-ranking Shi’ite theologists are binding. In contrast to this, Sunni Muslims believe in a more personal relationship between Allah and mankind, and feel less need for such religious intermediaries. Sunni religious teachers are content simply to offer advice to their community. While the hierarchy amongst Shi’ite theologists is similar to that pertaining in the Catholic Church, Sunni theologists have been compared to Protestant priests. Financial support for religious personnel in Sunni nations is provided by the State, but by the public in Shi’ite communities.
- For Sunnis the rank of the Imam is equivalent to that of the Caliph. However, for the Shi’ites belief in the Imams is a fundamental tenet of their faith. They hold that the Twelve Imams were appointed by the Prophet on orders from Allah. People should address both their spiritual and material problems to them. Where there is no Imam, all these matters may be left to the expounders of Islamic law. For the Shi’ite it is essential to believe that the Muslim Messiah, Mahdi, will one day appear.
- Sunnis acknowledge and respect all the disciples of the Prophet; the Shi’ites, however, do not acknowledge the first three Caliphs, and only the preaching of the Prophet (Hadith) as interpreted by the Imams are acceptable.
- In pronouncing judgment on matters not covered by the Koran and the Prophet’s teachings, or where Ijma, (universal agreement), is not available, Shi’ites rely on intelligence while Sunni doctrine relies on qiyas, analogical reasoning.
- For Shi’ites, combining the noon and mid-afternoon prayers, and after sunset and evening prayers is unconditionally admissible, but according to Sunni doctrine it would be admissible only on certain conditions. In the above case Shi’ites performs the ritual prayer only three times a day.
- Shi’ites add a sentence to the traditional call to prayer, expressing the idea that the Prophet Ali is God’s chosen companion. The Sunni’s call to prayer does not include this clause.
- In Shi’ism there are two forms of marriage: permanent marriage, also accepted by the Sunnis, and temporary marriage as described in the Koran. However, the Sunni doctrine declares this latter form of marriage to be forbidden, and considers it invalid.
- While Sunnis maintain that a traveller may continue to keep the fast of Ramadan if so desired, in Shi’ism the traveller during the month of Ramadan must definitely abandon the fast.
- There are also variations in performing ritual ablutions. Shi’ites performs the ritual prostration in prayer on the ground. The use of a carpet, prayer-rug or the like is inadmissible.
Shi’ites in Iran put small ceramic pieces in the place the forehead touches during prostration in prayer. These are made from the soil of Karbala and are available in any mosque or mausoleum. Some bear designs or inscriptions.
- Taqiya or hiding, meaning the concealment of one’s true beliefs while in a hostile society without the risk of committing the offence of hypocrisy, is the right of every Shi’ite.
- For Sunnis, pilgrimage to Mecca is a mandatory duty and one of the Five Pillars of Islam. For Shi’ites pilgrimage to the tombs of Shi’ite saints, of Ali at Najaf (Iraq) or of Huseyn at Karbala (Iraq) may be substituted. Pilgrimages to the tombs of saints are a significant characteristic of Shi’ism, and in Sunni Islam certain Sufi (mystic) practices are similar to this.