This CREST guide sets out the historical and ideological differences and similarities between Sunni and Shi‘a Islam, and their contemporary relationships in the UK and beyond.

Sunni and Shi’a are the two most populous branches of Islam. Despite this, many non-Muslims have little understanding of the differences between these communities, and what is known is based on accounts of sectarian violence between them, especially in Iraq and Syria. In fact, the idea that Sunnis and Shi’as have been in perpetual conflict is a dangerous and unhelpful myth and there are more similarities than differences between the religious beliefs of these communities.

Key points

In terms of religious belief and practice, there are more similarities than differences between Sunni and Shi‘a Muslims.

Shi‘ism should not be thought of as a later branch or off-shoot of Sunni Islam. The two traditions have their origins in a dispute following the death of the Prophet in 632 about who should succeed him and have authority among Muslims.

The idea that Sunnis and Shi‘as have been in perpetual conflict since this dispute is historically inaccurate.

Sunni Islam and Shi‘ism only assumed their current forms in the ninth century, after the collection of the Prophet’s sayings (Hadith) and the end of the line of Shi’a Imams.

Although Shi‘a Muslims only constitute between 10% and 13% of the global Muslim population, they form the majority in five countries: Iran, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Recent conflicts between Sunnis and Shi‘as in the Middle East have arisen from political rather than religious differences, although these have had an ideological component.