What Is the Difference Between Sunni, Shiite and Sufi Muslims?

Which sect believes in hereditary successors to the Prophet Muhammad? Which one has ayatollahs? If you don't know the answers, let The Root explain.


Almost 100 people were killed recently when a suicide bomber targeted Shiite Muslim pilgrims in Pakistan. Closer to home, a Sufi cleric’s plans to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero have ignited controversy that seems inextinguishable.

Clearly Islam is not monolithic. But what are the differences within the religion, and how deeply do they run?

Although the majority of Muslims are Sunnis, Shiites are the majority in Iran and Iraq, where they were persecuted by Saddam Hussein. The schism between the groups dates to 632, when a controversy arose over the successor to Muhammad.

The Sunnis believe that Muhammad did not designate a successor. But the Shiites believe he did: his cousin and son-in-law, Ali. They also believe that Ali’s authority was usurped by the first three caliphs: Abu Bakr and Umar ibn a-Khatab, both fathers-in-law of Muhammad, and Uthman ibn Affan, also a son-in-law. Unlike Ali, none of the men were blood relatives of Muhammad. This was a point of contention for Ali’s supporters, who believed that the succession should be hereditary.

After Uthman’s assassination in 656, Ali became leader, but discord erupted into civil war. He fought and defeated opponents, one of whom was Aisha, Muhammad’s third wife and Abu Bakr’s daughter.

After Ali’s assassination in 661, Sunni caliphs regained power for more than 20 years. Ali’s son, Hussein, fought them and was killed by Sunnis at Karbala, in Iraq. Scholars say that his death, which the Shiites consider martyrdom, helped transform a political movement into a religious one.

Shiites and Sunnis share the Quran but have different collections of the hadith, which are the traditions and deeds of Muhammad. Shiites believe that the imams are the source for the hadith. Sunnis believe the hadith come from the Prophet’s companions.