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Mike Shreve was a teacher of yoga at four universities. (The portrait above was drawn by one of his students in 1970.) Then a spiritual rebirth brought him into a real relationship with God and drastically changed his heart, his life and his belief system.  Read his story here.

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Site Completed–10/15/01
Major Revision—5/28/03
Last Updated–03/19/09

The True Light Project
P.O. Box 4260
Cleveland, TN 37320
Phone: (423) 478-2843
Fax: (423) 479-2980

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©2002 copyright
Mike Shreve.
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What is the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims?

Along with the war in Iraq and the constant news stories surrounding the emerging democracy, we often hear about the conflict in that region between Sunni and Shi’ite (aka Shia) Muslims. What are the basic differences between these two groups and why is there such friction between them?

It is true that Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims share most of the fundamental, Islamic articles of faith that stem directly from the Koran. The rift in relationship between these two groups was a result initially of political, not religious, differences of opinion. It all traces back to the period of time following the death of Muhammad and controversy over who should be the rightful successor and heir. Sunni Muslims hold to the opinion, as did many of Muhammad’s companions, that his successor should be elected from among those who seemed to be most qualified for the position. Shia Muslims, on the other hand, felt very passionately that the successor of Mohammed should be a direct descendent from the Prophet’s family. The Sunni position was actually the one followed after the passing of Muhammad and Abu Bakr, a close friend and advisor to Muhammad, was elected to the position of the first Caliph of the Islamic nation. Those who hold to this point of view make up the majority of Muslims today, about 85%. The word “Sunni” means “one who follows the traditions of the Prophet.”

The majority of Muslims in Iraq are Shi’ites; the Kurds, a minority group in the north, are Sunnis—thus, the source of the conflict. The Shi’ite (or Shia) view was and is that the leadership of the Islamic people should have passed to the Prophet Muhammad’s first cousin Ali (who was also the husband of Muhammad’s favorite daughter, Fatima). Those who have embraced this view through the centuries have never recognized the legitimacy of any of the elected leaders within the Sunni Muslim world. Instead they have chosen to follow the line of Imams that they feel were sanctioned by the Prophet Muhammad by inspiration and thus, authorized by God Himself. In fact, the very word “Shi’ite” or “Shia” in Arabic is a shortened form of the words “Shiat-Ali” which means “the Party of Ali.” To his credit, Ali apparently did not strive politically to obtain the reigns of rulership, but allowed himself to be passed over three times before the ‘scepter’ was passed to him.

Because Shia Muslims believe that the authority of the Imam comes from God, he is considered infallible in his judgments. Also, the Imam is viewed as being sinless. Therefore, Shia Muslims deeply revere the Imams, exalting them as saints. They even participate in pilgrimages to their tombs and shrines hoping to obtain divine intercession. Sunni Muslims argue that there is no Koranic or Islamic precedent or rule for a privileged, hereditary class of leaders and that it is spiritual error to venerate these individuals and vain to seek their intervention. Sunni Muslims contend that leadership of the community is not a birthright, but a privilege that is earned and is established and maintained by the approval of the people.

So the line of Imams began with Ali. Sunni Muslims accept Ali as a “rightly guided caliph” who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad. Only the Shia consider him the first Imam. They also hold his descendents in the highest regard, beginning with his sons, Hasan and Husain. This line continued until the twelfth, who was supposedly just five years old lifted to this notable position in 874 AD. Because his chief followers feared that there might be attempts on his life, they kept him sequestered, seen only by his chief administrators and officials. Because of this, Sunnis contend that this supposed ‘twelfth Imam’ never existed or that he expired as a child. Shi’ites, on the other hand, claim that he never died at all. He just ‘disappeared’ in 939 AD (called “The Great Occultation”) to manifest on earth at some future time as the great Imam Madhi. Though this Imam is physically absent, Shia Muslims believe he is actually spiritually present in the world. They also believe that, at times, he even makes appearances during the invocations and prayers of believing Muslims.

Sunni Muslims not only embrace faith in the Koran (their most revered source: considered infallible), they also believe in secondary group of writings called “Hadith.” This is a collection of traditions concerning Muhammed’s life and teachings passed down from his chief companions (like the Abu Bakr, the first caliph). Because of the actions of these persons toward Ali and how they strove against his followers, Shia Muslims do not accept “Hadith.” This, in itself, results in some very marked differences concerning certain traditions, rituals and practices of these two groups.

"In Search of the True Light" ©2002 copyright by Mike Shreve.
All articles unless otherwise noted are copyright by Mike Shreve.
Personal Stories are the work of the individuals.
All Rights Reserved.

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