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Newsletter for January 2011



Commonalities and Differences Between

Shi'ite and Sunnit Schools of Thought


There is no difference of opinion amongst Muslim schools that the religion
of Allah is Islam; that the only way to know Islam is through the Book of
Allah and the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet; and that the Book of Allah is
what is known as the Quran, without any "addition" or "deletion".  The
difference is in the interpretation of some of the verses of the Quran; and
in believing or not believing some of the sunnah as genuine; or in its
interpretation. This difference of approach has led towards the difference
in some basic principles and some laws of religion.  As the basic
principles of Islam are well known, I do not think it is necessary to
enumerate all the beliefs. It will be sufficient if some of the important
differences are described here to give the readers a fairly comprehensive
idea of the main characteristics which distinguish the Shiats from the

All the Muslims agree that Allah is one, Muhammad (PBUH&HF) is His last
prophet, and that one day Allah will resurrect all the human beings, and
all will be questioned about their beliefs and actions. All of them agree
that anyone who does not believe in any of the above three basic principles
is not a Muslim. Also, they agree that anybody denying the famous tenets of
Islam, like Salat (prayers), sawm (fasting), hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca),
zakat (religious tax), etc., or believing that the famous sins, like
drinking wine, adultery, stealing, gambling, lie, murder, etc., are not
sins, is not a Muslim, though he might have been believing in Allah and His
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH&HF). That is because to deny such things is like to
deny the prophet hood of Muhammad and his shariah (Divine Laws).

When we go further, we come across those subjects which are not agreed
amongst Muslims, and the differences between different schools of Islam
begin there. Many people think that the difference between Shia and Sunni
is the issue of leadership after the death of prophet. This is true, but as
a matter of fact, different leaders instruct different ways of approach to
each issue. This may result to more differences as the the time goes. I try
to briefly explain these basic differences here.


Some Sunni scholars hold beliefs which would imply that Allah has body, but
not like the bodies that we know, of course. There are quite a number of
traditions in Sahih al-Bukhari describing that God has a sign in his leg,
and he put his leg over the hell and so on. For instance see Sahih al-
Bukhari, Arabic-Englich version, 9.532s in which alleges Allah has a sign
in His Shin (leg) and when He uncovers His Shin (leg) people will recognize
Him. Or in the same volume see Tradition 9.604 and 9.510 where it is said
that Allah has fingers! Please also see the consequetive articles given by
Kaamran refrenced to Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim.

Wahhabis who follow Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728/1328) confirm that the organs of
God is physical entity and Allah is firmly seated in the trone. However
Ash'arites (followers of Abul-Hasan al-Ash'ari) which include a vast amount
of Sunnis, do NOT interpret face, hand, and leg as physical organs. They
believe that Allah has face, hand, and leg, but they say: "We do not know

The Shia firmly believe that Allah has NOT got a body, nor face, nor hands,
nor fingers, nor legs. Shaykh Saduq, one of the most distinguished of Shia
scholars says:

      "Verily, Allah is One, Unique, nothing is like Him, He is Eternal;
      Hearing, Seeing, Omniscient, Living, Omnipotent, above every need. He
      cannot be described in terms of substance, nor body, nor form, nor
      accident, nor line, nor surface, nor heaviness, nor lightness, nor
      color, nor movement, nor rest, nor time, nor space. He is above all
      the descriptions which can be applied to His creatures. He is away
      from both extremes: Neither He is just a non-entity (as atheists and
      in a lesser degree Mutazilites implied), nor He is just like other
      things.  He is Existent, not like other existing things."

Shi'i reference: Shi'ite Creed (al-Itqadat al-Imamiyyah), by Shaykh Saduq

Of course, there are some verses in Quran which ascribe the words used for
limbs to the person of God. But according to the interpretation of Shi'ite
Imams, they are used in metaphorical and symbolic sense, not literal sense.
for example, the verse (28:88) of Quran which says: "Every thing is mortal
except His face" means 'except His person'. Surely, even Sunni scholars can
not say that only the face of God will remain, while His other so-called
limbs (either physical or not) will die! Similarly, Allah has used
the word 'Hand' (Yad) in several places in the Quran. But it means His
power and His Mercy, as in the verse (5:64): "But His hands are outspread".

In fact in the Quran and the Prophetic such mytaphorical meanings were
greatly used. For example, Allah describes his Prophets as  :

     "men of Hands and vision." (38:45)

Even all Sunni scholars agreed that here 'hands' means power and strength.

I should mention that the view of Shia is also different than Mu'tazalites
who take God to the boundary of non-existence.

As a direct result of the above-mentioned difference, Sunni scholars
believe that Allah can be seen. Some of them, like Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal,
say that He can be seen in this world, as well as in the word after. Others
say that He can only be seen in the hereafter. (Reference: Sahih al-
Bukhari, Arabic-English version, Traditions 9.530-532 which clearly
state that God can be seen, and God changes His look to be recognized by

On the other hand, Shiats say that He cannot be seen physically anywhere,
because He has no body, and because Allah says in the Quran:

      "Sight cannot reach Him" (6:103).

Sunni scholars use the following verse as their proof:

      "Some faces on that day (day of judgement) will be fresh (blooming),
      looking towards their Lord" (75:22-23).

But in Arabic language the word "nazar" (looking toward) does NOT imply
"seeing". Often it is said: "nazartu ilal-hilal falam arahu" which means
"I looked towards the new moon (crescent) but I did not see it." Therefore,
the verse does not imply that they will see God.  According to the Shi'ite
interpretstion, the verse means that they will be looking forward to the
blessing of Allah.

According to the Shia belief, attributes of Allah can be put in two
distinct groups: first those attributes which denote His person, and
second, those attributes which denote His actions. Shaykh Saduq says:

      "For example, we say that Allah was from ever Hearing, Seeing,
      Omniscient, Wise, Omnipotent, Having power, Living, Self-existent, One
      and Eternal. And these are His personal attributes. and we do not say
      that He was from ever Creating, Doing, Intending, pleased, displeased,
      Giving sustenance, Speaking; because these virtues describe His
      actions; and they are not eternal; it is not allowed to say that Allah
      was doing all these actions from eternity. The reason for this
      distinction is obvious. Actions need an object. For example, if we say
      that Allah was giving sustenance from ever, then we will have to admit
      the existence of sustained thing from ever. In other words, we will
      have to admit that the world was from ever. but it is against our
      belief that nothing except God is Eternal."

Shi'i reference: Shi'ite Creed (al-Itqadat al-Imamiyyah), by Shaykh Saduq

It appears that the Sunni scholars have no clear view of this distinction,
and they say that all His attributes are Eternal. This is the actual cause
of their belief that Quran, being the Kalam (speech) of God, is Eternal,
and not created. Because they say that He was mutakallim (speaking) from

"Hanbalites" so far said that 'Not only were the words and sounds of the
Quran eternal, so that even its recital was uncreated, but its parchment
and binding shared the same qualities. In the Testament of Abu Hanifa
a more moderate view is expressed: We confess that the Quran is the speech
of Allah, uncreated, His inspiration, and revelation, not He, yet not other
than He, but His real quality, written in the copies, recited by the
tongues. The ink, the paper, the writing are created, for they are the work
of man" (Revelation and Reason in Islam by A.J. Arberry, pp 26-27).

But since Shia distinguish between His personal virtues and His actions,
they say:

      "Our belief about the Quran is that it is the speech of God, and His
      revelation sent by Him, and His word and His book... And that Allah is
      its Creator and its Sender and its Guardian..."

Shi'i reference: Shi'ite Creed (al-Itqadat al-Imamiyyah), by Shaykh Saduq

Among the Sunnis, the bitter quarrel between the Mutazilites and the
Asharites on this subject is well-known, and there is no need to release
it here.

Some claim that every created things has flaws in it and thus Quran should
be ethernal since it is without flaw. This argument is baseless since we
Muslims believe that angels, though created, are flawless, otherwise how
can we trust Gabriel when he brought Quran to the Prophet? How can you
trust Prophet himself? Is Allah unable to create a flawless creature? As
such, we believe that Quran as well as all other things in the universe are
all created. Nothing is eternal except Allah. There is a tradition from the
Prophet (PBUH&HF) which states that:

      "(There was a time when) Allah existed, and there was nothing beside

This is one of the most important distinction between the Sunnis on one
side, and Shi'ites on another. To be more exact, I should have used the
word Asharites, in place of Sunnis since a vast number of Sunnis nowadays
are Asharites;  Mutazilites have become extinct a long time ago, though
some of the great scholars of the recent time like Justice Amir Ali were

Anyhow, the Shiats say that irrespective of religious commandments, there
is real merit or demerit in different courses of actions, and it is because
a certain thing is good that God orders it, and because the other is bad
that He forbids it.  Sunni scholars deny this conception. They say that
nothing is good or evil in itself. Only what God has commanded us is good
and what He has forbidden us is evil. If something is forbidden by God it
is bad; then if God cancels the first order, and allows it, it will become
good, after being bad.  In other words, the Shiats say that God has
forbidden us to tell lie because it is bad; the Sunnis say that lie has
become bad because God has forbidden it.  Shiats recognize the relation of
cause and effect. Sunni sholars deny it.  They say that there is no cause
except Allah. And it is just a habit of Allah that whenever, for example,
we drink water He quenches our thirst.

Based upon the above difference of attitude about the position of reason in
religion are the following differences: Shiats say that God never acts
without purpose or aimlessly. All His actions are based on wisdom and
intelligent purpose (e.g., Because it is not commendable, rationally, to
act without purpose). The Sunni scholars on the other hand, because of
their denouncement of rational merit or demerit, say that it is quite
possible for God to act aimlessly. It follows that, according to the
Shiats, God does nothing which has inherent demerit in it.  The Sunnis deny
it.  Shiats say that all actions of Allah are intended for the benefit of
His creatures. Because He Himself has no need; and if His actions become
devoid of benefits for His creation also, they will become aimless, which
is rationally not commendable. The Sunnis deny it, because of their stand
about rational merit or demerit.

GRACE (Lutf or Tafaddul)
Based on the above differences, there is a difference about their attitude
towards the Grace of Allah. Shiats say that the Grace is morally, incumbent
upon Allah. They say Grace is the actions of God which would help to bring
His creatures closer to His devotion and obedience and facilitate their
moral correction (which is) morally incumbent on Him. Allah has commanded
us to be just, while He Himself treats us with something better, namely
Grace (tafaddul).  The Sunni scholars, on the other hand, say:

      "God leades astray whom He wills and guides to right path whom He
      wills, and it is not incumbent upon God, the Most High, to do
      something that may be best for the creature."

Sunni reference: Creed of an-Nasafi

Based upon Shia position on Justice and Grace, they say that:

      "Whatever God has promised as reward for a good work, He will fulfill
      it; but whatever He has threatened as punishment for a bad work, it is
      upon His decision. If He enforces the punishment, it will be according
      to His Justice; but if He forgives it, it will be according to His

Shi'i reference: Shi'ite Creed (al-Itqadat al-Imamiyyah), by Shaykh Saduq

Shia is confronted both by the Kharijites and Mutazilites on one side and
the Asharites on other side. The Mutazilites and Kharijites say that it is
incumbent upon God to fulfill His threats also. He has no power to forgive.
The Asharites, on the other hand say that it is not incumbent upon Him even
to fulfill His promises of rewards. They go so far as to say, "Even if
Allah wants to send the prophets in Hell, and Satan to Paradise, it is not
against virtue, because there is no inherent demerit in any action."

The Shiats say: Man is obliged by his reason to know God, and to obey His
commands. In other words, necessity of religion is proved, first of all, by
reason.  Sunni scholars say it is necessary to believe in Allah, but not on
the account of reason. It is necessary because Allah has ordered us to know
Him.  According to the Shi'ite point of view, this type of proof creates
vicious circle. Believe in God. why? Because God has ordered it. But we do
not know who God is. Why should we obey Him?

The Shiats say: God cannot give us a command beyond our strength, because
it is wrong rationally (La Yokalleffollaho nafsan illa vosaaha). Some Sunni
scholars do not agree with it.

Are our actions really ours? Or we are just a tool in the hands of Allah!
Shia scholars say:

      "Taqdir means that, Allah possesses foreknowledge of human action, but
      He does not compel anybody to act in any particular way"

Shi'i reference: Shi'ite Creed (al-Itqadat al-Imamiyyah), by Shaykh Saduq

The above quote gives evidence to the fact that according to Shia, human
has option either to obey God's rules, or disobey. To make it clear, it
should be explained here, that man's conditions or actions are of two kinds

(i)  Those actions about which he can be advised, ordered, praised or
      blamed. Such actions are within his power and are dependent upon his

(ii) Such conditions about which he cannot be praised or blamed, like life,
      death, etc. Such conditions are outside of his sphere of will or

For example, we can advise a patient to consult this or that doctor and
remain under his treatment; but we can not advise him to become cured. Why
this difference? Because getting treatment is under his power, but getting
cured is not in his power. It is something which comes from Allah.

Freedom of action is a gift of Allah. He has given us power, freedom,
strength, limbs, wisdom and everything with which we do any work.
Therefore, we are not independent of Allah, because our freedom is not only
given but even sustained by Him. However our actions are not compelled by
God, because He, after His showing us the right and wrong ways, and after
His encouraging us to do right, has left us to our own free will. If we go
wrong, it is our own choice. Shaykh Saduq stated:

      "Our belief in this respect is what has been taught by Imam Jafar al-
      Sadiq (the sixth successor/grandson of Prophet): There is no
      compulsion (by God) and no relinquishing the authority (of God); but a
      condition between these two conditions. Then Imam was asked: How is
      it? He said: Suppose you see a man intending to commit a sin; and you
      forbade him; but he did not listen to you; and you left him; and he
      did commit that sin. Now when he did not pay attention to you and you
      left him, nobody can say that you ordered him or allowed him to sin."

Shi'i reference: Shi'ite Creed (al-Itqadat al-Imamiyyah), by Shaykh Saduq

In other words, we believe that God has given us power and will and then
has left us free to do what we like. At the same time, He has taught us
through prophets, what is right and what is wrong. Now, as He is
Omniscient, He knows what will be our actions in different times of our
life. But this knowledge does not make Him responsible for our actions more
than a meteorologist can be responsible for cyclones and storms, if his
forecasts comes true. True forecasts are the result, not the cause of the
impending event. The Sunni scholars on the other hand say that Allah is the
Creator of all of our acts:

      "No act of any individual, even though it is done purely for his
      benefit is independent of the will of Allah for its existence; and
      there does not occur in either in physical or extra terrestrial world
      the wink of an eye, the hint of a thought, or the most sudden glance,
      except by the decree of Allah...of His power, desire and will. This
      includes evil and good, benefit and hurt, success and failure, sin and
      righteousness, obedience and disobedience, and polytheism or belief."

Sunni reference: al-Ghazali (as quoted in Shia of India, p43)

Based upon their belief of LUTF (Grace), the Shiats believe that it is
incumbent upon Allah to send prophets and their successors in this world to
put people on right path. The Sunni scholars say that it is not incumbent
upon Allah, because they do not accept necessity of Grace.

The Shiats and Sunnis in first instance, and then the Sunnis among
themselves, disagree about the theory of ISMAH (sinlessness; protection) of
the prophets. What is our conception of sinlessness? It is the Grace of
Allah which helps a person to refrain from sins, without effecting in any
way his will and power. A MASUM (sinless person) has power to commit sins;
but he does not even think about sins because his spiritual standard is so
high that such inferior things do not enter his mind.

The Sunni scholars do not speak with one voice in this subject:

1. They first differ about the point when sinlessness of prophets begins.
   Some Sunnis say it is after the declaration of prophet-hood; others say
   that it is since childhood.

2. The scope of sinlessness before declaration of prophet-hood: Some Sunni
   scholars say that it covers all sins; the majority say that they are
   protected from KUFR (infidelity) only.

3. The scope of sinlessness after declaration of prophet-hood: It is agreed
   that the prophets do not tell lie after prophet-hood. But what about
   other sins? Some Sunni scholars say that they commit other sins either
   intentionally or unintentionally; but the majority say that they could
   commit it unintentionally, but not intentionally.

4. The minor sins: Some Sunni scholars say it was possible for prophets to
   commit minor sins, even intentionally. But that they were protected from
   such minor sins which might have degraded them in the eyes of people.

The Shia point of view about sinlessness is that all the prophets were
sinless and infallible; they did not commit any sin, whether capital or
minor, and whether intentionally or unintentionally; and that they were
sinless from the beginning of their life till their last breath. About the
prophets, Shaykh Saduq wrote:

      "Their word is the word of God, their order is the order of God, their
      forbidding is the forbidding by God ... And that the Chiefs of the
      prophets are five, and they are (called) 'Ulul-Azm' and they are Noah,
      Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (be blessings of Allah upon them
      all) and that Muhammad is their Chief and best of all."

Shiats say that Imam must be appointed by God; that appointment may be
known through the declaration of the Prophet or the preceding Imam.  The
Sunni scholars say that Imam (or Caliph, as they prefer to say) can be
either elected, or nominated by the preceding Caliph, or selected by a
committee, or may gain the power through a military coup (as was in the
case of Muawiyah).

Shia scholars say that Imam must be sinless. The Sunni scholars (including
Mutazilites) say that sinlessness is not a condition for leadership. Even
if he is tyrant and sunk in sins (like in the case of Yazid, or Today's
King Fahd), the majority of the scholars from the shools of Hanbali,
Shafi'i, and Maliki discourage people to rise against that Caliph. They
think that they should be presevered.

Shiats say that Imam must possess above all such qualities as knowledge,
bravery, justice, wisdom, piety, love of God etc. The Sunni scholars say it
is not necessary. A person inferior in these qualities may be elected in
preference to a person having all these qualities of superior degree.

Shiats say that Ali was appointed by Allah to be the successor of the
Prophet, and that the Prophet declared it on several occasions. More than
one hundred of those occasions are recorded in the history. The Sunni
scholars believe that the Prophet did not appoint anybody to be his
successor. This is despite the fact that there are many traditions in the
six authentic Sunni collections which support this assignment.

courtesy: Encyclopaedia of Islam






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