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IslamQA: The Sunni stance toward Shia Muslims

Could you tell us what you know about Shia Muslims? I completely have no knowledge about them, rather that the Sunni Muslims in Indonesia telling us that they are misguided, but the one I followed on Twitter seems to be A-OK and talks about wisdom and the truth all the time. Thank you.

The main difference between Shia Islam and Sunni Islam is that Shia Muslims believe in a number of imams that are thought to be infallible and whose sayings are as authoritative as the Prophet’s sayings . So this leads to the fact that they follow different hadith collections filled with information from their imams that is rejected by Sunni Muslims as unauthentic.

Shia Muslims still follow the Quran, which is a source of guidance to whoever reads it, whether Sunni or Shia. So while as Sunni Muslims we consider certain elements of Shia Islam to be false, we should not say that Shia Muslims are misguided. There are many extremely pious people among them. Both Sunni Islam and Shia Islam are paths to God’s guidance and we believe Sunni Islam to be more accurate and freer from falsehoods. But both paths can still lead to guidance.

So there is no surprise in some Shia scholars and preachers being extremely sensible and pious. They still have access to many of the truths of Islam especially the most important truth which is the Quran. So it is an insult against the Quran to say Shia Muslims are completely misguided. They rather follow some truths and some what we consider to be falsehoods. But since they follow the Quran, those of them who follow the Quran most closely can be very well-guided.

There are also Shia extremists who believe in an ideology of hate against Sunnis and ignore the Quran in favor of their non-Sunni hadith collections. But we should not judge all of them by the extremists among them just like we Sunnis do not like to be judged by the extremists among Sunnis.

So while we consider Sunni Islam to be a more authentic version of Islam, we believe that the Quran can guide whoever truly believes in it and follows it, so this should be our stance toward the Shia; they are Quran-followers just like us and God can make the Quran a cause for guidance and piety for everyone who truly follows it. A Shia Muslim who follows the Quran and has heard nothing that convinces them Sunni Islam is better is not responsible for thinking that Shia Islam is the correct choice. God judges all humans according to what they believe to be true in their hearts. We should not hate Shia Muslims or insult them but politely disagree with them on matters having to do with their imams and their hadiths.

Follow-up question:

Assalamu aleikom. Having read your post about sunni vs shia muslims, I was wondering if you could tell more (or share reliable sources) about their differences and why one is more right than the other? Also, is it possible to be just muslim, without following one of the islamic branches? Thank you for your blog, it has really helped me to understand islam from a rational/philosophical perspective.

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

It is not possible to just be Muslim without being Sunni or Shia. Since Shia Muslims believe that they have divinely-guided imams, the imams’ teachings are as important as the Prophet’s (). So if a person chooses the Shia path they will have to accept the divine authority of the imams and the tens of thousands of hadith narrations that come from them.

The reason we consider Sunni Islam better is that there is no evidence in the Quran or (authentic) Prophetic tradition that tells us the family of the Prophet were meant to be the divinely chosen leaders of the Muslims. It makes more sense to us that the Prophet was just a human and that the teaching of Islam ended with him. But the Shia believe that his descendants were also meant to be divinely-guided semi-prophets, so they have a massive amount of non-Prophetic literature that comes from those descendants (the imams) which they believe are authentic additions to Islam.

So as a Muslim you either have to choose the “minimalist” Sunni version of history (God sent Muhammad to be a prophet like any other prophet) or the Shia version which adds the imamate to Islam and believes that Muslims cannot understand the Quran or the Prophet’s teachings except with the help of the imams.

I do not really know any reliable sources to read more about these issues. If you already know about Sunni Islam, you can find many books on Shia Islam on sites like Amazon.

And God knows best.
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