What is the difference between Sunis, Shiites and Houthis?

Islam is one of the largest and most diverse religions in the world, which unites more than 1.8 billion believers. However, within Islam there are various currents and trends that have their own particularities of doctrine, practice, history and politics. Among them, the most famous and numerous are Sunnis and Shiites, who make up about 90% and 10% of Muslims, respectively. In addition, there are other groups active in some regions of the world, such as the Houthis, a Shiite-Zeidite militant group in Yemen that has attracted international attention in recent years because of its involvement in that country's civil war. In this article, we will look at who the Sunnis, Shiites, and Houthis are, what the differences are between them, which of them is fighting whom, and why.

Sunnis and Shiites: the main differences

Sunnis and Shiites are the two largest and most influential directions in Islam, formed after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) in 632. The main reason for the split of the Muslim community was the question of who should be the successor (caliph) of the Prophet and the ruler of the Muslim state. The majority of Muslims supported the candidacy of the Prophet's closest companion, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq (r.a.), who became the first righteous caliph. However, a small part of believers saw as the Prophet's successor his son-in-law and cousin Ali ibn Abu Talib (r.a.), who, in their opinion, had more rights to this position, as he was a relative and heir of the Prophet. Those who supported Abu Bakr became known as Sunnis (from the Arabic "Sunna" - the way, tradition of the Prophet), and those who supported Ali - Shiites (from the Arabic "Shia" - party, supporters of Ali).

Over time, the differences between Sunnis and Shiites have not only deepened but also widened, affecting not only political but also dogmatic, legal, ritual and ethical aspects of Islam. Sunnis believe that the main sources of knowledge for Muslims are the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet, i.e., his words, deeds, and endorsements recorded in hadiths (transmissions) and sirahs (biographies). Shi'ites also recognize the Qur'an and Sunnah, but reject most of the hadith accepted by Sunnis and rely on their own sources, which contain accounts of the life and teachings of Ali and his descendants, the Imams. Imams, according to Shi'ite beliefs, are not only political but also spiritual leaders of Muslims who possess special knowledge and infallibility, inherited from the prophet. Shiites believe that there were twelve Imams and the last one, Muhammad al-Mahdi, hid from people in 874 and will return at the end of time to establish justice and peace on earth.

In the legal field, Sunnis and Shiites also have their own characteristics. Sunnis adhere to four theological and legal schools (madhhabs): Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i and Hanbali, which are based on different methods of interpretation of the Koran and Sunna. The Shiites, in turn, have their own madhhab, the Jafarite madhhab, named after the sixth Imam Jafar al-Sadiq (r.a.), who is considered the founder of Shiite theology and law. In addition, there are other Shi'i madhhabs, such as the Zaydite, Ismaili, and Alawite madhhabs, which differ from the Jafarite madhhab on some matters of doctrine and practice.

In the ritual field, Sunnis and Shi'ites also have some differences, which concern, for example, the way of performing namaz (prayer), fasting, pilgrimage, and the celebration of some religious dates. One of the most notable differences is that Shi'ites organize mourning rites to commemorate the suffering and death of the third Imam Husayn (r.a.), the son of Ali, who was killed in the Battle of Kerbala in 680 by the Sunni forces of Caliph Yazid. These rituals, which reach their peak on the day of Ashura (the tenth day of the month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar), include lamentation, speeches, songs, processions, and even self-torture.

Who is at war with whom and why?

Sunnis and Shiites have not always lived in enmity and conflict. Throughout the history of Islam, there have been periods of peaceful coexistence, cooperation and dialog between different directions. However, in the XX-XXI centuries, interfaith confrontations intensified, especially in the Middle East, where Sunnis and Shiites became participants or victims of various military and political conflicts. Among the main reasons for this situation are the following:

  • Geopolitical and ideological competition between regional powers claiming leadership in the Muslim world, particularly between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. These two countries support different sides in conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain and elsewhere, using sectarian discourse and mobilizing their co-conspirators along sectarian lines.
  • The influence of Islamist and extremist groups that promote intolerance and violence against other Muslims, considering them apostates or heretics. Groups such as Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, Taliban and others belong to Sunni fundamentalism and have committed terrorist attacks and crimes against Shias and other minorities in different countries.
  • Socio-economic and political problems that create tension and instability in societies where Sunnis and Shiites live together. In some cases, Shiites suffer discrimination, disadvantage, or persecution by Sunni governments or elites, as in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, or Pakistan. In other cases, Sunnis are outnumbered and exposed or threatened by Shiite forces, as in Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon.

As a result of these and other factors, Sunnis and Shiites often perceive each other as enemies or competitors rather than brothers in faith. This leads to increased sectarian identities, polarization and radicalization, and the emergence or exacerbation of conflicts in which religion plays an important, but not the only, role. However, it should not be forgotten that Sunnis and Shiites also have much in common and that there are not only differences but also similarities, cooperation and dialog between them. In many countries and regions of the world, Sunnis and Shiites live in peace and harmony, respecting and recognizing the diversity of Islam. Such examples can serve as a source of hope and inspiration for overcoming existing challenges and building a better future for all Muslims.


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