November 14, 2013

Muslim holiday of Ashura brings into focus Shia-Sunni differences

Smoke billows as part of Ashura rituals as Muslim Shia pilgrims gather in the Iraqi holy city of Karbala on December 6, 2011. (Credit: MOHAMMED SAWAF/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke billows as part of Ashura rituals as Muslim Shia pilgrims gather in the Iraqi holy city of Karbala on December 6, 2011. (Credit: MOHAMMED SAWAF/AFP/Getty Images)

Each year, millions of Shia pilgrims visit the shrine of one of their most revered figures – Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson – to mourn the anniversary of Hussein’s death on the Day of Ashura, which falls today. While Ashura is sacred for all Muslims, it is especially important to Shias, illustrating some of the differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

FT_Shia_HusseinHussein was killed in a battle over the succession of the caliph, or leader of the Muslim community, the conflict at the heart of the schism between Sunnis and Shias, and Ashura has often been an occasion for sectarian tensions. In recent years, attacks on Shia processions and gatherings marking Ashura have been frequent – especially in Iraq, the modern-day location of Hussein’s death in the Battle of Karbala. This year is no exception.

A Pew Research Center survey finds that, while the world’s Sunnis and Shias share many similarities, there are significant divides between the groups on certain religious practices.

When asked whether it is acceptable in Islam to visit shrines of Muslim saints, Iraqi Muslims are split along sectarian lines, with Shias nearly unanimous in their approval (98%), compared with roughly two-thirds of Sunnis (65%) who say it is acceptable.

Likewise, in neighboring Iran, the vast majority of Iranian Shias (89%) say it is acceptable to visit shrines of saints, but only 28% of Sunnis agree. In some countries with very few Shias, Sunni Muslims are even less accepting of such practices: as few as 4% of Egyptian Sunnis and 3% of Jordanian Sunnis say visiting shrines is permissible.

However, the polls found that Sunnis and Shias in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon are united by their belief in key tenets of Islam, with near universal belief in God and the Prophet Muhammad. Levels of religious practice vary more by country than by sect, with Sunnis and Shias who live side-by-side largely mirroring each other in their rates of fasting and daily prayer.

Topics: Religious Beliefs and Practices, Muslims and Islam

  1. Photo of Michael Lipka

    is a senior editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.

  2. is a Research Assistant at the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.


  1. paluvakkamohamedameen2 years ago

    both sects also share the same Quran,
    both believe in the prophethood of Muhammad (as well as all of the other prophets mentioned in the Quran),
    both view Muhammad as an exemplary model of good behavior who should be emulated by all,
    both believe in the absolute oneness of God (tawhid), both observe fasting during the holy month of Ramadan,
    both accept that the pilgrimage (hajj) to the Ka’aba in Mecca is obligatory,
    both celebrate the two main Muslim holidays of Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) and Eid al-Fitr (Feast of Breaking of the fast),
    both accept the holiness and sanctity of the cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem,
    both pray five times daily and in the same direction (with some slight variations), both believe in the Day of Judgment, the Day of Resurrection, in Angels, Jinn, and the devil, and
    both adhere to systems of jurisprudence that are highly interconnected and overlap.

  2. Abdulai Sankoh4 years ago

    in need an update of your postings

  3. Nathalie4 years ago

    The OnlyY way to stop this separation I between Muslims is to ask. The Shia people who morn Imam Hussein and his family death in such a barbaric way is ask them forgiveness and acknowlegment of the grave mistake and the severity of this crime commited by the Yazid and his followers and to bring all Muslims together under one leaderships from both sides.
    god is one and all his massengers and their descendants are holly .

  4. Nathalie4 years ago

    The Muslims. Division has lasted soo long because the Sunni imams has not acknowledge the cruelty and pain suffered by the imam Hussien and his family. By the crimes committed against the Grand Son of the prophet of the whole Muslims ,How could you kill a holy person like him just for power and self indulgence when the leading of Muslims is supposed to be in the leading family of the prophet ,What Muslims do not realize is the day the Imam of Islam was killed the whole Muslims were killed Islam it self lost it’S real message, this is unforgivable ,it is like the killing of Juses the Nazareth ,evil and criminal , humans are mislead in such decivng devils who whisper to their ego

  5. Yasmine4 years ago

    What all sects of Islam need to understand is that Islam is about peace and will always be about peace and in order to achieve peace in this world and the hereafter all muslims must unite as one, as Islam.

    1. Colleen4 years ago

      I am an American Muslim. Here we are not devided. We all go to the same masjid and live as neighbors. The message of Islam is peace. All Muslims are my brothers and sisters. MashaAllah!

      1. kord3 years ago

        salam dear brother
        Division is the plan of all mulims enemies.But i think allah(swt) had been determined a leadership after prophet departure by him to gather all muslims under uniqe flag and religioues tenets. kabe is a shrine center to be united and prophet mohammad was to. so what about after him? i think presence of saint and reliable leadership who determined by allah is a prerequisite of all muslims demands which that shiit belief to it.
        inshallah god bless you

  6. M.B.Ali4 years ago

    It is not a battle of succession. Husain was not interested in Caliphate. He refused to acknowledge Yezid as the leader for which he was killed. Yezid was a tyrant as history records.

  7. Ahmed Mastan4 years ago

    Sunni, Shia must not fight each other and come as “muslim” and help each other. This enmity is going for a long time

  8. david4 years ago

    sunni and shia are non-muslims, only muslims are muslims

    1. Mustapha4 years ago

      So, I am advising the 6.0billion to decide to become Muslims. Yes, you know well what it is to believe in the G-d of Abraham. On that parameter they are certainly not.