Shiite and Sunni: What are the differences?

Sectarian tensions are flaring in Iraq with the suicide bombing of a Shiite religious procession Saturday that killed at least 53 people and a ruling by an Iraqi court today that the country's Sunni vice president must stand trial in the capital. The procession was commemorating Arbaeen, one of the major holidays in the Shiite calendar. The festival comes at a time of stridently sectarian politics in Iraq, with the Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki at loggerheads with the Sunni-backed minority in the parliament. 

We take a look at the differences – and similarities – between Sunni and Shiite below.

1. What are the origins of the Sunni and Shiite sects?

Hassan Ammar/AP/File
The Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam, in Mecca.

Both sects are Muslim. They believe the Koran is the direct word of God, passed down to the prophet Muhammad in a series of revelations before his death. They pray in the direction of Mecca, and share the same dietary and general social restrictions.

Their schism lies in disputes over who would succeed Muhammad as leader of the faithful after his death in 632. The Shiites thought the prophet’s son-in-law and cousin should lead as caliph, particularly given his blood relationship to Muhammad. Their opponents, the Sunnis, thought Abu Bakr, one of Mohammad’s first converts, should be their leader.

The Shiites lost a series of wars for power in the early years of Islam and today are the clear minority in global Islam, making up about 15 percent of adherents. They are in the majority in Iraq and Iran.

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