Although Sunni and Shiite Muslims are both sects of the Islamic faith, the differences between these two groups stem from conflicting religious beliefs.
Political conflict separates the groups as well Saudi Arabia, a Sunni nation, and Shiite Iran continue to compete for regional influence in the Arab world. Amidst anti-government protests and car bombings, Sunni leaders in Saudi Arabia have accused their Shiite populations of loyalty to Iran.
One thing that Sunnis and Shiites have in common is that they are the two largest denominations of the Islamic faith . Additionally, both Sunnis and Shiites believe that the Prophet Muhammad established the Islam religion during the seventh century. [What Is Ramadan?]
The schism between the two sects began after the death of Muhammad in 632 A.D., at which point a dispute over the identity of Muhammad's religious successor caused the followers of Islam to divide into Sunnis and Shiites.
The Sunnis believe that Muhammad had no rightful heir and that a religious leader should be elected through a vote among the Islamic community's people. They believe that Muhammad's followers chose Abu Bakr, Muhammad's close friend and advisor, as his successor.
Shiites believe that only Allah, the God of the Islam faith, can select religious leaders, and that therefore, all successors must be direct descendants of Muhammad's family. They maintain that Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, was the rightful heir to the leadership of the Islam religion after Muhammad's death.
Another contentious religious difference between Shiite and Sunni Muslims concerns the Mahdi, which is Arabic for "guided one." Both groups perceive the Mahdi as the sole ruler of the Islamic community. But while the Sunnis hold that the Mahdi has not yet been born and anticipate his arrival, the Shiites believe that the Mahdi was born in 869 A.D. and will return to Earth under Allah's orders.
Most Muslims are Sunnis. Of the entire Muslim population in the Islamic world, only 10 percent are Shiite, according to cnn.com. The only countries that have a Shiite majority in the Middle East are Iran, Iraq and the Gulf island state of Bahrain.
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Originally published on Live Science.