How To Differentiate Between a Sunni Muslim and a Shiite Muslim

Have You Ever Wondered If a Muslim Was a Sunni or a Shiite?

“After my death my nation will be divided into 70 sects, all will go to hell but one.” This is what the prophet Mohammad foretold, and this is what happened as far as I know, but surely no one can tell which sect will go to heaven concerning the second part of the prophecy, although each sect proclaims that they’re the ones. The two major sects in Islam are the Sunni sect and the Shiite sect. They are called Sunnis because they follow the Sunna of the Prophet Mohammad, which means his sayings and doings. And the others are called Shiites because they are the followers or supporters of Ali ibin abi Talib, the Prophet’s Cousin and son-in-law, so they’re called Shi’at Ali, or the partisans of Ali. You can tell if a person is a Sunni or Shiite based on names, appearance, slight differences in prayers, places of prayers, and certain special rituals and celebrations.

  1. Names: In spite of the sect, Muslims around the world use some common names to give to their children, such as Mohammad (after the prophet) or Ahmad, which is derived from the name Mohammad. Yet there are some names that have a sectarian marker and, if used, determine almost for sure whether a person is a Sunni or a Shiite. Such names include Ali, Hassan, Hussein and Zahra for Shiites and Omar, Othman for Sunnis. As for Muslim women, name differences between Shiites and Sunnis are slight, although I can say that Shiites tend to use the name Zahraa for their daughters.
  2. Appearance: Those who shave their heads and mustache, with a small cap on their heads are Sunni religious people. Others with higher rank “sheikh” have a turban which consists of a long piece of fabric wrapped around a small red cap. The Shiite clerks may have a black turban wrapped around the head, which tells that this clerk is from the bloodline of the prophet and called Sayyid. Otherwise a clerk wears a white turban to indicate that he is not from the same bloodline of the prophet.

    As for secular Shiites (they are mainly affected by the Persian style), more than 60% of the Shiite Muslims of the world are located in Iran (formerly Persia) and wear no tie, a shirt with no color, and some tend to grow their beards a little or trim it without shaving. As for Shiite youths they have tattoos on their arms, such as names of Ali or Hussein his son, or the sword of Ali, Thu alfiqar (“sword with a split head”). They even have necklaces with the sword. In their homes, Sunnis have verses from the Quran, while Shiites have portraits of Hussein picturing how he was killed, which is an Arabian knight on a horse leaning to the side with a spear in his chest. Also they have portraits of the sword Thu alfiqar, and the name of Ali and Hussein in frames. The same goes in their cars and neighborhoods.

    As for women, it's sometimes hard to tell the difference between Sunni women and Shiite women based on appearance, because of the fanaticism in the implementation of the Islamic rules (or in other words, the ways of the prophet). For instance, Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Muslim country where women are forced to wear something called "shador" which is a black dress that covers the whole body from top to toes. On the other side Iran is a Shiite Muslim country where women are also forced to wear the "shador" whether they like it or not, exactly like in Saudi Arabia.

    Nevertheless, in some moderate Islamic countries, like in Malaysia (a Sunni Muslim country), women tend to wear a veil that covers the head, neck and ears, and they wear pants and long shirts not to reveal their beauties, or they can also wear long dresses not revealing their flesh. As for moderate Shiites, they also get dressed in the same way, but they try to differentiate themselves in a certain way just to recognize each other. For instance, in Lebanon moderate Shiite women wear their veil in a different way where they put a pin on the left side which would make it look different and recognizable.

  3. Difference in prayers: Since the days of the prophet, when calling the faithful for prayer, Muslims invoke God and the prophet Mohammad, but Shiites added Ali. Muslims (Sunnis and Shiites) use a small rug or carpet in their prayers. They kneel, bend and touch their forehead to the ground, but Shiites unlike Sunnis touch their heads to a small stone called turba, from the holy city of Najaf. When they pray, Sunnis keep their arms one folded over the other just below the rib cage, while Shiites keep their arms down. Additionally, there are differences in times of the prayer, where Shiites are minutes behind Sunnis, perhaps just to emphasize the difference. That difference goes also to the fasting time during the fasting month of Ramadan, where they break their fasting at slightly different timing and celebrate the end of Ramadan (the ‘Id) a day or two apart.

    As for women, whether Sunni or Shiite, Islam favored men over women; women according to the Quran are not equal to men, so they pray at home and not with men in mosques. Men and women are not even allowed to mix together in public places or schools on any occasion.

    Sunnis pray in mosques, and those mosques have domes and minarets, while Shiites pray and worship most often in Husseiniya (no domes or minarets), which functions like a mosque and a community center and a place where they share condolences during the memory of Hussein’s death, son of Ali.

  4. Rituals: Both Sunnis and Shiites celebrate the birth of their prophet, and the Ezra day, but only the Shiites have the Ashura day, where they gloomily commemorate the killing of Hussein the son of Ali by Sunnis, one reason why these two sects have hatred for each other. They share condolences for ten days in Husseiniya (you can see that the word is derived from the name Hussein). For ten days, Shiite men are dressed black, and they don’t shave their beards. Secular women wear no make-up or perfume, and if they have a veil, it must be black. On the tenth day, they march on the streets and beat their chests in mourning. Some whip themselves and cut their heads and hit on it to bleed, because by this they show how much they regret not preventing that from happening. By Sunnis, this is seen as something unpleasant, and uncivilized.

I’m sure one can find more differences between those two Islamic sects. I hope my experience derived from living among them and having friends from both sects will help you to tell the difference if you need to.


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Well Mr. Tamim Alayash, I know this debate will go on but I guess this won't be a suitable place, I think a forum or email will perfect for this. Please provide me your email adress so that we can go ahead on the subject.
As for now I would simply say that through your comments I can understand your knowledge level of Islam, so I suggest that you either sit with a good scholar or do some internet search and you will find some good info about Islam and the misconceptions that you or some others have about Islam.

By Waheedullah Aleko

perhaps it's a little late to reply on what Mr Ulf Anderson and Mr Wheedullah Aleko commented on what i wrote, but being late is better than never replying. First of all i must mention that I respect what they mentioned in their comment.
1- Mr ulf was right about one thing, which is that in some Muslim countries men and women mix, and what i should have written in the article is that " in countries where Islam is followed in a fanatic way such as in Iran, Saudi Arrabia, some parts of Lebanon,Syria and Palistine, men and women are not to be mixed"
2- As for the equality between men and women in Islam, modern life and biology, i would like to say that if women are still getting paid less in modern life this doesn't make it right, and it is more than a fact that women are different then men in biology, but they still have the right to be treated equally, because it's the brain that matters not the body, although women are proving to be capable to do what men do. They have been oppressed for thousands of years and i believe they need to be at least equal for sometime to prove that they are equal. But concerning Islam, It's true men and women are equal in the eyes of God, but that is if they do wrong or "good", but on earth according to Quran for instance in a will when a muslim dies, the malein his children gets twice what a waman gets. And here i have a question, that might also "shed some light" about equality in Islam, if a good muslim man dies, he'll go to heaven and will be rewarded dearly by God in addition to lots of virgin women to please him, but can you tell me what would a good muslim woman get when she dies?? Is it also a lot of men? I don't think so, and that is not quite equal.
3- As for praying in the mosque only old women can pray there with men Mr Waheedullah said " Women not praying in mosques is not due to discrimination against women and their being unequal according to Quran, but because a mosque is a place where people come to pray and worship Allah and to enforce a high moral code and decent principles."
Does that mean that women do not know how to worship Allah or do what men do in a decent way when it comes to faith and worshipping? Only "old and aged women" can go pray in the mosque with men, but in seperate places, isn't that seperation?? And by the way, what is it that causes this seperation?? I believe it's lust.
Muhammad Rasullullah, he is the prophit, and i have no doubts in his sunnah and teachings, but i believe also that he needed to set those rules this way because he saw that it's the only way to prevent certain things from happening, and as for the equality the prophet gave the woman some rights but he didn't make her equal also for a reason, because also back then women weren't equal and you can't simply enforce a completely new law making them equal to their masters "the men", so Islam gave them a lot back then.
Hope you take my reply with no offence, and for the sake of civilized debate only.

By A L

I agree with Ulf Anderson. Women not praying in mosques is not due to discrimination against women and their being unequal according to Quran, but because a mosque is a place where people come to pray and worship Allah and to enforce a high moral code and decent principles. Women are forbidden to pray together with men in the mosques but still there are exceptions to this rule--for example, women who are old and aged can come and pray in the mosque but in a separate place, maybe within a partitioned area where other people who are not her “Muhram” (a person who is her direct family member like father, brother, son and uncle) may not be able to see/touch her.
Islam, by far, is the only religion that has given women rights that are not enjoyed in any religion or sect in any other parts of the world, and that are in the best interest of the women, the men and the society--one just has to truly and thoroughly recognize and understand it.

By Waheedullah Aleko

Just to shed some light on some things mentioned in the article. Overall I believe the general "identifiers" of the sunnis and the shias are accurate enough.
I'm a "westerner" who has been working in Pakistan for a few years, and I feel I have the insight and experience to give the following additions/corrections:

1. It is mentioned in the article that woman are not equal to men according to the quran. I find this remark misleading, and potentially defaming. Men and woman are also not equal according to modern science and western culture. According to biology, men are definitely different from woman in many ways. In "western" culture, woman still get less paid than men for the same work, generally. The quran shows some differences between men and woman. Woman have rights over men, and men have rights over woman. The quran says that all humans, men and woman, are equal in the eyes of God.

2. Regarding mixing of men and woman. The article is wrong. What the article states may be true at some places, in some countries, in some situations. Pakistan is a muslim country and men and woman are allowed to and do mix in public places and schools. There are both schools for mixed classes and schools for one-gender classes available. Things are not like what one may believe from reading the article.

Hope this provided some insight to the real world.

By Ulf Anderson