Muhammad’s succession

After Muhammad died, the Muslim community had to choose a successor.

Sunni Muslims, make up around 90 per cent of the global Muslim population. They believe that the rightful successor to Muhammad was Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law and closest friend. Followers of this branch of Islam accept all four of Islam's first leaders, including Abu Bakr and Ali, Muhammad's cousin, as the rightful successors of Muhammad. They often refer to these as the ‘Four Rightly-Guided Caliphs’.

Shi’a Muslims believe that Muhammad chose Ali as his successor. After Ali’s death, Shi’a Muslims were led by twelve imams, whom they believe were spiritual successors to the Prophet Muhammad rather than having any family connection to him. Shi’a Muslims make up around 10 per cent of the global Muslim population.

Imamate: Shi'a Islam

Imamate is the Shi'a belief that all modern imams should be spiritual descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Shi’a Muslims believe that imams protect the religion and help to guide Muslims along the right path. Today, Shi'a Muslim communities are led by imams, who are seen as having been chosen by God. Shi’a Muslims believe that imams are exemplary individuals who obey all teachings and follow Shari’ah law.

The Twelvers

The Twelvers is a branch of Shi’a Islam whose followers believe that there were twelve imams after the death of Muhammad. The 12th imam, however, has been kept alive by God and is hidden somewhere on Earth. Shi’a Muslims believe the 12th imam will one day make himself known and bring equality to all.

Shi’a Muslims believe that the imams are necessary because people need guidance on how to live correctly. Due to their close relationship with God, the twelve imams are highly respected.

Isma’ili Shi’as

Ismai’ili Shi’a Muslims, sometimes known as the Seveners, believe that the seventh imam was Isma’il. Isma’il was the son of one of the twelve imams. Seveners believe that each imam can choose his successor, as they believe the last hereditary imam was Isma’il.


What is the main difference between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims?

They believe that different people were successors to Muhammad. Sunni Muslims believe Muhammad’s succession followed his bloodline, whereas Shi’a Muslims believe Muhammad chose his successor.