There are two different sects of Islam. According to scholars, there are many variants of Islam according to beliefs and interpretations of the Quran but broadly there are Shiites and Sunnis. There is substantial difference between Shiites and Sunnis. Iran is predominantly a Shiite country. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni kingdom. Both are Islamic nations with religion as a defining factor of their nationhood, kingdom and dictatorship. Religion plays a key role in every matter of importance for these states.
It is necessary to mention that despite the difference between Shiites and Sunnis, most of their religious beliefs, practices and symbols are similar and some are almost identical. Let us now talk about the differences.
Shiites believe that the leadership of Islam or the Muslim world must adhere to hereditary succession. According to this belief, Prophet Mohammed should be succeeded by Imam Ali, who was his son in law, and thereon the descendants of the prophet must be the leaders of Islam. Sunnis do not have such a belief. They don’t believe that hereditary succession or blood line must be imperative for an Islamic leader to claim leadership of the religion or the community practicing the religion.
Shiites don’t just believe that Imam Ali and his successors are the leaders of Islam but they also practice this belief. They embark on annual pilgrimages to various shrines revering the Imam and his eleven descendants. Sunnis don’t have any such practice.
Sunnis are a majority. If you take into account the global populace of Muslims then barely 10% would be Shiites. Nine out of every ten Muslims is a Sunni. Iraq and Iran are notably Shiites. These two countries are ruled by Shiite Muslims. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are ruled by Sunni leaders. Syria has an Alawite regime which is an offshoot of Shiite.
Sunnis have the practice of crossing their arms when they pray whereas Shiites would keep their arms by the side. Sunnis have five prayers every day while Shiites have three prayers every day. The content of the prayers is similar and almost identical but it is condensed by the Shiites to accommodate all five prayers in three sessions.
Just like their belief, Shiites tend to adhere to hierarchical structures. Living religious leaders are of significant in Shiite majority countries. Sunnis don’t adhere to scholarly scriptures that have been documented by religious leaders in the past. They don’t stick to any hierarchical structure as such.