Creedal Differences between the Sunnis and Twelvers
Notwithstanding the differences between the Ahl al-Sunnah and the Shīʿas, the article intends to highlight some of the fundamental differences between the Sunnīs and the Twelver Shīʿas (Ithnā ʿAshariyyah) in creed, and expand upon those beliefs briefly. Note that this article does not contain a refutation of Shīʿī beliefs from the Sunnī perspective, and nor does it discuss the differences that may exist between Shīʿī or Sunnī scholars. There are more exhaustive works that should be consulted, should the reader seek more elaborate explanations concerning Twelver creedal points (as well as those upheld by the Ahl al-Sunnah), such as the works referenced as well as the creedal section from here.
1- Attributes and Essence
- The Twelvers hold that the Divine Attributes (ṣifāt) are synonymous with His (ﷻ) Essence (dhāt) and that the distinction between the ṣifāt and the dhāt is merely conceptual. 
- The Ahl al-Sunnah holds that the ṣifāt of God (ﷻ) subsist in His (ﷻ) Essence—that they are neither His Essence (ﷻ), nor are they other than it. 
2- Creative Action
- Twelvers hold that the people and things themselves create their actions and effects in accordance to the will of Allāh (ﷻ) while also being dependent on Him. 
- The Ahl al-Sunnah holds that the actions and effects are created directly by God (ﷻ) and nothing else has any inherent causal power. 
3- Creation of Evil
- The Twelvers hold that God is neither the Creator nor the Originator of evil. 
- The Ahl al-Sunnah holds that God (ﷻ) is the Creator of everything, including evil, although evil is not to be attributed to His (ﷻ) Actions. 
4- Moral Epistemology
- The Twelvers hold that good and evil may be known by reason independently of God. 
- The Ahl al-Sunnah holds that knowledge of good and evil rests on the Commandments of God, and the intellect is at best, only able to recognize what God (ﷻ) has created. 
5- Seeing God
- The Twelvers hold that God cannot be seen. 
- The Ahl al-Sunnah holds that seeing God (ﷻ) in heaven is proven by scripture and is possible by reason. 
6- The Speech of God
- The Twelvers hold that God’s Speech signifies God’s ability to create letters and sound in creation, instead of signifying eternal, uncreated speech being attributed to God. 
- The Ahl al-Sunnah holds that God’s Speech is eternal, and is not composed of sounds or letters. 
7- God Acting with Aims
- The Twelvers hold that God (ﷻ) acting with aims will not make him dependent on external factors. 
- The Ahl al-Sunnah holds that God does not act with an aim, since this would make Him (ﷻ) dependent [on external factors]. 
1- The First Three Caliphs
- The Twelvers hold that the first three Caliphs (Abū Bakr, ʿUmar, and ʿUthmān) usurped the Caliphate, to which only ʿAlī had a rightful claim to, following the death of the Prophet. 
- The Ahl al-Sunnah holds that they were the rightful heirs. 
2- Reliability of Companions
- The Twelvers hold that many of the Companions conspired against the family of the Prophet—ﷺ—(Ahl al-Bayt) and thus deem many of the major Companions unreliable [in terms of narrating reports or issuing fatāwā].
- The Ahl al-Sunnah holds that the Companions were pious, upright individuals, and were the best of people to have ever walked the earth.
- The Twelvers hold onto the concept of Imamate, which stipulates that God (ﷻ) gave the Muslim community an infallible leader after the death of the Prophet (ﷺ). It is also argued that this doctrine can be known by reason and is incumbent on God. 
- The Ahl al-Sunnah rejects the notion, and holds that while a leader is required, the obligation does not fall upon God (ﷻ) and that no leader aside from the Prophets is infallible. 
The Divine Attributes and the Essence
1- This is because they believed that saying that they are other than God (ﷻ) would compromise the Monotheism of God (ﷻ), meaning, it would affirm multiple ‘things’ that are not God (ﷻ) but are necessary. Which is why Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ṭabāṭabāʾī writes,
But because the Divine Essence is limitless and infinite these perfections which are shown to be His Qualities are in reality the same as His Essence and one with each other. The difference observed between the Essence and the Qualities and at the same time between the Qualities themselves is only on the plane of concepts. Essentially there is but one Reality involved which is one and indivisible.
The doctrine, in other words, is that of Divine Simplicity—one held by the Falāsifa and the Muʿtazila as well.
2- The Ahl al-Sunnah holds a moderate position with regard to the Attributes and the Essence. In summary, Sunnīs do not hold that the Divine Attributes are the Essence, and nor do they hold that they are completely distinct from it. As al-Taftazānī writes, in Sharḥ al-ʿAqāʾid,
They are not He nor are they other than He—that is, the attributes of Allah are not His essence itself nor are they other than it. This implies neither the eternity of that which is other than He nor the plurality of eternals.
He also states,
It is also inconceivable that there be a dispute among the People of the Approved Way and the Community on the question of the multiplicity and plurality of the attributes of the Deity as to whether they are distinctly separate or not. However, it is preferable to say that the plurality of eternal essences but not the plurality of an essence and attributes is impossible. It is also better not to say boldly that the attributes are necessarily existent in themselves but rather [to say] that they are not necessarily existent in anything else but in that which is not themselves nor other than themselves; I mean by that the Essence of Allah—Exalted of Himself and Extolled. This is what one means when he says that the Necessarily Existent in His essence is Allah and His attributes, the idea being that these are necessarily existent in the essence of the Necessarily Existent. But in themselves they are possible.
Creative action refers to the ability to create an effect to bring something into existence from non-existence.
3- The twelvers hold that while the cause and effects are real, they are dependent on the will of God and ultimately dependent on Him.
Murtaḍā Muṭahharī writes, in his Introduction to ʿIlm al-Kalām,
The notion of al-tawḥīd al-afʿalī upheld by the Twelvers means that the system of causes and effects is real, and every effect, while being dependent on its proximate cause, is also dependent on God. These two modes of dependence do not operate in parallel but in series.
Similarly, Mujtabā Mūsawī Lārī writes, in his God and His Attributes,
From one point of view, man’s acts and deeds can be attributed to him, and from another point of view, to God. Man has a direct, immediate relationship with his own deeds, while God’s relationship with those deeds is indirect, but both forms of relationship are real and true. Neither does human will set itself up in opposition to the divine will, nor is man’s will contrary to what God desires.
4- The Ahl al-Sunnah holds on to the position that nothing has any inherent causal power other than Allāh (ﷻ). He (ﷻ) is the sole creator of everything and all causes and effects we see are merely correlations and that correlations does not mean causations.
Imam al-Ṭaḥāwī states in his treatise, “People’s actions are created by Allah (ﷻ) but earned by people.” Imām al-Ṣāwī writes in his sharḥ of Jawharat al-Tawḥīd,
The Qurʾān states, [God created you and that which you do]. Hence, be it good or evil, it is created by God. The meaning of the verse is that God created His servants and creates what they do (regardless of whether those actions are subject to choice or not). The servant’s position is merely to veer or move toward something that he has resolved himself to. The servant is thus the receiver of what he chooses and for this, there is either punishment or reward. However, the actual thing (the servant has desired and leaned toward) is created by God as creation is His prerogative.
On creation of Evil:
5- This is because in their view God (ﷻ) being the originator of what is evil would essentially undermine His (ﷻ) divinity and be contrary to both His (ﷻ) attributes and to human reason. Al-Ḥillī writes,
It is proven by saying that He is alienated from what is bad, because He is independent of it and knows its badness, and He has no motive to it, due to both lack of a motive of need and wisdom, and so the act does not emerge from Him at all.
And that “it is impossible for the Most High to be the doer of evil.”
6- The Ahl al-Sunnah holds that while evil cannot be attributed to God (ﷻ) or His (ﷻ) actions, He (ﷻ) is its Creator. As Imām al-Ghāzalī states,
He wills all things that exist and arranges all that happens. Nothing occurs in the worldly kingdom or the spiritual domain, being few or many, small or large, good or evil, beneficial or harmful, [of] faith or disbelief, acknowledgment or denial, victory or failure, increase or decrease, obedience or disobedience, except by His decree and predestination, and His wisdom and will. If He wills something, it comes to pass; if He does not will it, it does not. Not a single glance or passing thought is outside His will. He is the Initiator (mubdiʾ), the Restorer, He who does what He wills.
7- Al-Ḥillī writes:
And the Mu’tazilites and Imamites say that there is that in reason which can guide to it [knowledge of good and evil], and that good is good in itself, and evil is evil in itself, whether the lawgiver pronounces it so or not.
8- Imām al-Ḥaramayn al-Juwaynī writes,
The intellect does not ascertain the goodness of a thing or its badness in matters pertaining to the governance of religious obligation. Something’s being good or bad falls solely within the disposition of the law and the requirements imposed by tradition. The principle behind this doctrine is that nothing is good in and of itself, nor by virtue of the class of things to which it belongs, nor because of a quality inherent in it. The doctrine concerning what is bad is the same.
On Seeing God
9- This is because they hold that sight is only possible with regard to created things. So if God (ﷻ) could be seen that would mean He is a body or otherwise a created form, which is impossible. Al-Ḥillī writes,
Those endowed with understanding, apart from the corporealists, agree that seeing must be denied in His case, for it would be due to impression or rays.
10– This is because the Ahl al-Sunnah reasons that sight does not necessitate corporeality since it is rationally possible to see in a way unlike what we are familiar with. As Allāh (ﷻ) says in the Qurʾān, “On that Day ˹some˺ faces will be bright, looking at their Lord.” (75:22-23)
Imām al-Iṣfahānī explains,
Assuredly, [God] Most High will be seen in the Hereafter. This is in the sense that He will reveal Himself to His believing worshipers in the Hereafter in as clear a self-revelation as the luminous full moon is visible, [this point being] in contradiction to the Muʿtazilah.
Moreover, the self-revelation will take place without any impression being registered in the eye of the form of what is seen, or any contact being made with the object of sight through a ray [of vision] out streaming from the eye, or the consequent occurrence of a general facing about in direction to look, this point being in contradiction to the anthropomorphists and the Karrāmiyyah. The [latter groups] admit the possibility of a vision of Him the Most High in a directional encounter on account of their belief in His being in a certain direction or place. What is meant by a ‘vision’ is the circumstance in which a man finds himself whenever he beholds something after he has gained a knowledge of it, for we do perceive a distinction between the two states. That distinction we have perceived is not permitted to return in order to have the form of what is seen registered in the eye, or to make contact by a ray [of vision] out-streaming from the eye to the object of sight when facing about to look. That is another [second] state, different from the [first] state in effect when the knowledge came that the occurrence of [another, second, state of ecstatic realized vision] would be possible, but without any registered impression of form or any outstreaming ray [of directional sight] in it. So, there is assurance for a vision in this sense.
Speech of God
11- Muḥammad Baqīr Majlesī writes,
We should know that the Almighty Allah is Mutakallim; that is He creates letters and voices in a body, without the faculty of mouth or any other organ; like through His perfect power, speech was created in the tree and Prophet Musa (a.s.) heard it. He creates sounds in the heavens, which the angels hear and bring as divine revelation; and He creates inscriptions in the heavenly tablets as well, which angels read and bring down as divine revelation. He also creates revelation and speech in the hearts of prophets, successors and angels. This quality of creating speech is not a divine quality, which should necessarily be from eternity; on the contrary, it is a quality of action and it is incidental, because perfection of truth is knowledge of those meanings and letters; and He has the power to create letters and voices in anything He wants.
12- Imām Al-Ghazālī states,
He commands, prohibits, promises, and warns with a timeless and eternal speech that exists in His essence. It does not resemble the speech of His creatures for it is not a voice made by the passage of air and the movement of body parts, nor is it composed of letters articulated by the lips or tongue.
God acting with aims.
13- This is because they do not hold that it will make God (ﷻ) dependent on the said aims. Al-Ḥillī writes, “Fourth, regarding the fact that the Most High acts with an aim (gharaḍ), because the Qurʾān teaches it, and because the negation of it would result in vanity (al-ʿabath), and that is evil.”
14- The Ahl al-Sunnah holds that God (ﷻ) acting with aims would make Him (ﷻ) dependent as having aim would essentially mean He (ﷻ) has needs to achieve which is impossible as He (ﷻ) is free from any dependence. As Imām al-Ghazālī states:
Before time, only He existed, and there was nothing else; and then He made all creation as a manifestation of His power and a realization of what proceeds from His will and what is true in eternity of His word; He did not do it because He required or needed anything in creation. He creates, originates, and teaches out of grace, not obligation; He extends favors and blessings freely, not out of duty. He did all this out of grace, generosity, kindness, and favor; He could easily have unleashed all manner of torment upon His servants and tried them with every kind of pain and suffering—and had He done so, it would still have been equitable on His part, and not wicked or unjust.
The fact that God (ﷻ) is not attributed with aims does not take away from His (ﷻ) Wisdom.
15- Numerous arguments are made against the first three Caliphs to assert that they were impious disbelievers and enemies of the family of the Prophet. This view is perhaps most succinctly shown in the Shīʿa work Ḥaqq al-Yaqīn, in which al-Majlisī compares the first Caliph with the calf of Israelites and cites narrations supporting the impiety and even apostasy of the Companions.
16- Imām al-Ṭaḥāwī states:
We love the companions of God’s Messenger. We are not, however, extreme in our love for any one of them. Nor do we dissociate from any of them. We loathe those who loathe them, and we only mention their merits. Loving them is essential to religion, faith, and spiritual excellence, and hating them amounts to infidelity, hypocrisy, and extremism.
We assert that the caliphate after the death of the Messenger was first for Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq due to his preeminence and precedence over the entire community, and then for Umar b. al-Khattab, followed by ʿUthman b. ʿAffān, and concluding with ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib. They are the Guiding Caliphs and Guided Leaders.
We testify, as the Messenger of God before us, that the ten whom he designated and assured of Paradise are indeed in Paradise. His pronouncement is true, and they are Abū Bakr, ʿUmar, ʿUthmān, ʿAlī, Ṭalḥah, al-Zubayr, Saʿd, Saʿīd, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. ʿAwf, and Abu ʿUbayd-Allāh b. al-Jarrāḥ, who is the ‘Trustee of this Community”.
As such, the Shīʿas do not consider some of the major Companions as reliable narrators.
17- Al-Ṭūsī is cited in Kashf al-Murād saying,
The existence of an Imam, or a divinely-appointed spiritual and temporal guide and leader, is a favor (luṭf) of God. Therefore, it is necessary for God to appoint him for the attainment of the main purpose, which is to guide people in the direction of utmost dignity and nobility and to the superabundant source of unity, justice, and purity.
Al-Ḥillī also says,
According to the Imamites, Abū-l-Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī, and the Baghdādians, the method for showing its necessity is the intellect, but the Imamites make it incumbent on God most high, because it is necessarily a gift of grace, for when they have a leader, people seek justice for one who is wronged and repel the wrongdoer, approaching the right-minded and distancing from the corrupt, and grace is necessary, due to foregoing.
The Twelve Imāms according to the Twelvers, are as follows:
- ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib
- Ḥasan ibn ʿAlī
- Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī, ʿAlīibn Ḥusayn
- Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī
- Jaʿfar ibn Muḥammad
- Mūsā ibn Jaʿfar
- ʿAlī ibn Mūsā, Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī
- ʿAlī ibn Muhammad
- Ḥasan ibn ʿAlī
- Imām Mahdī.
The Mahdī is in occultation, and will, according to Shīʿite beliefs, return at the end of the world.
18- The Ahl al-Sunnah rejects this doctrine. Imām al-Iṣfahānī, replying to the Twelver stance, states,
The answer to this argument is that we do not grant that the appointment of an imam would be a benevolence. Indeed, it would be a benevolence only when the appointment of the supreme leader would be free from faults that cause corruption; but this would be impossible, because of the probability that in the appointment of the supreme leader there might be hidden corruption, knowledge of which would be in God’s exclusive possession. Moreover, even if it should be granted that the appointment of an imam would be a benevolence, still we do not grant that the benevolence would be an obligation upon God Most High. Nor do we grant that giving man empowered capability would be an obligation upon God Most High; for indeed we have made it clear that there is no obligation at all upon God, but rather, He is the Necessary cause of all things. Even after having granted your [i.e., the Imamiyah disputants’] false premises, the benevolence you have mentioned would come only if there should be an imam who obviously had a proven ability to make people hope for his reward and fear his punishment. But you do not believe in the necessity of appointing an imam that would be like this supreme leader. So, how could the appointment of an imam be a benevolence when from the age of the prophets to our days no supreme leader has been empowered as you have described? Is it therefore, a fact that God has abandoned His obligation [to make the appointment]? That would be an ugly situation, for then an ugly action would have been committed by God Most High! And you people do not admit that anything ugly could ever be committed by God Most High!
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