Shia and Sunni Muslims are often easily distinguishable merely from the way they each conduct their prayers. While there are small differences in the prayer rituals of each school, these differences have often been overstated due to misconceptions about the origin and meaning of these traditions. This entry will seek to clarify and explain some of these differences.
The Number of Prayer Units
According to the Sunni jurist Imam Malik, it is permissible to combine the Dhuhr and Asr prayers, and the Maghrib prayers with Isha prayers if it rains.
The Jurists of the Shi’a school have followed the sayings of the Prophet (s.a.w.a) and the Twelve Imams (a.s.), who all state that combining the prayers is not contingent on a specific set of circumstances. Therefore, whilst the number of times a day during which the Shi’a might pray is recognized as being either five or three distinct timings, the number of prayers, like all other Muslims, is actually five.
It must be stated, however, that to combine these prayers and recite them immediately after each other (in the case of Dhuhr and Asr and then Maghrib and Isha) is by no means an obligatory act for the Shi’a. Rather it is viewed as one’s own personal choice, whether an individual prefers to combine the prayers or perform them separately.
The Turbah of the Shia
Another misconception is that Shia worship a stone idol. This criticism is based on a lack of understanding of Shia Jurisprudence, which stipulates that prostration during prayers must not be performed on anything other than natural elements from the earth which can neither be consumed nor worn; as such symbolism would reflect the worship of materialism. This interpretation has prompted many Shia to adopt the convenience of praying on clay tablets, or Turbah (a clay tablet produced normally but not exclusively from the soil of the land of Karbala). In the absence of the Turbah, Shia prostrate upon leaves or other natural objects.
Qunut literally means “being obedient” or “the act of standing” in Arabic. The word is usually used in reference to special supplications made in certain prayers while in the standing posture. During the second unit of every prayer, it is recommended to raise your hands in supplication after the recitation of the two chapters of the Holy Qur’an. Many Shia Muslims follow this recommendation. Furthermore, whilst it may seem like an unfamiliar practice to some Muslims, several of the Sunni schools of Jurisprudence also share this practice, which they restrict to only the Fajr prayer.