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The Seventy-Three Sects: Is Most of this Ummah Deviant?

divisionsThe Qur’an goes to great lengths to stress the need and obligation of Muslim unity. For instance, it states in a celebrated verse: Hold fast, altogether, to the rope of God and be not divided. [3:102] It also says: Be not like the idolaters; who split up their religion and become sects, each party rejoicing in what it has. [30:31-32]

Given these verses; and given the many demands in the Sunnah for Muslim unity; and given the great virtue, rank and status this ummah is depicted with in the Revelation; those hadiths that speak of the Muslims splitting into seventy-odd sects, all except one destined for Hell, seem to contradict that spirit of honour and unity.

Understandable, then, why some scholars deem these hadiths on iftiraq or “splitting-up” as awkward; struggling to fit them into the general spirit of excellence the ummah is distinguished by. For what merit is there in a nation so riddled with divisions and schism and where, seemingly, the great bulk of its followers are heading for Hell!

This post looks at the hadiths on the ummah splitting-up: discussing their soundness, what this splitting means, and whether this implies that the majority of the ummah are innovators destined for Hell.

This posting is culled from a more detailed paper I penned on the subject last year, entitled The Seventy-Three Sects: Are the Majority of Muslims Innovators? – which can be read and downloaded here. This discussion shall be broken down into the following ten points:

1. The Qur’an insists that the Muslim nation (ummah) is the best of all nations: You are the best nation ever raised for mankind; you enjoin the good, forbid the wrong and believe in God. [3:110] The same tribute may be heard reverberating in the following hadith: ‘You are the last of seventy nations; you are the best of them and the noblest of them in the sight of God.’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.3001] Another hadith has these tidings: ‘The people of Paradise are composed of one-hundred and twenty ranks; eighty of them from this nation, forty from the other nations.’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.2546]

2. Something of the size or magnitude of this ummah can be gauged by the following hadith: ‘Nations were presented to me and I saw a prophet with one or two followers; another prophet who had a few followers; and another with no followers at all. Then I saw a huge multitude of people filling the horizon, and hoped that this was my nation. But it was said to me that this was Moses and his people. I was then told to look, and I saw another great multitude of people filling the horizon. I was told to look here, and here as well, and [again] I saw huge multitudes who filled the horizon. It was then said to me: These are your nation. Along with them, seventy-thousand shall enter Paradise without reckoning or punishment.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.5752]

3. Zooming in with a theologian’s lens, we see further details of the ummah’s overall number in Paradise. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said in an addition to the above hadith: ‘I asked my Lord for increase, so He increased it. So with every thousand there would be another seventy-thousand.’ [Ahmad, Musnad, no.2:359] Thus the numbers to enter Paradise from this ummah, without reckoning, are huge; whereas those who will enter Paradise upon their deeds being weighed-up and reckoned is far far greater still. Subhana’Llah!

4. There are a number of reports in the hadith canons related about the splitting-up of the ummah. Among the: (i) Abu Hurayrah relates that the Prophet, peace be upon him, told us: ‘The Jews split-up into seventy-one or seventy-two sects. The Christians split-up into seventy-one or seventy-two sects. And my ummah will split into seventy-three sects.‘ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.2640.] (ii) The hadith of Mu‘awiyah, which states: ‘… and indeed this ummah will split into seventy-three sects, seventy-two in the Fire and one in Paradise: the Main Body (al-jama‘ah).‘ [Abu Dawud, no.4597] (iii) The hadith of Abd Allah b. Amr has this response as to who is the one saved-sect: ‘It is that which I and my Companions are upon (ma ana ‘alayhi wa ashabi).‘ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.2641] (iv) While the hadith of Abu Umamah depicts the saved-sect as: ‘The Great Majority (al-sawad al-a‘zam).‘ [Ibn Abi ‘Asim, Kitab al-Sunnah, no.68]

5. While it is true that some of the above hadiths are not free from having weaknesses in their chains, or isnads, they collectively strengthen each other to yield a final ruling of being either sound (hasan) or authentic (sahih). After recording the first hadith, Imam al-Tirmidhi declared: ‘The hadith of Abu Hurayrah is a hasan sahih hadith.’1 Al-Hakim said of the same hadith: ‘These chains stand as a proof for the authenticity of this hadith.’2 Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘The hadith is authentic and widely accepted (sahih mashhur).’3 Ibn Kathir mentions that they are related ‘via chains that strengthen one another.’4 While al-‘Iraqi said about the hadith of Muawiyah and two similar hadiths: ‘Their chains are excellent.’5

6. To whom or what does this splitting or iftiraq refer? Al-Khattabi stated: ‘His words: “my ummah will split into seventy-three sects” is an indication that these sects are not beyond the fold of the religion; for the Prophet, peace be upon him, included them all as part of the ummah.’6 Al-Bayhaqi said something similar: ‘The report is understood to mean that they will be punished in the Fire for a while; not for eternity. The proof against their excommunication (takfirihim) is taken from the Prophet’s saying, peace be upon him: “My ummah will split-up”. Hence he made them all a part of his ummah, despite their splitting.’7 One fatwa sums the matter up, thus: ‘What is intended by the term ummah in this hadith are the Muslims who will split-up into seventy-three sects; seventy-two of them being deviant innovators whose innovations do not expel them from the fold of Islam. So they will be punished for their innovation and heresy, save those who God forgives and pardons; but will finally enter Paradise. As for the saved-sect, it is ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah: the followers of the sunnah of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and adherents to what he and his Companions were upon.’8

7. Though it is consoling to learn that the seventy-two sects are Muslims, are we then to lament over the seemingly stark implication that the great majority of Muslims are misguided innovators? Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘The saved-sect is described as being ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah. They are the overwhelming multitude (al-jumhur al-akbar) and the great majority (al-sawad al-a‘zam). The other sects are followers of aberrant views, schism, innovations and deviant desires. None even comes near to the number of the saved-sect, let alone its calibre. Instead, each such sect is extremely small [in number] (bal qad takunu’l-firqatu minha fi ghayati’l-qillah).’9

8. That the total number of innovators in the ummah is minimal in contrast to that of the saved-sect is fleshed out in some detail by Salih al-Maqbali; a Yemeni scholar who died at the beginning of the twelfth Islamic century. He said: ‘In summary: the people consist of the masses (‘ammah) and the elite (khassah). As for the masses, then the later generations are like the earlier ones. Thus women, slaves, shepherds, farmers, traders and their like are those who have noting at all to do with the elite. There is no doubt at all that the last of them are free of being innovators, just as the first of them are.’10 He then goes on to divide the elite into four groups: (i) The true innovators who originate the innovation. (ii) Followers of such innovation, who aid and abet it. Yet their aim could have been to follow the truth, but the reality of the innovation was unclear to them. (iii) Those poor in knowledge and research who, being content with learning what was handed down to them, fall into innovation. (iv) The rightly-guided, orthodox scholars. He then goes on to say: ‘The first group of the elite are definitely innovators; the second, possibly innovators; the third, judged as if they are innovators …From the elite is a fourth group … the true Sunnis and the saved-sect, to whom the masses turn. [This group further includes] whoever your Lord wills from the aforementioned three groups of the elite, according to the level of the innovation and their intention.’11 In conclusion, he said: ‘So if you have understood all that we have said, then the worrying question – the ruination of most of this ummah – need not be asked. For the numerical majority, past and present, are the masses; and also the [fourth group from the] elite of earlier generations; and possibly the middle two groups. Likewise, those from the first group whose innovation was unclear to them, then God’s mercy shall save them from being innovators, according to the requital of the Afterlife. For God’s mercy abounds for each Muslim. But we have been discussing the implications of the hadith and who it refers to, and that the individuals from these innovated sects, even if these sects are many, their total number does not amount to even a thousandth part of the Muslims. Thus consider this carefully and you will be saved from believing that this hadith is at odds with all those hadiths that speak of the virtues of this ummah of many mercies.’12

9. More than just a cliché; more than a claim; more than even a name, the saved-sect (al-firqat an-najiyah) is identified with what may be termed as ijma‘ theology – a set of beliefs and practices rooted in the Qur’an, the Sunnah and the consensus or ijma‘ of the Muslims scholars. Issues wherein a consensus exists constitute the fundamentals (usul) of Islamic orthodoxy, from which it is unlawful to differ. In fact, differing from the usul is considered iftiraq or splitting from orthodoxy. Ibn Taymiyyah hits the nail on the head when he observes about the innovated sects: ‘The hallmark of these sects is their splitting from the Book, the Sunnah and scholarly consensus (ijma‘). Whoever speaks with the Book, the Sunnah and scholarly consensus is from ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah.13 Al-Bayhaqi stipulates: ‘We have already stated in the book al-Madkhal, and elsewhere, that the blameworthy differing (al-khilaf al-madhmum) is whatever differs from the Book, the authentic Sunnah, or a scholarly consensus.’14 As for those issues which are open to more than one legitimate reading or interpretation, or about which no consensus exists, they are not part of orthodoxy’s usul. Instead, they constitute the furu‘ – the detailed rulings or positive law – wherein differences aren’t just tolerated; they are welcomed and celebrated.

10. Despite the above, some people are struck with an insufferable anxiety when told that the saved-sect encompasses the greater part of the ummah. Some of their mental block stems from misreading the words of certain early scholars in their explanation of who the jama‘ah is. Take, for instance, the words of the venerable Companion ‘Abd Allah b. Mas‘ud: ‘The jama‘ah are the followers of the truth, even if it be one person (al-jama‘ah ahl al-haqq wa in kunta wahdaka).’15 Some imagine that reports of this nature bespeak of the saved-sect being a tiny clique of people, with all other Muslims being deviants. But as the above discussion shows, this is not so. The following words about the jama‘ah, by Imam al-Tirmidhi, should help shed further light on the matter. He wrote: ‘The explanation of the jama‘ah with the scholars is that they are the people of jurisprudence, knowledge, and hadith (hum ahl al-fiqh wa’l-‘ilm wa’l-hadith). I heard al-Jarud b. Mu‘adh say; I heard ‘Ali b al-Husayn saying: I asked ‘Abd Allah b. al-Mubarak who the jama‘ah was, and he replied: Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. It was said to him that they have died, so he said: so-and-so and so-and-so. He was told that they too have passed away. So he said: Abu Hamzah al-Sukkari is the jama‘ah.’16

Of course, when Ibn al-Mubarak responded by saying that Abu Bakr and ‘Umar were the jama‘ah in their time, he wasn’t negating right-guidance from the other sahabah or Companions. Likewise, when he points to the pious Khurasani scholar Abu Hamza al-Sukkari as being the jama‘ah, he wasn’t denying the orthodox credentials of other scholars of the same era – those like Sufyan al-Thawri, al-Awza‘i, Malik, Abu Hanifah or Ibn ‘Uyaynah. Such a reading would beggar belief! Rather this report simply talks of the pivotal role of the scholars in defining right-guidance and orthodoxy. Thus the masses, by virtue of them following the scholars, are part of the jama‘ah; not separate from it. So in this sense the jama‘ah is al-sawad al-a‘zam – the Great Majority. It is the scholars, though, who are the actual leaders of the jama‘ah.

Furthermore, mentioning a specific scholar by name as being the jama‘ah was simply a way of showcasing that such scholars are those who best exemplified the jama‘ah in their respective times or locales, and were most worthy of emulation. Other scholars also epitomised the jama‘ah, but perhaps not quite to the same degree.

Nas’alul’Lah an yaj‘aluna min al-firqati’l-najiyah wa alla yuzigha qulubana
ba‘da idh hadana. wa sallal’Lahu ‘ala muhammadin
wa alihi wa sahbihi wa sallama
tasliman kathira.

1. Jami‘ al-Tirmidhi (Riyadh: Darussalam, 1999), 600, no.2640.

2. Al-Mustadrak ‘ala Sahihayn (Cairo: Dar al-Haramayn, 1997), 1:207, no.443.

3. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:345.

4. Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 2:481-2.

5. Al-Mughni ‘an Haml al-Asfar (Riyadh: Maktabah Tabariyyah, 1995), 2:884-5, no.3240.

6. Ma‘alim al-Sunan (Alleppo: Matba‘ah al-‘Alamiyyah, 1934), 4:295.

7. Al-I‘tiqad wa’l-Hidayatu ila Sabil al-Rashad (Damascus: al-Yamamah, 2002), 357.

8. Fatawa li’l-Lajnat al-Da’imah li’l-Buhuth al-‘Ilmiyyah wa’l-Ifta (Riyadh: Dar al-Maw‘id, 2002), 2:157-8, no.4246, then presided over by Shaykh ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. Baz.

9. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 3:345-6.

10. Maqbali, al-‘Alam al-Shamikh fi Ithar al-Haqq ‘ala’l-Aba wa’l-Mashayikh (Egypt: n.p., 1910), 417.

11. ibid., 417-18.

12. ibid., 418. Al-Albani said – having cited the above, and more, from Maqbali: ‘These words are superb, demonstrating the man’s erudition, virtue and discernment.’ See: Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), 1:1:413.

13. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 3:345.

14. Al-I‘tiqad, 354.

15. Cited in al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, al-Faqih wa’l-Mutafaqqih (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1996), 2:404, no.1176.

16. Jami‘ al-Tirmidhi (Riyadh: Darussalam, 1999), 498, as part of his gloss to hadith no.2167: ‘Indeed God will not unite my ummah upon misguidance, and the hand of God is over the jama‘ah.’

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