My Community Will Divide into 73 Sects

July 5, 2008

By Shaykh Salman al-Oadah

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “My community will experience everything that the Children of Israel had experienced, following in their footsteps exactly, so much so that if one of their number had approached his mother publicly for sex, one of my community will do the same. The Children of Israel divided into 72 sects. My community will divide into 73 sects, and all of them will be in the Hellfire save one.”

The people asked him: “And which one will that be

He replied: “The one that follows what I and my Companions are upon right now.”

This hadîth is quite famous and it is mentioned all of the time. In fact, scarcely does anyone speak on the topic of disagreement without mentioning it. This hadîth is often mentioned inappropriately and to audiences who cannot fully appreciate its implications. Therefore, I wish to discuss this hadîth and elucidate more clearly what it is telling us.

This hadîth is not recorded in either Sahîh al-Bukhârî or Sahîh Muslim. This by no means implies that the hadîth is unauthentic. However, it is possible that they did not mention it because it was not up to their arduous standards of authenticity.

The hadîth can be found in the four Sunan works and in Musnad Ahmad with different chains of transmission. Some scholars declared it to be authentic or at least good, including al-Tirmidhî, al-Hâkim, al-Dhahabî, Ibn Taymiyah, al-Shâtibî, and Ibn Hajar al-`Asqalânî. Others declared it as weak, including ibn Hazm and Ibn al-Wazîr.

The most correct opinion is that it is authentic; taking into consideration the large number of ways it has reached us, with some chains of transmission strengthening the deficiencies of others. Nevertheless, we should not behave as if it is the only hadîth in the world that addresses the issue of difference among Muslims.

We have the hadîth where the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “This community of mine is a community blessed with mercy. It is not punished in the Hereafter. Instead, it is punished in this world with strife, instability, and bloodshed.” [Musnad Ahmad, Sunan Abî Dâwûd, and Mustadrak al-Hâkim] It is an authentic hadîth. It indicates that Allah has shown mercy on the Islamic community and that its punishment will be in this world instead of the Hereafter.

The Muslim community is the community most highly esteemed by Allah. The Qur’ân and Sunnah both state this fact in the most unambiguous terms. It is better than the communities that followed the previous scriptures were in their own era, namely the Jews and the Christians. This is why Allah says: “You are the best community brought forth for humanity.” [Sûrah Âl-`Imrân: 110]

This is also why He says: “And likewise we made you a balanced nation.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 143]

The Prophet (peace be upon him) on so many occasions emphasized the fact that the Muslim community is the best community of faith on Earth. Therefore, no one should ever infer from the hadîth about the 73 sects that the previous communities of faith were less divided amongst themselves and therefore were somehow better or less afflicted.

Ibn Mas`ûd relates that he was with some people when the Prophet (peace be upon him) asked them: “Would you like to be one quarter of the population of Paradise?” When they replied that they would indeed like that, the Prophet (peace be upon him) asked them: “Would you like to be one third of the population of Paradise?” When they replied that they would indeed like that, the Prophet (peace be upon him) asked them: “Would you like to be one half of the population of Paradise?” When they replied that they would indeed like that, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “I swear by Him in whose hand is Muhammad’s soul. Indeed, I hope that you will be half the population of Paradise. This is because none shall enter Paradise except a soul that has surrendered to Allah, and you are to the polytheists like a single white hair on the hide of a black bull or a single black hair on the hide of a red bull.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî and Sahîh Muslim]

In this hadîth, the Prophet (peace be upon him) made it clear that half of the denizens of paradise will be from among his followers.

Allah has forgiven this community what it falls into by mistake or out of forgetfulness. We are instructed by the Qur’ân to offer the following supplication: “Our Lord, do not impose blame on us if we forget or err.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 286]

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: ‘Allah has pardoned my community what it commits by mistake, out of forgetfulness, or out of compulsion.” This is an indisputable principle of Islamic jurisprudence recognized by all scholars and jurists.

Moreover, Allah has spared this community from the burdens and impositions that the previous religious communities had upon them. Allah says: “He releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them.” [Sûrah al-A`râf: 157]

Returning to the hadîth about the 73 sects, the fact that the Muslims will divide into a larger number of sects has puzzled some scholars throughout the ages. However, there are a number of possible answers to this puzzle.

First of all, the Muslim era is the longest era for any religious community.

Secondly, the divisions within the Muslim community are by far less serious that the divisions suffered by those who have gone before. The deficiencies brought about by the divisions among Muslims are more than counterbalanced by the good and the favor that the Muslims possess. Moreover, the existence of a sect does not require that the sect has many followers. One person following his own ideas can constitute a sect. Therefore, it is quite possible for there to be 72 other sects that collectively constitute a small percentage of the entire Muslim community.

The real problem exists with those who fancy themselves as the “saved sect” to the exclusion of all others, declaring everyone else to be astray and damning them. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “If a man says that the people are damned, then he is the damnedest of them all.”

We must bear in mind that the Prophet (peace eb upon him) described those other 72 sects as Muslims. He said: “My community will divide into 73 sects.” This means that the followers of those sects are neither unbelievers nor polytheists. They are, in general, Muslims and believers. This does not mean that there cannot be a few hypocrites and unbelievers among them. However, the overwhelming majority of them believe, in spite of their deviance and their shortcomings. This is the way that most of the scholars have understood the hadîth of the 73 sects, including Ibn Taymiyah and al-Shâtibî.

The threat of the Hellfire mentioned in the hadîth does not mean that the threat is going to be carried out against everyone. Ibn Taymiyah makes the following observation:

This hadîth is no graver in its threat than the verse: “Verily, those who consume the orphans’ property unjustly merely take fire into their bellies and they shall be scorched by a blazing flame.” [Sûrah al-Nisâ’:10]

It is no graver than the verse: “Whoever does this maliciously and wrongly We shall scorch in the Fire.” [Sûrah al-Nisâ’: 30]

In spite of these verses, we do not bear witness that specific people are going to Hell, since people may repent for their sins or they may have other good deeds to their credit that blot out their sins. Allah may expiate them for their wrongs by afflicting them with hardships or by other means.

It was not the practice of our pious predecessors to concern themselves with identifying these sects. Al-Shâtibî makes this point clear in his book al-Muwâfaqât. Ibn Taymiyah also states this in a number of his works. He says:

Anyone from one of the 72 other sects who is a hypocrite is indeed an unbeliever in his heart. Anyone from among them who is not a hypocrite but who in fact believes in Allah and His Messenger is not an unbeliever, regardless of whatever mistakes in interpretation they may have. When a believer says: “Our Lord, forgive us and our brothers who have preceded us in faith” [from Sûrah al-Hashr: 10], he means all the Muslims of the past centuries, even those who made mistakes in interpretation, acted contrary to the Sunnah, or committed some sins. They are still from his brothers who preceded him in faith and they all come under the generality of his supplication, even if they had belonged to one of the 72 other sects. Each one of these sects contains within its ranks a large number of people who are not unbelievers. They are believers who have gone somewhat astray and have sinned, making them worthy of the threat of punishment.

This hadîth should be seen in the proper perspective. Though we might view it as authentic, we should not extend its meaning beyond what it actually says. We should not allow this hadîth to be used to aggravate divisions between Muslims and stir up arguments among believers.



One Response to “My Community Will Divide into 73 Sects”

  1. Lubna Says:

    Dear all,
    My mother has been diagonised with pancreatic cancer. We believe in the power of prayers. Hence the earnest request to please pray for her.

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