If you were to ask an average Muslim that has the smallest amount of knowledge regarding the Muslim sect they attribute themselves to, there is a very high chance that they will claim to be part of the “saved sect – الفرقة الناجية”, or at the very least on the “true way” of being in this sect. This claim is made while it escapes him or her that such a claim is quite an audacious one and more often than not has no basis, except that they were informed that they were on the path of “the strangers”, which were foretold about by the Prophet peace be upon him. The interesting part is, you will hear the same rhetoric as this person from another who might seem to be doing things in what looks superficially to be an opposite way. In fact, I’ve personally heard one individual claim that they are on the Sunnah of the Prophet peace be upon him and they’re part of “the strangers”, while throwing some label such as “Sufi” or “Ash’ari” or “innovator” on another Muslim whom they do not see eye to eye with. On the other hand, this other individual that was labelled by the first is saying exactly the same thing regarding the first, but the label is different. Instead they will call the first a “Salafi” or “Wahhabi” as a way to demean them and apparently “show” how they’re on the wrong path.
From my personal experience, the more I learn, the more I see the ridiculous nature of this discourse and the more I see why we as Muslims have gotten to this point. Every time I hear such language I immediately remember God’s words in the Qur’an when He says in Chapter 23, Verses 52 & 53:
وَإِنَّ هَـٰذِهِۦۤ أُمَّتُكُمۡ أُمَّةً۬ وَٲحِدَةً۬ وَأَنَا۟ رَبُّڪُمۡ فَٱتَّقُونِ * فَتَقَطَّعُوٓاْ أَمۡرَهُم بَيۡنَہُمۡ زُبُرً۬اۖ كُلُّ حِزۡبِۭ بِمَا لَدَيۡہِمۡ فَرِحُونَ
And surely this your religion is one religion and I am your Lord, therefore be careful (of your duty) to me. But they cut off their religion among themselves into sects, each part rejoicing in that which is with them
It’s extremely sad that many Muslims recite the Qur’an on a daily basis and yet when it comes to learning from it and taking its instructions to heart, many of us simply fail. In fact, we have many Muslims that have either memorized the whole Qur’an cover to cover, or are currently focusing and working hard on memorizing it. But how many of us are working hard on implementing and understanding the Qur’an in our daily lives? It truly brings what the Prophet peace be upon said to the companions about the end of time to a vivid realization for anyone reflecting upon it:
أنتم في زمان قليل قراؤه كثير فقهاؤه وسيأتي زمان كثير قراؤه قليل فقهاؤه
You’re living during a time when few have memorized while many have understood, and a time will come when many will have memorized while few have understood
When it comes to the above mentioned verse, Imam Al Qurtubi mentions in his commentary Al Jami’ Li Ahkam Al Qur’an that the verse is understood in light of the narration from the Prophet peace be upon him in which he said:
ألا إن من قبلكم من أهل الكتاب افترقوا على ثنتين وسبعين ملة وإن هذه الملة ستفترق على ثلاث وسبعين ثنتان وسبعون في النار و واحدة في الجنة وهي الجماعة
Verily the people before you from the People of the Book split into seventy two religions, and this religion will split into seventy three; seventy two are in Hell and one is in Heaven and it’s the group
This narration was reported by Abu Da’uwood and it ended at that point. At’Tirmithi narrated it and had an addition that was missing in which the companions may God be pleased with them asked the Prophet peace be upon him:
ومن هي يا رسول الله؟ قال: ما أنا عليه وأصحابي
And who shall it be o’ Messenger of God? He said: what I’m upon and my companions
As Imam Al Qurtubi explains, the splitting into groups being warned about in both the Verses and Prophet narration is to split on the principles and foundations of Islam. This is the case due to the specific use of the word “milla - ملة” in the narration. On the other hand, this narration CANNOT be used when it comes to the branches of the religion. Unfortunately, some Muslims mistakingly use this narration from the Prophet peace be upon him to attack the following of a particular Matth’hab and claim that it “splits the Ummah”. Such a fallacious use of the words of the Prophet peace be upon him is nothing else but a sign of ignorance. With respect to what the Prophet peace be upon indicated regarding what he and his companions may God be pleased with them, this is what is known as the “Sunnah“.
To drive this point home, the Prophet peace be upon him said in another narration:
عليكم بسنتي وسنة الخلفاء الراشدين من بعدي عضوا عليها بالنواجذ وإياكم ومحدثات الأمور فإن كل بدعة ضلالة
Follow my way and the way of the rightly guided caliphs after me, and hold on to this with your teeth, and beware of innovated matters (in the religion) because every innovation (in the religion) is a misguidance
Furthermore, Imam Malik may God be pleased with him used to quite often say:
فإن خير أمور الدين ما كان سنة وشر الأمور محدثات البدائع
The best of religious matters is what was in accordance to the Sunnah, and the most evil of matters are the newly innovated ones (in the religion)
It should be made clear here that the definition of Sunnah according to the Sharia excludes what were customary norms within the Arabian society. Acts that are in accordance with that society’s general norms or against them are not named Sunnah or Bidah, even if they were acts of the Prophet peace be upon him. For example, the Prophet peace be upon him milked his own goat, but no one can say it is a Sunnah for a Muslim to milk their own goat.
There is another term for Sunnah that is more restrictive than just jurisprudence, and it deals with Creed. This is in regards to the difference between Sunnah and Shia, and what is meant with these names is political regarding the caliphate. At the very beginning, Muslims split into three groups depending on their view on who should qualify to be the ruler of the believers, and the three positions were:
- The caliphate is restricted to the family of the Prophet peace be upon him – Shia
- The caliphate is not restricted to anyone – Kharijites
- The caliphate is restricted to the tribe of Quraysh – Sunni
Although this was a political split, it later took a creedal form, and that solidified the split between Muslims to this day.
With respect to the Arabic linguistic meaning of the term “al jama’a - الجماعة”, it refers to the group of people that have pledged allegiance to someone. The term started to be widely used during the time of the third rightly-guided caliph Othman Bin Affan may God be pleased with him when the Kharijites defected from the rest of Muslims and killed him. This term is no longer valid for use during our times because it was initially used to describe the majority of Muslims that were in allegiance with the caliph, which is no longer in existence.
But let’s get back to the narrations about the 73 sects. Shaykh Muhammed Al Hasan Wald Ad’Dido is a contemporary scholar and president of the Association for Preparing Scholars in Mauritania. He is one of the very few living scholars that seem to have mastered many of the Islamic sciences, and seems to have memorized anything that anyone can think of when it comes to the Islamic Tradition. More importantly, unlike many of our contemporary scholars and imams of mosques that simply relate what they read in the Hadith books as they have studied them in the universities they attended, Shaykh Ad’Dido didn’t just study and memorize all the Hadith texts such as Bukhari and Muslim and Abu Da’uwood with scholars of Hadith, but he can also relate the narrations in these books in all their versions with chains of transmission that go all the way back to the Prophet peace be upon him (click here to see what I mean). According to Shaykh Ad’Dido, the part of the narration saying that seventy two out of the seventy three sects are in Hell except for one is not authentic. The narration stops at the splitting into seventy three sects, and all other additions seen are either fabricated or weak. Furthermore, the splitting is not a negative or a positive thing. Rather, the Prophet peace be upon him foretold about it because it was inevitably going to happen due to the differences of intellectual powers and comprehension abilities of people. What one individual is able to understand from a Qur’anic Verse or narration of the Prophet peace be upon him is not necessarily going to be at the same level as someone else.
The opinion of Shaykh Ad’Dido is one of others that the scholars of Hadith have about this particular narration. Another opinion that I was taught is that the added part regarding the different groups says that seventy two are going to be in Heaven except for one, which is apparently also as authentic as the version most commonly narrated among Muslims that opposes it (that 72 are in Hell and 1 is in Heaven).
If you thought it ended there, think again. When it comes to the interpretation of the narration itself, regardless of whether you take the first version or second or third or or or, you will find it quite odd that there is such a wide diversity of ways to read this narration. One interpretation talks about the fact that all of humanity is the Ummah of the Prophet peace be upon him, because he was sent to all of them. Those who respond and accept the Message are called the Ummah of Affirmation (أمة الإستجابة), while others who have not are called the Ummah of Invitation (أمة الدعوة). Therefore, one interpretation is that the seventy two sects will form the Ummah of Invitation, while the remaining sect that goes into Heaven is the Ummah of Affirmation, irrespective of how many groups are within it.
There are many other interpretations for this Hadith that I’m not going to get into here, but I think I made my point, which is that some Muslims who try to quote this Prophetic narration as if it’s clear and has no ambiguity in it are in fact mistaken. Nothing that is clear cut would have the mind boggling number of opinions this particular narration has. Many have delved into it and commented about it, and many more Muslims nowadays will quote this narration from the Prophet peace be upon him and claim to be from the “saved sect” until the cows come home. But the truth of the matter is, the falsehood is not necessarily fallen on the narration itself, but rather it falls on those who occupy themselves to an unacceptable extent with it.
In fact, it is impermissible in Islam to declare anyone or any group of people to be saved except for those who have been explicitly named in the Qur’an or authentic narration from the Prophet peace be upon him.
There is another narration from the Prophet peace be upon him where he said:
بدأ الإسلام غريبا وسيعود غريبا فطوبى للغرباء
Islam started as a strange thing and will return as a strange thing, so glad tidings are for the strangers
In the spirit of making claims, which is a major ailment that Muslims are suffering from, many will claim to be on the way of the “strangers”. I have yet to meet a single Muslim that quotes this narration and completes it with the two endings that it’s been narrated with. The companions may God be pleased with them asked:
من هم الغرباء يا رسول الله؟
Who are the strangers O’ Messenger of God?
There are two versions of responses that he peace be upon him gave:
قوم صالحون في قوم سوء كثير، من يعصيهم أكثر ممن يطيعهم
Righteous people among wicked people. Many more will disobey them than those who obey
من يصلحون ما أفسد الناس من سنتي
Those who fix what people have broken in my Sunnah
In the interpretation of the word “strangers”, according to the scholars of Hadith, the first “strangers” were the Prophet peace be upon him and his first companions in Mecca may God be pleased with them. They were weak and could not manifest the Truth or speak of it. The return to that was foretold by the Prophet peace be upon him, which is when those who have the Truth will not be able to speak it. Many Muslims have misunderstood the word “strangers” to mean those who do things differently or look a little different than others. The first “strangers” at the beginning of Islam were strange among their own people, who looked like them, dressed like them, ate like them, and had the same customary practices as them. Take that to nowadays and apply it. My personal experience with this matter has been quite “strange”.
I’ve been studying and travelling to sit with scholars and learning much about the Islamic Tradition over the past 4 years in quite a focused and intense way. As I began studying I realized that I’ve never raised my eyebrows so much in my life. Much of what I thought were given facts turned out to be merely opinions by some scholars that others, and in some instances most did not agree with. The methodology behind approaching the Tradition itself, which I was exposed to previously before sitting with teachers was flawed in its essence, because it gave authority to the intellect of those who were not trained and did not seriously study. Lately, I’ve even had a question about why I placed importance on having a chain of transmission for anything being done in the religion that goes back to the Prophet peace be upon him, such as praying and wudu’. Among Muslims, the way to do Islam now is to either buy the books yourself and pretend you’re Ibn Hazm, or just go on Google or YouTube, and practice Do It Yourself Islam. But to emphasize sitting with teachers and learning from them and ask for a chain of transmission for anything being said that relates to the religion and practicing it, has now been getting me very weird looks. To top it off, those who find the traditional way of obtaining knowledge strange, will decree themselves as the “saved sect” and the “strangers”, while everyone else is apparently doomed.
Quick pause and side note: I’m not making a claim to be one of the “strangers”. I’m just trying to give perspective on things. When I share that I’m getting weird looks, it’s due to me trying to follow in the footsteps of the previous generations of scholars in hopes of attaining a small percentage of what they had. But I am convinced that the right away to obtaining knowledge and learning the Islamic Tradition has been lost among most Muslims and is now looked upon as “strange”.
Back to what I was saying. Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him said:
أما أن يفرد الإنسان طائفة منتسبة إلى متبوع من الأمة ويسميها أهل الحق ويشهر أن كل من خالفها في شيء فهو من أهل الباطل فهذا حال الأهواء والبدع
For one person to single out a sect that follows a particular imam from among the Muslims and name it the “People of Truth”, and announce that all who disagree with it in any matter are the “People of Falsehood” – this is the state of people following their personal whims and innovations
I absolutely love this saying of Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have marcy on him. It is basically a commentary on the Verse:
ولا تزكوا أنفسكم هو أعلم بمن اتقى
And do not exalt yourselves. He knows best who has achieved awareness (of God)
Furthermore, Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him used the term insan in Arabic, which in English can be translated into person. However, the Arabic word comes from the root word meaning “to forget”. In the statement by Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him, he says that the individual doing this singling out of one group over others is one who has forgotten what Islam actually teaches and forgot his place in the world.
A final word about this subject. Many claim to be following the Sunnah of the Prophet peace be upon him. But if one examines things closely, it turns out for the most part to be an empty claim. Every sincere Muslim would know that they’re really lacking and are not following most of the Sunnah, and they acknowledge that. The danger comes when one has enough pride to believe that they are indeed “saved”, and then start judging others. The scholars have unanimously ruled that it’s impermissible to declare anyone as one who is not part of the People of Sunnah, unless those scholars who are the level of being able to discern this have a unanimous agreement that he or she has seriously strayed away from the People of Sunnah. Otherwise, even if one is violating certain givens, or happens to be unanimously declared as an innovator in a certain matter, they are still part of the People of Sunnah.
Heaven and Hell are none of anyone’s business but God’s. So each of us should mind our own business and work on rectifying our states.
This and God knows best!