The mystery of 73 sects

Image (1) kalimah-e1409207391595.jpg for post 164946

Creed of Islam or Kalimah should define and unite all Muslims — After all by reading Kalimah non-Muslims accept Islam. There is far more that unities each and every Muslim than separates us. The Muslim Times has the best collection to refute sectarianism among the Muslims

Source: Dawn.Com


ONE of the enduring topics of Muslim sectarian polemics has been the hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) according to which he had predicted that his ummah would be divided into 73 sects, but only one would be saved.

All Muslim sects happily claim that their sect is the ‘saved one’ (naji) and the ‘others’ are destined for hell. This hadith, if we were to follow the traditional line of argument, divides the Muslim ummah into two sections: the saved ones and the hell-bound ones.

Few people ask why the number 73, and where it comes from. Luckily, there is now a tendency to see this hadith in a more objective way, beyond sectarian interpretations. There is an attempt to see the sects more in a pluralistic and inclusive light than in exclusive ways. In recent times, attempts have been made to unravel the context of this hadith and examine its implications.

The most frequently cited hadith regarding the 73 divisions of the Muslim faith is reported as: the Jews are divided into 71 sects (firqa), the Christians into 72 sects, and my community will divide into 73 sects (Ibn Majah, Abu Daud, al-Tirmidhi and al-Nisa’i). The hadith also occurs in many other versions as well.

This hadith has two parts: one is the number of sects that are to emerge, and the other the salvation part. Often, it was understood that the 72 sects would be condemned while one would be saved. As opposed to this, we have another version of the hadith which tells us a different story.

Muqaddasi (a 10th-century geographer), according to Roy Mottahedeh (Diversity and Pluralism in Islam), tells us that “72 sects are in heaven and one in hell, according to what he considers is a more sound line of transmission (isnad)”. This shows that there is variation of the hadith reported on the 73 sects.

According to Mottahedeh, Fakhruddin Razi (d. 1209) reports that some have questioned the authenticity of this tradition, saying that if by 72 they mean the fundamentals of religious belief (usul), then they do not reach this number and if they mean the practices (furu), then the number passes this number by several multiples.

The other view of this hadith is that the figure 73 is not meant literally, but is a relative and figurative number, identified because of a context. Mottahedeh gives extensive historical examples wherein the figure was used as a symbolic number. The author says that “70 meant ‘a sizeable number’ and 70-odd meant ‘a sizeable number and then some’ is fairly clear. In many cases, the expressions are meant to be pictorial numbers and not exact ‘head counts’”.

He further adds that 70 assumed the role of a metaphor for numerousness and thus is “rhetorically significant”. The author cites a hadith that says, ‘He who helps a believer in distress, God will remove him from 73 afflictions’. Here again, probably what is meant is a generous indication towards God’s reward. Religious language is often couched in symbolic language and not meant to be literally understood.

Two famous personalities, al-Baghdadi (d. 1037) and al-Shahrastani (d. 1153) give different accounts of the sectarian numbers and their backgrounds. There is no standard explanation; each, according to his background and time, has highlighted the sectarian beliefs and backgrounds as they understood them in their times.

Talking about the quarrelling of sects, Hafiz (d. 1389-1390), a great Muslim poet, says, “Forgive the war of the 72 sects; since they did not see the truth they have struck out on the road to fancy”.

Hafiz regards the sectarian quarrels as afsana that preoccupies those who fail to understand the diversity of faith. Similarly, Mowlana Jalaluddin Rumi, according to Mottahedeh, thinks that the “deeper religion is the trans-religious mystery of love of God … This manifests itself in many (ie 72) ‘madnesses’ and takes the soul beyond the world of being. Ultimately, we not only accept pluralism among Muslims, but among all the mysterious paths of the love of God” (Diversity and Pluralism).

Truth cannot be contained and constrained by communities’ quarrels among themselves. When we step outside the narrow confines of our communities, we realise that there is so much to learn from others. This point is reinforced by Abdul Aziz Sachedina in his remarkable book The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism by demystifying the mystery of different religions and sects, and how Islam views this diversity.

Throughout history, communities have learnt much from each other. Today as well, there is an increasing global trend to learn from and celebrate the diversity of faiths in many ways.

This discussion leads us to the realisation that sectarian numbers and who ‘owns’ the truth are complex issues. We need to look at Muslim diversity with respect, humility, responsibility, and celebration rather than through the prism of sectarianism.

Let there be no bloodshed just because one sect believes and practices its faith in a particular way. All are seeking the truth. The Quran refers to this positive outlook in many verses and an example is: “… if thy Lord willed, all who are in the earth would have believed together. Wouldst thou (Muhammad PBUH) compel men until they are believers? It is not for any soul to believe save by the permission of Allah. He hath set uncleanness upon those who have no understanding” (10:99-100).

Read more:

Suggested reading

We Will be Judged by Our Compassion and Deeds and Not Our Dogma

Categories: Asia, Secularism

7 replies

  1. Readers are encouraged to read the full article! One thing is sure, the 73rd ‘sect’ cannot be one that kills all women and children of the other 72 ‘sects’. It must be one that teaches peace and love for all.

  2. It is an interesting article and seems to be the need of the time. However one has to be cautious to present correct interpretation of Hadith quoted in the article. The compete interpretation quotes as followings:

    The Holy Prophet saw said: ‘My ummah will face the same conditions as the Children of Israel have faced.The similarity will be so complete that it is like one shoe of a pair resembling the other. If some one among the Children of Israel had committed adultery with his mother, there will also be a wretch done in my ummah to do the same. The Children of Israel were divided into seventy-two sects, but my ummah will be divided into seventy-three. All will be hell-bound except one.’ The Companions asked which sect this would be. The Holy Prophet saw answered: ‘The sect that will follow me and my Companions.’ (1. Tirmadhi, Abwab-ul-Iman, Babo
    Iftiraqi Hazihil-Ummate wal-Jami‘us-Saghir [chapter ‘Divisions in the Ummah’. 2. al-Jami‘us-Saghir’]
    2/110 Masri)

    Most important is last part of the Hadith which says, The sect what will follow me and my companions”. One can now very conveniently analyse the role and character of each sect of Islam and can decide accordingly. Interestingly Ahmadiayy Community which, prior to 1974 national Assembly decision, was also part of Islam, while defending its stance also claimed to be that Naji Sect which has been mentioned in this Hadith. Readers are welcomed to examine the role Ahmadiyya also.

  3. The interesting aspect of the word Ummah is that in Prophet’s time, it referred to all people in the community – Muslims, Christians, Jews and pagans.
    Another issue to ponder is the relevance of religious doctrines in this age and time. While the world is moving forward in all spheres of knowledge – science, technology, medicine, space exploration, environment, education, politics and social reforms, Muslims are stuck in what was said 1500 years back, as to who will be admitted to heavens and who will be pushed in hell.
    Let us first make our lives better, provide food, shelter and clothing to 1.7 billion people and then they will be able to decide, what is heaven or hell, right here on earth.
    Do not forget the dictum: GOD only helps those who help themselves.
    Kind regards

  4. Well said B. Quraishy. Most of your post is relevant and useful. Please do not forget that prophets do not come every day. Advice of the prophet may be worth many million lessons of good behavior. After a great prophet, comes a messenger who carries the same message as that of the prophet. It is the duty of every believer to believe in him and support him.

    Prophet makes prophecy. He tells something about future. The world of science is rightly advancing. We are not to oppose that. A good behavior is a must before doing anything else, before going to feed the world. It was not material food only which was needed by mankind. There was serious need for the spiritual food. A man could have lived off a tree. But cold not survive without guidance.

    Your post may be linked to the existence of God Almighty. If there is a God then Guidance will follow.
    The hadith of 73 sects is telling the Muslim Ummah (Nation) not to follow into the footsteps of the previous nations. We should take heed and be careful instead of throwing that word of advice in junkyard.

    That Hadith of 73 sects is telling about good behavior, same as you want things to be.

  5. If there will be 72 sects that are different from the 73rd true one, then it shouldn’t be hard to notice it ampng the over one billion Muslims. It should stick out? Of course the Prophet (pbuh) might have been talking about what’s inside your heart and that is not easily seen. Actions tell us more than words?

    • Well, Mr. Solano, slowly but surely it becomes increasingly clear that the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at sticks out: All others are busy fighting each other while the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at, under the guidance of its Khalifa, teaches peace and tolerance.

  6. One thing is however crystal clear though.In its 1974 October, the nawa-e-waqt Pakistani newspaper had its headline as follows: The Ulema of 72 sects combined have kicked one sect out of the pale of Islam. What is definitely clear is that the fatwa of all these ulemas combined is wrong while the fatwa of Hazrat Mhammad(saw) wil remain true for ever.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.