What is the meaning of the Hadeeth that speaks about the Ummah’s division into 73 sects?
All perfect praise be to Allaah, The Lord of the Worlds. I testify that there is none worthy of worship except Allaah, and that Muhammad, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, is His slave and Messenger.
It was reported that the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, said that this nation would be divided into 73 sects and all these sects would go to Hell except one. This one sect is that which follows the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, and his Companions. [Abu Daawood, At-Tirmith, Ibn Maajah and Al-Haakim, authenticated by Al-Haakim, Ibn Taymiyyah, and Al-Albaani]
In another narration Mu‘aawiyah ibn Abi Sufyaan said that the Prophet, sallaallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, told them that this saved sect was the Jamaa‘ah (the mainstream). [Ibn Taymiyyah and Al-Albaani: Authenticated]
Scholars have different opinions regarding the identity of the saved sect. Imaam Ash-Shaatibi reported five opinions, along with the people who hold them, except for one opinion that was narrated anonymously. These are as follows:
1. The majority. According to this opinion, Ash-Shaatibi said that they include the scholars, Mujtahids (a higher level of scholar) people who study the Sharee‘ah and act accordingly, and all the lay people who are their followers.
2. The Mujtahid Imaams. They include prominent scholars who follow the Quran and Sunnah. Ash-Shaatibi said that anyone who does not follow them will die a death of Jaahiliyyah (pre-Islamic ignorance).
3. The Companions . Ash-Shaatibi said that this opinion is a reconciliation of the two narrations, as it mentions they are those who follow the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, and his Companions .
4. The Muslim community: their consensus should be acted upon even by followers of other religions. Ash-Shaatibi said that this opinion relates to the first one. This opinion is very controversial because Muslims themselves are divided into different sects, however the aim is to identify the saved sect. This is why Ibn Hajar did not mention the opinion that was said by At-Tabari but mentioned the other four opinions. In fact, it is better to forget this opinion altogether especially since Ash-Shaatibi narrated it anonymously.
5. Muslims who agree on a leader that should be followed by the rest of the nation. Ash-Shaatibi said that this means that the word Jamaa‘ah refers to agreement on an Imaam who abides by the Quran and Sunnah.
Ibn Hajar did not mention the fourth opinion in Fat’h Al-Baari, as it contradicts the meaning of the Hadeeth. He only quoted the other four opinions.
In conclusion, the meaning of “saved group” may be one of two. The first is that they are the people of ‘Aqeedah (creed) and methodology. This means that Muslims should adhere to all the beliefs that were followed by the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, and his Companions as this is the foundation. The second is that the word Jamaa‘ah has a specific meaning. It means adhering to a group of Muslims with a leader who conforms to the rulings of the Sharee‘ah, and not to violate the pledge of alliance to him or disobey him.
Imaam Al-Khattaabi also said that the word ‘division’ may have two different meanings: differences of opinions and religions or differences among people. He also said that there are two Jamaa‘ahs: scholars and leaders.
The abovementioned Hadeeth is one of the signs and proofs of the prophethood of the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, because he mentioned something that would take place in the future. This indeed took place after the death of the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. In order to identify the different sects, we should define a criterion that will determine them. This is because not every difference among Muslims is considered to be division. This is evident nowadays because there are variations among Muslims in Da‘wah (propagation), knowledge, and jurisprudence regarding current affairs, but these variations are not that which was meant by the abovementioned Hadeeth.
Imaam Abu Mansoor ‘Abd Al-Qaadir ibn Taahir At-Tameemi said that real division is one of creed, because such divisions have violated the creed of Ahl As-Sunnah. It does not mean differences in the finer details of religion.
Allaah Knows best.
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