The mystery of 73 sects

Updated Aug 09, 2013 04:42am

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).

The writer teaches Histories and Cultures of Muslim Societies at a private university in Pakistan.

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Comments (37) (Closed)

Aug 09, 2013 11:14am

That people spend a lot of time analyzing trivia is representative of the state of the society. There are more important issues to meditate about.

Aug 09, 2013 11:57am

Actually most of the ahadith are nonsensical. Many of the hadiths have dubious sources of narration often from politically connected people. Every political Tom and Harry has invented them at whole sale one time people roamed in Medina with self professed merits of hadiths selling them to collectors at a cost. Others are just copied from Jewish and Christian theology and somewhat modified. For example, the second coming of Jesus (as) and the anti-Christ is shamelessly borrowed from Christian texts. Many other ahadith were made up by leaders decades and hundreds of years after the prophet's death as and when they needed an excuse to attack other tribes, sects, religions or sovereign nations. That's why you will find numerous prophecies about the conquest of Persia, fall of Rome and even blessing for the conquer of Constantinople. These sayings were falsely attributed to the prophet in order to justify expansions and raids that Arab warriors undertook.

Aug 09, 2013 12:30pm

Nice read! explains the root-cause of all quarrels.


Aug 09, 2013 03:57pm

I appreciate the writer's good will in establishing the conclusion that diversity needs be tolerated but it is a pity that the writer has not considered the core of the problem. Why couldn't you see as clear a fact as broad daylight that every sect is contrary to the other and they have developed their own beliefs only in rejection of the others. The sheer opposite or contrary mainstream beliefs are what separate these sects. Why would they let this so called diversity be celebrated when their religious existence is based upon rejecting it. Though basics will obviously remain similar, it is adherence to particular figures and beliefs upon which only rests the contention. In other words their existence is possible only in negation or conversion or still elimination the of others.

Aug 09, 2013 04:23pm

By referring to Rumi you have confused mystic spiritual experience with hardline dogma of sects on which people are trained from their childhood. Now every single person is not capable of such mystic experiences a pure soul can have. Then you have confused cultural diversity with religious diversity. Different cultures come closer over time and possess personal association as taken for granted whereas sects are offshoots of the same faith that develop over time-in order to be only contrary so to speak. And their associations are dependant on their beliefs chalked out of differences in history. You are a history teacher and how can you miss the point of history being a source of knowledge. What you need is to find reasons of disparity and not what you call diversity from history.

Aug 09, 2013 11:49pm

Dawud :: Book 40 : Hadith 4579 Narrated AbuHurayrah: The Prophet (peacebeupon_him) said: The Jews were split up into seventy-one or seventy-two sects; and the Christians were split up into seventy one or seventy-two sects; and my community will be split up into seventy-three sects.

Reported by Awf ibn Malik Al Ashja'l: The Prophet said, "How will you be O Awf when this nation is divided into 73 sects. One sect will be in Paradise and the rest in Hell." I asked: "When will this be O Messenger of Allah?" He answered, saying: "When the police increase and slave girls take authority, and when the lambs (weak authorities) sit on the pulpit, and when the Qu'ran is used as flutes and mosques decorated and the spoils of war manipulated, and the obligatory charity becomes an excessive debt, and trust is taken like spoils of war, and religious study is not for the Sake of Allah and when husbands obey their wives, and disobeys his mother, and banishes his father, and the last of this nation curses the beginning of it, and when the tribe is mastered by a deviator, and the leader of the nation is the worst of them and a man is treated generously to avoid his evil. Upon that day it will happen and men will run to Syria to the City of Damascus, which is one of the best cities in Syria that protects them from their enemy ... " I asked: "Will Syria be opened?" He answered: "Yes, soon then after its opening the trials will start and a dark and dusty trial will come. Trials will follow one another until a man from the Family of my House called the Mahdi comes. If you reach him, follow him and be among those who are guided."(At-Tabarani)

Aug 10, 2013 01:34am

A nice read.

Aug 10, 2013 02:45am

Everyone can declare to be rightly guided sect but the Hadith further gives the attributes most similar to the Holy Prophet to be the one. Now the Holy Prophet was persecuted, called a disbeliever, prevented from worshiping and so on. It should be clear to everyone that there’s only one sect in Islam where the Ummah united to declare them non-Muslims, persecute them and in short treat them the same way Meccans treated the Holy Prophet. That one sect is the rightly guided and unfortunately the rest are not unless they follow the Reformer of the Age as foretold by the Holy Prophet .

Aug 10, 2013 03:59am

When it comes to translation, why we have to use old English? I always seems to be facinated by people who could even do that, even in England it is rare to find somebody who could understand it anymore. Look at this,

"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)."

Now consider this:

If your Lord had willed, surely all humans would have become believers. Yet, He did not do so as it was against the wisdom because, Allah, the Almighty wished His people to believe in Him based their own needs but not by force. Will you force people to become a believer and convert into your religion? No such duty was given to you after all.

Aug 10, 2013 06:17am

this reflects poorly on our holy books which give conflicting inerpretation leading to germination of large number of sects.

Jaffer Jamil
Aug 10, 2013 07:14am

@Reformist: Can we know your qualifications in this or any related field, so we can arrive at our own judgement about the validity of your comments?

Aug 10, 2013 11:04am

A nice article...

Aug 10, 2013 11:25am

That's an interesting way to look at it. Don't know how much stock one should put in the earlier or newer interpretations. Don't care much of whatever different variations or beliefs each self-proclaimed Muslim sect has either, just as long as they don't indulge in intolerance and wanton violence against others. This is why pluralism is so much mutually beneficial than the totalitarianism such religo-political sectarian groups wish for and impose on other groups when in power. Its hypocritical when some sectarian religious leaders of recognized oppressed groups, who are free to speak out against pluralism for their own religious system, in a pluralistic society ironically (usually the West), while they ignore how their own communities are persecuted elsewhere (usually in the East) by some other different hegemonic sect's religious system, do not have the privilege to speak out at all and instead could have benefited from pluralism in such societies themselves.

Aug 10, 2013 12:02pm

Of 73 sects only 2 small ones are active. Other 71 majority are spectators.

For 225 years Islam had only 2 political factions:

1) Shia of Ali 2) Enemies of Ali

"Rightly Guided Caliphs" were only 3 as Ali refused to follow their tradition and so was a rebel, cursed in mosques for 70 years, and his progeny and followers killed en masse.

Pro-Jewish Kaliphate was anti-Christian (who supported Ali then and now). Kaliphate sword expanded Islam's boundaries, Umayyads consolidated, Abbasides glorified. Inter-Islam carnage continues, but Muslims now imperialist had had enough and wanted internal peace. So after 250 years a new "I am ok you are ok” compromise Sunnism born to include all - pro and anti Ali.

As Sunnis inducted Ali as 4th Rightly Guided Kaliph, they elevated his enemies too. "Mother of Believers Ayesha battled Ali killing 70,000, may Allah be pleased with them both". "Muawiya rebelled against Ali, may Allah be pleased with both". "Yazid wiped out Hussain and all his family, may Allah be pleased with both". Sunni Literature's defining phrase "Kana ma kana" or "it was so and not so" making it schizophrenic, thus beginning the end of Sunni Arab Golden Age. Soon, Mongols buried Arab Sunni Islam forever. Future Sunni Islam would be non-Arab - Turkish, Persian, Indian, bringing new pollutions.

Religions are tied to economy - Islam of Moses for pastoral economy, of Jesus for agrarian age, Mohammedan Islam natural religion for Trade and Exchange era, for a water-poor, soil-poor, resource-poor advanced trading economy of Arabia. But the Christian/Persian domains that Muslims unwisely conquered were agrarian and pre-Trading, so Quranic laws were sub-optimal. Hence the lack-lustre performance of Sunni Islam as a civilization.

As Globalization and Free Trade world increasingly becomes water-poor, soil-poor, resource-poor, Quranic/Mohammedan Islam is again its natural socio-economics, issues Sunnism tried to avoid cannot be any more. The fight within was and will be which of the two Islams – the pro-Ali (or Pro-Christian) or anti-Ali (anti-Christian) be the right one for the coming age. This is the fight in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan today that will spread to Arabia, Africa, elsewhere. The schizophrenic and confused Sunnis will stand and watch, and may join the winning party in the end.

Islamists are anti-Ali, anti-Christian, anti-West. Pro-Ali factions are pro-Christian, Socratic and pro-West (but anti-Capitalist), and the West is taking

Aug 10, 2013 12:22pm

This is a good article, attempting to challenge the hold of the hadith on the imagination of sectarianism. It think, it needs to be translated in to Urdu for it to have wider impact. At the same time, it is important to note that references to religious texts often come as a superstructure over a root problem which has other dimensions such contest over resources or ethnic antagonism. Such texts help create a fervour among masses. Unless those deeper issues are tackled, the animosity can always find another religious text to pander to a sectarian mind-set.

Aug 10, 2013 01:51pm

@BRR: I don't think this is trivia at all. This line of discussion goes right to the heart of the current problems facing the Muslim world. Fanciful interpretation of dubious Ahadith has led us to this near state of collapse. People have been fabricating and mis-interpreting Ahadith for centuries. The sooner we start to have this open discussion, the better. Innocent lives are being lost based on false interpretations.

Aug 10, 2013 03:02pm

excellent write up thanks sir

Aug 10, 2013 05:01pm

Great analysis by Shahbaz! Right on the money. But could I trouble you for your opinion on the interpretation OR the veracity of the hadith in question, Shahbaz!

saqib ali khan
Aug 10, 2013 10:48pm

It is not true for all Muslims that they claim their sect is the saved one and other's is doomed to hell. I think no generalization was necessary over it.

Mohammad Bajwa
Aug 11, 2013 03:04am

The difference between various sects is minor and definitely not significant.Otherwise there would be more than one religion.

Saifur Rahman
Aug 11, 2013 06:07am

@Reformist: Thank you for such a good analysis. Many Hadiths were in fact invented, discovered or amended with ulterior political and selfish intentions and should not be relied upon if they don’t pass the test of minimum moral and ethical standards of today. Moreover, context has a great bearing while analyzing scriptures, as same thing many give different meaning under different contexts. For instance in the course of evolution human being had been stratified into species (differentiating it from other species), families, tribes, sects, races and nations. In the past, dividing humans into groups such as those might have some social-evolutionary values in terms of “group's survival" and hence was an essential practice (in all races) that was required to promote. But under present context those values and norms are not only void but also highly immoral and counter productive. At the advent of the Internet and accompanying social medias the world has become small and gradually shrinking into oneness where need of such stratification are long gone. Today we are more multicultural, with different races becoming more and more tolerant towards each other. Any such Hadith (invented or amended) which divides people into 73 sects has now become totally out of context that needed to be thrown into garbage bin for the sake of humanity.

Aug 11, 2013 07:53am

Division of Muslim Ummah in sects (Firqa) is forbidden by Allah in the following Aya of the Holy Quran “Indeed, those who have divided their religion and become sects - you, [O Muhammad], are not [associated] with them in anything. Their affair is only [left] to Allah ; then He will inform them about what they used to do.” 6:159

There is absolutely no need for quoting Hadith to discuss which sect is right and which sect is wrong when Allah states clearly that division of Muslims in sects is forbidden. Unfortunately immediately after the death of the Holy Prophet, the Muslim Ummah split in two sects. (Shia and Sunni). Today there are many sects (Sunni, Shia, Hanfi, Wahabi, Shafi, Ahle-Hadith, Ahle-Fiqah, Ahle-Quran, Malki, Hanbli, Deobandi, Barailwi, and many more). Allah has commanded the Holy Prophet not to associate with those who split, therefore all of us are guilty because we associate ourselves with a given sect or firqa and we still claim to be Muslims despite the warning from Allah.

Aug 11, 2013 08:29am

Who cares about the 73 sects of Islam. I do not even the names of the sects. Islam has become a fairy tale instead of a religon that teaches love, respect, peace or freedom. We are ready to renounce the other sects, declare some as non Muslims, attack some because it does not fit our vision of what certain nonsensical Hadith has to say, completly forgetting that if certain things were important, Allah would have mentioned in the Quran. Also right now the priority of Muslims should be to make all Islam peaceful in words and action, fight against terrorism, yes even Islamic terrorism where innocent Muslims are killed by terrorist Muslims. stop condeming other sects or have the audacity to declare anyone non Muslim. Our constitution must make it a crime whoever makes any religous beleives a compulsion.

Aug 11, 2013 08:55am

@AbbasToronto: I am sorry, but your argument is neither here nor there. Your post lacks a thesis, your train of thought lacks logic, most of your statements are pure opinions and your train of thought is extremely incoherent.

Aug 11, 2013 08:55am

You present almost 73 arguments about this hadith :)

Fahad Nepal
Aug 11, 2013 11:51am

@AbbasToronto: None of the Sunni's have any issue with Ali , he was the youngest to come under islam with Muhammad SAW , Hassan , Husaain are highly respected they are the grandsons of the prophet , we never curse any one . The issue arises where the Shia-community curses Hazrat Umer RA and Hazrat Usman ( RA ) , these are the people with which the prophet has lived his life and prophet told every one about their character, we never praise Yazid , what created the conflict b/w the two sect is the hatred for Hazrat Umer and Usman shown by the Shia community. Stop this and all can leave in peace.

Aug 11, 2013 12:12pm

What is the point the writer is trying to make ….since the making of Pakistan those sects were there. We never faced any problem of intolerance then. Why now? Every sect was living in peace and harmony…there were no Shia or Sunnah issues… Folks… we are fighting a proxy war for some one else… we don’t have to courage to acknowledge it … promoters of faith and religion should worry about the intolerance of religion. One should look at the past and fear we haven't learned from it. We must believe that humanity is capable of evil as well as great acts of courage and goodness. We should have hope. Deep down, we believe in the human spirit, although sometimes that belief is shaken.

Aug 11, 2013 12:17pm

@Adnan: Certainly, nobody can deny the veracity of the Ahadith in question keeping in veiw the reliability of the sources who have mentioned them. In my opinion a sensible look at the issue can easily help resolve the issue. If 'sect' or 'firqa' translated from Arabic by the honored authorities is taken in the sense of a dividing factor within an already completed religious code, it can certainly not be taken in the positive sense because it conflicts with the Islamic motif of unity. So far as the meaning cannot be taken as even nearing to that of 'diversity'. Again, the diversity is not even the slightest implication. The inevitable is to happen at all costs. What we are to understand is that the things will take their natural course in the final turning up of the said 73 sects in the end, obviousrly if we are the believers. If sectarianism has grown worse over time it simply manifests the negative sahde of the word 'sect' which it really implies. It is pity that the fatal or destined is ignored by the writer and he is given away to the wish that it could mean the otherwise as interpreted by the propagators of reconciliation of faiths. He is not to be blamed at all as it is the trend in the modern world. But just look at the history and even the present of mankind and the future what a logical reasoning may show that such sects are only furthered in evolution once they are emerged.

Rafiq A.
Aug 11, 2013 02:45pm

One thing is certain, the 73rd 'sect' cannot be one that kills all the others, including women and children. It must be the one that teaches peace and love.

Zubair Khan
Aug 11, 2013 03:18pm

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.

Bashy Quraishy
Aug 11, 2013 04:23pm

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 Bashy Q

sumit mazumdar
Aug 11, 2013 05:57pm

@shahbaz: That seems to explain the creation of Pakistan. And the creation of Bangladesh. More to come?

Qarar Ali
Aug 11, 2013 06:54pm

@Bashy Quraishy: "Muslims are stuck in what was said 1500 years back". By your argument, then forget about the whole Islam since Quran and other hadiths and Shariah can all be attributed to traditions/practices dating back to 1500 years. In short, you are denying Islam. My recommendation to you is to say Istaghfar and renter the folds of Islam. May Allah give you hidaya.

Aug 11, 2013 08:29pm

@Rafiq A. : Your two lines are pearls.

Aug 11, 2013 08:35pm

@Saifur Rahman: Proove that how 'Ibn Majah, Abu Daud, al-Tirmidhi and al-Nisa’i' can all be wrong at the same time... It means we should not trust the only sources aval to us, that conflicts our selfish self conscious.

Aug 11, 2013 08:39pm

@Fahad Nepal

" .. None of the Sunni's have any issue with Ali .."

That is exactly what I said. However, I also stated that Sunnism does not have any issue with Ali's opponents either. It is a new religion (founded 250 years after the death of our Prophet AS), and I-am-ok-you-are-ok religion that does not want to deal with the difficult issues of life, but those issues can not be swept under the carpet anymore. Sunnis are largely spectators in the real duel in town between pro-Ali and anti-Ali factions that is heading for high noon.

Aug 11, 2013 08:40pm

@Imran: Actually this Hadith is trying to make us believe not to devide ourself. The more we will devide ourself we will go to the 73 category. As we know to divide 1 we have to split into two. So to be the one guided. We must believe that there is infact no sect in Islam. All who say we are Shia and Sunni.... Must rethink and Say themselves only muslim....