The Hadith on splitting of this Ummah into seventy-three sects


I read a Hadith mentioned by the Shaykh of Islam Muhammad ibn ‘Abdul-Wahhab, in his book entitled “Mukhtasar Sirat Al-Rasul” (The Abridged Biography of the Prophet), which states: “This Ummah (nation) will split into seventy-three sects, all of them will be in Hellfire except one.

I would like a clarification of this issue about which Imam Muhammad ibn ‘Abdul-Wahhab said in his previously mentioned book: “This is one of the most crucial issues. Whoever understands it has well comprehended the religion, and whoever applies it is a true Muslim. May Allah, the Most Generous, grant us its understanding and the ability to apply it.

I would also like to know the answer to the following questions, which revolve around the previously mentioned Hadith:

  1. Who is the saved sect referred to in the Hadith?
  2. Do sects like: Shi’ah (Shi’ites) Al-Shafi’iyyah Al-Hanafiyyah, Al-Tijaniyyah and others fall under the seventy-two sects referred to by the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) as dwellers of Hellfire? If all these sects are going to be in Hellfire except one, why are they permitted to visit Allah’s Sacred House? Was the great Imam wrong, or have you deviated from the right path?


First, what Imam Shaykh Muhammad ibn ‘Abdul-Wahhab (may Allah be merciful to him) mentioned in “Mukhtasar Al-Sirah” is part of a Sahih (authentic) and well-known Hadith, narrated by the Compilers of Sunan (Hadith compilations classified by jurisprudential themes) and Musnads (Hadith compilations according to complete chains of narration), such as Abu Dawud, Al-Nasa’i, Al-Tirmidhy and others with different wordings, including: “The Jews split into seventy-one sects, all of which are in Hellfire except one; the Christians split into seventy-two sects, all of which are in Hellfire except one; and this Ummah will split into seventy-three sects, all of which are in Hellfire except one.1

According to another narration, “…Will split into seventy-three denominations.2

In another narration, They said, “O Messenger of Allah! Who is the saved sect?” He (peace be upon him) said, “Those who follow the very same that I and my Companions follow today.3

In another narration, he (peace be upon him) said, “It is Al-Jama‘ah (the group that remains adhering to that which the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his Companions followed); the Hand of Allah is over (the hands of) Al-Jama‘ah.4

Second, The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) informed his Sahabah (Companions) of the characteristics of Al-Firqah Al-Najiyah (the Saved Sect) in various narrations of the previously mentioned Hadith; as an answer to their question, “Who is the saved sect?” He said, “Those who follow the very same that I and my Companions follow today.”

According to another narration he said, “It is Al-Jama‘ah; the Hand of Allah is over (the hands of) Al-Jama‘ah.” He (peace be upon him) described the saved sect as those who adhere steadfastly in their beliefs, words, deeds and manners to the way of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his Companions (may Allah be pleased with him). They act upon the teachings of the Qur’an and the Sunnah regarding what they should and should not do. They abide by the way of the Muslim Jama‘ah (main body or group), who are the Sahabah (may Allah be pleased with them) who followed only the Prophet (peace be upon him) who never spoke of his own desire; it was only Revelations revealed to him.

Thus, all those who follow the Qur’an, the instructions of the Sunnah, verbal or practical, and the Ijma’ (consensus) of the Ummah, and are not deceived by fallacious opinions, misleading desires, or false interpretations which are violative of the fundamentals of Shari‘ah (Islamic Law) and are rejected by the Arabic language - the mother tongue of the Prophet (peace be upon him) in which the Qur’an was revealed - all those who do so are part of the saved sect, of Ahl-ul-Sunnah wal-Jama‘ah (those adhering to the Sunnah and the Muslim main body).

Third, as for those who take their own vain desires as their god and contradict the Qur’an and the authentic Sunnah in favor of their own opinion or that of their leader out of zealotry and fanaticism; or interpret the texts of the Qur’an and the Sunnah in a manner that does not concur with the Arabic language or the fundamentals of the Islamic Shari‘ah; and thus dissent from the main group of Muslims, they will be among the seventy-two sects which the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) stated will all be in Hellfire. The distinguishing sign of these sects is deviation from the Qur’an, the Sunnah and Ijma‘, without being based on an interpretation that corresponds to the language of the Qur’an and the fundamentals of Shari‘ah to be taken as an excuse for error.

Fourth, the issue which Imam Shaykh Muhammad ibn ‘Abdul-Wahhab stated as one of the most crucial issues which when understood one has fully comprehended Islam and when acted upon one become a true Muslim - is what has been already clarified in the second part of the answer regarding the distinguishing characteristics of the saved sect given by the Prophet (peace be upon him), and the fact that the other sects are the opposite of them. Whoever distinguishes between the saved sect and the doomed sect according to the criterion of the Prophet (peace be upon him), and understands the difference between them based on the interpretation of the Prophet (peace be upon him), has in fact comprehended religion and can distinguish between those one should adhere to their group and those that should be fled from as one would flee from a lion.

Whoever applies this correct understanding and adheres to the group who is upon right guidance and follow the truth are true Muslims, for the description of the saved sect matches them whether in their correct knowledge of the truth, beliefs, words or actions. There is no doubt that this is one of the most crucial issues that has broad benefit. May Allah have mercy on Imam, Shaykh Muhammad ibn ‘Abdul-Wahhab; he was a man of deep insight and thorough understanding of the religious texts and their aims, as he emphasized what is essential for the Muslims to know about their religion sometimes implicitly as he did here, and sometimes explicitly as he did in many of his books.

Fifth, the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) did not assign descriptive titles or names for the seventy-two sects attributing themselves to Islam by which they can be known, rather he specified that their distinguishing sign is departure from the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and the Ijma‘ of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs and the rest of the Sahabah (may Allah be pleased with them all), out of pursuing assumptions and inclinations, and speaking of Allah without knowledge and out of favoritism for leaders, other than the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him), for whose sake they show allegiance or enmity. On the other hand, the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) made the emblem of the saved sect their adherence to the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and the Muslim main body, giving superiority to this over their personal perceptions, assumptions and inclinations. For their inclinations are pursuant to the Islamic Shari‘ah (law); on that base they show allegiance or enmity.

Therefore, whoever adopts a criterion for judging the sects other than that of the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) in order to distinguish the saved sect from those who are doomed, is speaking without knowledge and is judging ignorantly and thus wrong themselves and misjudge the sects ascribed to Islam. Whoever refers to the statements of the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) to distinguish the saved sect from those who are doomed, will be just in their judgment and will realize that the sects of the Ummah vary in their degrees; some of them are more keen on following and submitting to the Shari‘ah, and are the furthest of all people from Ibtida‘ (heresy) in religion and distortion of religious texts by additions or deletions. These are the people most likely to have the bliss of being among the saved sect. However, some of the scholars of Hadith and scholars of Islamic jurisprudence, who are qualified to practice Ijtihad (juristic effort to infer expert legal rulings) and are truly keen on fully adhering to the Shari‘ah, may interpret some texts incorrectly, so they are excused for their error in issues open to Ijtihad.

Some others of them may deny certain texts of Shari‘ah, either for having newly accepted Islam, or for being raised at distant regions of the Muslim world, so they were not correctly informed about the matters which they deny. Some others of them may commit a sin or introduce a Bid‘ah (innovation in religion) which do not take them outside the fold of Islam. They are considered as much of obedient believers as they show of obedience to Allah; and as much of sinners as they commit of sins and heresies. They fall under the Will of Allah; He may punish them if He so wills, and He may forgive them if He so wills. Allah says (what means): “Verily, Allâh forgives not that partners should be set up with Him (in worship), but He forgives except that (anything else) to whom He wills” (Surah Al-Nisa’, 4: 48).

He also states, “And (there are) others who have acknowledged their sins, they have mixed a deed that was righteous with another that was evil. Perhaps Allâh will turn unto them in forgiveness.” (Surah Al-Tawbah, 9: 102).

All these are not considered Kuffar (disbelievers) for their wrong interpretations or denial, rather they are excused and fall under the category of the saved sect, although they are less in status than the first party. However, there are some who deny the inevitably well-known basic principles of the religion, even after being correctly informed about them, and follow their own vain desires instead of the guidance of Allah, or interpret some of the texts of Shari‘ah in a far-fetched manner, thereby contradicting the dominant majority of Muslims who preceded them. After the truth is clarified to them, and textual evidence is established against them through debates, they have not changed their minds. Those are considered Kuffar and apostates from Islam, even if they claim to be Muslims and exert efforts in calling to Islam according to their own creed and way, such as Al-Qadyaniyyah Al-Ahmadiyyah who denied that Muhammad (peace be upon him) was the last of prophets. They claim that Ghulam Ahmad Al-Qadyany was a prophet and a messenger of Allah, or that he was ‘Isa ibn Maryam (Jesus, son of Mary, peace be upon them), or that the soul of Muhammad or ‘Isa was reincarnated in him, so he assumed the status of a prophet.

Sixth, Ahl-ul-Sunnah wal-Jama`ah (adherents to the Sunnah and the Muslim mainstream) have solid fundamentals established by evidence (from the Qur’an and Sunnah) on which they build the branches, and refer to when trying to infer partial issues and when applying religious rulings on themselves and on others. One of these fundamentals is that Iman (faith) expressed in words, deeds and beliefs, increases by performing acts of obedience to Allah and decreases by committing sin. The more a Muslim performs acts of obedience, the more their Iman will increase. The less they obey or the more they commit sins that do not cause them to fall into blatant Kufr (disbelief), the more their Iman will decrease. Iman according to them is of different degrees, and the saved sect has various ranks, one above another, according to evidence and the words or deeds which they have earned.

Another one of these fundamentals of Iman is that they do not declare any particular person or sect from the people of the Qiblah (i.e., Muslims in general) as Kafir (disbeliever), but refrain from this as much as possible, for the Prophet (peace be upon him) reproved Usamah Ibn Zayd Ibn Harithah for killing a Kafir after he had said, “La ilaha illa Allah”. He did not accept Usamah’s excuse that the man only said it to take refuge in it and protect himself, and he (peace be upon him) admonished him saying, “Did you split his heart open to know whether or not he has said it?5 i.e. whether or not he said it sincerely from the bottom of his heart. The only exception is when a person commits an act of blatant Kufr, such as denying the inevitably well-known basic truths of the religion, or contradicting a decisive Ijma‘ (consensus) of the Ummah, or interpreting clear-cut texts which are not subject to interpretation, and does not recant this even after being correctly informed of it.

The Imam of Da‘wah (Call to Islam), Shaykh Muhammad ibn ‘Abdul-Wahhab (may Allah be merciful to him) adhered to the way of Ahl-ul-Sunnah wal-Jama‘ah and followed their fundamentals. He did not declare anyone or any sect from the people of the Qiblah as Kafir for committing a sin, or giving an allegorical interpretation, or introducing a Bid‘ah, unless there was well-established evidence of their Kufr after enlightenment and clarification.

The Saudi government, may Allah protect and support it, follows the same way in its presidency and treatment of its citizens and in its attitude towards the Muslims in other countries, especially those who come to the Sacred House of Allah to perform Hajj or ‘Umrah. It thinks well of Muslims, considers all of them its brothers in faith, cooperates with them in what will give them support, guard their rights and retrieve their usurped possession. It welcomes those who visit its country, and graciously facilitate for pilgrims the performance of Hajj rituals. This is a thing discerned from its news, its affairs and the effort and money spent for the sake of the common good of Muslims and to offer comfortable accommodation for the pilgrims to the Allah’s Sacred House.

Thus, the Saudi government allows the different Muslim sects to visit the Sacred House of Allah without investigating their hidden beliefs, acting upon the principle of judging by the apparent without exploring the inside of each person, and leaving “the inwardly hidden” to Allah, Who alone knows it. Nevertheless, if the Saudi government becomes absolutely certain of the Kufr (disbelief) of a particular person or sect, such as Al-Qadyaniyyah, and this is affirmed by the investigative Muslim scholars in the Islamic world, it cannot help but forbid those whose Kufr and apostasy are proved from performing Hajj and ‘Umrah, in order to protect Allah’s Sacred House from being approached by those in whose hearts there is evil, obeying Allah’s Saying, “O you who believe (in Allâh’s Oneness and in His Messenger Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم)! Verily, the Mushrikûn (polytheists, pagans, idolaters, disbelievers in the Oneness of Allâh, and in the Message of Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم) are Najasun (impure). So let them not come near Al-Masjidal-Harâm (at Makkah) after this year” (Surah Al-Tawbah, 9: 28).

Allah also says, “…and sanctify My House for those who circumambulate it, and those who stand up (for prayer), and those who bow (submit themselves with humility and obedience to Allâh), and make prostration (in prayer);” (Surah Al-Hajj, 22: 26).

From the abovementioned, we can conclude the gravity of the issue pointed to by the Imam of Da‘wah in his era, Shaykh Muhammad ibn ‘Abdul-Wahhab and was inquired about in the question. It also becomes clear that he (may Allah be merciful to him) followed the straight path, for he adhered to the established fundamentals of Ahl-ul-Sunnah wal-Jama‘ah. Moreover, the Saudi government has not deviated from the right path in its treatment of Muslims all over the world; rather it has adhered to the principles of Ahl-ul-Sunnah wal-Jama‘ah as did the Imam. Thus, it judges the Muslims based on what is apparent, and does not examine their hearts, so it is lenient with those whose reality is hidden, and strict with those whose crimes are discovered and insist on apostasy, even after successive debates and clarifications.

May Allah grant us success. May peace and blessings be upon our Prophet Muhammad, his family, and Companions.

  1. Imam Ahmad, vol. 2, p. 332 and vol. 3, p. 120; Abu Dawud, no. 4596; Al-Tirmidhy, no. 2642; Ibn Majah, no. 4029; Al-Hakim, Al-Mustadrak, vol. 1, p. 128; and Al-Ajurry, Al-Shari’ah, p. 25. 

  2. Al-Tirmidhy, no. 2643. 

  3. Al-Tabarany, no. 724, Al-Saghir, no. 724; and Al-Tirmidhy, no. 2643. 

  4. Imam Ahmad, vol. 3, p. 145 and vol. 4, p. 102; Abu Dawud, no. 4597; Al-Darimy, Al-Sunan, vol. 2, p. 241; Ibn Majah, nos. 4040 and 4041; Al-Hakim, Al-Mustadrak, vol. 1, p. 128; and Al-Ajurry, Al-Shari’ah, p. 18. 

  5. Imam Ahmad, vol. 4, p. 439 and vol. 5, p. 207; Al-Bukhari, Fath-ul-Bari, nos. 4269 and 6872; Muslim, no. 96; Abu Dawud, no. 2643; and Ibn Majah, no. 3977.