“My Ummah will divide into seventy-three different sects, only one sect will be ahl an–najat (people of salvation)”. What does this hadith mean? Could you please explain it?

Details of the Question
“My Ummah will divide into seventy-three different sects, only one sect will be ahl an–najat (people of salvation)”. What does this hadith mean? Could you please explain it?
The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

The Prophet stated : “My Ummah will divide into seventy-three different sects, only one sect will be  ahl an–najat (people of salvation)”.

When the Prophet (pbuh) stated this hadith, the honored companions asked him : “ O, Messenger of Allah! Which one will be that saved sect?

He replied : “ Those who do not quit my sunnah will be saved! That is, the ahl as-sunnah and the congregation.

Therefore, Muslims who remain loyal to the sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh) written in the books will be the ahl an-najat, that is, the saved sect. As long as they do not quit sunnah, accept it as the sole criterion and do not neglect to perform them personally.

Firqa an-Najiyah means the community, the sect that is saved, that will be acquitted from any kind of punishment in the hereafter; it is also called Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l Jamaah. In other words, Firqa an-Najiyah means the large mass of people who accept and affirm and obey the decrees of the Qur’an and follow the same path of the Prophet (pbuh) and the his great Honored Companions.

In a hadith of the Prophet (pbuh) narrated by Abu Hurayra, the Prophet stated: “…My Ummah will divide into seventy-three different sects, all of which will be in Hell except the saved one ( Firqa an-Najiyah). He also described Firqa an-Najiyah to the Honored Companions who asked about it: “Those who follow my path and follow the path of Honored Companions who follow my path”. 

This is why those who follow the path of Beloved Messenger of Allah, the Almighty are called Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l Jamaah, which means “the people of the Sunnah and the congregation”. In this sense, it is best to understand Firqa an-Najiyah as a large community believing in Allah’s Book, that is, in the Qur’an and straight path of the Prophet and the Honored Companions, and adopting and accepting the view of the community obedient to the Sunnah, that is, a majority of Muslims and believing in them.

Ghazali sums up the true path of Firqa an-Najiyah and the principles of this path leading to salvation under these three matters with respect to belief : 1) Believing in Allah, 2) Believing in the Prophets – that includes the belief in angels and in the books – 3) Believing in the hereafter. ( Imam Ghazali, Faysalu’t Tafriqa, Egypt, 1325, p 15)

The Prophet stated that those who believed in these principles would benefit from the blessings of this religion as a Muslim and become a believer and those who denied one or all of them would become neither a believer nor a Muslim but a denier. In a number of verses in the Qur’an, this right path is pointed out and it is also pointed out that this right path is the path of the Prophet (pbuh) : “Assuredly you have in God's Messenger an excellent example to follow for whoever looks forward to God and the Last Day, and remembers and mentions God much.” (the Qur’an, al-Ahzab, 33:21)

“…Whatever the Messenger gives you, accept it willingly; and whatever he forbids you, refrain from it. Keep from disobedience to God in reverence for Him and piety. Surely God is severe in retribution.” (the Qur’an, al-Hashr, 59:7)

If they cannot respond, then know that they are merely following their whims and caprices. Who can be more astray than he who follows his lusts and fancies, deprived of all guidance from God. God surely does not guide people given to wrongdoing and injustice.” (the Qur’an, al-Qasas, 28:50)

“Say (to them, O Messenger): "If you indeed love God, then follow me, so that God will love you and forgive you your sins. " God is All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate.” (The Qur’an, Aal-‘Imran, 3:31)

According to Abdulqahir al-Baghdadi (D: 429/1037), who is one of the greatest scholars of history of Islamic schools, Firqa as-Sunnah, which gathers a majority of Muslims who are considered to be the follower of the most correct way in the area of Islamic principles of faith today as well as throughout Islamic history, consists of these eight groups:

1. Scholars who deal with “kalam” and who do not repeat the mistakes of the “wrong people” and who follow Sifatiyyah, that is, who do not think like deviated sects such as Rafizis, Kharijites, Jahmiyyah and Najjariyyah,

2. Scholars of Islamic Jurisprudence that consist of imams of Islamic Jurisprudence who are the members of both view and hadith and of believers who believed in the way of the religion and who believed like the members of Sifatiyyah believe in Allah, His Infinity and His attributions,

3. Scholars of hadiths who own the knowledge of the news and sunnahs from the Prophet and who are able to distinguish the sound ones from the weak ones,

4. Scholars who are well acknowledged about literature, grammar and syntax,

5. Interpreters and Good-Reciters of the Qur’an who know the correct ways of reciting the Qur’an and of interpreting the verses of the Qur’an and who have the knowledge on the appropriate ways of the interpretation of the sect of Ahl-i Sunnah rather than the interpretation of the deviated groups,

6. Sufist devotees,

7. Hero Muslim combatants who keep guard on the borders of Muslims’ territories against deniers and who fight the enemies of Muslims,

8.  Communities consisting of people in the counties and countries where Ahl as-Sunnah and their attitudes are dominant. (Abdulqahir Baghdadi, Al-Farq Bayn al-Firaq, p. 289-292)

The Principles that Ahl as-Sunnah and Jamaah have agreed on:

The majority of Ahl as-Sunnah and Jamaah are on an agreement about certain principles of the elements of the religion. It is obligatory for all those who reach the age of puberty and who are mentally healthy to know the facts about these elements of the religion. According to Al-Baghdadi, there are branches of each element and there are some points that Ahl as-Sunnah are in an agreement on these issues:

1. The universe is not an illusion or an imagination but it has an essential presence and a reality. Man is able to recognize this universe and obtain information about it.

2. The universe is something created with all the details in it. It has a certain unique creator.

3. Allah has His infinite attribution which cannot separated from His Personality.

4. His names, attributes, justice and wisdom are due to His great Personality, all of which should be known.

5. Allah has His Prophets; it is obligatory to know their miracles, too.

6. The information about the responsibility for Allah’s commands and decrees on prohibitions should be obtained. That is to say, it is to accept and confirm the five elements which Islam has been set on; and they are : Bearing witness that there are no other deities except Allah, and Muhammad (pbuh) is His Messenger, Performing prayers, Giving Alms (zakah), Observing Ramadan Fast and Going for pilgrimage (Hajj) to the Kaaba.

7. Believing in the mortality of humans and in the existence of the hereafter where humans will be resurrected after they die and believing in the concepts like  hashr (gathering), questioning, accounting, Paradise and Hell

8. Knowing that Allah will be visible to the believers in the hereafter

9. Knowing that destiny (qadar) is true (right) but people are not obliged in their deeds

10. Knowing that Allah’s words were present from the beginning but they do not consist of sounds and letters.

As can be seen, all these and similar principles about belief are the points on which the majority of Firqa an-Najiyah, in other words, Ahl as-Sunnah are on an agreement. Moreover, each of these principles is based on the decrees of the Qur’an and the hadiths of the Prophet (pbuh).

Therefore, Firqa an-Najiyah is called so because they are aware of Allah’s commands and comply with them; and they comprehend the prohibitions and restraints from them and they also follow the right path that the Prophet showed to them; in other words, they have become the saved community. According to the prior communities, Firqa an-Najiyah consisted of Salafiyyah, which is called Ahl as-Sunnah al-Khassah, and Maturidis and Ash’aris, which are called Ahlas-Sunnah al-Ammah. (For further information, see Ahmad b Hanbal, Musnad, II, p.332; Abu Dawud, Sunan, II, p.259; Ibn Majah, Sunan, II, p.479; Ghazali, Ihya’, I, p.179; Shatibi, Muwafaqat, IV, 48-52; Taftazani, Sharh ul-Maqasid, II, p.199; Abdulqahir Baghdadi, al-Farq bayna’l Firaq, Mezhebler Arasindaki Farklar, Translation : Asst. Prof. E. Ruhi Figlali, p.289-335; Ash’ari, Maqalat, p.277-284)

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