This question is controversial as various Muslim movements, groups or schools of thought claim they are the "Saved Sect".
The prophetic statement "my ummah would divide into 73 sects where only one would enter paradise" is a part of a wider tradition that is narrated through various chains albeit with varying wordings.
I'll consider the general scholarly analysis and conclusions in this answer.
There are various misconceptions arising from this hadith, which can be broadly categorized as follows:
Thus one hears of erroneous claims such as the majority of Muslims or sects would enter hell eternally and only one specific sect would be saved and enter paradise eternally, often on minor issues like variances in positions in prayers, visiting of graveyards or celebratory practices.
This is mistaken as punishment is reserved for rejection or abandonment of clear matters not ambiguous matters and the hadith, along with other evidences, does not indicate majority of Muslims are astray - fringe minorities are what is referred to here.
This hadith has been reported with different wordings, the original part reported by Abu Hurairah:
1. عن أب هريرة أن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ " تَفَرَّقَتِ الْيَهُودُ عَلَى إِحْدَى وَسَبْعِينَ أَوِ اثْنَتَيْنِ وَسَبْعِينَ فِرْقَةً وَالنَّصَارَى مِثْلَ ذَلِكَ وَتَفْتَرِقُ أُمَّتِي عَلَى ثَلاَثٍ وَسَبْعِينَ فِرْقَةً
"The Jews split into seventy-one sects, or seventy-two sects, and the Christians similarly, and my Ummah will split into seventy-three sects." (Tirmidhi 40:35; Abu Dawud; Ahmed 2:332; Hakim 1:128)
This hadith is graded as sahih by al-Hakim according the conditions of Muslim.
However, there are different narrations of this hadith reported on the authority of many Companions with some additions:
2. عن عوف بن مالك قال، قال رسول الله ـ صلى الله عليه وسلم ـ "... وَالَّذِي نَفْسُ مُحَمَّدٍ بِيَدِهِ لَتَفْتَرِقَنَّ أُمَّتِي عَلَى ثَلاَثٍ وَسَبْعِينَ فِرْقَةً فَوَاحِدَةٌ فِي الْجَنَّةِ وَثِنْتَانِ وَسَبْعُونَ فِي النَّارِ " . قِيلَ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ مَنْ هُمْ قَالَ " الْجَمَاعَةُ "
"... I swear by the One Whose Hand is the soul of Muhammad, my nation will split into seventy-three sects, one of which will be in Paradise and seventy-two in Hell." It was said: "O Messenger of Allah, who are they?" He said: "The body politic." (Ibn Majah 36:67)
3. عن أنس بن مالك أن رسول الله ـ صلى الله عليه وسلم ـ " ...وَإِنَّ أُمَّتِي سَتَفْتَرِقُ عَلَى ثِنْتَيْنِ وَسَبْعِينَ فِرْقَةً كُلُّهَا فِي النَّارِ إِلاَّ وَاحِدَةً وَهِيَ الْجَمَاعَةُ "
"... all of which will be in Hell apart from one, which is the body politic." (Ibn Majah 36:68)
4. عن معاوية بن أبي سفيان أنه قام فينا فقال ألا إن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم قَامَ فِينَا فَقَالَ "...وَإِنَّ هَذِهِ الْمِلَّةَ سَتَفْتَرِقُ عَلَى ثَلاَثٍ وَسَبْعِينَ ثِنْتَانِ وَسَبْعُونَ فِي النَّارِ وَوَاحِدَةٌ فِي الْجَنَّةِ وَهِيَ الْجَمَاعَةُ "
"Beware! The people of the Book before were split up into seventy-two millah, and this community will be split into seventy-three: seventy-two of them will go to Hell and one of them will go to Paradise, and it is the body politic." (Abu Dawud 42:2)
5. عن عبد الله بن عمرو أن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم قال " لَيَأْتِيَنَّ عَلَى أُمَّتِي مَا أَتَى عَلَى بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ حَذْوَ النَّعْلِ بِالنَّعْلِ حَتَّى إِنْ كَانَ مِنْهُمْ مَنْ أَتَى أُمَّهُ عَلاَنِيَةً لَكَانَ فِي أُمَّتِي مَنْ يَصْنَعُ ذَلِكَ وَإِنَّ بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ تَفَرَّقَتْ عَلَى ثِنْتَيْنِ وَسَبْعِينَ مِلَّةً وَتَفْتَرِقُ أُمَّتِي عَلَى ثَلاَثٍ وَسَبْعِينَ مِلَّةً كُلُّهُمْ فِي النَّارِ إِلاَّ مِلَّةً وَاحِدَةً قَالُوا وَمَنْ هِيَ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ قَالَ مَا أَنَا عَلَيْهِ وَأَصْحَابِي"
"What befell the children of Isra'il will befall my Ummah, step by step, such that if there was one who had intercourse with his mother in the open, then there would be someone from my Ummah who would do that. Indeed, the children of Isra'il split into seventy-two sects, and my Ummah will split into seventy-three sects. All of them are in the Fire Except one sect." He said: "And which is it O Messenger of Allah?" He said: "What I am upon and my Companions." (Tirmidhi 40:36)
6. عن أنس بن ماللك، قال سمعت رسول الله ـ صلى الله عليه وسلم ـ يقول " إِنَّ أُمَّتِي لَنْ تَجْتَمِعَ عَلَى ضَلاَلَةٍ فَإِذَا رَأَيْتُمُ اخْتِلاَفًا فَعَلَيْكُمْ بِالسَّوَادِ الأَعْظَمِ "
"My nation will not unite on misguidance, so if you see them differing, follow the great majority." (Ibn Majah 36:25)
The jurists differed on the authenticity of the ahadith on this topic as well as their meanings and texts.
But first we have to present the definition of the word (فرقة) and its underlying meaning in the hadith before considering their analyses further.
Definition of Firqah (Sect)
Linguistically: (فرقة) is the infinitive noun of (افتراق) which signifies distinction, or difference. Thus, (فرقة) means a group of people which is distinctive. (Ibn Manzur, Lisan al-Arab, Vol 10, p. 300)
Technically: it refers to every group that is asked to believe in a given doctrine by which it becomes distinctive from others. (Ibn Hazm, Al-Fisal, Vol. 2, p. 263; Ibn al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis, p. 28)
The term firqah is usually used by Muslim scholars to refer to a group with opinions different from the mainstream Muslims in respect of the fundamental matters of aqeedah. (Khalifah, Mafhum al-Firqah inda Ulma al-Muslimin, p. 2)
Notably, in some versions of the hadith, the word millah (translated as religion, faith, creed) is often used instead of the term firqah (sect). The term millah signifies independent distinct doctrines or beliefs and is sometimes used synonymously with the word deen.
Taking this into consideration, the meaning of the word firaq (singular firqah – sect) in the hadith most likely denotes a group whose credal doctrines or dogma are radically different from the established doctrines of mainstream Islam as noted by the Maliki jurist and mufassir Imam Qurtubi:
وهذا يبين أن الافتراق المحذر منه في الآية والحديث إنما هو في أصول الدين وقواعده، لأنه قد أطلق عليها مللا، وأخبر أن التمسك بشيء من تلك الملل موجب لدخول النار. ومثل هذا لا يقال في الفروع، فإنه لا يوجب تعديد الملل ولا عذاب النار؛ قال الله تعالى: (لِكُلٍّ جَعَلْنا مِنْكُمْ شِرْعَةً وَمِنْهاجًا)
This demonstrates the warned division in the verse and hadith takes place in the fundamental principles and foundations of the deen (of Islam). Because groups were called milal. In addition, he pointed out the adherence to something in these millal lead to Hellfire. Something like this could not be said about furu (non-fundamental matters) because difference in furu does not require the multitude of millal and the punishment in the Hellfire. Allah said: To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. (Al Jami li Ahkam al-Qur'an, Vol. 12, p. 121)
Shatibi also noted these differences are only in the fundamental matters of aqeedah:
وذلك أن هذه الفرق إنما تصير فرقا بخلافها للفرقة الناجية في معنى كلي في الدين وقاعدة من قواعد الشريعة ، لا في جزئي من الجزئيات ، إذ الجزئي والفرع الشاذ لا ينشأ عنه مخالفة يقع بسببها التفرق شيعا ، وإنما ينشأ التفرق عند وقوع المخالفة في الأمور الكلية
They are only called sects because they differed from the Saved Sect in respect of one of the universal concepts of deen, and the basic foundations of the shari'ah and not in juz'iyat (particular cases). Because juz'iyat and non-fundamental odd matters do not lead to a sharp disagreement. Sectarianism however occurs due to the disagreement on the universal matters. (Al-I'tisam, Vol. 2, p. 200)
I will not detail the authenticity debates on the various ahadith, however, it should be noted the ahadith saying, "All the 73 sects will enter Hellfire, except for one sect" is refuted by many scholars.
Many scholars such ibn al Wazir argued only the part of this hadith reported by Abu Hurairah is authentic.
As for the additional phrase (ziyada), namely, "all of them are in the hellfire except one," or, "all of them are in heaven except one," or "whoever [follows] what I and my Companions [follow…]", they argued all are inauthentic. Thus, there will exist many sects in the ummah, this is one of the signs of prophethood of Muhammad (saw) and one of its proofs. Ibn al-Wazir, Al-Awasim wa-l-Qawasim, Vol. 3: 170)
The Zaydi jurist Imam Shawkani stated:
أما زيادة: (كونها في النار إلا واحدة) فقد ضعفها جماعة من المحدثين، بل قال ابن حزم: إنها موضوعة
As for the additional phrase "all of them will be in Hellfire except for one", some hadith scholars have maintained that it is weak. Ibn Hazm, on the other hand, maintained that it is fabricated. (Fath al-Qadir, Vol. 1, p. 488)
Ibn al-Wazir al-Yamani states "the hadith as 'My ummah will divide into more than 70 sects. Except one, all will be in Hell' is not authentic as no conditions of validity are met according to Ibn Maja; therefore, al-Bukhari and Muslim did not write down the hadith. He also emphasizes that, in the narrative form accepted as authentic by Tirmidhi, there is no part stating that except one, all of them will be in hell. Besides, he says this is a malicious addition and has no authentic basis. (Al-Awasim wa-l-Qawasim fi l-Dhabb an Sunnah Abi l-Qasim, Vol. 3: 170) Ibn Hazm also rejected this ahadith in Toto. (Al-Fisal, Vol 3, p. 293)
On the other hand, scholars like ibn Hajar, ibn Taymiyah, Iraqi and Albani regarded the additional phrase "all of which are in the hellfire except for one" as authentic.
I'll now consider the implications of the text if the ahadith are assumed authentic.
Who is the Saved Sect?
Identifying the saved sect varies according to the writer.
The saved sect is the Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama'ah according to many Sunni scholars such as: Abul-Husain al-Malati, Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi, Abu al-Muzaffar al-Isfara'ini, al-Shahrastani, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, al-Saksaki and Adud al-Din al-Iji. (Baghdadi, al-Farq bayn al-Fraq, p. 313-318; Adud al-Din al-Iji, Al-Mawaqif fi ilm al-Kalam, p. 429; Saksaki, al-Burhan fi ma'rifat aqa'id ahl al-Adyan, p. 20)
According to Isma'ili scholar, Abu Tammam al-Khawarizmi, the saved sect is Ahl al-Batin, that is the Isma'iliyya. (Bab al-Shaytan, p. 8)
According to Ibn al-Murtada al-Zaydi, it is the Zaydiyya (Kitab al-Milal wa-l-Nihal, pp. 29,36); and according to Abu Abd Allah al-Qalhati, it is the Ibadiyya. (Al-Kashf wal-Bayan, Vol. 2, p. 471)
Qadi Abd al-Jabbar, a leading Mu'tazili, interprets the saved sect as Mu'tazila. (Fadl al-I'tizal, p. 166)
The Saved Majority
All previous interpretations of the saved sect share the view that only one sect will be saved and others are misguided and doomed to hell.
However, in ahadith 2-6 in the evidences section above, the Prophet (saw) only marked the general characteristics of the saved sect. According to one narration he described it as "الجماعة - community, body politic" - ahadith 2-4.
In other narrations as "السواد الأعظم – the greater mass of people" (hadith 6) and "ما أنا عليه وأصحابي - that what I and my Companions are upon" (hadith 5).
Thus, he described this sect as the one adheres to the Prophet (saw) and his Companions in respect of belief and worship and deeds and follows the Muslim body politic, the greater mass of people and what I and my Companions are upon.
Some scholars differed in identifying the jama'ah mentioned in the ahadith and that which Muslims should follow.
Shatibi mentioned in his book al-Itisam the views of the classical scholars in identifying this jama'ah:
If we accept only the hadith narrated by Abu Hurairah (hadith 1) as authentic, the statement of the Prophet (saw): "My Ummah will split into seventy-three sects" is then a prophecy that the Muslim ummah will divide as the Jewish and Christian ummah did.
If we accept the authenticity of the additional parts, that "72 sects will enter Hellfire and only one sect will be saved", this would not mean that only one specific sect of Muslim would be saved and most will enter hellfire. Most people are not involved in intentional, divisive innovations or deviancies. Furthermore, mention of the fire does not necessarily imply the seventy-two sects will remain there forever, or that those sects are disbelievers, at best temporarily tormented and released. Permanency is only for those undertaking shirk, disbelief or hypocrisy.
Ibn Taymiyah stated:
ومن قال : إن الثنتين والسبعين فرقة كل واحد منهم يكفر كفرا ينقل عن الملة فقد خالف الكتاب والسنة وإجماع الصحابة رضوان الله عليهم أجمعين بل وإجماع الأئمة الأربعة وغير الأربعة فليس فيهم من كفر كل واحد من الثنتين وسبعين فرقة
Whoever says the seventy-two sects have all committed kufr (disbelief) in a way that puts them beyond the pale of Islam has gone against the Qur'an, Sunnah and the consensus of the Companions (raa), and also the consensus of the four imams and others. There is no one among them who regarded each one of the seventy-two sects as disbelievers. (Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmoo al-Fatawa, Vol. 7, p. 218)
Majority of scholars agree no one of Ahl al-Qiblah is to be labelled as kafir, unless they deny ma'lum min al-din bi al-darura (what is known/proven in the deen by necessity) (Mughni al-Muhtaj, Vol. 4, p. 434; Sharh al-Zurqani, Vol. 8, 63; Matalib Awli al-Nuha, Vol. 6, 281; Hashiyat ibn Abidin, Vol. 1, 377)
عن أنس بن مالك قال، قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم "من صلَّى صلاتنا، واستقبل قبلتنا، وأكل ذبيحتنا، فذلك المسلم الذي له ذمة الله وذمة رسوله، فلا تخفروا الله في ذمته "
Anas ibn Malik narrated Allah's Messenger (saw) said, "Whoever prays like us and faces our qibla and eats our slaughtered animals is a Muslim and is under Allah's and His Apostle's protection. So do not betray Allah by betraying those who are in His protection." (Bukhari 8:43)
Thus, the saved group is all the Muslim ummah except the sects and groups that deviated, broke away causing turmoil and made innovations in the fundamental matters of aqeedah and worship or denied something of the usul of deen and thus splitting the Muslim ummah.
This kind of deviation is explained in the following hadiths narrated by Anas (ra) That they were discussing about a man in front of the Prophet (saw), regarding his excess in good deeds like jihad and worship, when all of a sudden that man appeared. The Prophet (saw) saw him and said, "By him in whose hand is my life I see the signs of the Devil on his face!" When the man came near, the Prophet (saw) asked him, "Did not you say in your heart you are the best amongst all the people?" He said, "Yes, I did" and went to pray in the masjid. The Prophet (saw) said, "Who amongst you will kill this man?" Abu Bakr (ra) said, "I will kill him, O Prophet of Allah!" So, Abu Bakr (ra) went to kill him but, he was praying in the masjid. Abu Bakr didn't kill him and returned. Then Umar (ra) stood up to kill him. But even Umar (ra) found him praying in the masjid so returned without killing him like Abu Bakr (ra). Then Ali (ra) said, "I will kill him!" The Prophet (saw) said "Yes, you will kill him, only if you find him". When Ali (ra) went to kill him, the man was gone. Then the Prophet (saw) said:
إِنَّ هَذَا لأَوَلُ قَرْنٍ يَخْرُجُ مِنْ أُمَّتِي، لَوْ قَتَلَهُ مَا اخْتَلَفَ اثْنَانِ مِنْ أُمَّتِي "، ثُمَّ قَالَ: " إِنَّ بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ افْتَرَقَتْ عَلَى إِحْدَى وَسَبْعِينَ فِرْقَةً، وَإِنَّ أُمَّتِي سَتَفْتَرِقُ عَلَى اثْنَتَيْنِ وَسَبْعِينَ فِرْقَةً، كُلُّهَا فِي النَّارِ إِلا وَاحِدَةً، وَهِيَ الْجَمَاعَةُ
This was the first horn which emerged in my ummah. Had he been killed, then there would have been no differences (ikhtilaf) in my ummah. The Bani Israel split into 71 sects and in my ummah there will be 72 sects, all of which will be in hell except for one which is Al Jama'ah (the body politic). (Maqdasi, Al-Ahadees al Mukhtara,7:89)
The Prophet' s (saw) statement "only one would enter paradise" in this famous hadith, if it is assumed authentic, would not mean that the majority of the Muslim ummah will enter hellfire - mainstream Muslims who maintained the fundamental principles of Islamic aqeedah and faith will be saved. Sects and groups that deviated, broke away causing socio-political turmoil or innovated in fundamental matters of creed or worship.
Furthermore, mention of the fire does not necessarily imply the seventy-two sects will remain there forever or those sects are disbelievers. They will at best be temporarily tormented and ultimately released aside from those undertaking shirk, disbelief or hypocrisy.
Adud al-Din al-Iji, Al-Mawaqif fi ilm al-Kalam
Baghdadi, al-Farq bayn al-Fraq
Ibn Abidin, Hashiyat ibn Abidin
Ibn al-Wazir, Al-Awaṣim wa-l-Qawasim fi l-Dhabb an Sunnah Abi l-Qasim
Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmoo al-Fataawa
Ibn Hazm, Al-Fisal
Khalifah, Mafhum al-Firqah
Matalib awli al-Nuha
Shawkani, Fath al-Qadir
Zurqani, Sharh al-Zurqani
Qalhati, al-Kashf wa al-Bayan
Qadi Abd al-Jabbar, Fadl al-I'tizal
Qurtubi, Al Jami li Ahkam al-Qur'an
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