Question: What is the meaning of the following hadeeth:
((My ummah will be divided into seventy three sects. All of them will be in the Fire except one?)), [Saheeh Muslim, no.976]
Who is that sect ? And will the seventy two sects live forever in the Fire, as the mushrik will or not? And does the term "ummah" of the Prophet (sal-Allaahu `alayhe wa sallam) apply to thos who follow him as well as those who do not, or is it to the former only?
Response: What is meant by the term "ummah" in this hadeeth is the ummah of response (ummatul-ijaabah - those who responded to the call to Islaam after having been invited), which shall be divided into seventy three sects; seventy two of which are deviant, who practice innovated religious practices that do not constitute apostacy. Each shall be punished in accordance to the innovations and deviation (it practiced), except for those who Allaah pardons and forgives. Their final abode will be Jannah. The only sect that will be safe is Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamaa'ah, who adhere to the Sunnah of the Prophet (sal-Allaahu `alayhe wa sallam) and hold fast to what he and his companions (radhi-yallaahu 'anhum) were holding to. It is they about whom the Prophet (sal-Allaahu `alayhe wa sallam) said:
((A group of my ummah shall remain steadfast, on the truth, victorious, unharmed by those who oppose them, and do not support them, until the death or until the Day of Resurrection)), [Saheeh al-Bukhaaree, nos.71 and 3641, and Saheeh Muslim, no.1920]
As for those whose innovation casts them out of Islaam, they belong to the ummah of invitation (ummatud-da'wah - those to whom the Prophet (sal-Allaahu `alayhe wa sallam) was sent to invite to Islaam), not the ummatul-ijaabah. They shall remain in the Hell Fire forever, and this is the most valid opinion.
It is also said that the term "ummah" in this hadeeth means ummatud-da'wah, which is a general term indicating all those to whom the Prophet (sal-Allaahu `alayhe wa sallam) was sent (i.e. mankind) those who believe and those who do not believe. Whereas the term "the saved sect" is the ummatul-ijaabah, which strictly applies to those who believe in the Prophet (sal-Allaahu `alayhe wa sallam), truthfully and die in such a state (of belief). This is the sect that whill be saved from the Fire; either by prior punishment or without prior punishment, and their final abode will be Jannah, (inshaa.-Allaah).
As for the seventy two sects (in the second opinion) they are all, excluding the saved sect, disbelievers who will live forever in the Fire. Hence, it is clear that the ummatud-da'wah is more general in connotation than the ummatul-ijaabah. That is to say, whoever belongs to the ummatul-ijaabah belongs to the ummatud-da'wah, while not everyone of the ummatud-da'wah belongs to the ummatul-ijaabah.
And with Allaah lies all success and may Allaah send prayers and salutations upon our Prophet (sal-Allaahu `alayhe wa sallam) and his family and his companions.
The Permanent Committee for Islaamic Research and Fataawa
Fataawa Islaamiyyah - Volume 1, Page 16