Defining the Muslim Mainstream: Who Are the Saved and Who Are the Sects?

[The following is a transcript of a lecture with Dr. Shadee Elmasry. It contains minor modifications from the spoken word for the purposes of readability. Transcribed by Musaab Salloum.]

A very famous and critical hadith, that is used, and sometimes misused, reads:

Awf ibn Malik reported that the Prophet ﷺ said, 'The Jews split into 71 sects: one will enter Paradise and 70 will enter Hell. The Christians split into 72 sects: 71 will enter Hell and one will enter Paradise. By Him in Whose Hand is my soul, my Ummah will split into 73 sects: one will enter Paradise and 72 will enter Hell’ (Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi).

The Companions asked the Prophet ﷺ who the group which entered paradise would be, and he gave a clear answer that gives some peace of heart to the believers.

He replied, ‘Al-Jama'ah’. Al-Jamaa’ah, the largest one. He gave an empirical answer that is objective, not subjective, and easily discernible.

One might wonder, if the ummah of Muhammad divides into 73 groups, more than the Jews and Christians, does that mean there is less clarity in the message and that the Jews and Christians did a better job of keeping their people together? No, because the point to remember here is that the sects of the previous religions are large and vast, while their saved sect is narrow and slim, usually those who were surrounding the Prophets at their time.

In contrast, this ummah has a lot of rahmah. The sects are there, as the Prophet said they will mimic the sects of the Jews and Christians, copy them, and adopt their ideas. However, the difference is that in the ummah of Islam these people are in the minority and will always be in the minority. The history of sects of Islam has groups like the Jabriyyah, but even though these sects are in the books, they were only a small number of people.

So even though the ummah has more sects, these sects are smaller in terms of their population. Secondly, even though these sects go into the hellfire, it should be noted that the Messenger ﷺ described them as “my ummah”. So although their creeds are off, and they earned hellfire for themselves, being in the ummah of the Messenger ﷺ is still a great thing, and the rahma may still reach them. The Messenger ﷺ, in fact, is permitted by Allah to make shafa’a (intercession) for anyone in his ummah. Nevertheless, when these people who changed the religion reach the Prophet at the Fountain on the Day of Judgement, he will be told not to greet them, and the angels will drag them to the hellfire (As reported in Muslim).

None of us wants to be that position, dragged away from from the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ on Judgment Day, so it is critical to examine our beliefs and make sure we are always people of the jamaa’ah.

What is the jamaa’ah?

The jamaa’ah is what is the mainstream of the entire ummah, from the East to the West. At one masjid, the entire jamaa’ah is upon something. In a different masjid, the jamaa’ah is upon something else. An entire country as a jamaa’ah is upon something, while in another country the jamaa’ah there is upon something else. So which jamaa’ah is it?

The jamaa’ah is the ummah itself.

The Prophet ﷺ said, “My ummah will never gather upon a misguidance (Tirmidhi).” You will never find in the entire ummah any common trait that is a misguidance. Some say this hadeeth is weak, but the ulama say that the ummah has accepted this hadeeth, so it is sound by the acceptance of the ulama of hadeeth.

Imam Ja’far Al-Sadiq was asked , “What is the knowledge that renders a scholar to be the most knowledgeable scholar?” Was it the knowledge of hadeeth, or fiqh, or tafseer? His answer was full of brilliance. He said it is the one who is most knowledgeable of the differences of the scholars. This points to the importance of travel. Imam Al-Shafii once questioned how a scholar could be of any weight if he never traveled the ummah, taking from this narration that the ummah would never gather upon a misguidance. If a scholar is only provincial and stays in just one place, never seeing what the rest of the ummah is all about, then the scope and relevancy of their knowledge will be severely disadvantaged.

The importance of the jamaa’ah is clearly evident in the narration where the Prophet ﷺ warned us that the sheep that flees away from the rest of the flock will easily be eaten by the wolf (Ahmad & Tirmidhi). This indicates not only the ideology and beliefs of the mainstream, but also the importance of being physically with the jamaa’ah, in their prayers and holidays. When the Prophet ﷺ spoke about the communal Eid prayers, he said even the women who are unable to pray (due to menstruation) should go out and be with the jamaa’ah. The wisdom here is that in going to see people, and be in their company, we will see others’ behavior over time. We witness someone every time at prayer, and will notice, for example, they have extended their Sunnah prayers, that they are quiet and calm after the prayer and we will learn from them.

The believers improve one another. You will see someone who has advanced in a certain aspect of the religion, and the thought will come to you, “Is it not time I started practicing this good act as well?” This is something that we see and experience time and time again. The Qur’an says “Has not the time yet come for those who believe that their hearts should be humble for the remembrance of Allah and what has come down of the truth?” This is the psychology that goes on in a person’s brain when they are constantly with the jamaa’ah. You see people and say to yourself is it not time that I do this as well? Is it not time I take on the memorization of the Quran as the huffaz are doing? Is it not time I observed the sunnahs that others are observing, that I behave as this pious person is behaving?

Additionally, there is the psychology that a believer is a mirror to the other believers. In keeping with the jamaa’ah, certain things are unbecoming. Certain deeds and attributes are prohibited and the jamaa’ah does not do them. If you enter a jamaa’ah with these negative attributes—such as foulness in your speech, holding bigotry within yourself, having arrogance within yourself, you will clash with the jamaa’ah until over time, your time with them will force you to rid yourself of those attributes.

It is for this reason that the scholars were always very suspicous of someone who abandons the jamaa’ah. Once a man came to the Messenger ﷺ seeking help gaining wealth, and asked for a capital investment. The Prophet ﷺ invested in him, and so too did the others after seeing the Prophet ﷺ do so. The man’s business did well and continued to grow to the point that he had to move away, and he moved his business far from the masjid next to a mountain. The Prophet ﷺ sent him a message inquiring that the he had not been to the masjid for some time. The man replied that he would come back, but time went by and he remained alone and away from the community. The Prophet ﷺ saw the wealth of this man as a trial for him. What was his fitnah? He was no longer a part of the masjid. He was not attending with the jamaa’ah. There were many masaajid in Madinah in this time, and his face was not a normal face anymore in any of the masaajid of Allah. Finally, the Messenger ﷺ sent the man a letter requesting his capital back. The profit that he earned would be for the man to keep, but the original investment was recalled. He said, “I did not invest in you so that you can forget the masjid.” Still, the man did not return to the community. When others saw that the Prophet ﷺ had withdrawn his investment the others did the same as well until the man’s business collapsed and the man died in this state. We cannot let our dunya take us away from the jamaa’ah. We cannot let hatred take us away from the jamaa’ah.

There was a group of munafiqeen, hypocrites, in Madinah who rallied some ignorant people to established hatred between them and some of the other companions. They established their own masjid (opening a rival mosque is not something unique to North America). We don’t like these other people, so let’s open a rival mosque. This happened in the time of the Prophet ﷺ. What did the Prophet ﷺ do with it? He had it burned down because the basis of that mosque was not taqwa (Tabari). Allah speaks about it in the Qur’an and it is called “a mosque of harm” (Surat al-Tawba). What looked like piety was actually meant to divide the community, and Allah called it a masjid established on kufr and it was burned down because it was meant to break up the jamaa’ah.

This is why our jamaa’ah is called “Ahl us-Sunnah wal-Jamaa’ah”. We have to realize our salvation is with physical attendance to the jamaa’ah, and we shouldn’t take this for granted. That doesn’t mean we have to like everyone, but we have to know that they are the greatest of numbers, and therefore they are on the truth. They may not necessarily mean they are on the truth in everything of course. They might make mistakes. The proof for this is that the Prophet ﷺ said "Whoever revives a Sunnah from my Sunnah and the people practice it, will have the same reward of those who practice it without their reward diminishing" (Ibn Majah). This implies that there could be a community in which one of the sunnahs is dead and a person would revive it. The Prophet ﷺ also talks about those who establish a bad example. Thus, in the sub-communities of the ummah there can be flaws, but the solution is not fleeing from them.

It is said that Ali ibn Abi Talib (كَرَم الله وَجهَه) said that, "The jamaa’ah, the larger community, with its impurities, is better than the breakaway group with its purity". There can be people who are on the truth, but they won’t deal with anyone else, which means there is arrogance there. It is better to be with those who have flaws, with those who have mistakes, for how else will people rectify their errors? If every good person said I’m not going to be with you, because you have a problem, how will the ummah ever be rectified? The Qur’an and Sunnah have a great number of commandments about encouraging the good and forbidding the wrong. If you are in a breakaway group, with all of your purity, how are you going to encourage the good and forbid the wrong? The breakaway groups, no matter how pure, are less in the sight of Allah than the jamaa’ah that is trying to correct itself, despite its flaws.

To keep the body of the jamaa’ah healthy, there are two things we should focus on:

1) Covering the flaws of others

When Abu Bakr al-Siddiq was made the Khalifa he had the authority to give verdicts of punishment on people. When he was asked what he would do if he saw two people doing an immoral act, he said he would cover them up. We have been taught a beautiful prayer by the Messenger ﷺ: “Oh Allah cover our flaws and calm our fears of exposure.” We should not think this is hypocrisy. If you have a flaw, the Prophet taught us to cover it up so you don’t set a bad example. We don’t cover it up to have a good reputation. If you cover it up to have a good reputation, it is ostentation. However we should cover it up to set a good example and keep decency in the public sphere. This is not hypocrisy. We should always make this du’a for ourselves and the Muslims. If we are going to expose people’s flaws, we can expect the same to happen to us from others. We see this amongst groups established on hating and destroying others—they are always dividing. Once they run out of people to hate and condemn, they become carnivorous and cannibalize and hate one another and they divide. This is one of the signs of a sectarian group that doesn’t have a sound basis—they are always dividing.

2) Caring about the matters of the Muslims

A hadeeth states “Whoever does not care about the matters of the Muslims is not one of them” (Tabarani). The matters of the Muslims are always changing, and wherever you go they are changing. If you were to be transplanted to any community of Muslims anywhere in the world it is your responsibility to get involved. Who is sick, who is dying, who has needs, what’s happening? This is part of your duty. Alhamdulillah, new communities and centers are popping up, and we should make dua for these endeavours. We are not a people who are in a race. For any jamaa’ah that rises up, any masjid that gets established, we should make du’a for them and support them. We are not rivals or people with a membership, where joining one group excludes you from the others. We have to establish this feeling of unity across the masaajid. Whenever someone is sick amongst us, or a subgroup within our community suffers a tribulation we should be there in support of them. There are subgroups you may not relate to. You have an ummah, and the ummah is divided into nations, and the nations are divided into communities, and the communities have sub-communities.

Take the person you are praying next to, for example. Your mother and their mother will have nothing in common. Your father and his father have nothing in common. Yet here you are, praying in the line, next to each other. You have to forge that bond now. It may seem artificial but you have to do it, and it is part of our deen.

Forge these bonds, or otherwise, it is not jamaa’ah, it is just people in the same place. Jamaa’ah implies truth. You are on the truth. You are on something everlasting and this is the teaching of our Messenger ﷺ.


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