Ash’aris, Maturidi, Ahle Sunnah and the 73 Sects

According to the scholars, are the Ash’aris and Maturidis a part of Ahle Sunnah? Do they belong to one of the 73 sects? How can the following hadiths be explained in the light of the hadith of 73 sects, or in other words, since the Ash’aris and the Maturidis are the largest group, aren’t they the truthful ones?

“Follow the way of the largest group of Muslims! For, he who deviates from this group will be thrown into Hell!” [Sunnan Ibn Majah, Hadith: 3950]

“Allah will never allow my Ummah to unite upon misguidance and incorrect beliefs. Allah’s mercy, blessings and protection are with the largest group of Muslims. And he who deviates from this largest group of Muslims will be thrown into Hell.” [Sunan Al Tirmizi Vol.2 Pg.39]

Ahle Sunnah Wal Jama'ah has two definitions:

In the broader sense, it refers to those Muslims who do not have beliefs that take them out of the fold of Islam. More specifically, it refers to Muslims with the correct Aqeedah.

The Maturidis and Ash'aris fall into the first category and not the second. They have some wrong beliefs regarding Tawheed Asma wa Sifaat, but their mistakes in Aqeedah do not take them out of the fold of Islam.

Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyaan (may Allaah be pleased with him) narrated that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) stood among us and said: “Those who came before you of the people of the Book split into seventy-two sects, and this ummah will split into seventy-three: seventy-two in Hell and one in Paradise, and that is the Jama'ah.” (Abu Dawood 4597)

This Hadith needs an explanation as it is often misunderstood. The following are a few points to keep in mind when understanding this Hadith:

  • The hadith mentions "My ummah will split". Notice that those with wrong beliefs are still referred to as “my ummah” so they are still Muslims and part of his ummah.
  • The number seventy is used in Arabic to refer to a large undefined number. So it is not an exact number. Rather, this hadith means that Muslims will split into more groups than Jews or Christians.
  • 73 sects going to hell” does not mean every person who attaches himself to those sects will go to hell. It is similar to the hadith that state an adulterer or murderer will go to hell. We know these hadiths to be warnings and Allah can forgive these people if He wills. Further, even if they do go, it is not forever. The same understanding applies to the 73 sects. It is a warning and Allah can choose to forgive a member of these groups for his other good deeds or punish a member of Ahl Sunnah for his sins.
  • This hadith applies to people who knowingly have deviant ‘Aqeedah or innovations. As for the layman who is truly and sincerely ignorant, Allah might judge him for his sincerity and forgive his ignorance.

As for the hadiths mentioned:

The Arabic word 'Jama'ah' does not mean ‘largest group’, this is a mistranslation. It can be translated as community and the scholars say it refers to the community of Sahabah, i.e., these hadiths are telling us to stick to the way of the Sahabah. That is where the term Ahle Sunnah Wal Jama'ah comes from. It means people who follow the Sunnah and the Sahabah. These hadiths refer to the Sahabah and not the majority of Muslims in any place or time.

In Iran, majority are Shia’. In India, majority are Barelvi. These days, more Muslims do not pray five times a day than those who do. All of these are examples of cases where it is clear that the majority are incorrect.

The ‘majority concept’ is very flawed. If we accept that the majority is always right then studying evidences becomes baseless, and people will just blindly follow the majority, which is what many people do these days and it is wrong. Allah says, “If you follow the majority of people of earth, they will lead you astray,” (Surah Al-An’aam 6:116)

Also, the 73 sects hadith says that a group of this ‘ummah will always remain on the truth, it does not say if that group is large or small. At times it will be the majority, at times it could be the minority. The truth is what is found in the Qur’an and Sunnah, not that which was made up later on.

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