First of all, let us stress that Muslims should beware of all routes and channels that may lead to divisions, differences and conflicts among them. They should abide by the Qur’an and Sunnah, which are the assured means of salvation. Almighty Allah says: “And hold fast, all of you together, by the covenant of Allah and be not divided among yourselves; and remember with gratitude Allah’s favour on you; for ye were enemies and He joined your hearts in love, so that by His Grace, ye became brethren; and ye were on the brink of the pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus doth Allah make His Signs clear to you: That ye may be guided.” (Al `Imran: 103)

Moreover, it is totally wrong to claim that a particular group of Muslims is destined to hell-fire. Likewise, it is unlawful to specify a particular group to be the one that will be saved on the Day of Judgment as long as there is no specification of any group in the sources.

In response to the question in point, the European Council for Fatwa and Research issued the following fatwa:

“The hadith in question is the one that was narrated by Mu`awiyah Ibn Abi Sufyan, who reported that the Messenger of Allah said: “The People of the Book divided in their religion into seventy-two groups and this Ummah will divide into seventy-three groups, all of which are destined for hell-fire but one, which is the Group (al-Jama`ah).” (Narrated by Ahmad and Abu Dawud) Other companions also narrated hadiths carrying the same meaning but varying in the use of certain terms. Some did not mention the phrase “all of which are destined for hell-fire but one”. The scholars of hadith differed on the authenticity of this hadith and our response in regards to its meaning for those who considered it to be an authentic hadith is as follows:

The hadith stated the number of groups which this nation will divide into, but did not specify or name any one of those groups. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) also clearly stated that all those groups are from his Ummah, as though he (peace and blessings be upon him) aimed to warn his Ummah from dividing among themselves and to hold on to the Jama`ah, thus his warning, “all of which are in hell-fire”. It is important to understand that this warning, and other similar warnings in other hadiths, comes as a result of a Muslim committing a sin but by no means implies that the Muslim will remain in hell-fire for eternity as do the infidels. Rather, they (Muslims) enter hell-fire as sinful believers and are subject to the appeal of a prophet, angel or the believers. They may also have good deeds or have suffered great trials in the worldly life, which would result in the punishment of hell-fire being withheld. Above all, Allah may choose to forgive them and bestow upon them His mercies and blessings, particularly if those individuals had sincerely tried to find the true path but lost their way in that effort.

It is essential to note in this context that it is totally wrong to attach the warning of hell-fire to a particular group of Muslims, as the hadith did not mention any specific group. It is also unlawful to specify a particular group to be the one that will be saved on the Day of Judgment.

The implication of the hadith is for Muslims to beware of all routes and channels that may lead to divisions, differences and conflicts arising among them. Muslims are to act and behave as brothers of one another, as decreed by Allah, and must aim to perfect their religion according to the Qur’an and Sunnah, and must also give true advice to all Muslims.

It is haram (unlawful) for anyone to use this hadith as a vehicle to create conflicts and hatred among Muslims, as the Qur’an and the Sunnah are both clear as to the obligation of allegiance to and love for all Muslims. To leave this undeniable matter and cling on to a misunderstanding of the previously mentioned hadith would be a tremendously dangerous and unlawful thing to do. Allah Almighty states in the Holy Qur’an: “Who is better in speech than one who calls to God, works righteousness and says: I am one of those who submit in Islam?” (Fussilat: 33)”

Moreover, the prominent Muslim scholar, Dr. Muhammad Abu Laylah, professor of the Islamic Studies & Comparative Religions at Al-Azhar University adds:

“The hadith you have referred to is reported by Imam Ahmad in his Musnad. But most of the scholars, however, doubt the authenticity of the end of this hadith, i.e., his saying “all of which are destined for hell-fire but one”.

Nevertheless, we should keep in mind that adherence to the Qur’an and the Purified Sunnah of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is the assured means for salvation in the Hereafter. So, it is your duty to firmly stick to the Glorious Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).”