Sectarianism In Islam

1. It is important to realize that, unfortunate as it may be, it is a division that has already been made and accepted by the Muslims and by the adherents of these sections. It would, under the circumstances, be unrealistic to refute the existence of these sects. These sections do exist, even if their existence is against the teachings of the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (P), but it would be self-deception to assume that they will cease to exist in the near future.

2. There is a tradition which declares that Islam has 72 (73, according to another version) sects.1 It is usually argued that this narration patronizes or even encourages the formation of sects in Islam. Even though its sanad does not have any flaw, but its meaning is usually not understood.

Its correct understanding can be either of the following:

    [a] that the figure mentioned in this narration does not represent an actual number, but is just a metaphor. Also, the style of the matn of this narration is not a description of these sects, but rather a warning of their possible emergence. So, this hadith describes a warning of the Prophet (P) that a large number of sects could appear in the Ummah if the people did not observe the teachings of Qur’an, like:

    “… hold fast, all of you together, to the cable of Allah, and do not separate…” [Qur’an, 3:103] (Pickthall’s tr.)

    Hence in light of this way of explanation, it is clear that this narration does not encourage the formation of sects, but, on the other hand, warns the Muslims to keep themselves away from those activities, which lead to the formation of sects.

    [b] Another explanation of this narration has been given by Goldziher. He believes that this narration originally meant that Islam had 73 virtues (not sects) as against the 71 virtues of Judaism and 72 of Christianity. The term virtues was misunderstood and transformed into branches or sects.2

3. From the basic definition of a “Sect” in Islam, we may regard as real sects in Islam as only those groups, whose members departed from the Sunnah on essential issues of fundamental importance for Islam, and who, on such issues, contradict the Ijma’.

Ash-Shahrastani in his famous al-Milal wan-Nihal (1:4) writes that the faith of Sunni Muslims was nothing else but the principles of Islam set forth by the Prophet(P) himself, and the “Sects” in Islam were outside of the Sunni faith, and were four only: al-Qadriya, As-Sifatiya, al-Khawarij and Shi’a.

Division of this kind dates back to the early days of Islam and was not (initially) caused by questions of religion, but by the questions of the constitution of the new state. Since politics is but a part of the “Deen” of Islam, therefore these political questions were blended very soon with the religious backing, and thus the sectarianism became sound and permanent.

Ash-Shahrastani in al-Milal wan-Nihal writes:

In every age, the greatest number of times the swords were drawn was on the issue of Imamate, rather than on any other issue.3

Ash-Shahrastani has mentioned the following events to be the causes4 of true sectarianism in Islam:

  • The differences between Ali (K) and Mu’awiya (R) on the Caliphate.
  • The disobedience of Kharijites.
  • The persistence of She’aan-e-Haydar-e-Karrar on the exclusive claim of Caliphate (Imamate) for Ali (K) and his progeny.
  • The (theological) debates of Jabr-o-Qadr and their political relevance to imply that a incompetent Caliph was the will of the God and thus could not be replaced except by God Himself.

4. From today’s perspective, the differences in the various Muslim groups are of the following nature:

    [a] Basic Differences: These are the same differences, which originated sectarianism in the first place, and exist only between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. Thus there are only 2 “sects” (in the true sense of this word) in Islam.

    [b] Secondary Differences: These differences are related to the subordinate and minor issues of prayer, zakat, interpretation of Qur’an, etc. These differences exist among the Sunnis, between Ahl-e-Hadith, the four fiqahs, etc.

Now, differences of type [b] can be eliminated to a reasonably acceptable degree by permitting the respective group to follow its own set of inheritance or family etc. Laws (which will be called its “Personal Law”), but restricting all the groups to follow the Civil & the Criminal Law of that Group, whose adherents are in majority in the area in question.

So, in Pakistan, for example, the Law of the Land is the Hanafi interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, while all other groups are free to follow their respective Personal Law.


  1. Ibn Majah, Kitab al-Fitn, Chapter 17: Iftaraq al-Umam []
  2. To support this statement of his, Goldziher has provided a reference to one of his own articles, which, in addition to being in the most difficult German, was published in Vienna in 1874. It is safe to say that it is impossible to obtain in this part of the world. Thus, I have no idea of what the intellectual basis of his above statement about this narration was. []
  3. Ash-Shahrastani, al-Milal wan-Nihal, 1:16 (Cairo, 1948) []
  4. ibid. []

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