Too Many Islamic Sects and Groups, Which Group is Right?

The Emergence of the Concept of Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama’ah

In the early days of Islam, there was no such thing as the concept of ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah. The Prophet (peace be upon him) spoke much about the virtues of following the jama’ah (community), the Quran and his Sunnah, the last component signifying the way Islam is to be lived and practiced as taught and shown by the Prophet (peace be upon him), the most excellent role model for believers.

At the same time, both the Quran and the Prophet’s Sunnah warned against disunity, schism and sects. The Quran says for example:

Surely they who divided their religion into parts and became sects, you have no concern with them; their affair is only with Allah, then He will inform them of what they did. (6:159)

Those who split up their religion, and become (mere) sects — each party rejoicing in that which is with itself. (30:32)

It is not by chance that this particular verse is preceded by verses wherein Allah speaks about the true religion, Islam, and some of its underlying qualities and traits, and how it had been patterned in accordance with the inner nature of man.

Man’s inner disposition and Allah’s only religion, Islam, were meant for each other. This is to always serve as a powerful unifying factor among Muslims. It has so much potential that it can easily ward off all those forces which entail and advocate discordant and conflict-ridden inclinations.

The Quran thus in the same context urges:

Then set your face upright for religion in the right state — the nature made by Allah in which He has made men; there is no altering of Allah’s creation; that is the right religion, but most people do not know. (30:30)

However, it has been made clear that making divisions and sects in Islam would in due course become inevitable. Such is to be viewed as a serious test for the followers of the final revelation to mankind and its Prophet, Muhammad (peace be upon him).

It follows that those who fail the test will fall into grave error, but those who pass it will secure immense benefits.

The Prophet once said that his Ummah (community) will split up into seventy-three sects or groups. All will enter Hellfire except only one which is the consensus of the community or the Ummah (jama’ah), or the one which will follow the course of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his companions.

In the same vein, during his farewell pilgrimage in his last sermon, the Prophet (peace be upon him) stressed that he was leaving behind him two things, the Quran and his example, the Sunnah, and if the people followed those two they will never go astray.

Since the dawn of Islamic culture and civilization, beginning with the Prophet’s era, Muslims coined different terms in order to describe those who followed the religious path trodden by the Prophet and his companions, and those who did otherwise.

Some of the terms articulated for the purpose were: ahl al-qiblah (the people of the Qiblah, as a symbol of one vision, purpose and orientation), ahl al-sunnah (the people of the Prophet’s Sunnah), ahl ta’ah Allah (the people who duly obey Allah), ahl al-wafa’ bi ahd Allah (the people who fulfill their covenant with Allah), ahl al-tawhid (the people of Allah’s Oneness); ahl al-iman (the people of faith), ahl al-bid’ah (the people of religious innovations), ahl al-furqah (the people of separation and schism), ahl al-ahwa’ (the people who followed their vain desires).

Of these idioms, most commonly utilized were ahl al-sunnah for true believers and the true followers of the Quran and Sunnah, and ahl al-bid’ah as well as ahl al-furqah for those who deviated from the clearly and straightforwardly delineated Islamic right path.

In all probability, the first person who in academic circles used officially the expression ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah was Imam Abu Ja’far al-Tahawi (d. 321 AH/ 933 CE) who in the introduction to his treatise on Islamic creed or aqidah (al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah) said that the book was an exposition of the creed of the ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah in accordance with the understanding of Muslim jurists.

While commenting on the Quranic verse: {And as to those whose faces turn white (on the Day of Judgment), they shall be in Allah’s mercy; in it they shall abide.} (Al ‘Imran, 107), Abu al-Fida’ Ibn Kathir (d. 774 AH/ 1372 CE) remarked that a companion Abdullah ibn Abbas (d. 68 AH/ 687 CE) said that the people implied in the said verse were (the people of) ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah.

However, it is very unlikely that the term or the maxim in question was known as such during the early days of Islam and that Abdullah ibn Abbas, therefore, could make use of it in his lifetime.

This is because there are no reports whatsoever that anybody ever employed it at the time of the Prophet’s companions or afterwards till perhaps the end of the 3rd AH/ 9th CE or the early 4th AH/ 10th CE centuries soon after which using the maxim ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah became a standard.

What Abu al-Fida’ Ibn Kathir did in his exegesis of the Quran, it appears, was that he in the spirit of his time and the latter’s lexis interpreted, rather than narrated verbatim, the words of Abdullah b. Abbas who in point of fact said (the people of) ahl al-sunnah and not (the people of) ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah.

This could be further corroborated by another eminent exegete, al-Qurtubi (d. 671 AH/ 1272 CE), who made reference to the same account of Abdullah ibn Abbas in the context of elucidating the same Quranic verse, but maintained that Abdullah b. Abbas said that those people whose faces will turn white on the Day of Judgment will be (the people of) ahl al-sunnah rather than (the people of) ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah.

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About Dr. Spahic Omer
Dr. Spahic Omer, an award-winning author, is an Associate Professor at the Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). He studied in Bosnia, Egypt and Malaysia. In the year 2000, he obtained his PhD from the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur in the field of Islamic history and civilization. His research interests cover Islamic history, culture and civilization, as well as the history and theory of Islamic built environment. He can be reached at: [email protected].