The myth of the “conference of 72 sects”

The other day on Twitter someone retweeted a Qadiani (a member of the so-called Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam) repeating a much-rehearsed claim: that according to a newspaper report at the time, 72 sects of Muslims had a conference so as to denounce the 73rd, namely them. They claim that this was foretold by the Prophet Muhammad (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) in a hadith and thus the conference was the fulfilment of a prophecy and proof of the authenticity of their so-called prophet, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who lived in then British India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This claim can be very easily refuted. There actually aren’t 72 sects of Muslims (or of Muslim origin) in the Indian Subcontinent; there are more like four or five. There actually is a Hadith that the Ummah (Muslim community) would split into 73 sects (in comparison to the Jews’ 71 and the Christians’ 72) and all of them would be in the Fire (Hell) except one. This is understood to refer to the mainstream of the Muslims, called Ahlus-Sunnah w’al-Jama’ah or the “people of the prophetic Way and the Community” which is defined by the four major schools of Islamic law and the two major schools of Islamic doctrine. It is inconceivable that a small sect based entirely in one corner of India with very few followers outside that region which behaves completely differently to mainstream Islam, such as using deception to spread its message or requiring a big financial commitment from its adherents, could be what this Hadith refers to (Islam is not a closed sect; all its texts are open for anyone to read, there is no clergy and there are no secrets).

An Iranian colour drawing of a castle, with a walkway leading to it with men passing along it in both directionsIn the first century or so of Islam, the Ummah did split into a lot of sects: the Khawarij and the Shi’a both split many ways, some of the divisions being so extreme that the sects fell outside Islam and others not quite. The Khawarij or “secessionists” in particular were notorious for very bitter and acrimonious splits and for the murderous behaviour of some of the factions produced. However, only one remnant of that movement remains, the Ibadiyyah which are found in Oman and parts of North and East Africa. There were also the Mu’tazilites and some other sects which disagreed over the concept of Free Will and Predestination and the role (or lack thereof) of Greek philosophy. They flourished in Baghdad and a few other places during the Abbasid era, but that era came to an end with the Mongol invasions which also finished off some of the Shi’a statelets found in Syria and Iran (such as depicted in the image on the right, showing an Ismaili fortress in Iran). Today there are two main groups of Shi’ites (the Twelvers based in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Pakistan) and the Zaydis, based in Yemen, while the more extreme groups such as the Ismailis and the Dawoodi Bohras mostly keep themselves to themselves (in their early years, they were also notorious for violence, hence the name Assassins, and the Fatimid dynasty of Egypt, from which the leaders of the Bohras claim descent, produced a number of bloodthirsty tyrants).

How many sects were involved in denouncing the Qadianis in the early 20th century? Definitely not 72. Probably not even ten. The four main groups, the Deobandis, Brelvis, Ahle-Hadith (an Indian offshoot of Wahhabism) and the Twelver Shi’a, all pronounced their own refutations but outside the Indian subcontinent, mainstream scholars do not regard Deobandis and Brelvis as sects, and you have Arab scholars who have studied with scholars from both groups. Schools of legal thought such as exist in Sunni Islam and Sufi orders such as the Naqshbandis, Shadhilis and so on, do not count as sects. Muslim organisations do not count as sects.

Finally, there are a number of hadeeths that refer to the Muslim community splitting into 73 sects — you can find them with a Google search or on any online hadith database — but you will find no reference to a conference in which the 72 denounce the 73rd. If we look at how the sects emerged, it would have been impossible for them to do that, not only because they hated each other and differed among themselves too much to come together to denounce anyone, but also because not all of the sects survived long enough to know of the existence of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad or his followers. They would have known about the early false prophets such as Musaylima and would all have agreed that a new prophethood was impossible and that any claimant to prophethood was a liar, but they had many other similarities which were not enough to prevent them splitting numerous ways and committing acts of mass murder and other atrocities, as well as treachery against the Muslims as in the case of the early Shi’ites in Iraq.

It goes to show the importance of learning for Muslims, and new Muslims in particular. These facts can easily be found out, even more nowadays than when I first became Muslim when the Internet as a public medium was very new. The very first thing we were told in Islam was “read!”. They can only deceive people who are unaware. Remember: there are no secrets in Islam.

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