Q. There is a hadith that predicts that the Muslims will be divided into 72 sects, and only one will be correct. Is this hadith valid, and does this mean that Muslims will never unite? In your opinion, why are they unable to reconcile modernity with their Islamic beliefs and traditions?
A. I believe that there will be several sub-sects forming in Islam, the way it has happened in all other religions. There is already evidence of this. Now one may say there is a hadith on the subject. However, the hadith does not represent any wonderful foretelling ability, this is a natural development in any religion, as it gets older, it gets more segmented. For those who believe that some day the Muslims will miraculously be united by the advent of Jesus and the Mahdi, click here.
The Muslim world is not all steeped in ignorance, there are several who are wise enough to know that the classical understanding of the Shari'ah needs revamping, as does the entire hadith corpus. I don't know if in my lifetime the hadith will be abandoned, indeed I cannot see it ever happening, as there will always be the problem of differentiating between sunna and hadith. There is also the strength of tradition, which cannot be gotten rid of once it is firmly established.
As far as the difficulty of reconciling modernity and Islam, this exists only in the minds of those who wrongly see the Qur'an as a document which presents a system that is immutable. To use Fazlur Rahman's words, the Muslims have confused the inimitability of the Qur'an with immutability, and the Qur'an never makes a claim for the latter. As a matter of fact, the jurists recognized this and came up with the principle of "taghyeer al ahkaam li taghyeer al azmaan" -- change of ruling according to change of time. That the Qur'an was revealed in a male centered, medieval society seems to have escaped the consideration of many traditionists, the same traditionists who claim that during the Prophet Muhammad's life, there were several rulings that were enacted and then abrogated. So a question that is raised is if in the period of 23 years many rulings were (allegedly) abrogated, in the space of more than 1400 years, is it not more likely that several rulings would be, unless we assume that time has frozen?
The solution is a simple one, we must realize that the Qur'anic law is merely a solution for a particular time, and this is shown by the concept of ratio legis (or illa), where Allah often tells us why a particular ruling is there. As the jurists know, if a situation no longer exists, then its appropriate ruling also no longer applies. We read the Qur'an and use it as a matrix for our daily lives, and the particular rulings are often not permanent. For example, at the time of revelation, one of the accepted results of war was the enslavement of people from the losing side, which was the concept then and was practiced worldwide. As such, in the medieval period, we see jihad and enslavement being mentioned. In a modern, more humane world, the protocol of war has changed and the concept of slavery does not exist, and so no jihad may allow this. Modern jurists, in addition to the rule I mentioned above, refer to the "time-space" factor when referring to the Shari'ah, and one of the foremost contemporary scholars on this issue is Taha al Alwani. For a better understanding of the modern approach, one may read Fazlur Rahman's numerous works, Muhammad Asad, Muhammad Shahrur, Taha al Alwani, Muhammad al Ghazali, and Abu Hamid Abu Sulayman among others.
Webmaster's note: The number 72 is also used several times in the Bible. In its Semitic use, this number (as well as many others, e.g., 40, 70, etc.) refers to many and is not meant to be taken literally.
Posted September 24, 1999