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Where did the Different Sects come from?

Answered by: Maulana Mustafa Umar


Where did the different firqa (groups) come from? Even our Prophet (saw) taught us that there is only one Deen (Deen-e-Islam).

 بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمنِ الرَّحِيْم

In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful


The word ‘firqa’ can either mean a sect or a school of thought. When referring to a sect such as the Shia, the differences come from political differences within the Muslim community, which eventually resulted in theological differences. When firqa refers to a school of thought in Islamic Law such as the Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, and Hanbali, then this comes from scholars giving different interpretations of the Qur’an or Hadiths. The first difference should not exist, since, as you said, Islam is only one religion. There should be no differences here.

However, when firqah refers to schools of thought in interpretations, then this is something that even the Prophet acknowledged. Here is an excerpt from the book “Guide of the Believer” explaining the situation in detail:

Reasons for Differences

All the teachings of Islam are derived from two sources: the Qur’an and Sunnah. However, neither of these are living persons to whom one can ask a question and receive an answer. To properly be able to understand them one must be fully conversant with their language, mode of expression, historical context, and other factors.

The main reason for differences in understanding is due to the fact that some texts of the Qur’an and Sunnah possess a degree of ambiguity that can be interpreted in various ways. Also, not every report from the Prophet Muhammad is authentic, so differences may arise on whether to accept a prophetic report or not. It is due to these two factors of clarity and authenticity that differences of opinion must exist in at least some areas of Islamic law.

This is not to say that the essential teachings of Islam are ambiguous or poorly preserved. The essentials are clear and accurately preserved, but some minor details do not have the same status. For example, the texts which instruct Muslims to pray daily, fast in the month of Ramaḍān, perform the Pilgrimage to Makkah, abstain from alcohol, avoid fornication, and not consume pork are completely unambiguous and authentically preserved [known as qaṭʿī]. The obligatory or prohibited nature of these acts leaves no room for any difference of opinion in these matters.

However, some details pertaining to the core teachings may contain some ambiguities which leave them open to interpretation [known as ẓannī]. An example of a verse in the Qur’an which is open to different interpretations is the one which instructs Muslims to wash before praying [called wuḍū’]. Part of this verse [Qur’an 5:6] tells Muslims to wipe their heads with water before praying, and this has been interpreted by Muslim scholars in different ways.

Some scholars held that the entire head must be wiped over while others said that a minimum of one-third or one-fourth would suffice. Yet another group considered that the minimum is to wipe over just a few hairs while maintaining that it is recommended, but not required, to wipe the entire head. There are many reasons why scholars have differed on this issue. Some of them are:

1.     The Arabic particle بِ [‘bi’] which was used in the verse [wa-msaḥū bi-ru’ūsikum: wipe your heads] can have three potentially different functions in Arabic: connective [ilṣāq], partitive [tabʿīḍ], or superfluity [zā’idah].  Imām Abū Ḥanīfah said the first function was intended, Imām ash-Shāfiʿī the second, and Imām Mālik the third. Depending on how this particle is understood, the verse could imply that either a part of the head needs to be wiped at least a hand span, any minuscule part may be wiped, or the entire head must be wiped.

2.     There are several prophetic reports that the Messenger of Allah always wiped over his entire head when he washed himself before prayer. However, this could be understood to mean that it is a highly recommended practice rather than a compulsory one.

3.     There are reports that the Prophet wiped over only a part of his head and then wiped over his turban. These reports can imply different meanings and have varying levels of authenticity.

There are other arguments on this issue which have been presented by scholars, but discussing detailed evidence is beyond the scope of this book. It should be sufficient to understand that legal issues such as this utilize very complex arguments and their discussion cannot be reduced to merely quoting a verse or prophetic report as evidence.

The Legitimacy and Wisdom behind Differences

Allah chose to communicate his revelations through the medium of human language, which is naturally ambiguous at times. If He wanted, the Qur’an could have been a strictly literal and finely detailed text like a book on mathematics or a government constitution. However, in His infinite wisdom, he decided to reveal a text such as the Qur’an which is perfectly clear in the most fundamental aspects of the religion, while keeping some minor details vague and leaving them open to interpretation.

One of the reasons why Allah might have chosen to be brief, and potentially ambiguous, is due to aesthetics. If the book was overly detailed and literal, as a book of law or history, it would be a very dry and boring piece to read, especially considering that Muslims recite parts of it every day in prayer. Human language, in its natural form, is often highly ambiguous, yet it remains functional in all societies.

Another reason behind such a decision might be that ambiguity stimulates the intellect and reasoning ability. By working hard to arrive at a correct understanding of what Allah intended in the text, a person’s intellect becomes sharper and more developed. The faculty of critical thinking is a very important life skill which Allah wanted to be enhanced through practice.

It is also from Allah’s wisdom and mercy that he allowed people to hold differences of opinion. The following incidents demonstrate Islam’s stance on differences in understanding:

•       A group of Muslims were on a journey together when, all of a sudden, a piece of rock fell from a mountain and hit one of them in the head. The man was badly injured so he bandaged his wound and they continued on their journey. The next morning, he discovered that he had a wet dream at night and now needed to take a bath before prayer. The man asked his fellow Muslims whether there was an exception to the rule for him since he was injured. They replied in the negative and insisted that he must take a bath and wash his head. When the man removed his bandage and poured water over his head, he fell down and died. After returning from their journey they told the Prophet what had happened. He was furious, and responded, “They killed him! Allah might kill them! If they don’t know, why don’t they ask? Asking is the cure for ignorance.” Then he explained to them that the man didn’t have to wash his head because of his injury. 

•       Two Muslims were travelling through the desert and it was time for them to pray. They had no water with them, so they both performed tayammum [wuḍū’ with dirt] instead. Later, they found some water and there was still time left for that prayer. One of them repeated his prayer, believing that it was necessary to do so, while the other one did not. When they returned from their journey, they asked the Prophet about which one of them was correct in his understanding. He responded to the one who didn’t repeat his prayer, “You have followed my teachings, and your prayer counts.” Then he turned to the other one and said, “You get double the reward [since you prayed an extra prayer].”

•       The Prophet ordered his companions to set out for a military expedition and instructed them, “Do not pray the ʿAsr prayer until you reach Banū Qurayẓah [a village near Madīnah].” A group of them were delayed on the way and the time for the prayer was almost finished. Some of them decided not to pray until they arrived, taking the Prophet’s words literally. Others from the group insisted: “We will pray. The Prophet didn’t mean that we should skip the prayer.” After they arrived, they informed the Prophet what had happened, and he didn’t criticize either of them for what they did.  

The three incidents demonstrate that there is room in Islam for differences of opinion within certain bounds. Sometimes a person may be blatantly wrong in one’s opinion, like the Muslims who insisted that the man wash his injured head. Another time one may wrongly assume that something is required when it is actually recommended, like the person who repeated his prayer after finding water. Yet another time, two different opinions may be accepted at the same time. In the end, there are two criteria that must be applied in order to determine whether an opinion is legitimate [i.e. accepted by Allah] or not: being sincere in attempting to arrive at what Allah and His Messenger intended and having a solid grounding in knowledge to interpret the sources correctly.

Only Allah knows best

Written by Maulana Mustafa Umar

Checked and approved by Mufti Mohammed Tosir Miah

Darul Ifta Birmingham

This answer was collected from DarulIftaBirmingham.co.uk, which is run under the supervision of Mufti Mohammed Tosir Miah from the United Kingdom.