An interesting alternative to the well-known and commonly-cited Prophetic tradition which proclaims that “My nation shall be divided into 73 sects, one of which shall be saved and the rest which shall perish in Hellfire” is provided in Shams al-Dīn Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muhammad al-Muqaddasī’s Ahsan al-Taqāsīm fī Ma‘rifat al-Aqālīm, a major geographical work written around 985 A.D. which is a product of his extensive travels throughout the Islamic world in the tenth century. As an individual trained in the science of jurisprudence and well-connected with important circles of scholarship in the Levant and the Hijaz, it can reasonably be assumed that his narration of this alternative version was based on his own scholarly understanding of the tradition. The hadith which he cites is as follows: “My nation shall be divided into 73 sects, 72 of which shall be saved and only one which shall perish in Hellfire.”* While acknowledging the existence of the variation of the hadith, al-Muqaddasī asserts that, according to his knowledge of hadith science, the one which speaks of 72 sects attaining salvation is the most authentic (but adds that “only God knows best [which is the more authentic]”). He says,moreover, that even if he is mistaken and the variation that speaks of only one sect being saved is the authentic one, there is no reason to believe that “the saved sect” does not encompass the vast majority of the Muslim world–which he asserts are followers of Abu Hanifa, Malik ibn Anas, Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i or traditionalists (a label commonly used for Hanbalis in the tenth century)–rather than a single legal-theological school of thought. In presenting the possibility of this other hadith of the 73 sects, al-Muqaddasī gives us an interesting example of an alternative perspective of salvation presented by an individual whose work was devoted to highlighting the social, political, cultural, and legal-theological diversity of the Islamic world.
[Shams al-Dīn Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muhammad al-Muqaddasī’s Ahsan al-Taqāsīm fī Ma‘rifat al-Aqālīm (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 2003), pp. 37–38]
For more on al-Muqaddasi, see: http://muslimheritage.com/topics/default.cfm?ArticleID=1169#_Toc240280829.
*Although the editor of the text states that this variation of the hadith can be found in Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Sunan Abi Dawud and the Musnad of Imam Ahmad, I have been unable to locate it in any of these sources.