I thought I should provide some commentary to explain why this hadith impressed me so much.
“The Jews were divided into seventy-one sects, one of which is in Paradise and seventy are in the Fire.”
It is useful to see what Baha’u’llah says of heaven and hell:
“Thy Paradise is My love; thy heavenly home, reunion with Me.”
The Arabic Hidden Words
“The most burning fire is to question the signs of God, to dispute idly that which He hath revealed, to deny Him and carry one's self proudly before Him.”
Tablets of Baha'u'llah revealed after the Kitab-i-Aqdas
The Islamic hadith and Baha’u’llah both use fire to express the concept of hell. However, unlike the common view held by large numbers of Christians and Muslims that heaven and hell are locations, we see in the Baha’i view a less literal approach where they are actually conditions of the soul brought about by the remoteness or nearness of an individual’s soul to his creator, brought into being by the belief or disbelief in God’s messenger or manifestation.
“The Christians were divided into seventy-two sects, seventy-one of which are in the Fire and one is in Paradise. By the One in Whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, my Ummah will be divided into seventy-three sects, one of which will be in Paradise and seventy-two will be in the Fire.” It was said, O Messenger of Allaah [sic], who are they? He said, “Al-Jamaa’ah ( الجماعة community of believers).”
It is interesting to note, that, in the hadith each subsequent religion is divided into sects which exceed the divisions of the previous religion by a factor of one. It is useful to look as this from the vantage of progressive revelation. In this way, we can say that the Jewish community, prior to the coming of Jesus, is a collection or related yet differing sects or faith groups based up on the teachings of Moses. When Jesus came the number of Jewish sects increased by a factor of one. One of these sects, the one which those who followed the teachings of Christ belonged to, eventually became the divergent and independent faith known as Christianity. Similarly, when Muhammad came, another sect came into existence, raising the number of sects in the world by a factor of one.
If heaven is nearness to God, and “the most burning fire” (hell) is to dispute against God’s revelation and be proud before God, then it makes sense that the reason why each faith group has one sect entering paradise and all the others entering hell, is that only one sect (the new religion) recognizes the new divine messenger. The others reject him and his revelation, deny him, and make themselves haughty and proud before him. It is an absolute test, and the importance of it is bore out in Jewish, Christian, Islamic and Baha’i scriptures.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”
King James Bible : John
“The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him Who is the Dayspring of His Revelation and the Fountain of His laws, Who representeth the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of creation. Whoso achieveth this duty hath attained unto all good; and whoso is deprived thereof hath gone astray…”
These are consistent with what we see in the hadith, since only those who belong to one sect (the followers of the new messenger) are saved, or draw nearer to God, while the others are lost, or in the fire due to their disbelief.
Despite the fact that the majority, if not all, Muslims believe that there will be no messenger after Muhammad, according to this hadith,the community of Muslims is not spared from this phenomenon of dividing into a number of sects that, like the religions before it, divides into a quantity of sects that is one more in number than those of the religion preceding it. All are lost to the fire but one. Since the religions prior to Islam each acquired one additional sect at the advent of a new divine messenger, what accounts for the one additional sect during the Islamic dispensation if no new prophet can come? There is nothing in the hadith to suggest that the equation has changed in the case of Islam.
In fact, there are other ways of interpreting khtam nabiyen ختم نبيين (seal of the prophets) than the common interpretation, which has come to be understood as “the last prophet.” Certainly a seal could imply finality in that it is the last thing done on an official act. However, putting a seal on something can also have the simple effect of making something official. Considered in this way, Muhammad being the seal of the prophets can perhaps be seen as no different than the absolute truth claims of Christ and Baha’u’llah as cited above. The coming of each prophet is both the end of one age and the beginning of a new one. In every age, there is only one prophet. One truth. One way. One light. They each sit on the throne of judgment, and each possesses the keys of heaven and hell. None may ever gain access to the presence of God, save through them, and they are all equally the harbingers of the same truth and light, and the savior of men.