This hadîth comes to use from many chains of transmission with variations in wording. Roughly twenty Companions relate it from the Prophet (peace be upon him). The following are a few of these hadîth:
Abû Hurayrah relates that Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: “Islam began strange, and it will become strange again just like it was at the beginning, so blessed are the strangers.” [Sahîh Muslim (1/130)]
`Amr b. `Awf relates that Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: “The religion will shrink back to the Hijâz like the snake shrinks back into its hole. It will cling to the Hijâz like the mountain goat clings to the mountaintop. The religion began strange, and it will become strange again just like it was at the beginning, so blessed are the strangers who restore what the people corrupt of my Sunnah.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhî (#2630)] Al-Tirmidhî grades it as good and authentic (hasan sahîh).
`Abd Allah b. `Amr b. al-`As relates that Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him), said one day when the Companions were with him: “Blessed are the strangers.” He was then asked: “Who are the strangers, O Messenger of Allah?” He replied: “They are righteous people among many evil people who disobey them more than they obey them.” [Musnad Ahmad (2/177 & 2/222) and Ibn al-Mubârak, Kitâb al-Zuhd (#775 p. 267)]
This hadîth has reached us in many ways with both complete and incomplete chains of transmission. Some scholars have graded this hadîth as well-known (mashhûr) or even mutawâtir.
The hadîth tells us that a time will come when person, on account of his uprightness in knowledge and in deed, finds few who agree with him but many who disagree with him and ridicule him. When he calls the people to what he is on, he gets few followers.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) made this meaning clear when, after being asked about the strangers, he said: “They are righteous people among many evil people who disobey them more than they obey them.”
This estrangement is typified by the small number of those who assist in doing right and the paucity of those who answer the call to Allah.
Another aspect of this estrangement is the difficulty faced by the one who attempts to travel on the straight path without stumbling. Evil and iniquity will continue to increase and righteousness will continue to decrease as the time between the people and the era of prophethood grows longer. It will become more and more difficult to achieve anything of benefit without getting involved in something detrimental as well. It will also be difficult to do what is best, due to the great number of impediments that discourage a person from trying.
And Allah knows best.