Many Islamic authorities, including Saudi Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al ash-Sheikh, consider the Islamic State to be an extension of the Kharijites.
The Khawarij or the ash-Shurah (“the Exchangers”) are members of a group that appeared in the first century of Islam during the First Fitna, the crisis of leadership after the death of Muhammad. It broke into revolt against the authority of the Caliph Ali after he agreed to arbitration with his rival, Muawiyah I, to decide the succession to the Caliphate following the Battle of Siffin (657). A Khariji later assassinated Ali, and for hundreds of years, the Khawarij were a source of insurrection against the Caliphate.
The Khawarij opposed arbitration as a means to choose a new ruler on the grounds that “judgement belongs to God alone”. They considered arbitration a means for people to make decisions while the victor in a battle was determined by God. They believed that any Muslim—even if not Quraysh or even an Arab—could be the Imam, the leader of the community, if he was morally irreproachable. If the leader sinned, it was the duty of Muslims to oppose and depose him.
Some Khawarij developed extreme doctrines that set them apart from both mainstream Sunni and Shiʿi Muslims. They were particularly noted for adopting a radical approach to takfir (declaring self-described Muslims as non-Muslims).
The term al-Khariji was used as an exonym by their opponents from the fact that they left Ali’s army. The name comes from the Arabic root خ ر ج, which has the primary meaning “to leave” or “to get out”, as in the basic word خرج “to go out”, “to walk out”, “to come out”, etc.
However, these groups called themselves ash-Shurah “the Exchangers”, which they understood within the context of Islamic scripture (Quran 2:207) and philosophy to mean “those who have traded the mortal life (al-Dunya) for the other life [with God] (al-Akhirah)”.
The origin of Kharijism lies in the First Fitna, the struggle for political supremacy over the Muslim community in the years following the death of Muhammad. One source describes Khawarij as “bedouin nomads who resented the centralization of power in the new Islamic state that curtailed the freedom of their tribal society.”
After the death of the third Rashidun Caliph, Uthman, a struggle for succession ensued between Ali and Muawiyah I, the governor of Syria and cousin of Uthman, in league with a variety of other opponents.
The Khawarij initially were members of the “Party of Ali”. They later rejected his leadership after he agreed to arbitration with Muawiyah rather than combat to decide the succession to the Caliphate following the Battle of Siffin. In 657, Ali’s forces met Muawiyah’s at the Battle of Siffin. Initially, the battle went against Muawiyah but on the brink of defeat, Muawiyah directed his army to hoist Qurans on their lances. That initiated discord among some of those who were in Ali’s army. Muawiyah wanted to put the dispute between the two sides to arbitration in accordance with the Qur’an. A group of Ali’s army mutinied demanding for Ali to agree to Muawiyah’s proposal. As a result, Ali reluctantly presented his own representative for arbitration. The mutineers, however, put forward Abu Musa Ashaari, against Ali’s wishes.
Muawiyah put forward ‘Amr ibn al-‘As. Abu Musa al-Ashari was convinced by Amr to pronounce Ali’s removal as caliph even though Ali’s caliphate was not meant to be the issue of concern in the arbitration. The mutineers saw the turn of events as a fundamental betrayal of principle, especially since they had initiated it; a large group of them repudiated Ali.
Citing the verse “No Command but God’s” (Quran 6:57), an indication that a caliph is not a representative of God, this group turned on both Ali and Muawiya, opposing the rebellion against one whom they considered to be the rightful caliph and Ali accepting to subject his legitimate authority to arbitration, thus giving away what was not his but the people’s.
Alī’s cousin and a renowned Islamic jurist, Abd Allah ibn Abbas, pointed out the grave theological errors made by the Kharijites in quoting the Qur’an, and managed to persuade a number of Khawarij to return to Alī based on their misinterpretations. ʻAlī defeated the remaining rebels in the Battle of Nahrawan in 658 but some Kharijites survived.
One of the early groups were the Haruriyyah; it was notable for many reasons, among which was its ruling that a Haruri, Abd-al-Rahman ibn Muljam, was the assassin of Caliph Ali.
For hundreds of years the Khawarij continued to be a source of insurrection against the Caliphate. and they aroused condemnation by mainstream scholars such as 14th-century Muslim Ismail ibn Kathir who wrote, “If they ever gained strength, they would surely corrupt the whole of the Earth, Iraq and Shaam – they would not leave a baby, male or female, neither a man or a woman, because as far as they are concerned the people have caused corruption, a corruption that cannot be rectified except by mass killing.” In a similar vein, the 10th century Islamic scholar Abu Bakr al-Ajurri said, “None of the scholars, in either past or recent times, ever disagreed that the Khawarij are an evil group, disobedient to Allah Almighty and to His Messenger – Peace Be Upon Him. Even if they pray, fast, or strive in worship, it does not benefit them, and even if they openly enjoin good and forbid evil it does not benefit them, as they are a people who interpret the Quran according to their desire.”
Among the hadith that refer to the Khawarij (according to some sources) include:
A narration attributed to Yusair bin Amr reports:
I asked Sahl bin Hunaif, “Did you hear the Prophet saying anything about Al-Khawarij?” He said, “I heard him saying while pointing his hand towards Iraq. “There will appear in it (i.e, Iraq) some people who will recite the Quran but it will not go beyond their throats, and they will go out from (leave) Islam as an arrow darts through the game’s body.’ “
A narration attributed to Abu Sa‘id al-Khudri reports:
“There will come a people from the east who recite the Quran but it will not go beyond their throats. They will pass through the religion just as an arrow pierces its target and they will not return to it just as the arrow does not return to the bow.”
A narration attributed to Abu Dharr reports:
“Allah’s Messenger (saws) said: Verily there would arise from my Ummah after me a group (of people) who would recite the Quran, but it would not go beyond their throats, and they would pass clean through their religion just as the arrow passes through the prey, and they would never come back to it. They would be the worst among the creation and the creatures.”
Among the surviving Kharijites, three of them gathered in Mecca to plot a tripartite assassination attempt on Muawiyah I, ‘Amr ibn al-‘As and Ali. The assassination attempts were to occur simultaneously as the three leaders came to lead the morning prayer (Fajr) in their respective cities of Damascus, Fustat and Kufa. The method was to come out of the prayer ranks and strike the targets with a sword dipped in poison.
Muawiya escaped the assassination attempt with only minor injuries. Amr was sick and the deputy leading the prayers in his stead was martyred. However, the strike on Ali by the assassin, Abdur-Rahmaan ibn-Muljim, proved to be fatal. Ali was gravely injured with a head wound and succumbed to his injuries a few days later.
The circumstances in which Ali was attacked is subject to debate; some scholars maintain that he was attacked outside the mosque, others state that he was attacked while initiating the prayer and still others reiterate that ibn-Muljim assaulted him midway through the prayer while Ali was prostrating.
All the assassins were captured, tried and sentenced to death in accordance with Islamic laws.
The Ibadis, a fellow early sect with similar beliefs, form the majority of the population of Oman (where they first settled in 686), and there are smaller concentrations of them in the M’zab of Algeria, Djerba in Tunisia, the Nafusa Mountains in Libya, and Zanzibar.
In the modern era, a number of Muslim theologians and observers have compared the beliefs and actions of the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda and like-minded groups to the Khawarij. In particular, the groups share the Kharijites’ radical approach whereby self-described Muslims are declared unbelievers and therefore deemed them worthy of death and their disinterest in Quranic calls for moderation. However, IS preachers strongly reject being compared to the Khawarij.
In the 18th century, Hanafi scholar Ibn Abidin declared the Wahhabi movement of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab as modern Khawarij.
According to some Muslims (such as Abu Amina Elias), Kharijites will “continue to cause strife” in the Muslim community until End Times, and cite a hadith (# 7123) from Sahih al-Bukhari in support of this.
The Khawarij considered the caliphate of Abu Bakr and Umar to be rightly guided but believed that Uthman had deviated from the path of justice and truth in the last days of his caliphate and hence was liable to be killed or displaced. They also believed that Ali committed a grave sin when he agreed on the arbitration with Muawiyah.
The Kharijites thus deemed the arbitrators (Abu Musa Ashaari and ‘Amr ibn al-‘As), the leaders who appointed these arbitrators (Ali and Muawiyah I) and all those who agreed on the arbitration (all companions of Ali and Muawiyah]) as kuffar “disbelievers”, as they had breached the rules of the Qur’an. They also believed that all participants in the Battle of the Camel, including Talhah, Zubayr ibn al-Awam and Aisha had committed a major sin.
Kharijites differ with both Sunni and/or Shiʿa on some points of doctrine:
- Sunnis accept Ali as the fourth rightly-guided Caliph and also accept the three Caliphs before him, who were elected by their community. Shi’a believe that the imaamate was the right of Ali, and the rule of the first three Rashidun caliphs was unlawful. Kharijites insist that the caliph need not be from the Quraysh tribe, but any pious Muslim nominated by other Muslims was eligible to be the caliph.
- Unlike Sunni and Shia, Kharijites believed that Muslims had the right and duty to revolt against any ruler who deviated from their interpretation of Islam, or, according to other interpretations, failed to manage Muslim’s affairs with justice and consultation or committed a major sin.
- Kharijites reject the doctrine of infallibility for the leader of the Muslim community in contrast to Shi’a but in agreement with Sunnis.
- Unlike the more extreme Kharijites, the Ibadis reject the murder of Uthman as well as the Kharijite belief that all Muslims holding differing viewpoints were infidels.
Many Khawarij groups believed that the act of sinning is analogous to kufr “disbelief” and that every grave sinner was regarded as a kafir unless they repent. They invoked the doctrine of free will, in opposition to that of predestination in their opposition to the Ummayad Caliphate, which held that Umayyad rule was ordained by God.
According to Islamic scholar and Islamist pioneer Abul A’la Maududi, using the argument of “sinners are unbelievers”, Kharijites denounced all the above Sahabah and even cursed and used abusive language against them. Other non-Khawarij Muslims were declared disbelievers because they were not free of sin but also because they regarded the above-mentioned Sahabah as believers and religious leaders, even inferring fiqh from the hadith narrated by them.
The Khawarij considered the Qur’an as the source for fiqh but disagreed about the other two sources (hadith and ijma).
Based on Kharijite poetry writings, scholar Ihsan Abbas finds three categories of focus among them:
- the strong desire of Kharijites for martyrdom and dying for the sake of God
- detailed descriptions of how Kharijites defined a just and pious ruler
- their universal tendency to blame the self for failing to establish the previous two categories.
On the basis of women fighting alongside Muhammad, Khārijīs have viewed fighting jihad as a requirement for women. One famous example is the warrior and poet Laylā bint Ṭarīf.
- Azariqa, the followers of Abu Rasheed Nafi ibn al-Azraq
- Najdat, the followers of Najdah ibn ‘Amir
- Ajardites, the followers of Abd al-Karim ibn Ajrad
- Ibadis, the followers of Abd Allah ibn Ibad
- Sufris, the followers of Ziyad ibn al-Asfar and Umran ibn Hattan