Khawarij: A History of Violence

There are many Muslims who are troubled by ISIS and their vicious rhetoric and vicious actions. But this is not the first time that a rebel group of Muslims have emerged with extremist tendencies. And as the saying goes, those who do not heed history are doomed to repeat it.

Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, warned his followers of a group of people who would arise after his death.  The Prophet mentioned their arrival and characteristics no less than 10 times. Among the characteristics he mentioned were:

  • They would worship so much that “you shall consider your worship and your prayer and your recitation of the Qur’an to be nothing compared to theirs.” Meaning, their outward actions, like praying and reciting the Qur’an, would be on overdrive. And yet…
  • “They shall recite the Qur’an but it will not leave their throats.” Meaning that their understanding of the Qur’an will not go any farther than their recitation, and they will not have religious knowledge or insight.
  • “They are calling to the book of Allah, but they have nothing to do with the book of Allah.” Meaning their call is great, but their actions are terrible.
  • “They are speaking the best speech that you will ever hear of any man. But they will leave Islam like an arrow leaves its prey.”

Surely enough, less than 20 years after the death of The Prophet, this group came into being.

The Beginning of the Khawarij

During the time of the fourth Caliph, Ali, (who ruled from 656 – 661 CE) there was a political war between him and another man named Mu’awiyah. Both were Companions (sahaba) of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Ali was also the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin.

At one point, Ali and Mu’awiyah had ceased fighting and began a process of arbitration to bring about peace. Arbitrators were selected from the two sides to bring an end to hostilities, based on the Qur’an and sunnah (traditions of The Prophet). However, among these people was a group who believed that arbitration was a sin, based on their own understanding of the verse of the Qur’an which states:

The judgement (hukm) is Allah’s alone, He relates the truth and He is the Best of deciders.

Qur’an, 6: 57

The group accused Ali of sin and disbelief and told him to repent. He defended himself, and said of them:

“The sentence is right but what (they think) it means is wrong. It is true that law-giving (hukm, judgement) is God’s alone, but these people say that governance is God’s alone…In short, the law does not get put into practice all by itself; there must be someone, or some group, who tries to put it into practice.”

The group was adamant that Ali had sinned. In short, they believed that if Ali was following the truth, he had to kill Mu’awiyah and all his men for their insurrection. And if he was not following the truth, then Mu’awiyah and his men should have killed him.

6000 of them split away from Ali’s rule and formed their own tribe. They became known as the Kharijites, or Khawarij. The title comes from the Arabic word “khuruj”, meaning “revolt” or “insurrection”. This group was the first group to exhibit extremist tendencies and the first sect to split away from mainstream Islamic thought—even before the Sunni-Shia split.

Features of the Khawarij

Initially, Ali left the group alone. In his wisdom, he did not want to force people to reform their beliefs or overpower them. He told them that they could practice however they wished, so long as they did not spread corruption in the land.

However, the extreme, overzealous practices of the Khawarij are what drove them into constant conflict and bloodshed. They would kill anyone who did not believe in their extremist ideology. Some of the many features of the Kharawij were among the following:

  • They would pray so much that their foreheads would become calloused and their hands rough
  • They would be malnourished from fasting so much
  • They considered anyone who had committed a major sin (ie drinking alcohol, fornication, backbiting) to be a disbeliever, and that they should be killed
  • They believed only they were on the correct path and everyone else was a disbeliever and had to be killed
  • They questioned the religious scholarship of notables like Ibn Abbas, Ibn Masud, Aishah—and even The Prophet himself
  • They were narrow-minded and short-sighted
  • They lacked any sort of religious knowledge or scholarship
  • They acted without knowledge or insight into the consequences of their actions
  • They saw the need to openly fight whoever they considered to be an unjust ruler

In short, much of the Khawarij belief stemmed from an overzealous sense of righteousness. Their intention was noble: they were concerned for the purity of the religion. However, their extremist tendencies were incompatible with the realities of life, and showed a disregard for the maxim of Islam that calls for mercy and peace first and foremost.

Decline of the Khawarij

Caliph Ali sent the scholar and Companion Ibn Abbas to the Khawarij camp to debate with them. Ibn Abbas noted that they were ceaseless in their worship to the point where their camp was buzzing with Qur’an recitation in the afternoon heat, and their shirts were reduced to tatters. He debated with them and, using his knowledge and wisdom, won the debate.

One of the points he mentioned was related to what caused their split in the first place—the issue of arbitration between people. Ibn Abbas mentioned that arbitration between people is mentioned as something acceptable in the Qur’an, and quoted the verse that discusses appointing an arbiter from a husband and wife if the two fall into disagreement (4:35).

2000 of the Khawarij agreed with Ibn Abbas’s arguments and returned with him, reforming their ways. However, the remaining 4000 refused to acknowledge his logic and remained stubbornly ingrate.

The turning point was when a man named Abdullah ibn-Khabbab, one of the children of the Companions, passed by the Khawarij with his pregnant wife. The Khawarij captured him and his wife and questioned him on his beliefs. When they asked what his opinion was on Ali—whom they regarded as a disbeliever—Abdullah told them Ali was more knowledgeable than either of them, and was the Caliph.

With that, the Khawarij killed his wife in front of him, cut her open and killed the baby, then tied him up and slaughtered him like an animal.

Upon hearing this, Caliph Ali went to war with them. He fought them for many years in many battles until they were practically eradicated in the Battle of Nahrawan in 659 CE. Though the bulk of them were killed, a few stragglers dispersed and fled.

They were Muslims—and yet Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon them, called them “the worst of creation” and said they were “the dogs of Hell”. He said if they were to rise up in his midst, he would kill them.

The trials and troubles they caused Muslims were so great that after the Khawarij had been defeated, one of the men in Ali’s army said: “Praise be to God who gave us rest with the death of these people.”

But Ali said in response: “No. There will be amongst the loins of people this ideology until you will find them that they will fight with Ad-Dajjal (the Anti-Christ).”

Modern Times

The Prophet, peace be upon him, said that this group would continue to come and go until near the Day of Judgement. He described the Khawarij of our times like so:

“There will come towards the end of time a group of people, young men, they have the most grandiose visions, they are speaking the best speech that you will ever hear of any man. But they will leave Islam like an arrow leaves its prey.” (Muslim)

There are a few noteworthy things to take from that hadith:

  • They will be young men. Meaning they will be comprised mainly of overzealous young men. You won’t see the old and wise among their ranks.
  • They will have the most grandiose visions. They will, as young men do, dream of changing the world and will be able to inspire others with their dreams—though their dreams will be incompatible with reality.
  • They will be speaking the best speech. Meaning, as the Prophet said before, they will call to Islam and to the Book of God, but their actions will be outwardly evil.

In our times, groups like ISIS have weaved a grand illusion in which they consider themselves the representatives for Muslims everywhere. And yet they act in ways similar to the Khawarij. And what groups like ISIS have failed to realize is that blatant acts of violence and bloodshed are not the foundations of a just society.

Among the most obvious traits that modern groups share with the Khawarij is the lack of insight into their own actions. They do not see beyond the scope of their rifle.

When Ju’hayman al-Otaybi and his group held the Ka’bah hostage in 1979, resulting in the deaths of over 200 people, did he think that he would win the hearts of people by threatening them at the holiest place in the world?

When Khalid Islambouli assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, did he think that peace would immediately flow out of the dead president’s body? Rather, Sadat was replaced with Hosni Mubarak and the rest of that is history.

When the Gamat Islamiya (Group of Islam) killed 62 tourists in the 1997 Luxor Massacre, did they imagine the world would suddenly respect them and fear them? Rather, their own people and government hunted them down.

And in our times, with Al Qaeda strapping bombs to their chests, and Boko Haram kidnapping young girls, and ISIS beheading journalists…

To what end do they see their barbaric actions? Do they think that their bombs, guns and beheadings will make people love God, love Islam, love Prophet Muhammad? Do they not see how out of touch they are with reality?

Perhaps they should learn their own history.

But even if they did, would that stop them from repeating it? Or would they just burn the book?


“How The Khawarij Came Into Existence” | Al-Islam

“Who Were the Kharijis?” | Lost Islamic History

“Who Were the Khawarij?” | Jammaat-Ul-Muslimeen

“Conclusive Scholarly Opinions on ISIS” | Islam 21c

“Grand Mosque Seizure” | Wikipedia

“The Modern Jihadists: Khawarij or Mujahideen?” | Sh. Yasir Qadhi (video)

“Extremism in Islam: Kharijism to ISIS – A Brief Historical Analysis” | Sh. Yasir Qadhi (video)

“Today’s Answers” | Imam Suhaib Webb (video)

(Reprinted from: )

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