The Khwarij Sects

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The Khwarij, literally meaning “those who went out”, is a general term describing various Muslim groups who, initially supported ‘Ali ibn Abi Thalib (k.w.) against Mu’awiyah (r.a.), and then later rejected him.  They emerged in the late 7th century, in southern Iraq.  They are distinct from Sunni and Shi’ah Islam theologically.

The Khwarij began as a political group that eventually developed extreme doctrines.  The Khwarij are known by several other names and nicknames.  They came to be called the Khwarij, “the Seceders” or “the Rebels”, because of their rebellion, khuruj, against ‘Ali ibn Abi Thalib (k.w.).  They have been called the Hukmiyyah, because of their refusal to accept the authority of the two arbitrators, hakamayn, Abu Musa al-Ash’ari (r.a.) and ‘Amr ibn al-‘Aasw (r.a.), and because of their war cry, “The Decision Belongs to Allah Alone,” “Laa hukma illa lillah” implying that the two arbitrators had no power to decide the caliphate issue.  They took it from this ayat:

… “The Command Rests with none but Allah ...” (Surah al-An’am:57)

They have also been called the Haruriyyah, because they set up camp in Harura’, which is a place not far from Kufa.  Yet another name that has been given to them is ash-Shurat, ‘the Vendors’, because of their assertion, “We have sold our own selves for the Sake of Allah’s Cause,” “Sharaynah anfusana fi Allah,” or in other words, “We have traded them in exchange for Allah’s Reward and His Good Pleasure.  They are sometimes referred to as al-Mariqat ‘the Defectors’, because of their defection, muruq, from the religion.  They were actually described by the Prophet (s.a.w.) himself as people who would swerve away from the religion, just as the hunter’s arrow may swerve away from the prey, and who would not come back to the fold.

The Khwarij began during the struggle for political supremacy over the Muslim polity between ‘Ali (k.w.), the rightful caliph, and Mu’awiyah (r.a.), the governor of Syria and cousin of ‘Utsman (r.a.).  In 657 CE, ‘Ali (k.w.) met Mu’awiyah (r.a.) at the Battle of Siffin.  Initially, the battle went against Mu’awiyah (r.a.) but on the brink of defeat, Mu’awiyah (r.a.) directed his army to hoist copies of the Qur’an on their lances.  This put ‘Ali’s (k.w.) forces in disarray.  Mu’awiyah (r.a.) wanted to put the dispute between the two sides to arbitration in accordance with the Qur’an.  While ‘Ali (k.w.) was the wiser man and the superior general, Mu’awiyah (r.a.) had loyal troops.  ‘Ali (k.w.) agreed to Mu’awiyah’s (r.a.) proposal to avoid further bloodshed.  ‘Ali (k.w.) had presented his own representative for arbitration.  The dissenters, however, put forward Abu Musa al-Ash’ari (r.a.), who while a good man of outstanding character, was a simpleton in the ways of state, diplomacy and politics.  This was against Ali’s (k.w.) wishes.

Mu’awiyah (r.a.), on the other hand, put forward ‘Amr ibn al-‘Aasw (r.a.), one of the greatest negotiators of the period.  Predictably, he ran rings around Abu Musa al-Ash’ari (r.a.) and managed to trick him into pronouncing ‘Ali’s (k.w.) removal as caliph even though the caliphate was not meant to be an issue in the arbitration.  These dissenters saw the turn of events as a fundamental betrayal of principle, and were embarrassed since they had initiated it; a large group of them repudiated ‘Ali (k.w.), becoming the Khwarij.

Citing the Qur’anic principle that there is “No rule but God’s,” they turned on both ‘Ali (k.w.) and Mu’awiyah (r.a.).  They opposed Mu’awiyah‘s (r.a.) rebellion against one they considered to be the rightful caliph, and opposed ‘Ali (k.w.) for subjecting his legitimate authority to arbitration, something they actually engineered.  ‘Ali (k.w.) divided his troops and ordered them to catch the dissenters before they could reach major cities and disperse among the population.  ibn ‘Abbas (r.a.), refuted them theologically and managed to persuade thousands of them to return to Islam.  ‘Ali (k.w.) defeated the remaining rebels in the Battle of Nahrawan in 658 CE.  The Khwarij were defeated as a major military power, but their doctrine survived and splintered.  They were eventually defeated as a viable force by the Abbasids, but even then, they were in decline since their doctrine was incompatible with reason and conscience, contrary to the Qur’an and the sunnah.

At the beginning they were a rebellious and mutinous group, and it was for that reason that they were called “Khwarij”, but they gradually drew up basic beliefs for themselves had created and began as a political group.  Eventually, they assumed the form of a religious group, a distinct sect before splintering, first into 15 major sects, and the splintering further when they differed amongst themselves, each incarnation becoming more and more extreme.  The Khwarij became a vehemently propagandist group.  They got the idea that they had discovered a worldly, corrupt root in Islam, and they came to the conclusion that ‘Utsman (r.a.), ‘Ali (r.a.) and Mu’awiyah (r.a.) were all in error and sin.  That circle of ‘disbelievers’ widened until it included the entire ummah.  They decided that they had to struggle against this corruption that had come into existence, and they gave it the name of ‘enjoining to good and forbidding evil.’  Thus, the Khwarij sect came into existence under this banner.

The nature of this Khwarij is that they withdrew their allegiance from the ruling authority and rebelled against the rightful leaders of the ummah.  They branded all who opposed them as disbelievers, kaffaru man khalafahum, whose blood they considered permissible shed, and whose property they considered lawful to confiscate.  They cursed the swahabah and dismissed them as guilty of kufr and terrible sins.  They rejected the belief in the torment of the grave.  They do not believe in the Hawdh, or in shafa’ah.  They offered no one any prospect of Deliverance from the Fire of Hell, and they professed that if someone tells a single lie, or commits a sin of any kind, whether it be trivial or serious, and if he then dies without repentance, that person will be counted as an kafir, and will be condemned to remain in the Fire of Hell for all eternity.  They did not regard jama’ah as valid unless it is performed behind their own imam, but they did regard it as valid to postpone the swalah beyond its prescribed time, to begin the fast before the sighting of the new moon of Ramadhan, and to break the fast before the end of Ramadhan had been established by the sighting of the new moon of Shawwal.

The Khwarij slogan of enjoining good and forbidding evil was a lie.   This doctrine has two fundamental principles: profound and knowledgeable insight into the religion, and profound insight into how to act.   There is ‘ilm and there is hikmah in af’al.  If there is no profound knowledge of religion, the loss that will be incurred in doing this will be greater than its benefit.  In effect, one becomes astray since that ‘good’ is in reality evil.  A profound insight into the correct way to act depends on two conditions which are called, in jurisprudence, the possibility of effective action, and the absence of any resulting cause of evil, and this can only come about by the exercising of reason in these two duties.  The Khwarij had neither a profound knowledge of religion, nor a profound insight into prudent action; they were people of ignorance, lacking in any profound knowledge.  But they claimed the mantle of knowledge in religion and justified their disbelief with misinterpretation of the Qur’an and ahadits.  They rejected ijma’, qiyas and all the tools of jurisprudence.  In fact, they rejected any kind of profound knowledge of how to act, because they understood this duty to be a matter of obedience and they claimed that it should be performed blindly.  The purpose in the legal basis of any activity is the advantages and disadvantages, should it be carried out.  It must take place in a situation where there will not result any greater disadvantage.  The requisite for these two conditions, then, is a thorough understanding of how to act correctly.  A man who is lacking in this knowledge cannot foresee whether the desired result of this action will follow or not, or whether some greater evil will be produced or not.  This is why the corruption resulting from ignorant inciting to good will be greater than its benefit.

In the context of other duties, there must exist the possibility of their producing a useful result, and that if there is that possibility they become obligatory, otherwise not.  Although something useful and of benefit manifests itself in every duty, the recognition of that benefit is not the responsibility of people.  It has not been said about prayer, for example, that if we see that it is useful then pray, and if we do not, then do not pray.  The Khwarij thought otherwise.  They justified non-performance or variant performances of some acts of ‘ibadah, and made obligatory things that were not, or even contrary to the Qur’an.  But such a restriction does exist in the matter of enjoining good and forbidding evil.  One must look to see what kind of result, and what kind of reaction will be produced, and whether the action is in the interests of Islam and Muslims or not.  That means that the discernment of the benefit is the responsibility of the very people who carry out this duty.  It is every Muslim’s obligation; it is necessary that he introduce reason, intelligence, knowledge of how to act correctly and attention to its benefit, and these latter things are not merely a matter of religious obligation.

This condition that it is necessary to exercise knowledge of effective action in enjoining good and forbidding evil is unanimously agreed upon by all the sects of Islam except the Khwarij.  Because of their particular inflexibility, rigidity and fanaticism, they said that enjoining good and forbidding evil is an absolute religious obligation; it has no condition of the possibility of a useful result or the absence of any corrupting influence.  It was in accordance with this belief that they rose up and terrorised the lands knowing that they would be killed and their blood would be wasted, and knowing that no useful result would come out of their uprising.

Historically, whilst Sunnis accept ‘Ali (k.w.) as the fourth Rightly-Guided Caliph, and the three caliphs before him; the Shi’ah believe that the caliphate was the right of ‘Ali (k.w.), and the rule of the first three caliphs was unlawful; the Khwarij insist that any Muslim could be a leader of the ummah and reserved the right to revolt against any ruler who deviated from their interpretation of Islam.

The Khwarij believed that the act of sinning is analogous to kufr, and that every grave sinner was as a kafir until he repented.  With this argument, they denounced the majority of the swahabah.  Ordinary Muslims were also declared kafir because they were not free of sin and because they regarded the swahabah as believers and religious leaders.  They believed that obedience to the caliph is binding as long as he is managing the affairs with justice and consultation, but if he deviates, then it becomes obligatory to confront him, demote him and even kill him.  Inevitably, every ruler and leader displeased them so they were in a constant state of revolt.

One of the early Khwarij groups was the Haruriyyah.  The Haruriyyah were named for their first leader, Habib ibn Yazid al-Haruri.  It was a Haruri who assassinated ‘Ali (k.w.) while he was praying on the 21st Ramadhan, 661 CE.  ‘Ali ibn Abi Thalib (k.w.) is quoted to have said that the following ayat is about the Hururiyyah:

Say: “Shall we tell you of those who lose most in respect of their deeds? ― Those whose efforts have been wasted in this life while they thought that they were acquiring good by their works?” (Surah al-Kahf:103-104)

Shaykh Khaled Abou El Fadl wrote in “Islam & the Challenge of Democracy”, “Anecdotal reports about the debates between ‘Ali and the Khwarij reflect unmistakable tension about the meaning of legality and the implications of the rule of law.  In one such report, members of the Khwarij accused ‘Ali of accepting the judgment and dominion of human beings instead of abiding by the dominion of God's law.  Upon hearing of this accusation, ‘Ali called on the people to gather around him and brought out a large copy of the Qur’an.  ‘Ali touched the Qur’an while instructing it to speak to the people and inform them about God’s law.  Surprised, the people who had gathered around ‘Ali exclaimed, ‘What are you doing?  The Qur’an cannot speak, for it is not a human being!’  Upon hearing this, ‘Ali exclaimed that this was exactly his point.  The Qur’an, ‘Ali explained, is but ink and paper, and it does not speak for itself. Instead, it is human beings who give effect to it according to their limited personal judgments and opinions.

Such stories are subject to multiple interpretations, but this one points most importantly to the dogmatic superficiality of proclamations of God’s Sovereignty that sanctify human determinations.  Notably, the Khwarij’s rallying cry of ‘Dominion belongs to God’ or ‘The Qur’an is the judge’ is nearly identical to the slogans invoked by contemporary fundamentalist groups.  But considering the historical context, the Khwarij’s sloganeering was initially a call for the symbolism of legality and the supremacy of law that later descended into an unequivocal radicalised demand for fixed lines of demarcation between what is lawful and unlawful.”  Also of note is the Haruri position that it was permissible to entrust the imam to be a woman if she was able to carry out the required duties.

The Khwarij split into many other groups, including the Swufriyyah, Azraqiyyah, Bayhasiyyah, Najdatiyyah, and Ibadhiyyah, amongst the fifteen distinct sects.  The Khwarij are almost extinct today.  The only surviving sect is the Ibadhi and they are mostly in Oman.  The Ibadhi are only distantly related and do not hold the theological positions that that made the Khwarij notorious.

The Najdatiyyah are traced to Najda ibn ‘Amir al-Hanafi, once conqueror of al-Yamama.  They were the followers of ‘Abdullah ibn Naswir.  Their doctrine was that if a person tells a lie or commits a minor sin, and makes a habit of it, he is a mushrik, but a person can still be considered a Muslim even if he commits adultery or fornication, steals, and drinks wine, as long as he does not persist in these offenses.  They also maintained that there is no need for an imam, since what is necessary is knowledge of the Book of Allah, and that alone is quite sufficient.

The Azraqiyyah were the followers of Nafi’ ibn al-Azraq.  They maintained that every major sin is tantamount to kufr, that the residence of the Caliph is the residence of kufr, and that Abu Musa al-Ash’ari (r.a.) and ‘Amr ibn al-‘Aasw (r.a.) were guilty of kufr when ‘Ali and Mu’awiyah (r.a.) appointed them to arbitrate between them.  They considered it permissible to kill young children, the offspring, of those they labelled mushrikin.

The Fudakiyyah are historically related to ibn Fudayk.  I do not know any more about them other than the common doctrinal positions that all the Khwarij held.

The ‘Athawiyyah are traced back to ‘Athiyyah ibn al-Aswad.  I do not know any more about them.

The ‘Ajradiyyah are historically related to ‘Abd ar-Rahman ibn ‘Ajrad.  They are a composite grouping of many subsects, collectively known as the Maimuniyyah.  They considered it permissible for a man to marry the daughters of his sons and the daughters of his daughters, as well as the daughters of his brothers and the daughters of his sisters.  They also claimed that Surah Yusuf is not part of the Qur’an.

The Jazimiyyah doctrine holds that hospitality, walayah, and hostility, ‘adawat, are a pair of attributes applicable to the Divine Essence.  Other than this, they would be regarded as a branch of the Ma’lumiyyah, since they maintained that anyone who does not know Allah by His Names is ignorant.  They rejected the doctrine that actions, af’al, Belong to Allah (s.w.t.), nullifying tawhid al-af’al.  They also rejected the principle that the ability to act is brought into being simultaneously with the action itself.

The Majhuliyyah were proponents of the doctrine that if someone knows Allah (s.w.t.) by at least some of His Names, he is to be considered as an ‘alim.  This is regardless of his adab and akhlaq.

The Swaltiyyah are historically related to ‘Utsman ibn asw-Swalt.  They maintained that if a person has an infant child at the time he embraces Islam, that child cannot be regarded as a Muslim until he reaches the age of puberty, at which time he must be invited to enter Islam and must accept the invitation on his own behalf.  They are similar to the Anabaptists of the Christians in that respect.

The Akhnasiyyah trace their origin to a man called al-Akhnas.  Not much is known about this particular person.  They hold the opinion that the slave-owner may take for himself part of the zakat due to his slave, and pass on to him only part of his zakat, if the slave-owner is needy and impoverished.

The Zafariyyah are another group whom we do not have any actual information.  In this case, we are uncertain how they were named.  We know of them by their successor group, the Hafswiyyah.

The Hafswiyyah were a sectarian group that branched off from the Zafariyyah.  They maintained that as long as a person acknowledges Allah, he cannot be considered guilty of shirk, even if he does not believe in anything else in the religion apart from Him.  In effect, according to them, such a person could theoretically reject the Messenger (s.a.w.), the Garden of Paradise and the Fire of Hell, and regard as lawful zina and other acts proscribed in Islam, and despite all this, as long as he gives lip service that there is a God, he would be a Muslim to them.  According to them, a person can be considered guilty of shirk only if he is ignorant of Allah (s.w.t.) and refuses to recognise His Existence, and on no other grounds at all.

Paradoxically, actual Muslims who opposed them were considered kafirun.  They attributed the following verse, “wandering bewildered through the earth,”hayran”, in the Qur’an, to ‘Ali (k.w.), and his party, as “his friends calling, ‘Come to us’, (vainly) guiding him to the Path?

Say: “Shall we indeed call on others besides Allah ― things that can do us neither good nor harm ― and turn on our heels after receiving Guidance from Allah ― like one whom the evil ones have made into a fool, wandering bewildered through the earth, his friends calling, ‘Come to us’, (vainly) guiding him to the Path?”  Say: “Allah’s Guidance is the (only) Guidance, and we have been Directed to submit ourselves to the Lord of the Worlds.” (Surah al-An’am:71)

It was the Hafswiyyah who ‘Ali (k.w.) defeated and scattered at the Battle of Nahrawan.

The Bahnasiyyah are historically related to Abu Bahnas.  They maintained a man cannot be considered a Muslim until he knows everything that Allah has Made lawful to him, and everything that He has Made unlawful to him, specifically and personally.  There are some amongst them who said that if a person commits a sinful offense, he should not be treated as an disbeliever until he has been arraigned before the sultan, so that the latter may impose upon him the penalty prescribed by the shari’ah for his particular offense, and that only then should he be convicted of kufr.

The Shimrakhiyyah trace their origin to ‘Abdullah ibn ash-Shimrakh, who allegedly declared that the killing of one’s own parents is halal.  At the time when he made this assertion, however, he was under duress, fi dar at-taqiyyah, so the Khwarij washed their hands of him.

The Bida’iyyah doctrine was generally the same as the Azraqiyyah with one exception.  Peculiar to them alone, however, is the assertion that swalah is only two raka’atan for maghrib.  This was based on their interpretation of this ayat:

And establish regular prayers at the two ends of the day and at the approaches of the night: for those things that are good remove those that are evil: be that the word of remembrance to those who remember (their Lord): (Surah Hud:114)

Like the Azraqiyyah, they believed it is permissibility to take women captives from among the kuffar, and of killing their infant children inadvertently.  We must remember here that ‘kuffar’ here also includes Muslims.  This was based on their interpretation of the ayat:

And Noah said, “O my Lord!  Leave not of the disbelievers, a single one on earth!” (Surah Nuh:26)

The Muhakkimiyyah were a group too small to be a sect by themselves, but they had an impact outsized from their small numbers.  They used to go out with their swords to the market places, and when the people gathered together unaware, they would suddenly cried out, “Laa hukm illa lillah!” and attacked everybody in the viscinity; and they went on killing people until they themselves were killed.  They were like the Zealot sect of Judaism during the Maccabean Revolt.  The people used to live in constant fear of them.

The Ibadhiyyah are the sole remnant of the Khwarij movement existing now.  They are the dominant sect in Oman and Zanzibar.  They are also found in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and East Africa.  The sect is said to have been founded 20 years after the passing of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.), predating both the Sunni and the Shi’ah.  They are a reformed sect of the Khwarij.  The Ibadhis deny anything more than a passing relation to the Khwarij and claim they merely developed out of the same precursor group.  The sect is named after Imam ‘Abdullah ibn Ibadh at-Tamimi (r.a.), a noted jurist and muhaddits, the student of ibn ‘Abbas (r.a.).  Imam ibn Ibadh (r.a.) was responsible for breaking off from the wider Khwarij movement roughly around the time of ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan became the fifth Umayyad caliph.  Whilst it is named after Imam ibn Ibadh (r.a.), the true founder was Imam Jabir ibn Zayd (r.a.), the cousin of ibn ‘Abbas (r.a.) and the student of ‘Aishah (r.a.).  He narrated ahadits almost exclusively from them.

Initially, Ibadhi theology developed in Basra, Iraq.  The Ibadhis opposed the rule of the ‘Utsman ibn ‘Affan (r.a.), but unlike the more extreme Khwarij, they rejected the murder of ‘Utsman (r.a.) as well as the Khwarij belief that all Muslims holding differing viewpoints were kafirun or mushrikin.  They were among the more moderate groups opposed to ‘Ali (k.w.), and wanted to return Islam to its form prior to the conflict between ‘Ali (k.w.) and Mu’awiyah (r.a.).

Although they predate every sect of Islam by several decades, the Ibadhi theology remains largely a mystery.  The Ibadhis have claimed, correctly, that while they read the works of both Sunnis and Shi’ah scholars, even the scholars of those two sects have never read Ibadhi works.  Other Muslims often repeat myths and false information when addressing the topic of Ibadhiyyah.  The Ibadhis were even cut off from the other Khwarij sects due to Imam ibn Ibadhi’s (r.a.) criticism of their excesses and his rejection of their more extreme beliefs.  Their strict adherence to the shari’ah in public and private matters has been described as puritanical, but the character of their denomination is paradoxically tolerant towards non-Ibadhis.  They maintain that every religious duty which Allah (s.w.t.) has made incumbent upon His creatures must be treated as an article of faith, and that every major sin is an instance of ingratitude of Divine Blessings, kufr ni’ma, not of polytheistic misbelief, kufr shirk.  They have assimilated the moderate position of the Khwarij in their relationship with others: walayah, friendship and unity with the Ibadhis and those deemed true believers; bara’ah, dissociation but, not hostility, towards disbelievers, and sinners; and wuquf, reservation towards those whose status is unclear.

In terms of doctrine, Ibadhis believe Allah (s.w.t.) will not Show Himself to Muslims on the Day of Judgment, shared with the Shi’ah.  Sunnis believe that Muslims will see Him on the Day of Judgment.  They believe that whoever enters Hell, will remain there forever.  This is contrary to the Sunni position detention in Hellfire is for a fixed amount of time to purify them of their sins, after which they will enter Heaven.  Some Sunnis believe that only Muslims will ever come out.  They believe that the Qur’an is Created.  This belief is shared with the Mu’tazila and Shi’ah.  Their views on qadha and qadr are the same as the Ash’ari, however.  They believe it is acceptable to conceal one’s beliefs under certain circumstances, naming this kitman.  This doctrine is analogous to taqiyyah.

Historically, the Ibadhis agree with the Sunnis regarding Abu Bakr (r.a.) and ‘Umar ibn al-Khaththab (r.a.) regarding their caliphate.  They regard the first half of ‘Utsman ibn ‘Affan’s (r.a.) rule as righteous and the second half as corrupt and affected by both nepotism and heresy.  They approved of the first part of ‘Ali’s (k.w.) caliphate until the Battle of Siffin, and disapprove of ‘Aishah’s (r.a.) rebellion and Mu’awiyah’s (r.a.) revolt.  They condemned ‘Ali (k.w.) for killing the Hafswiyyah at Nahrawan.  Imam ibn Baththutha (r.a.) observed that the Ibadhis praying jumu’ah in Oman, prayed in the same manner as the dzuhr, and noticed that they invoked God’s Mercy on Abu Bakr (r.a.) and ‘Umar (r.a.), but not ‘Utsman (r.a.) and ‘Ali (k.w.).

The Ibadhi corpus of ahadits is far smaller Sunnis, and they do not accept all from each other’s corpus.  However, several Ibadhi founding figures were noted muhaddits, and Imam Jabir ibn Zayd (r.a.) and Imam ‘Abdullah ibn Ibadh (r.a.) are accepted as a reliable narrators by Sunni scholars.  The principal Ibadhi ahadits collections are Musnad ar-Rabi’ ibn Ḥabib and Jami’ Swahih.  Their methodology of authentication is similar to Sunnis.  Ibadhi fiqh is straightforward.  Aside from the Qur’an and ahadits, ijma’ is restricted to their scholars and qiyas is considered bid’ah.  As such, their fatawa appear very rigid and inflexible compared to Sunni or Shi’ah fiqh.

The Khwarij came into existence at the end of the fourth decade of the first hijri century.  Due to their extreme ideology and violence, they were eradicated within 200 years, and at the beginning of ‘Abbasid rule they were extinct except for the Ibadhiyyah, who were in isolation and were non-violent.  Their doctrine was not something that appealed to most Muslims.  It was always viewed as a perversion and a heresy.  The Khwarij sects may be dead but their ideas have remained and infected portions of the ummah.  The Wahhabi sect is actually a modern incarnation of the Khwarij with the addition of the anthropomorphism that was found in other deviant sects of the early days.


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