The Kharijites and their impact on Contemporary Islam


Shaykh Seraj Hendricks

Much of the excesses and extremism that we observe today may be understood in terms of the origins and unfolding of Kharijism during the first few centuries of Islam.

While a number of writers – both past and present – are of the opinion that this sect is extinct, others are of the view that its not. I share the latter view. The influences of this sect have always been present, in different guises and in varying degrees, throughout the history of Islam. But it appears to have gained a renewed momentum with the emergence of Muhammad Abdul Wahhab during the latter part of the 18th century.

This series will attempt to explore the relationship between the two and also to critically examine the position of Abdul Wahhab himself.


Hurqus – the first Khariji

The origins of Kharijism date back to the time of the Prophet (s). Amongst the clearest indications we have of this is the Hadith of Hurqus ibn Zuhair in Bukhari and Muslim.

After the Battle of Hunain the Prophet (s) – in distributing the booty – gave preference to a number of non-Muslims. His aim was to attract them to Islam. Hurqus rebuked the Prophet (s) by saying to him: “Be just in your distribution O Messenger of Allah.”

The Prophet was incensed by this remark and responded by saying:
“Then who can be called just if I am not just?”
To this the Prophet added:
“There will come a time when a group of people will leave our ranks. They will recite the Quran with fervour and passion1 but its spirit will not go beyond their throats. They will leave our ranks in the manner of an arrow when it shoots from its bow.”

The Battle of Siffin

It is significant that this selfsame Hurqus was elected as one of the heads of the Kharijites after the Battle of Siffin. This story needs to be told, albeit briefly.

The Battle of Siffin was a battle for Muslim leadership, with Sayyidna Ali on the one side and Muawiyyah on the other. This probably marks one of the most painful moments in the history of Islam. But there are enormous lessons here and we need to understand them.

Many Companions on both sides were disheartened by this conflict. The necessity, therefore, for arbitration between the two parties was mooted by a certain al-Ash’ath ibn Qais. The proposal was accepted by both parties with Abu Musa al-Ash’ari representing Sayyidna Ali (r) and ‘Amr ibn al-As (r) representing Muawiyyah (r).

Nonetheless, when the pact was read out by ibn Qais a large group on the side of Sayyidna Ali objected vehemently to its terms. Most of the members of this group belonged to the Bedouin tribe of Tamim. Their spokesperson on the occasion was Urwa ibn Udaiyya. 
He said: “Are men to arbitrate in the affairs of Allah? There can be no arbitration except by Allah.”
In support of his view he quoted the following Quranic passage: “The prerogative of command rests with none but Allah. He declares the truth and he is the best of judges” (6:57).

Sayyidna Ali’s response to this was typical:
“There is a word of truth in what they say,” he said, “but their ends are devious.”

Urwa, along with 12,000 others, then seceded from the party of Sayyidna Ali. Initially they set up camp at a place called Harawra on the outskirts of Kufa. Here they elected Abdullah ibn al-Kawwa as their head. Sayyidna Ali pursued them and engaged them in debate. Ibn al-Kuwwa conceded to Sayyidna Ali’s arguments and he, along with a few others, returned to his ranks.

The rest of the Kharijites then left for Nahrawan. Here they elected Abdullah ibn Wahb al-Rasibi and the above-mentioned Hurqus ibn Zuhair as their leaders. It is interesting to note here that al-Rasibi was known for his fervour in reciting the Quran and was also nicknamed Dhu al-Thafanat (the one whose kneecaps appeared like two humps of a camel because of the intense and extended nature of his prostration in Salaah).

Nevertheless, on their way to Nahrawan, they encountered Abdullah ibn Khabbaab al-Aratt, one of the governors of Sayyidna Ali. Amongst the things he said to them after they identified him as an enemy was the following:
“My father related to me that the Prophet (s) said: ‘There will come a time when the fitna (corruption and sedition) of the one who sits will be considered preferable to the one who stands; and the fitna of the one who stands will be preferable to the one who walks; and the fitna of the one who walks will be preferable to the one who runs. So if it is at all possible then try to be amongst those who are slaughtered rather than amongst those who will do the slaughtering.”

Khabbab, ironically, was one of the first victims of Kharijite brutality. He, along with his pregnant wife, was hacked to death. When the news of this slaughter reached Sayyidna Ali he set out for Nahrawan with an army of 4,000 men.

The subsequent meeting that ensued between Sayyidna Ali and the Kharijites merit a separate and full treatment. 


Kharijite principles

Suffice it for us at this stage to know that by now this group of Kharijites – known as the “Muhakkima”- had already resolved upon the following principles:
a) The declaration of Kufr (unbelief) on Sayyidna Ali, Muawiyyah, and all those who had participated in and agreed to the process of arbitration
b) Takfir (charging with unbelief) of all those who disagreed with them on any theological issues
c) The right to kill any of the above.
In this context the response of Sayyidna Ali to their view that the “prerogative of command belongs to Allah alone”2 by saying that it was “a word of truth with a devious end” becomes quite apparent.

It was evident to Sayyidna Ali that theirs was a political agenda – an agenda that was inspired by an ill-conceived sense of political isolationism owing to their Bedouin status. The spirit of Islam – as yet – had not served to de-tribalise them. Strength, to them, resided in aggression and belligerence; and not in the deeper recesses of the spirit and soul – the wellsprings of genuine faith (Iman).

Sayyidna Ali understood this for he understood the meaning of the Quranic verse:
“The desert Arabs say, ‘We believe (amanna).’ Say: ‘You do not as yet have true faith.’ Rather say: ‘We have only submitted our wills to Allah (aslamna), for not yet has true faith entered your hearts.'” (49:14).

It is therefore not surprising that the Hurub al-Ridda (the War against the Apostates) that occurred during the time of Sayyidna Abu Bakr was inspired by a group of people with similar backgrounds. It is even less surprising that most of the claims to prophethood after the death of the Prophet (s) also emanated from these localities.

For the Kharijites, on the other hand, to legitimise their agenda and justify their killing of Muslims they had to declare them as Kafir and hence the territories in which they lived as a Dar al-Harb (an abode of war). This they legitimised under the nefarious pretence of “the prerogative of command belongs to Allah.” This statement – and more correctly read, in its Kharijite context, as “only we (with our swords) have the prerogative of command” – spawned thousands of little gods who maimed and massacred and killed in the name of the most Merciful of the Merciful.

Sayyidna Ali’s position in that confrontation at Nahrawan is one every Muslim needs to know.


1 lit. “with tongues that are moist”.

2 “fal-hukmu lillah”, Quran 40: 12.


The Meeting between Sayyidna Ali and the Kharijites

Shaykh Seraj Hendricks

Sayyidna Ali set out for Nahrawan, as mentioned earlier, with a party of 4,000 soldiers. Here he confronted the Kharajites. The story, however, is best told by Abdul Qahir al-Baghdadi in his work al-Farq bain al-Firaq (Differences between the Sects in Islam).

“When Ali approached the Kharajites he demanded that they hand over the one who killed Abdullah ibn Khabbab. They responded by saying that all of them were responsible for his death and that if they should get the opportunity they would kill Ali too. Ali and his army moved out and confronted them. Shortly before the battle, however, he said to them: ‘For what reason do you seek revenge from me?’ They replied: ‘ The first reason is that after having fought alongside you at the Battle of the Camel – and after having been victorious – you allowed us to take the spoils of war but you prohibited us from imprisoning their women and children. So how did you allow us the one and not the other?’

Ali replied, ‘I allowed you the booty for the reason that they had unlawfully taken that wealth from the Bait al-Mal in Basra in the first place. That happened before I went to Basra. As for their women and children, they did not join in the battle. So their rights within Islam remain as it would for any Muslim living in a Dar al-Islam. Moreover, none of them apostatised and it’s not permissible to shed the blood of those who remain within the fold. But above all, had I allowed you to imprison their women, then who amongst you would have had the temerity to take Aisha as a prisoner?’ The Kharajites shuddered at this rejoinder.

They then said, ‘The second reason for our revenge is that that when you signed the treaty of peace between yourself and Muawiyya you eliminated your title ‘Amir al-Mu’minin‘.

To this Ali replied, ‘In this respect I did exactly what the Prophet (s) of Allah did with Suhail ibn ‘Amr at the Treaty of Hudaibiyya. Suhail said to him (s), ‘Had I accepted that you were the Prophet of Allah then I would not be disputing with you in this fashion. So remove your title ‘The Prophet of Allah’ from the pact and write your name followed by the name of your father. The Prophet (s) acceded to this and had his Companions record ‘This is what Muhammad ibn Abdullah and Suhail ibn ‘Amr have agreed upon…’

Soon after that the Prophet informed me that I would one day find myself in a position similar to the one in which he had found himself at Hudaibiyya. So my situation today with the children of those people is identical to that of the Prophet with their fathers.

The Kharajites then said to Ali, ‘Why did you say to the two arbitrators (Abu Musa al-Ashari and Amr ibn al-As), ‘If I am suited for the position of Khalifa then you may appoint me.’ By this you expressed doubt in your own ability as a Khalifa. It is therefore understandable, if not preferable, for others to hold similar doubts about you.’

Ali replied, ‘Indeed through that I wished to be fair to Muawiyya. Had I unconditionally asked the arbitrators to appoint me as the Khalifa then Muawiyya would not have accepted that. In this regard, when the Prophet invited the Christians of Najran to earnestly pray to Allah for an answer he expressed a similar fair-mindedness. This is evident from the verse of the Quran, ‘Say: Come! Let us gather together – our sons and your sons, our women and your women, ourselves and yourselves. Then let us earnestly pray, and invoke the curse of Allah upon the one who lies.’ (Quran, 3: 61) In this manner the Prophet was fair to the Christians. Had he (s) said, on the other hand, ‘I will earnestly pray and invoke the curse of Allah upon you’ then the Christians of Najran would never have accepted his invitation. For the same reason, therefore, I wished to be fair to Muawiyya. Moreover, at that point I could not be certain about Amr ibn al-As’s position – whether he would mislead me or not.

Lastly they said to Ali, ‘Why did you, in the first place, allow two arbitrators to arbitrate in a matter that was inherently your right?’

Ali responded, ‘I was present when the Prophet of Allah appointed Sa’ad ibn Muadh as an arbitrator after the battle with the tribe of Quraitha. If he wished then he need not have appointed an arbitrator in the first place. So I did the same – and followed the example of the Prophet – when I appointed an arbitrator.'” 

After this lengthy discourse most of the Kharajites – 8,000 of them – capitulated and returned to the ranks of Sayyidna Ali. 4,000 of them – including Hurqus ibn Zuhair and Abdullah al-Rasibi – remained committed to their cause. This is a story of the integrity of Sayyidna Ali. And that integrity, as told in the narration of al-Baghdadi, continues where he records that Sayyidna Ali ordered the 8,000 who capitulated not to join them in the battle. He had come with 4,000 and with 4,000 he would fight. On that day too, he swore that no more than ten on his side would die and no more than ten on their side would survive. That is precisely what happened. Amongst those who survived was Hurqus ibn Zuhair.

The intractable Hurqus confronted Sayyidna Ali and said, “O son of Abi Talib, I fight you not except for the sake of Allah, and for my reward in the afterlife.”

Sayyidna Ali retorted, “Your kind, Hurqus, is the kind that Allahu Ta’ala refers to in the Quran where He states, ‘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 imagined that they were acquiring good by their works‘ (18: 103). Amongst these – and I swear by this in the name of the Lord of the Ka’ba – are you Hurqus!”

Hurqus met his end and was killed.

Perhaps Hurqus would see the worth of his “good” deeds in the afterlife. But the roots of internecine hatred they left behind were firmly sunk in the soil of this world. Nevertheless, the story, if it needs to be told, need not be for the sake of the legacy the Kharajites left behind. If there is ever a need for the story to be told, then it is for the lessons to be learnt from Sayyidna Ali’s attitude and approach to them during his short reign as Khalifa. Not only is he a model of justice and integrity, but, like his three great predecessors, is a model of how Muslim leaders, governors and communities ought to behave and conduct themselves.

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