Why do Muslims Call the Islamic State “Khawarij”? 23 July 2017

During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan 2015, a brutal global triple attack sent shockwaves across the world. A massacre on a Tunisian beach, a beheading in Paris and the suicide bomb detonated amongst worshippers at a mosque in Kuwait. All three attacks were claimed by the Islamic State.

For those familiar with early Islamic history, the triple attack in Ramadan has strong affinity with a historical example of political violence, a triple assassination attempt by a group called the khawarij against the three most significant leaders of the early Muslims. Only one of the three attempts was successful, it led to the death of Caliph Ali ibn Talib, one of the most revered of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions, celebrated by Sunnis and Shias as a pious, devout, and compassionate figure. The khawarij intended to destabilise the early Islamic empire and its culprits had no intention of walking away from it alive. There are clear similarities between the Islamic State and the historical khawarij. It is perhaps no surprise then perhaps that many Muslims use the term “khawarij” as a pejorative term to describe the Islamic State and many other modern terrorists.

But who are the khawarij? And how valid is the comparison between them and the Islamic State?

To understand the khawarij, one must revisit the era of the Rashidun Caliphate, the Caliphate established after the death of the Prophet. In a period of political turbulence, the Caliph Uthman was assassinated. Confusion ensued over who would be the next leader. Ali ibn Talib had numerous qualities that made him an obvious choice; he was the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, one of the first converts to Islam, a capable scholar, and an experienced commander. Those in Madinah rushed to offer him allegiance, which he accepted.

No sooner had Ali ibn Talib begun to address the widespread fragmentation of the Islamic Empire that he faced opposition. Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, the governor of the city of Damascus, refused to acknowledge Ali’s caliphate until the murderers of Uthman were delivered to him for justice. Muawiyah was a popular figure in the north with widespread support as a capable administrator, and Damascus was essentially the second city of the Rashidun Caliphate, with a significant historical importance even back then. Muawiyah was also Uthman’s closest living relative, and thus was responsible through ancient Arab tribal customs for avenging his death.

Ali’s predicament was difficult. There was no clear way of identifying the killers of Uthman (and Muawiyah likely knew this), and some of his own supporters were involved in the protest against Uthman’s policies. The two leaders entered into muted and, at times, half-hearted battles, both trying to avoid a protracted war but neither willing to concede.

Ali ibn Talib finally agreed to arbitration with Muawiyah, and it was now that the khawarij emerged. Hitherto, they were simply one amongst many factions within the early Islamic world, and nothing had yet marked them out as distinct. However Ali’s choice of accepting arbitration acted as fault line, bringing their religious and political distinctiveness out from the whole. The group insisted “la hukm illa billah”, a verse of the Quran that translates as “There is no sovereignty but with God”. They considered Ali’s right to rule to be divinely appointed, not subject to human debate or discussion, and by accepting arbitration, they believed Ali himself had rejected the religious appointment upon him. They seceded from Ali’s camp, an act which gave them the name khawarij, which literally translates to secede, to dissent or to exit.

The Similarities
The Syrian scholar Shaykh Muhammad al-Yacoubi was among the first to openly stand against President Bashar al-Assad during the Arab Spring. He is from a Sufi inspired movement within Islam, defying the caricature of Sufis as apolitical (as if such a thing were possible). His grounded scholarship as well as the personal risk he took in opposing Bashar al-Assad means that his theological treatise “Refuting ISIS: A Rebuttal of Its Religious and Ideological Foundations” is taken seriously. This isn’t a counter-extremism work produced by a Western government, or an attempt at liberal Islamic reform by a progressive Muslim. Al-Yacoubi is an orthodox Muslim scholar who commands significant respect.

In his book “Refuting ISIS”, he titles a chapter “Proving that the Followers of ISIS are Khawarij”. The main thrust of his argument is that the Islamic State mimic the khawarij in three respects. First “revolting against the Muslim community, rulers, as well as the public”, “anathematizing [declaring non-Muslims] the majority of Sunni Muslims”, and finally “considering the spread of injustice across the land by killing, wanton destruction, and plundering as permissible”.

These three characteristics are enough in al-Yacoubi’s view to draw a link between the historic group and the contemporary Islamic State. Both groups rejected mainstream authority (religious and political). Both groups engage in “takfir”, declaring other Muslims to be apostates for various (usually negligible) reasons. And finally, both groups reject an established tradition around the ethics of warfare within the Islamic faith.

Shaykh al-Yacoubi also cites a prophecy of Ali ibn Talib. This same prophecy formed the basis of a viral article by Kashif Chaudhry in the Huffington Post, one which supposedly warns of the Islamic State: –

“When you see the black flags, remain where you are and do not move your hands or your feet (It’s a common phrase meaning: “Stay put and don’t get involved in the fighting”). Thereafter there shall appear a feeble folk to whom no concern is given. Their hearts will be like fragments of iron. They are the representatives of the State (Ashab al-Dawla). They will fulfil neither covenant nor agreement. They will invite to the truth, though they are not from its people. Their names will be agnomens [i.e., Abu So-and-so], and their ascriptions will be to villages. Their hair will be long like that of women. [They shall remain so] till they differ among themselves, and then Allah will bring forth the truth from whomever He wills.’”

The hadith was traditionally attributed as a description and prophecy regarding the Abbasids rather than the Islamic State. In the science of hadith which assess the historical veracity of hadith, it is classed as having a “weak” level of reliability, with some considering it to be a fabricated hadith serving as propaganda against the Abbasids.

It was largely left untouched in the books of hadith until the growth of Islamic State in 2014 and their declaration of a caliphate, at which point it was pulled up by various Muslims as an appropriate description of the new group, particularly in reference to their devotion to the “State” (the term dawla is the term used in the Arabic for Islamic State “al-Dawlat al-Islamiyyah”) as well as their pseudonyms such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the name of the current Caliph of the Islamic State (using the agnomen abu and ending with the name of the place he was born, a common naming strategy amongst Islamic State fighters). An article “ISIS and the End of Times” by Muslim scholar Abdul Aziz Suraqah posts this narration with the statement “if a narration with a weak chain speaks about a future event and that event plays out exactly as recorded in the narration, then the narration can be strengthened”, allowing many Muslims to consider the hadith to a prophetic warning of the Islamic State.

But there are also some theological allusions. The khawarij’s objection with Ali ibn Talib was that he had compromised on divine instruction, instead agreeing to human mediation to resolve a dispute. This goes right to the heart of how to read religious scripture, and the role between literal readings and human interpretation. In a famous incident, Ali visited the khawarij camp following their secession, and debated with them, arguing: –

“We have not appointed men to judge, but rather we have appointed the Quran to judge. But this Quran is scripture between two covers. It does not speak, but rather men speak through it”.

Ali ibn Talib’s position stressed the importance of interpretation, the Quran was not a book to be read and meanings extracted without consideration, but rather human endeavour was needed to understand it. In the history of the Islamic tradition, literalism towards the Quran is rare. The khawarij are among the few exceptions to the rule.

The Islamic State tend towards reductive and selective readings of the Quran also and importantly, an abandonment of tradition. Modern violent extremist groups, which are almost all exclusively reformist, do away with existing scholarship on the Quran but rather advocate a direct relationship between the reader and the text. This has parallels to the khawarij. “Your words are truth, but your understanding of it is not” Ali said about the Khawarij slogan of “la hukm illa billah” – Ali’s statement is often applied by Muslims to many violent extremist readings of the Quran.

The khawarij rejected all existing political and religious authorities. This is perhaps the most defining aspect of the group. The khawarij rejection of Ali ibn Talib is not simply rejecting a single figure, he is incredibly significant in both Sunni and Shia theology –the child prodigy raised in the household of the Prophet – to question Ali’s religious authority as an adult is unthinkable. Even Muawiyah never opposed Ali ibn Talib’s religious primacy, instead stressing his own duty to avenge his relative Usman’s death.

The Islamic State, like the khawarij, equally reject existing paradigms of religious authority, and do so violently.

A rejection of political and religious authority, dissenting from the mainstream and a penchant for violence are thus the ways in which the contemporary “Islamic State” and the historical khawarij are often seen as related. But how far does the comparison go?


Historian and academic Mark Sedgwick stresses the distinctiveness between the Islamic State and the khawarij. “Politically, the original khawarij were defined by their opposition to the idea of the Caliphate” Mark clarified to me during an interview. “Whereas the Islamic State is actually in favour of the caliphate, so long as it is an Islamic State caliphate, of course.” The khawarij’s rejection of Ali, and later the Abbasid caliphates, is one of the few religious beliefs of group we can historically ascertain with confidence. As Mark Sedgwick points out, there are very few of their writings preserved: –

“Religiously, it is a bit difficult to see quite what the khawarij really believed. Different khariji groups seem to have believed different things, and anyhow we don’t have the writings of the khawarij themselves, but rather accounts of them by their enemies. And we know from other cases in other times that accounts of people’s beliefs by their enemies are highly unreliable. But even so, the theology of IS (the Islamic State) seems to have nothing much in common with what khariji theology might have been.”

Prominent British Muslim scholar Abu Eesa Niamatullah agrees, “to apply a term to a group requires every single characteristic to be present exactly. Those who know their creed and those who know their Islamic history also know this is far from the case with regards to the khawarij and Isis [the Islamic State]”. That isn’t to say, as Abu Easa writes “someone can’t have ‘khariji tendencies’”, but he warns that in the contemporary period it has “become so over-used that it has lost its value and meaning.”

As both scholars note, there are dangers in stressing the relationship between Islamic State and the khawarij. Each emerged in a distinct set of contexts and they have distinctly different goals. What similarities show us however is the importance of understanding the language of religion when assessing the politics of a group. To be called a khawarij is a rhetorical act of positioning the group as heretical, dissenting and impiously violent rather than a literal act of historical reasoning.

More Than Religion
There is another danger in using the term khawarij. Edward Said, writing about the depiction of Muslims in mainstream media wrote “much of what one reads and sees in the media about Islam represents the aggression as coming from Islam because that is what “Islam” is”. In the same way, using the term khawarij  presents the Islamic State as solely theological actors, motivated by a religious or scriptural reading.  Professor James Gelvin complains of the same issue, saying that “in terms of the Middle East, the straw people always grasp at first is religion. They don’t do that in the case of the West. If there is a problem, it’s not a national problem, it’s not an economic problem, it has to be nailed on religion. It’s facile, simplistic and lazy analysis.” So while there are some insights to be gleaned from the historical khawarij – the reality of contemporary politics and socio-economics in the rise (and fall) of the Islamic State should not be forgotten. The Islamic State hold a violent reading of the Quran, but those who have documented the groups growth have marked the significance of secular former soldiers of Saddam, of the Iraq War, and of the cold-war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. A complete picture need be kept in mind for clear-sighted analysis.

The End of the Islamic State

In 2017, the Islamic State lost considerable territory in Iraq and Syria, despite continuing a relentless campaign of violence both in the Middle-East and targets internationally. Syria remains an international crisis and a heart-wrenching catastrophe. Russia and the US were effectively fighting a proxy war in Syria, and the election of Trump and a warming of relations with Russia has done little for Syria.

Reflecting on the chaos, it is impossible to conclude this is anything other than a failure of politics. A failure of the Iraq War, of the Arab Spring, of the international community, and of subsequent power-plays by global superpowers. But as many note, this is a conflict with a religious dimension. Mark Sedgwick reflects ‘the political and the religious often go together’ with conflicts. It’s valuable then not only to understand the religious claims the Islamic State put forward about themselves, but how ordinary Muslims reject these claims.

There is another benefit in remembering the khawarij. The group, despite its violence and the chaos it sought to impose, never achieved its long term goal. The Abbasid’s followed the Rashidun Caliphate, and heralded in an era of civilizational, cultural, and scientific advancement in a climate of religious tolerance and peace – pushing humanity to new highs. We can hope for the same in facing the uncertain future.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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