Although comparison’s between the ancient Kharijites and al-Qaeda are clumsy and misinformed, the Kharijite history may still be useful for informing modern counter-radicalisation narratives.
Some counterterrorism analysts have mistakenly described al-Qaeda as modern day Kharijites—the murderers of the fourth caliph and arguably the first “terror” movement in Islamic history. Although propaganda campaigns—such as those from the Moroccan and Saudi governments—deride al-Qaeda as Kharijites as an insult to engender public visceral disgust for al-Qaeda’s irreligious and criminal nature, these criticisms are only rhetorical.
In fact, al-Qaeda are not Kharijites. Al-Qaeda’s beliefs have no roots in the al-Khawarij. The Kharijites held many nuanced views that do not resemble this modern insult. Some Kharijites were actually peaceful and still thrive today—able to provide counter-narratives against al-Qaeda. In short, modern misuse of the term does not necessarily represent what this movement actually was.
The Kharijites were active during Islam’s first civil war and disputed the rightful caliph amongst those who knew the Prophet himself. While they wished to interpret the Quran as literally as possible in the same way as al-Qaeda, they didn’t have the burden of an additional millennium of scholarship, history, and examples on which to draw. The difference in time, circumstances, and personalities is so great that comparisons must be carefully considered.
Despite these limitations, some Kharijite principles are echoed in al-Qaeda ideology and strategy: takfirism; the rule of God being the only important matter (no man-made decisions allowed); a willingness to murder innocents; a willingness to use any methods; aiming to topple rulers from power and take over the world; an ideology that spread over time and space through disparate groups without a central command structure; and a defensive narrative that the sanctity of Islam is under attack.
Most importantly, the Kharijite movements can inform research on counter narratives in several ways.
First, the Ibadis (one of the four major Kharijite sects) most likely suffered from violent divisions as they moderated their views. It is possible that the Ibadis, as a society, moderated independently seeing the rationality of ruling realistically over a vast area and the fate of the violent Azraqis (another of the four sects) who were killed off. But it is more likely that there were divisions, stands, and even violence between lines of thought and clans over the future of the Ibadis. Although the internal, grassroots narratives are unknown, it is probable that such narratives—if they are ever revealed—could inform modern-day counter narratives. One counter narrative that almost certainly played a role was the inevitable societal repression that would occur if the Ibadis remained violent.
Second, the criticisms of the Kharijites—during the time of the Kharijites—may inform what grassroots counter-extremist narratives may appeal. For example, killing innocent women and children, an overly literal interpretation of the Quran, and lack of governance may be main narratives of anti-violent extremist movements. Such notions led Ali and then the Umayyads to rally support of armies, militias, and citizens to fight the Kharijites.
Third, the actual uncompromising ideology of the Kharijites could inform an internal reformation or insurrection within al-Qaeda. As al-Qaeda rulers gain fame and take liberties with interpreting the Quran, a Kharijite-like narrative over complete equality of all Muslims, strict adherence to the Quran (without modern-day adaptations), and need to rebel against any leader who came to power without consensus of Muslims over that leader’s stellar credentials may drive groups to split from and fight al-Qaeda.
Brief history of the Kharijites
Many scholars believe the “Kharijites” to be the first “violent extremist” group, who claimed to kill in the name of their particular interpretation of Islam.
Some ancient and modern scholars believe that the Kharijites may have originally been motivated by the third caliph’s (Uthman) corruption, unequal distribution of wealth, and cronyism. Other scholars believe that Kharijite roots lie during the period of the Prophet (the Kharijite actions being a conservative reaction to post-Prohet changes), and yet others believe the roots to be in the Arab life before the Prophet. But most today appear to buy off on the fact that the Kharijites began during the battle of Siffin in 657.
The group originally comprised warriors from Basra who fought on the side of Ali, the fourth caliph, against the Syrian Ummayads. During the battle of Siffin in modern day Syria, Ali negotiated with his opponents. Ali tried to stave off battle, but the Syrians only offered self-rule over Syria and Egypt—which Ali outright rejected. Then after four days of fighting and tens of thousands dead, Ali began to win. Desperate, his opponents put Qurans on their spears. Despite Ali’s orders to attack on, many in his army refused so Ali forged an arbitration scheme in which each side would decide on a scholar, both of whom would come to consensus on the outcome of the dispute from the Quran alone. But the Kharijites, who had fought on Ali’s side perceived Ali to be the rightful leader. And thus, the Kharijites perceived this compromise tantamount to heresy. They asked Ali to repent, but Ali denied that he acted sinfully. So the Kharijites felt they could no longer fight under Ali and fled to al-Nahrawan in modern day Iraq and invited other Basran fighters.
On their way these other Basrans may have begun, as they later continued to do and for which they became famous, interrogating Muslims. If the innocent passer-byers did not answer Kharijite questions to the Kharijites’ liking, the Basrans would murder the travelers and their families.
Two more times the Kharijites asked Ali to repent. Ali did not. The Kharijites even killed an envoy Ali sent to try to settle the dispute diplomatically. Ali initially intended to deal with the Syrians first, but after legend of Kharijites’ murders abounded and under pressure from his staff, Ali turned to al-Nahrawan to attack. Ali gave the Kharijites the opportunity to surrender. Out of the original 4,000, only 1,500 (or 1,800 by other accounts) remained, others fled. Ali massacred them in 658 (this date is contested). This battle cemented the divide between the Kharijites and Shi’a (the mainstream of those that followed Ali and believed him to be the rightful caliph).
The few survivors fled and spread.
Then, in 661, right before Ali set off to launch his third military campaign against the Syrians, a single Egyptian Kharijite killed Ali with a sword to the head to reportedly avenge those killed during the massacre in al-Nahrawan.
As Kharijites fled to areas in modern day Iraq, they killed Muslims not abiding by Kharijites’ beliefs (several revolts were put down):
- Only merit should decide the chief Imam. He would, in effect, only be the chief scholar of other scholars.
- The community leader had no special status except greater merit. He/she had no special tribal ties, financial wellbeing, sex, ethnicity, or spiritual enlightenment.
- “Wayward” Imams must be deposed or killed (but the Kharijites offered no solution to the logical quandary that an Imam cannot be publicly deposed if he has power over the polity in the first place).
- Tribal and national status did not matter: only religion.
- Laws and principles should resemble the original Muslims in Medina.
- Labeling Muslims unbelievers (known as takfirism) allowed the original Kharijites to kill Muslims to include pregnant women and children.
- Guerilla tactics, terrorist attacks, and ambushes were tactics of choice.
After several failed revolts in Basra, the Kharijites split into four sects over permissibility of killing non-Kharijite Muslims and fled to different areas of North Africa, Southwest Asia, East Asia, and Europe:
- Azraqis fled to modern day Iran (near Basra) and continued to kill and steal from all Muslims who did not abide by their beliefs in 684. They believed that they alone owned the House of Islam and all others were destined for hell. Furthermore, they emphatically pushed the notion that only God could make decisions—the Quran and not man could determine law only. Most conducted widespread massacres and killed even pregnant women and children (a very small minority moderated and lived in Basra’s inner city, suspending their judgment of non-Kharijites). Even after their leader was killed they continued to grow in number until Umayyad armies literally tracked down and exterminated them by 699. The movement, though may have inspired some further rebellions:
– In 756, Abu Hamza al-Khariji appealed to Meccans to march against Syria. The Umayyads defeated the assault. From the description of this type of violence, Abu Hamza’s uprising appeared to bear traits of the Azraqi ideology.
– Kharijite rebels in 854 overran and controlled parts of the towns of Bust and Zaranj (on the border of modern day Afghanistan/Iran). It is feasible that the Azraqis—who established a base in Iran—influenced this later iteration of Kharijites. The local governors and community leaders established vigilante forces, which may have helped the army to defeat these Kharijites by 865.
- Najdites fled to modern day Saudi Arabia. Initially they were similar to the Azraqis in belief and tactics but were forced to moderate when they began to control large swaths of land and populations (to include Bahrain, Oman, and parts of Yemen). For example they began to forbid killing women and children; not punish every thief, adulterer, and sinner; allow some intellectual freedom; and dub naysayers as hypocrites vice disbelievers. Punishing all detractors in such a wide area of land was impractical. There was a distinction between fundamental/required and non-fundamental laws. This moderation helped allow the Najdites to rule more of the Arabian Peninsula then even the Umayyads. After leadership quarrels and the death of Najda in 692 or 693 and some Ummayad suppression, they moderated further. The remainders believed there was no need to rebel and accepted living under “infidel” rule realizing that unanimously agreeing upon one Imam would be practically impossible. There are no known modern traces.
- Sufris, like the Ibadis, believed that one had to create a polity if possible (the Azraqis gladly lived without recognizing a caliph and the Najdites initially concurred with this notion) and fled to modern day Saudi Arabia and North Africa. They held a strict interpretation of the Quran but forbade political murder and murder of children. The movement appeared to stop in the 10thcentury likely from government suppression.
- Ibadis fled to the Arabian Peninsula and further sects fled worldwide—from modern day Algeria to Sicily to China. From 777 to 909 the Rustamid dynasty united Ibadis in North Africa from its base in western Algeria. Today Ibadis comprise minorities in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Tanzania. In 793, Ibadis established another base in Oman still thriving today. After they initially fled, they quickly moderated—obviating the need for government attack. They forbade killing and any type of terrorism, practiced “quietism” (disengagement from violence), outreached to Muslims peacefully to attempt voluntary conversions on trade and pilgrimage routes, and conducted constructive diplomacy with the ruling Umayyad Empire. Today approximately 75% of Omanis are Ibadi—now a cultural heritage more than a practiced religion.
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