The Kharajites

and their impact on Contemporary Islam

part 4

Shaykh Seraj Hendricks

After the original Muhakkima numerous Kharajite factions emerged. At least twenty are listed in both the al-Milal wa an-Nihal of Shahrastani and the al-Farq baina l-Firaq of al-Baghdadi. Even more is mentioned in the Maqalat al-Islamiyya of Abu l-Hasan al-'Ashari.

Nevertheless, the most important of these factions were the Azariqa, the Najadat, the Buhaisiyya, the Ajarida, the Tha'alaba, the 'Ibadiyya, and the Sufriyya. From these core factions a host of other sub-factions emerged. These factions and sub-factions merely differed in the extent of their extremism. While a detailed study of the nature and extent of their differences is beyond the scope of this series, it is, nevertheless, instructive to know precisely how some of these divisions occurred.

After the Muhakkima, the first and by far the most powerful and influential faction to emerge was the Azariqa. This faction, mentioned previously, was founded by Nafi' b. Azraq (d.60 AH). The chief difference between them and the Muhakkima was the manner in which they regarded those who differed from them. While the Muhakkima viewed others who differed from them as kuffar (unbelievers), the Azariqa now regarded them as mushrikeen (idolaters). The fine thread that distinguished kufr (unbelief) from shirk (idolatry) was all that distinguished them from each other.

The following therefore, formed part of the principles espoused by the Azariqa:

a) That those who refused to settle in or undertake a hijra to the territories they controlled were declared mushrikeen, even if those who refused to do so agreed with their opinions.

b) That it was obligatory for anyone seeking to join their armed forces to be subjected to an inquisition. Part of the inquisition included presenting to the candidate a Muslim prisoner of war that differed with the Azariqa. The candidate was ordered to kill the prisoner. If he refused to do so then he, in turn, would be declared a mushrik and killed.

c) That it was permissible to kill both the women and children of those who differed with them and that their children, after being killed, would permanently reside in hell.

The notions of a Dar al-Hijra (an abode of refuge for Muslims) and a fervent sense of "belonging" to their views were strong in Azariqa circles. In their Dar al-Hijra they were the Muhajireen (those who fled, literally, from a state of unbelief to a state of true belief). The rest who refused to flee with them were all mushrikeen residing in a Dar al-Harb (an abode of war violently opposed to Islam). Nafi' b' Azraq finally declared too, that it was not permissible for those Kharajis residing in non-Kharajite lands to hide their beliefs. This form of taqiyya (or to hide one's faith under life-threatening circumstances) that have broadly been accepted by the vast majority of Muslims, was classed as an act of shirk by Nafi'. This latter view of Nafi's was one of the main reasons that lead to Najda b. 'Amir al-Hanafi breaking ranks with the Azariqa. Thus emerged a new faction - the Najadat.

While Najda, along with a military contingency, was on his way from al-Yamama to meet Nafi' he encountered Abu Fudaik and 'Atiyya b. al-Aswad al-Hanafi. They informed Najda of certain new innovations (bida'at) invented by Nafi'. Najda rejected these innovations and was then pronounced the new leader of the Kharijis. He adopted the title of Amir al-Mu'mineen (Leader of the Faithful). It was not long after that that Najda, in turn, found himself in trouble with both Abu Fudaik and 'Atiyya.

Najda, as the new Amir and Mujtahid, had given himself the licence to introduce a few new innovations of his own. Amongst these "innovations" was his view that those of his followers who perpetrated major sins - such as stealing and fornicating etc. - were destined to be punished in a hell other than that reserved for genuine unbelievers. These transgressors remained Muslim for as long as they agreed with his views. Another of his "innovations" was that those who deviated slightly - but consistently - from his views or engaged - also consistently - in the telling of harmless little lies were all declared idolaters. Even more comical was the fact that he was told by a dissenting group to go to the mosque and repent from these innovations. This he did. Subsequently a party from this dissenting group apparently regretted their behaviour. They told him that he was the Imam and that he had the right to his ijthad. But it did not end there. They then ordered him to repent from his initial repentance. In addition he had to further instruct those who originally ordered him to repent to repent from that order. To add to his misery the group now threatened to remove him if he failed to comply with these new demands.

All of this appeared to be a little too much for Abu Fudaik. By now Abu Fudaik had taken control of al-Yamama. So while the followers of Najda were out warring along the coastline of Syria and in certain parts of Yemen, Abu Fudaik contrived to get rid of Najda. They snuffed him out in a house of one of his followers, decapitated him, and brought his head to Abu Fudaik. Meanwhile, Abu Fudaik and Atiyya b. al-Aswad - erstwhile co-conspirators against Nafi' b. al-Azraq - also appeared to have developed a new set of problems with each other. So each one blandly absolved himself of the others' excesses. In the midst of this division between the two, the Umayyad ruler Abd al-Malik b. Marwan sent an army to crush Abu Fudaik and his followers. The mission was a success. Abu Fudaik was killed in the process and Atiyya fled to Sijistan where he founded the lesser-known Kharijite branch called the 'Atawiyya.

Amongst the disciples of 'Atiyya was Abd al-Karim b. 'Ajrad. Abd al-Karim, in turn, founded the 'Ajarida - another influential branch of the Kharajites. Their principles broadly corresponded to those of the Najadat, except that they denied that Surah Yusuf was a part of the Quran. They alleged that the Qissat al-'Ishq (or the "story of passion" between Nabi Yusuf and Zulaikha) could never have been revealed by Allah. My personal view, however, is that Nabi Yusuf's approach to the oppressive pharaonic political order flew in the face of their belief that all oppressive rulers must be eliminated by force. In Kharajite terms, there is no other way to deal with an unjust political order. Those who differ with their approach on this issue are either kafir or mushrik. It is this particular point that has lead many to conclude that the Kharajite movement was primarily a political one masquerading in the garb of religion.

The unfortunate consequences of their position however, was that much of their political "theory" - such as the freedom to elect political leaders irrespective of tribal or racial origins - that might have been useful to the Ummah became lost under the weight of their extremism. It is in this sense that the words of Sayyidina Ali may be understood when he said: "Do not fight the Kharajites after my death. Those who fight for the truth but are mislead along the way are not as bad as those who fight for falsehood and achieve their ends."

His former statement refers to the Kharajites; the latter, to the Umayyads.

Similar words were uttered by the only recognised leader of the Umayyad dynasty, Umar b. Abd al-Aziz when he addressed a group of Kharajites and said to them: "Indeed I am aware that you do not behave in the manner that you do for the sake of worldly gain. You do seek the blessings of the afterlife, but your approach is completely wrong."

The one fact that does emerge from the statements of these two great leaders is their unparalleled tolerance towards those who opposed them. Sayyidina Ali might have paid a heavy price for it, but it is precisely because of this that he is immortalised in the memory of Muslim history. Few indeed, are the examples that history can produce that are able to match up to the humanity of Sayyidina Ali.

Nonetheless, after the death of Sayyidina Ali, the bloodlust of the Kharajites - especially against other Muslims - continued. While later generations of Muslims ensured that their influences were either eliminated or at least neutralised one sect, in its original form, has survived. They are the Ibadites of present day Oman. Their survival is attributed to the fact that they were the most tolerant of the Kharajite factions. They were the one group that did not, for example, regard a perpetrator of a major sin as a kafir or mushrik. Today the Ibadites are averse to being associated with the Kharajites and consider themselves just another madhhab like the Shafi`is and Hanafis etc.

In general, the Kharajites became distinguished from other Muslims by four principles that defined most of them and, of almost equal importance, their common approach to things.

The four principles comprised the following:

a) The declaration of kufr (unbelief) on Sayyidina `Ali, Uthman, 'Amr ibn al-`As, Abu Musa al-`Ashari, Mu'awiya, and all those who consented to the process of arbitration. All of the differing Kharajite factions agreed on this point.

b) That all perpetrators of major sins were permanently destined for hell. The exception to this was the Ibadites.

c) The declaration of either kufr or shirk upon those who differed with them.

d) That it was obligatory to overthrow an oppressive ruler by force.

Their approach, on the other hand, was marked by unbridled extremism and severity. This extremism was most manifest in two respects. One, in the puritanical spirit that they executed all their affairs - whether of the worldly or spiritual order - and particularly so in their 'ibadat; two, in the ruthless spirit of inquisition that they introduced into Islam. In this respect they differed but little from all other crazed fanatics, whether past or present, Muslim or non-Muslim.

In the next part of this series we shall look at the coming of Abdul Wahhab and what has come to be known as the "Wahhabite" movement.

Part 5