Khawarij Ideology, ISIS Savagery: the Takfiri Origins
As ISIS continues its murder and violence across the provinces it controls and seeks to control, and as it continues to plague the conscience of the great majority of Muslims around the world, what’s worth recalling is that we’ve seen this before in history with the sect called the Khawarij (anglicised to Kharijites). So before tackling ISIS, let’s look at their forerunners; the Kharajites, to whom their pedigree can be traced.
The hadith canons relate that shortly after the battle of Hunayn while the Prophet ﷺ was distributing charity to a few people whose hearts needed to be reconciled, there came a man with a thick beard, prominent cheek bones, deep sunken eyes, protruding forehead and shaven head. He exclaimed: Fear Allah, O Muhammad! The Prophet ﷺ responded: ‘Who will obey Allah if I were to disobey him? Am I not [sent as the] most trustworthy person on earth; and yet you trust me not?’ The man then turned back, whereupon one of those present asked for permission to kill him. But the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Verily, from the progeny (di’di) of this [man] shall come a people who will recite the Qur’an but it won’t pass beyond their throats. They will slay the followers of Islam and would spare the people of idolatry. They will pierce through the religion just like an arrow which goes clean through a prey.’1
Another hadith records that this man’s name was Dhu’l-Khuwaysirah, from the tribe of Tamim, about whom the Prophet ﷺ alerted: ‘Leave him; he has comrades whose prayer and fasting will make your prayer and fasting seem insignificant. They recite the Qur’an but it doesn’t go beyond their throats. They shall pass through the religion as an arrow that pierces clean through its prey such that, on inspecting the head; then the shaft; then the fletching; then the nock, would see no traces of blood or viscera on it whatsoever.’2 Ibn al-Jawzi said: ‘The first of the Khawarij, and the most wretched of them, was Dhu’l-Khuwaysirah … His problem was that he was too puffed up with his own opinion. Had he been granted grace, he would have realised that no opinion was above that of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ. The followers of this man were those who fought against ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, may Allah ennoble his face.’3
A few decades after this post-Hunayn happening, and as had been prophesied, Dhu’l-Khuwaysirah’s ideological comrades and offspring took on the shape of the very first sect (firqah) to deviate from the main body of the Muslims: the Khawarij (culled from the Arabic word kharaja – “to go out” or “to leave” the main body of Muslims). Indeed, their very name was mentioned by the Prophet ﷺ himself, who said: al-khawarij hum kilab al-nar – “The Khawarij are the dogs of Hellfire!’4 The emergence of the Khawarij as a sect occurred during the caliphate (khilafah) of ‘Ali, in the immediate aftermath of a civil war and its arbitration at Siffin. Ibn al-Jawzi tells us: ‘‘Ali returned from Siffin and entered Kufah: the Khawarij did not follow. Instead, they settled in Harura. There were twelve thousand of them, and they were declaring: la hukma illa li’Llah – “There is no judgement, except Allah’s.” This is how they initially started.’5
Imam Muslim narrates from ‘Ubayd Allah b. Abi Rafi‘, a freed salve of the Prophet ﷺ, that the Khawarij came out against ‘Ali, and declared: ‘There is no judgement, except Allah’s.’ So ‘Ali replied: ‘A word of truth, intended for something false (kalimatu haqq urida biha batil).’6
Imam al-Nawawi explains: ‘Meaning, the basis of their statement was true. Allah says: The judgement is for none but Allah. [12:40] What they intended by it, however, was to reject ‘Ali’s [acceptance of] arbitration, may Allah be pleased with him.’7
As with Dhu’l-Khuwaysirah who, blinded by his warped piety and self-righteousness, thought he had a keener sense of justice than the Prophet ﷺ, the Khawarij were also possessed of holier-than-thou pretensions and smug convictions. It is this puritanical, embittered self-righteousness – devoid of any true glimmer of knowledge or spiritual wisdom – that is the hallmark of the Khawarij and their ideological cousins who drink from the same murky theological waters today. Of course, along with such fanatical zeal, their other great infamy was takfir – declaring other Muslims to be disbelievers, and spilling their blood because of it.
The historians al-Tabari and Ibn Kathir chronicle alarmingly precise accounts of their intimidation, violence and terror. Under the events of 37H/657CE they detail how the Khawarij began terrorising the countryside around Nahrawan, Iraq, subjecting those whom they caught to an imtihan or “inquisition”. If the answers failed to satisfy their zeal for purity, or agree with their understanding of things, then the punishment was death. Things came to a head when they chose ‘Abd Allah, son of an early companion, Khabbab b al-Aratt, as their victim. A number of the Khawarij rode into his village for supplies and thought to make an example of him. They fired their loaded questions at him. They first asked him about the caliphates of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman. ‘Abd Allah extolled them all and praised their successive caliphates. So far, so good. They then asked him about ‘Ali, and his state before and after the arbitration or tahkim. ‘He has far greater knowledge about Allah than you do,’ replied ‘Abd Allah, ‘and has much more piety in terms of his religion and possesses greater insight.’ With that, his fate was sealed. They bound and dragged him and his pregnant wife to an orchard ladened with date palms, next to a river. As they were proceeding to kill him, a date fell to the ground, so one of the Khawarij picked it up and put it in his mouth. ‘Do you do that without the owner’s permission and without paying for it?’ said one of his Kharajite comrades. He spat it out instantly. Another Khariji, wielding his sword in threatening circles, accidentally killed a cow that had been wandering behind him. His comrades insisted he should go and find the owner and pay him the full price of the animal. They waited whilst he did so. Thus, having acted most righteously in the matter of the date and the cow, they slit ‘Abd Allah’s throat and then disemboweled his wife. Date spat out, cow paid for, husband, wife and unborn child butchered; and with the clearest of consciences, they purchased their supplies and went on their way.8
Theologians have differed as to the precise meaning of the Prophet’s words ﷺ: ‘They will pierce through the religion (yamruquna min al-din) as an arrow which goes clean through a prey.’ The idea of maraqa – an an arrow ‘piercing’ or going ‘clean through’ its prey with such force and velocity that it exists its prey without any trace of blood or flesh sticking to its tip or shaft, describes emphatically how the Khawarij immerse themselves in religion, but exit straight through it. The question, however, is do they exit the fold of orthodoxy (and become heterodox, deviant Muslims), or do they leave the actual fold of Islam? A minority of scholars went with the latter view; most went with the former.9 The majority view takes its cue from ‘Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, who was asked: Are the Khawarij mushrikun? He said: ‘They flee from shirk.‘ Are they munafiqun? He said: ‘The hypocrites remember Allah only a little.’ Then what are they? He said: ‘They are our brothers who transgressed against us (ikhwanuna baghaw ‘alayna), so we fought them for their transgression.’10
We may be forgiven for thinking that the Khawarij are an anachronism; a thing of the past, that have no bearing upon Muslims and today’s world. But we would be terribly wrong! The Khawarij, as we shall soon see, were prophesied as raising their ugly heads throughout time, until the Dajjal appears at their tale end. It is crucial, therefore, that we acquaint ourselves with their traits, attitudes and bent of mind:
1. Their first trait, as was mentioned, is that they will keep on rising throughout time. The Prophet ﷺ warned: ‘A group of young men will rise up reciting the Qur’an, but it won’t pass beyond their throats. Whenever a group appears, it is to be cut off; until the Dajjal arises at their tale end.’ Ibn ‘Umar said: I heard the Prophet ﷺ saying: ‘Each time a group appears, it is to be cut off’ more than twenty times.11 Thus the Khawarij will continue to plague Islam and the Muslims, till the Dajjal arises in what remains of them.
2. Another typical trait is their ignorant, over-simplistic understanding of religion. To this reality, there are these following words of the Prophet ﷺ: ‘There will arise at the end of time a people young in age and weak in intellect (hudatha’ al-asnan wa sufaha’ al-ahlam). Their speech will be that of the best of creation. They will recite the Qur’an but it shan’t go beyond their throats. They will shoot through the religion just like an arrow goes through the game. When you meet them, kill them; for in their killing you will receive a great reward from Allah on the Day of Judgement.’12
Ibn Hajr wrote: ‘The Khawarij, what led them to judge those who opposed them to be disbelievers, making their blood lawful … and engage in fighting and killing Muslims? All this is from the vestiges of those who worship upon ignorance; those whose hearts haven’t been expanded by the light of knowledge. nor do they hold tightly to the firm rope of knowledge.’13 Indeed, more than any other fitnah today, the ummah is beset with takfiri violence, murder and mayhem, wreaked upon it mostly by those ‘young in age and weak in intellect.’
3. Extremism and fanaticism is another quintessential character. The Prophet ﷺ said about them: ‘There will arise among you a people whose prayer will make your prayer look insignificant, whose fasting will make your fasting look insignificant, and whose deeds will make your deeds look insignificant. They will recite the Qur’an but it won’t pass beyond their throats …’14 Ibn ‘Abbas said about the Khawarij, when he went to debate them: ‘I came to them at midday and entered upon a people, the likes of whom I hadn’t seen in terms of their exertion in worship. Their foreheads were grazed from [constant] prostration. Their hands were rough, like [the knees of] camels. They wore recently washed, girded up tunics. And their faces were pale from staying up at night [in prayer].’15
Despite their ostensibly impressive religiosity, which has ensnared many a youth into their misguided, brutal embrace, Ibn Hajr puts things into perspective for us: ‘It was said of them [that they are] “Reciters,” because of their tireless exertion in reciting the Qur’an and [devotion in] worship. Except that they would interpret the Qur’an upon other than its intended meanings, were obstinate, and went to extremes in regards to worldly detachment (zuhd), humility in prayer (khushu‘) and other [such] things.’16
4. Their speech is impressive, but their actions are abhorrent and wicked. One hadith states: ‘There shall appear in my ummah schisms and divisions, and a people who will beautify their speech, but their actions will be evil. They shall recite the Qur’an, but it will not pass beyond their throats …’17 A clear case that the Khawarij can talk the talk, but not walk the walk – and how yesterday resembles today.
5. They demean the seasoned scholars well-known for their depth of knowledge, fiqh and piety, and cut-off from them. The Prophet ﷺ described the Khawarij as: ‘young in age, weak in intellect,’18 Ibn ‘Abbas, in his parley with them, told them this home truth: ‘I come to you from the Emigrants (muhajirun) and the Helpers (ansar), and the son-in-law of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ. To them the Qur’an was revealed. They are more learned about its meanings than you are; and there is not a single one of them among you.’19
Fewer things are as repugnant as the blind, holier-than-thou absolutism of the newly reformed sinner (as the Khawarij saw themselves to be). In their purer than the pure self-righteousness they declared ‘Ali, Mu‘awiyah, and other sahabah to be unbelievers or kuffar. For they had failed to cross over to their puritanical way of seeing things. In fact, Khariji bigotry has always treated with contempt the true people of knowledge. The mediating voices of the scholars become, for the Khawarij, religious compromise or betrayal. Juristic nuances are seen by them as pharisaic, there to hide the simplicity of passing judgement on others. The Prophet ﷺ said about such murderous misfits: ‘They shall recite the Qur’an thinking it is for them, but it is against them.’20 And that: ‘They would call to the Book of Allah, but would not be from it at all.’21 Such can be the tragedy of those who, not withstanding their religious zeal, are wet behind the ears in terms of age, experience and knowledge.
In contrast to those ‘young in age, weak in intellect,’ the Prophet ﷺ said: al-barakah fi akabirikum – ‘The blessings are with your senior ones.’22 Indeed, cutting-off from the senior scholars in particular, and the people of knowledge and spirituality (ahl al-‘ilmi wa’l-ihsan) in general, is the root causes of how zeal for religious purity is taken over the brink into all-out fanaticism.
6. Along with the murder and violence, their most infamous trait is making takfir of a person for a major sin, or something for which takfir cannot be made. I have written at length about Takfir: Its Dangers & Its Rules elsewhere on this blog, so I’ll limit myself to this one hadith. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Truly what I most fear for you is a man who will recite the Qur’an until its radiance appears on him. So he becomes a support to Islam, changing it to whatever Allah wills. He then separates from it, casts it behind his back and raises the sword against his neighbour, accusing him of idolatry (shirk).’ I asked: O Allah’s Messenger who most deserves to be imputed with shirk; the accused or the accuser? He replied: ‘The accuser.”‘23
Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘The Khawarij were the first to declare Muslims to be unbelievers due to committing sins. They declared as disbelievers whoever opposed them in their innovation, and made lawful the shedding of blood and the seizing of wealth.’24
7. One final trait. They do not venerate the Prophet ﷺ, even if they zealously observe some of the outward sunnahs. We should recall that the precursor to these Khawarij, Dhul-Khuwaysirah, rebuked the Prophet ﷺ, telling him to ‘fear Allah’ and ‘be just!’25 Such disrespect towards the Prophet ﷺ, and towards his compassion and his concern to reconcile hearts (for that was the context in which he spoke these insolent words), still courses through Kharijite veins today.26
More than any other attribute, rahmah – compassion, mercy and clemency – was the defining quality of the Prophet ﷺ. Allah says about His Prophet: We have not sent you but as a mercy to the worlds. [21:107] The Prophet ﷺ once said: ‘I am indeed a merciful gift.’27 That being so, seldom will you find this profound prophetic attribute manifest upon them, save in some limited way. Anger, hostility, resentment and vengeance are more what animate them than mercy, humanity and tolerance. For theirs is the way of political agitation, not reconciliation; of demolishing, not building; of insulting the people of knowledge, not honouring or being guided by them; of “learning” via books, not at the feet of seasoned ‘ulema.
Again, seldom will you find one of them having a daily wird, or set portion, of sending salutations (salawat) upon the Prophet ﷺ, by which the bonds of profound love and attachment to him are cultivated. In fact, veneration (ta‘zim) of the Prophet ﷺ, and that ambition to emulate something of his inward states, are generally conspicuous in them by their absence.
Yet without this deep prophetic attachment, dehumanising the Quranic message and making faith appear utterly repugnant becomes more than a possibility; it becomes a hideous, living reality. What is clear is that those unschooled in ihsan – in the beauty of shari‘ah-rooted spirituality – will only bring ugliness into the world.
To conclude: Part 1 of this blog mapped the origins, significance and extremist nature of the first heterodox sect in Islam: the Khawarij. Section one recounted the genesis of the Khawarij, personified in the hubris of Dhu’l-Khuwaysirah – the ‘father’ of this violent, brutish, self-righteous sect. We saw how they made la hukma illa li’Llah – “No judgement except Allah’s” – their clarion call, dressing it up in their false meaning and misapplication. The second section gave us a window into their lopsided piety: acting most justly when it came to the price of a date, but having no conscience whatsoever when it came to butchering and killing those who did not share their political views. Such superficial piety is what the prophetic warnings about them allude to: ‘a people who will recite the Qur’an, but it won’t pass beyond their throats.’
Section three discussed some of their defining traits and attitudes: a black and white grasp of religious realities because of being ‘weak in intellect’; extremely puritanical; that Muslims would be the main victims of their violence and murder; they will keep appearing throughout time, but will be identified by the learned for what they truly are; their political rabble-rousing and denigration of the scholars; and, of course, their wanton takfir of Muslims for matters wherein takfir is not permitted.
In the second part of this blog, we’ll look at how Kharijite beliefs, ideas and methods have surfaced in modern times; especially in the form of the outfit known as ISIS or ISIL The claim of ISIS as being the legitimate Caliphate will be examined, as will core aspects of their ideology and their ‘Management of Savagery.’
And Allah’s help is sought.
1. Muslim, no.1064.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.3610.
3. Ibn al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis (Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 1982), 88; also see: al-Shahrastani, al-Milal wa’l-Nihal (Cairo: Dar al-Halabi, 1967), 1:118.
4. Ibn Majah, no.176. Al-Albani graded it as sahih in Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1987), no.3347.
5. Talbis Iblis, 89.
6. Muslim, no.1066/157.
7. Al-Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 7:152.
8. Consult: al-Tabari, Tarikh al-Rusul wa’l-Muluk (Egypt: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1964); 5:81-2; Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa’l-Nihayah (Dar al-Hijr, 1998), 10:584.
9. Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 8:225, 15:392-94, where he says that those who considered the Khawarij to be outside the fold of Islam include: Ibn al-‘Arabi in his Sharh al-Tirmidhi, al-Subki in his Fatawa, and al-Qurtubi in al-Mufhim.
10. Al-Bidayah wa’l-Nihayah, 10:591.
11. Ibn Majah, no.174. The hadith was graded hasan by al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1991), no.2455.
12. Al-Bukhari, no.5057; Muslim, no.1066. ‘There will arise at the end of time’ has been explained to mean: the end period of the rightly-guided khalifahs. See: Ibn Hajr, Fath al-Bari, 15:376.
13. Fath al-Bari, 15:394.
14. Al-Bukhari, no.5058; Muslim, no.1063.
15. Cited in Ibn al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis, 89.
16. Fath al-Bari, 15:371. Point to note: No doubt, the early Khawarij exerted themselves in worship. But this is not necessarily a trait of theirs in later times; nor even today. In fact, many of today’s Khawarij often have, despite their political zeal, rhetoric and commitment to carnage, little attachment to sustained religious practice (although in these religiously lax times, just praying a few prayers a day or growing a full beard can seem religiously impressive to some).
17. Abu Dawud, no.4765. It was classified as sahih in al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.3668.
18. Al-Bukhari, no.3611; Muslim, no.1066.
19. Talbis Iblis, 89-90.
20. Muslim, no.1066.
21. Ahmad, no.1338, and it is sahih. See: al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.3668.
22. Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.559; al-Hakim, Mustadrak, no.210, where he said: ‘It is sahih according to the conditions of al-Bukhari.’
23. Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.282. Ibn Kathir said: ‘Its chain is excellent (jayyid).’ See: Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 2:276.
24. Majmu‘ al-Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:279.
25. Al-Bukhari, no.6933; Muslim, no.1064.
26. In fact, similar resistance to reconciling hearts can be seen in Kharijite hostility to the tahkim or arbitration at Siffin. Moreover, the same disrespect towards the Prophet ﷺ can be seen in their insults against, and takfir of, ‘Ali – the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law; and thus a member of the Ahl al-Bayt.
27. Al-Hakim, Mustadrak, no.100; and it is sahih. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.490.