The Kharijites (Arabic: الخوارج‎, al-Khawārij, singular خارجيkhāriji), also called the al-Shurat (Arabic: الشراة, al-Shurāt), were an Islamic sect that appeared in the first century of Islam during the First Muslim Civil War, the crisis of leadership after the murder of the third caliph Uthman. Some members of the army of the fourth caliph Ali seceded after he agreed to arbitration with his rival, Mu’awiya I, to decide the succession to the caliphate following the Battle of Siffin in July 657. They asserted that “judgment belongs to God alone” and that leaving the matter to the judgment of humans was in violation of the injunctions of the Qur’an which commanded that rebels must be fought and overcome. Ali was unsuccessful in winning back their loyalty and after their insurgent activities attacked and defeated them in the Battle of Nahrawan in July 658. Nevertheless, the Kharijites were far from eliminated and their insurrection against the caliphate continued. Ali himself fell in January 661 to a Kharijite assassin seeking revenge for Nahrawan.

After the establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate by Mu’awiya I in 661, his governors kept the Kharijites in check, but after the death of the second Umayyad caliph Yazid in 683 and the subsequent Second Civil War, the resulting power vacuum caused the resumption of the Kharijites’ anti-government activities. Internal disputes and fragmentation weakened them considerably before their defeat by the Umayyad governor Hajjaj ibn Yusuf in 696–699. In 740s, during the last days of the Umayyad Caliphate, large scale Kharijite rebellions erupted again in several parts of the caliphate, but all of them were eventually put down. Although the Kharijite revolts continued into the Abbasid period, the most militant Kharijite groups were gradually eliminated, and were replaced by the non-activist Ibadiyya, who survive to this day in Oman and some parts of Africa. They, however, deny any links with the Kharijites of the Second Civil War and beyond, condemning them as extremists.

The Kharijites believed that any Muslim, irrespective of his descent or ethnicity, could become the caliph, if he was morally irreproachable. If the leader sinned, it was the duty of Muslims to rebel against and depose him. Most Kharijite groups branded as unbelievers any Muslims who had committed a grave sin, and the most militant of them went on to declare killing of such unbelievers licit, unless they would repent and reenter the faith. Traditional Muslim historical sources and mainstream Muslims have viewed the Kharijites as religious extremists and having gone out of the Muslim community. Many modern Muslim extremist groups have been compared to the Kharijites for their radical ideology and militancy. On the other hand, some modern Arab historians have stressed the egalitarian and proto-democratic tendencies of the Kharijites.


The term al-Khariji was used as an exonym by their opponents from the fact that they left Ali’s army. The name comes from the Arabic root خ ر ج, which has the primary meaning “to leave” or “to get out”,[1] as in the basic word خرجḵẖaraja, “to go out”.[2] However, the group called themselves al-Shurat (the Exchangers), which they understood within the context of Islamic scripture (Quran 2:207) and philosophy to mean “those who have traded the mortal life (al-Dunya) for the other life [with God] (al-Akhirah)”.[3][4]

Primary and classical sources

Almost no primary Kharijite sources are in existence, except for Ibadi works, and excerpts in non-Kharijite sources.[5] What is known of the Kharijites comes mainly from non-Kharijite sources of later periods, having suffered alterations and distortions during transmission, collection, and classification.[6]

Non-Kharijite sources fall mainly into two categories: histories, and heresiographical works—the so-called firaq (sects) literature.[5] The histories were written significantly later than the actual events, and many of the theological and political disputes had been settled by then. As representatives of the emerging orthodoxy, the authors of these works looked upon the original events through the lens of this orthodox viewpoint.[7] The bulk of information regarding the Kharijites, however, comes from the second category.[8] These sources are outright polemical, as the authors of these works tend to portray their own sect as the true representative of original Islam and are consequently hostile to the Kharijites.[5][9] Although, the authors of both categories used earlier Kharijite as well non-Kharijite sources, which are no more in existence, their rendering of the events has been heavily altered by literary topoi.[6][a] Based on a hadith prophesying the emergence of 73 sects in Islam, of whom only one would be the saved sect (al-firqa al-najiya) whereas the remaining 72 will be doomed deviants, the heresiographers were mainly concerned with classifying what they saw as the deviant sects and their heretical doctrines.[12] Consequently, views of certain sects were altered to fit into the classification schemes and sometimes fictitious sects were invented (see below).[6][13] Moreover, the reports are often confused and contradictory, rendering a probable reconstruction of the events and the true motives of the Kharijites, which is free of later interpolations, formidably difficult.[14] The Ibadi sources, on the other hand, are hagiographical and are concerned with preserving the group identity. For the purpose, stories are sometimes created, or real events altered in order to romanticize and valorize early Kharijite revolts and their leaders as the anchors of the group identity.[15] The sources, whether Ibadi, historiographical or heresiographical, thus do not necessarily report what actually happened. Rather, what their authors wanted their intended readers to believe what would have happened.[6][16]

The sources in the historiographical category include the History of al-Tabari (d. 923), Ansab al-Ashraf of al-Baladhuri (d. 892), al-Kamil of al-Mubarrad (d. 899), and Muruj al-Dhahab of al-Mas’udi (d. 956).[17] Others notable sources include the histories of Ibn Athir (d. 1233), and Ibn Kathir (d. 1373), but these have drawn most of their material from al-Tabari.[5] The core of the information in these historiographical sources is based on the works of earlier historians like Abu Mikhnaf (d. 773), Abu Ubayda (d. 825), and al-Mada’ini (d. 843).[17] The authors of the heresiographical category include al-Ash’ari (d. 935),[b] al-Baghdadi (d. 1037),[c] Ibn Hazm (d. 1064),[d] al-Shahrastani (d. 1153),[e] and others.[5][9] Notable among the surviving Ibadi works is the eighth century heresiographical writing of Salim ibn Dhakwan.[18] It distinguishes Ibadism from other Kharijite groups which it treats as extremists.[19] Twelfth century work of al-Qalhati is another example of Ibadi heresiographies, which discusses the origins of the Kharijites and splitting within the Kharijite movement.[5]


Rebellions in the garrison towns of Kufa, Basra, and Fustat ended with the death of the third caliph Uthman. The subsequent First Muslim Civil War gave rise to the Kharijites.

The Kharijites were the first sect to arise within Islam.[20] They originated during the First Fitna, the struggle for political leadership over the Muslim community (Ummah), following the assassination in 656 of the third caliph Uthman.[21][22]

The latter years of Uthman’s reign saw growing discontent from various quarters. Not only was his favoritism towards and enrichment of his Umayyad relatives frowned upon by the Muslim elite,[f] a number of other factors such as his interference in the provincial matters,[g] overcrowding of garrison towns in the conquered lands, in particular Kufa and Fustat in Iraq and Egypt respectively, by continuous influx from Arabia, diminishing revenue from the conquests, and growing influence of the pre-Islamic tribal nobility, were seen by the early Muslim settlers of these lands as threatening their status.[26] Opposition by the Iraqi early-comers, who became known as the qurra (which probably means the Qur’an reciters), and the Egyptians turned into open rebellion in 656. Encouraged by the disaffected Medinese elite, the rebels marched on Medina killing Uthman in June 656.[25] The murder of the caliph threw the caliphate into civil war.[27] The caliphal office now fell to Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali, but he soon had to face opposition, first from Talha ibn Ubayd Allah, Zubayr ibn al-Awam and Muhammad’s widow A’isha, whom he was able to defeat (November 656),[28] and later from Mu’awiya I, the governor of Syria and cousin of Uthman. Ali and Mu’awiya faced each other at the Battle of Siffin in July 657. On the verge of defeat, Mu’awiya ordered his soldiers to hoist leaves of the Qur’an (masahif) on their lances; a signal to stop the fight and negotiate peace. The pious group of the Qur’an readers in Ali’s army were moved by the gesture,[29] which they interpreted as an appeal to the Book of God,[30][31] and demanded that Ali stop the fight immediately. Although unwilling, he had to yield under pressure and threats of violence against him.[29][32][31] An arbitration committee was set up with representatives from both Ali’s and Mu’awiya’s side, with a mandate to settle the dispute in the light of the Qur’an.[29] While most of Ali’s army accepted the agreement, one group, which included many people from the tribe of Tamim, vehemently objected to the arbitration and raised the slogan “judgment belongs to God alone”.[32]


The Battle of Siffin as depicted in the 14th-century manuscript of the Tarikh-i Bal’ami

As Ali marched back to Kufa, his capital, resentment against the arbitration became widespread in his army. Reportedly, as many as 12,000 dissenters seceded from the army and went to Harura, a place near Kufa. They thus became known as the Harurites.[33] They held that Uthman had deserved his death because of his faults, and that Ali was the legitimate caliph, while Mu’awiya was a rebel.[34] They believed that the Qur’an clearly stated that as a rebel Mu’awiya was not entitled to arbitration, but rather should be fought until he repented, pointing to the verse:[34]

If two parties of the faithful fight each other, then conciliate them. Yet if one is rebellious to the other, then fight the insolent one until it returns to God ’s command. (Qur’an 49:9)

They held that in agreeing to arbitration Ali committed the grave sin of rejecting God’s judgment (hukm) and attempted to substitute human judgment for God’s clear injunction, which prompted their motto “judgement belongs to God alone” (la hukma illa li-llah).[35] From this expression, which they were the first to use as a motto, they became known as Muhakkima.[36]

Ali, after some time, visited the Harura camp and in order to win back their support argued that it was them who forced him to accept arbitration proposal despite his warnings against it. They acknowledged that they had sinned but argued that they had repented and asked him to do the same, which he did in very general and ambiguous terms. They subsequently offered back their allegiance to him and returned to Kufa on the condition that war against Mu’awiya be resumed within six months.[37]


The arbitration proceedings continued nonetheless. Ali refused to denounce the arbitration and in March 658 sent his arbitration delegation headed by Abu Musa Ash’ari to carry out the talks.[32] The Kharijites now denounced Ali’s caliphate and elected Abd Allah ibn Wahb al-Rasibi their caliph. In order to avoid being detected, they moved out of Kufa in small groups and went to a place called Nahrawan on the east bank of the Tigris. Some five hundred of their Basran comrades were informed and they too joined them in Nahrawan, amounting supposedly to a total of 4,000 men.[38][39] Following this exodus, they were called Khawarij; the term is anglicized to “Kharijites”.[40] They declared Ali and his followers apostates and are said to have killed several people who did not share their views.[38][41]

In the meantime, arbitrators declared that Uthman had been killed unjustly by the rebels. Other than that, however, they could not agree on anything substantial and the process collapsed. Ali now denounced the arbitrators and called on his supporters for renewed war against Mu’awiya.[42] He invited the Kharijites to join him as before. They refused to do so unless he would acknowledge that he had gone astray and repent. Ali consequently decided to depart for Syria without them.[43] On the way, however, he received news of the Kharijites’ murdering various people, and was urged by his followers, who feared for their families and property in Kufa, to deal with the Kharijites first.[44] The Kharijites refused to surrender the murderers and consequently Ali’s men attacked them in their camp, inflicting a heavy defeat on them at the Battle of Nahrawan (July 658), killing Ibn Wahb and most of his supporters.[40] Some 1200 of them, however, surrendered and were spared.[45] This bloodshed sealed the split of the Kharijites from Ali’s followers, and the Kharijite calls for revenge ultimately led to Ali’s assassination by the Kharijite Abd al-Rahman ibn Muljam.[40] As Ali was leading the prayers on the morning of 26 January 661 in the Kufa mosque, Ibn Muljam fatally struck him on his head with a poison-coated sword.[46]

Modern scholarly views on the split

At Siffin those who supported arbitration were the same people who later vehemently objected to it and seceded from Ali’s army. The question as to what caused such a radical change in the same group of people has been discussed by various historians.

According to Rudolf Ernst Brünnow, the qurra supported the proposal because as pious believers in the Qur’an, they felt obliged to respond to the call of making the Qur’an the arbitrator. The people who objected to the treaty were, in Brünnow’s view, Bedouin Arabs who had settled in Kufa and Basra following the wars of conquest. In his view, they had devoted themselves to the cause of Islam and perceived the arbitration by two people as an acute religious injustice, which drove them into secession and later into open rebellion. As such, he regards the qurra and the Kharijites as separate groups.[47] Julius Wellhausen has criticized Brünnow’s hypothesis because all Basran and Kufan inhabitants were Bedouins, including qurra, and since Brünnow regards these Bedouins as pious people anyway, it makes them little different from the qurra in this regard. Wellhausen argues that the group that first favored and then rejected the arbitration was the same group. According to him, their contrasting behavior is not illogical from their point of view. They accepted arbitration of the Qur’an but some of them later realized, based on religious grounds, that it was their mistake, acknowledged it as such, repented and demanded the same from Ali and other people in his army. In his view, the Kharijites thus emanated from the qurra.[48]

Martin Hinds regards the Kharijites and the qurra as the same group. In his view, they supported the arbitration because they assumed it would bring an end to the war but Ali would remain caliph and would return to Medina, leaving the administration of Iraq in the hands of the local population including themselves. They denounced it once they discovered that Ali was not recognized as caliph in the document and that the arbiters could also use their own judgment in addition to the Qur’anic principles.[49] M. A. Shaban, although asserting that the qurra and the Kharijites were the same group, does not recognize the qurra as the Qur’an readers. According to him they were villagers who had gained status in Iraq during the caliphate of Umar, were dissatisfied with the economic policies of Uthman and saw Ali’s caliphate as a means of restoring their status. When he agreed to talks with Mu’awiya they felt their status threatened and consequently rebelled. According to him, the main role in forcing Ali to accept the arbitration was not of the qurra, but of the tribal chiefs under the leadership of Ash’ath ibn Qays, as the latter group had benefited from the policies of Uthman. They were not enthusiastic supporters of Ali and considered the prospect of continued war not in their interests.[50] According to Fred Donner, one of the reasons may have been the contents of the treaty. When the agreement was drawn up, it stipulated that the arbitrators would decide on whether Uthman had been killed unjustly. The qurra, who had been involved in the murder of Uthman, feared the treaty could result in them being held accountable for the act.[51]

The scholars in the revisionist camp reject the traditional account of the Kharijite origins. According to Patricia Crone, the story of the dispute over the arbitration is inadequate and perhaps there was more to the dispute between Ali and the Kharijites.[52] G. R. Hawting, in a similar vein, has suggested that the use of the tahkim by the Kharijites to denounce the arbitration is a later reworking by the Muslim sources. In his view, the Kharijites originally espoused the slogan, amid the religious disputes among the Muslims over the scriptural authority, to reject the authority of the Sunna and the oral law in favor of the Qur’an.[53]

Later history

The Kharijites continued to be a source of insurrection against the caliphate for decades to come. Five small Kharijite revolts following Nahrawan, involving about 200 men each, were defeated during the caliphate of Ali.[45][54]

Under Mu’awiya

The accession of Mu’awiya, the original enemy of the Kharijites, to the caliphate in August 661 provided the new occasion for Kharijite rebellions. Those Kharijites at Nahrawan who had been unwilling to fight Ali and had left the battlefield, now rose up in rebellion. Under the leadership of Farwa ibn Nawfal al-Ashja’i, some 500 of them attacked Mu’awiya’s camp at Nukhayla (a place outside Kufa) where he was taking Kufans’ oath of allegiance. In the ensuing battle, the Kharijites repelled the initial attack but were eventually defeated and most of them were killed.[55][56] Seven more Kufan Kharijite uprisings, with rebel numbers in individual revolts varying between 20 to 400, were defeated by the governor Mughira ibn Shu’ba.[56] The most famous of these revolts is that of Mustawrid ibn Ullafa who was recognized caliph by the Kufan Kharijites in 663. With about 300 followers he left Kufa and moved to Behrasir near al-Mada’in. There he confronted the deputy governor Simak ibn Ubayd al-Absi and invited him to denounce Uthman and Ali “who had made innovations in the religion and denied the holy book”. Simak refused this and Mustawrid, instead of engaging him directly, decided to exhaust and fragment Simak’s forces by forcing them into pursuit. Moving onto Madhar near Basra, he was overtaken by a 300-strong advance party of Simak’s forces. Although Mustawrid was able to withstand this small force, he fled again towards Kufa area when the main body of the opponent forces, under the command of Ma’qil ibn Qays, arrived. Eluding Ma’qil’s advance guard of 600, Mustawrid led a surprise attack on Ma’qil’s main force, destroying it. The advance guard returned in the meantime and attacked the Kharijites from behind. They were slain almost to a man.[57][58]

The Kufan Kharijism died off around the year 663,[h] and Basra became the center of the Kharijite disturbance. Ziyad ibn Abihi and Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad, who successively became governors of all Iraq, dealt with the Kharijites with a heavy hand and five Kharijite revolts, usually involving around 70 men, were suppressed.[56] Notable among these revolts is that of cousins Qarib ibn Murra al-Azdi and Zuhhaff ibn Zahr al-Ta’i. In 672/73 they rebelled in Basra with a band of around 70. They are reported to have involved in random killing (isti’rad) of people in the streets and mosques of Basra before being cornered in a house, where they were eventually killed; their bodies were crucified. Following this rebellion, Ziyad is reported to have severely persecuted them.[60] His son Ibn Ziyad, who became governor after Ziyad’s death, jailed any Kharijite whom he suspected of being dangerous and executed several Kharijite sympathizers who had publicly spoken against him.[61] Ziyad and Ibn Ziyad are said to have killed 13,000 Kharijites in total. As a result of these repressive measures, some of the Kharijites abandoned military action, adopting political quietism and concealing religious beliefs.[62] Of the quietists, the most famous is Abu Bilal Mirdas ibn Udayya al-Tamimi. One of the earliest Kharijites who had seceded at Siffin, he was held in the highest esteem by the Basran quietists. Provoked by the torture and murder of a Kharijite woman by Ibn Ziyad, Abu Bilal abandoned Basra and revolted in 680/81 with forty men. Shortly after defeating a reportedly 2,000-strong Basran force in Ahwaz, he fell to a larger army of 3,000 or 4,000 in southern Persia.[63] His fate is said to have aroused the quietists and contributed to the increased Kharijite militancy in the subsequent period.[64]

During the Second Fitna, Najdat controlled Yamama in central Arabia, whereas Azariqa controlled Fars and Kirman in southern Persia.

Second Fitna

After the death of Mu’awiya in 680, the empire fell to civil war over the question of leadership. The people of Hejaz (where Mecca and Medina are located) rebelled against the new caliph Yazid. Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr, a son of Muhammad’s companion Zubayr ibn al-Awwam, was the most prominent Hejazi opponent of Yazid, and was based in Mecca.[65] When Yazid sent an army to end the Hejazi rebellion in 683 and Mecca was besieged, some Kharijites of Basra came to Ibn al-Zubayr’s aid.[62] However, Yazid died in November 683 and Ibn al-Zubayr proclaimed himself caliph. The Kharijites, after discovering that Ibn al-Zubayr had proclaimed caliphate and did not share their view of Uthman and condemned his murder, abandoned him.[66] Some of them went to Yamama, in central Arabia, under the leadership of Abu Talut Salim ibn Matar, whereas the majority, including Nafi ibn al-Azraq and Najda ibn Amir al-Hanafi, went to Basra. In the meantime, Basran tribal chiefs expelled Ibn Ziyad and the city fell to tribal warfare. Ibn al-Azraq along with other militant Kharijites took over the city, killed the deputy appointed by Ibn Ziyad and broke 140 Kharijites free from Ibn Ziyad’s prison.[67][68] Soon afterwards, the Basrans recognized Ibn al-Zubayr and he appointed Umar ibn Ubayd Allah ibn Ma’mar his governor there. Umar drove the band of Ibn al-Azraq out of Basra and they escaped to Ahwaz.[69][70]


From the Ahwaz area, Ibn Azraq, after whom his band became known as the Azariqa, raided Basran suburbs. These are described in the sources to be the most fanatic of all the Kharijite groups for they approved of the doctrine of isti’rad: indiscriminate killing of the non-Kharijite Muslims including their women and children. An army sent against them by the Zubayrid governor of Basra in early 685 defeated the Azariqa and Ibn Azraq was killed. However, they chose Ubayd Allah ibn Mahuz as the new Emir, regrouped and forced the Zubayrid army to retreat and ransacking resumed. After a few more defeats, Ibn al-Zubayr sent Muhallab ibn Abi Sufra against them. Muhallab defeated them at the battle of Sillabra in May 686 and killed Ibn Mahuz. They subsequently retreated to Fars. However, in late 686, Muhallab had to discontinue his campaign against the Azariqa as he was sent against the pro-Alid Mukhtar and later appointed governor of Mosul to defend against possible Umayyad attack. The Azariqa, now under the command of Ubayd Allah ibn Mahuz’s brother Zubayr, returned to Iraq and attacked al-Mada’in, in the neighborhood of Kufa, ravaged the town and after pursuit fled again to Iran where they besieged Isfahan. They were driven away and, Zubayr ibn Mahuz being slain, fled to Fars and latter to Kirman. Reinvigorated by their new leader Qatari ibn al-Fuja’a, the Azariqa returned to Basra area soon afterwards and Muhallab had to be sent against them. For a long time, the Azariqa held Fars and Kirman although Muhallab prevented them from advancing to Iraq. In the meantime, Umayyads recaptured Iraq from the Zubayrids in 691. Umayyad princes took over the command from Muhallab but suffered severe defeats at the hands of the Azariqa. In 694 Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, a Thaqafite, was made governor of Iraq and he reinstated Muhallab to lead the fight against the Azariqa. After a series of attacks, he pushed them back into Kirman. There they split into two groups and were subsequently destroyed in 698–699.[70]

Arab-Sassanian dirham of the Azariqa leader Qatari ibn al-Fuja’a struck circa 694–695 with the Kharijite slogan la hukma illa li-llah on the margin


While in Ahwaz, doctrinal differences led to a split between Najda and Ibn al-Azraq.[66] Najda, with his followers, moved to Yamama and the faction became known as Najdat.[66] There he took over, in 685, the Kharijite faction of Abu Talut, whose followers were impressed by Najda’s leadership abilities and deposed the former to appoint Najda as their chief. Najda started raiding towns in Ibn al-Zubayr’s domains[71] and soon extended his control to the entirety of Yamama and Bahrain and defeated a 14,000-strong Zubayrid army that was sent against him. Thereafter he went on to seize Hadhramawt and Yemen in 687 and later captured Taif, a town close to Ibn al-Zubayr’s capital Mecca, leaving the latter cornered in Hejaz; Najda controlled much of Arabia. Not long after, his followers became disillusioned with him for his alleged correspondence with the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, uneven pay of the soldiers, his refusal to punish a soldier who had consumed wine, and him safely returning a captive granddaughter of the murdered Caliph Uthman. He was deposed for having gone astray and subsequently executed in 691.[72] Abu Fudayk Abd Allah ibn Thawr took over the leadership and defeated several Zubayrid and later Umayyad attacks. He was finally killed along with 6,000 followers in 692 by Umayyad forces in Bahrain.[73][74] Politically exterminated, Najdat retreated into obscurity and disappeared around the tenth century.[75][76]

Moderate Kharijites and their fragmentation

According to the heresiographers’ accounts, the original Kharijites split into four principal groups (usul al-Khawarij) during the Second Fitna. A moderate group, headed by Abd Allah ibn Saffar (or Asfar) and Abd Allah ibn Ibad, disagreed with the radicals Azariqa and Najdat on the question of rebellion and separation from the non-Kharijites. Ibn Saffar and Ibn Ibad then disagreed amongst themselves as to the faith of the non-Kharijites and thus came the two other sects: Sufriyya and Ibadiyya. All the other Kharijite subgroups are considered offshoots of the Sufriyya.[77] In this scheme, Salih ibn Mussarih and Shabib ibn Yazid al-Shaybani (see below) are associated with the Sufriyya, as well as the revolt of Dahhaq ibn Qays al-Shaybani during the Third Fitna.[78] The Ibadiyya are considered to have been led into the late Umayyad period successively by Jabir ibn Zayd and Abu Ubayda Muslim ibn Abi Karima after Ibn Ibad’s death. Jabir, a respected scholar and traditionist, had friendly relations with Caliph Abd al-Malik and Hajjaj, the governor of Iraq.[79][80] Following the death of Abd al-Malik, the relations between the Ibadiyya leaders and Hajjaj deteriorated as the former became inclined towards activism (khuruj). He consequently exiled some of them to Oman and imprisoned others. Abu Ubayda, who was released after the death of Hajjaj in 714, became the next leader of the Ibadiyya. After unsuccessfully attempting to win over the Umayyad caliphs to the Ibadi doctrine, he sent missionaries to propagate the doctrine in different parts of the empire.[81][82] Almost simultaneously, the Sufriyya also spread into North Africa and southern Arabia through missionary activity. Through absorption into the Ibadiyya, the Sufriyya became extinct with the passage of time.[83] Ibadi sources too are more or less in line with this scheme, where Ibadis appear as the true successors of the original Medinese community and the early, pre-Second-Ftina Kharijites although Ibn Ibad does not feature prominently in these and Jabir is asserted as the leader of the movement following Abu Bilal Mirdas.[84]

However, modern historians consider Ibn Saffar to be a legendary figure,[85] and assert that the Sufriyya and Ibadiyya sects at this stage are ahistorical. The heresiographers, whose aim was to categorize the divergent beliefs of the Kharijites, invented the Sufriyya to accommodate those groups who did not fit neatly anywhere else.[86][6][87] As such, there was only one moderate Kharijite current, which might have been called “Sufri”.[88] The moderates condemned the militancy of the Azariqa and Najdat but were otherwise lacking in a concrete set of doctrines. Jabir and Abu Ubayda may have been prominent figures in the moderate movement.[84] The moderates further split into the true Sufriyya and Ibadiyya only during the eighth century, with the main difference being tribal affiliations rather than doctrinal differences.[86][6]

During the entire period of the Second Fitna, the moderates remained idle. However, in the mid-690s they also started militant activities in response to persecution by Hajjaj.[85] The first of their revolts was led in 695 by the ascetic Salih ibn Musarrih, which was defeated and Ibn Musarrih was killed.[85] It was after his death, however, that they became a serious threat to Kufa and its suburbs. The group was taken over by Shabib ibn Yazid al-Shaybani. With a small army of a few hundred warriors, he defeated on multiple occasions (in 695 and 696) Umayyad armies several-thousands-strong, looted the treasury of Kufa and occupied al-Mada’in.[89] From the base in al-Mada’in, he prepared to capture Kufa. Hajjaj had already requested Syrian troops from Caliph Abd al-Malik, who sent 4,000-strong army which succeeded in defeating Shabib just outside Kufa and he drowned during flight.[90] His band was destroyed, but the Kharijites continued to exist in the Mosul area.[91]


Distinct Sufriyya and Ibadiyya sects are attested from the early eighth century in North Africa and Oman. The two differed in association with different tribal groups and competed for popular support.[92] During the last days of the Umayyad empire, a major Sufriyya revolt erupted (744).[91] It was at first led by a certain Said ibn Bahdal al-Shaybani, and after his death from plague, Dahhaq ibn Qays al-Shaybani. Joined by many more Sufriyya from other parts of the empire, he advanced to Kufa and captured it in April 745 and later captured Wasit, which had replaced Kufa as the regional capital by then, after a short siege. At this stage even Umayyad officials, including two sons of former Caliphs (Sulayman ibn Hisham and Abd Allah ibn Umar II), recognized him caliph and joined his ranks. Later he went on to capture Mosul but was killed by the forces of the Umayyad caliph Marwan II in 746. His successor Shayban ibn Abd al-Aziz al-Yashkuri was driven out from Mosul by Marwan II and fled to Fars to join the Shi’ite leader Abd Allah ibn Mu’awiya, who ruled there in opposition to the Umayyads. Attacked there by the Umayyads, they dispersed and Shayban fled to Oman where he was killed by the local leaders around 751.[93][94] Under the Abbasids, Sufriyya revolts in the eastern parts of the empire continued for almost two centuries although at small scale and were easily put down. However, revolts led by Abd al-Hamid al-Bajali in 866–877 and by Harun ibn Abd Allah Bajali in 880–896 seized control of northern Mesopotemia from the Abbasids for a while and collected taxes.[83]

By the mid 8th century, the quietist Kharijites appeared in North Africa. They were mostly of Berber origin who were recruited through missionary activity. With the Ibadi-Sufri distinction emergent in this period, the groups with no Ibadi affiliation were associated with the Sufryya. Around 740, Sufriyya under the leadership of Maysara al-Matghari revolted in Tangiers and captured the city from the Umayyads. Defeating Umayyad armies, they marched onto the capital Kairouan although were not able to capture it. Nevertheless, Sufriya disturbances in North Africa continued throughout the Umayyad period.[95] Around 750, the Sufriyya Midrarids established a dynasty in Sijilmasa, in what is now Morroco. The dynastry survived until the Fatimid capture of the city in 909. Nonetheless, the Midrarids continued governing the city under the Fatimid suzerainty until 976.[96] The North African Sufriyya later disappeared and their remnants were absorbed into the Ibadiyya around 10th or 11th century.[97]


In the early 8th century, a proto-Ibadi movement seems to have emerged from the Basran moderates.[84] Missionaries were sent to propagate the doctrine in different parts of the empire including Oman, Yemen, Hadramawt, Khurasan, and North Africa. During the final years of the Umayyad Caliphate, the Ibadi propaganda movement caused several revolts in the periphery of the empire, although the leaders in Basra adopted the policy of kitman; concealing beliefs so as to avoid persecution.[82]

In 745, Abd Allah ibn Yahya al-Kindi established the first Ibadi state in Hadramawt and captured Yemen in 746. His lieutenant Abu Hamza Mukhtar ibn Aws al-Azdi later conquered Mecca and Medina. Umayyads defeated and killed Abu Hamza and Ibn Yahya in 748 and the first Ibadi state collapsed.[98][99] An Ibadi state was established in Oman in 750 after the fall of Abu Yahya but fell to the Abassids in 752. It was followed by the establishment of another Ibadi state in 793,[98] and survived for a century until the Abbasid recapture of Oman in 893. Abbasid influence was only nominal though and Ibadi Imams continued to wield considerable power.[100] Ibadi Imamates were reestablished in subsequent centuries.[101] Ibadis form the majority of the Omani population to date.[102]

Ibadi missionary activity met with considerable success in North Africa.[102] In 757 Ibadis seized Tripoli and captured Kairouan the next year. Driven out by the Abbasid army in 761, Ibadi leaders founded a state in Tahart. It was overthrown in 909 by the Fatimids. Ibadi communities continue to exist in the Nafusa Mountains in northwestern Libya, Djerba island in Tunisia and M’zab valley in Algeria.[103] In East Africa they are found in Zanzibar.[102] Ibadi missionary activity also reached Persia, India, Egypt, Sudan, Spain and Sicily, although Ibadis communities in these regions ceased to exist.[104]

Beliefs and practices

The Kharijites did not have a uniform and coherent set of doctrines. Different sects and even individuals held different views. Based on these divergent views, heresiographers have listed more than a dozen minor Kharijite sects in addition to the four main sects discussed above.[105]


The view common to all Kharijite groups was that any Muslim of whatever descent could become a caliph if he had credentials of belief and piety,[22] and they rejected that Qurayshi descent or close kinship with Muhammad was necessary for the office, as was held by majority of the people at that time.[106] This differs from the position of both Sunnis, who later went on accept the leadership of those in power, and Shias, who were to assert that the leadership rightly belonged to Ali and his descendants.[105] The Kharijites held that the first four caliphs had not been elected for their Qurayshi descent or kinship with Muhammad, but because each of them was among the best of Muslims and most qualified for the post, and hence all of them were legitimate caliphs. In particular, they had a high regard for Abu Bakr and Umar as, according to them, they governed justly.[105] Uthman, on the other hand, had deviated from the path of justice and truth in the latter half of his caliphate and hence was liable to be killed or displaced, whereas Ali committed a grave sin when he agreed to the arbitration with Mu’awiya.[34] In contrast to the Umayyad idea that their rule was ordained by God, the Kharijite idea of leadership lacked any divine sanctioning; only correct attitude and piety granted the leader authority over the community.[22][107] If the leader committed a sin and went off the right path or failed to manage Muslims’ affairs with justice and consultation, he was obliged to acknowledge his mistake and repent, else he forfeited his right to rule and was subject to deposition.[105][108] In view of the Azariqa and Najdat, Muslims had the duty to revolt against such a ruler.[109]

Almost all Kharijite groups considered the position of a leader (Imam) to be necessary. Many Kharijite leaders adopted the title of Amir al-Mu’minin, which was usually reserved for caliphs.[110] An exception is the later Najdat; after their defeat in 692, they abandoned the necessity of war against the non-Kharijites in order to survive and rejected that Imamate was an obligatory institution.[111][112]

Azariqa and Najdat held that since the Umayyad rulers, and all non-Kharijites in general, were either infidels (kuffar) or false Muslims (munafiqun), it was unlawful to continue living under their domain (dar al-kufr), for that was in itself an act of unbelief (kufr).[22] It was thus obligatory to emigrate, in emulation of Muhammad’s hijra to Medina, and establish a legitimate dominion of their own (dar al-hijra). Sufriyya and Ibadiyya held that although establishment of a legitimate dominion was desirable, it was legal to continue living among the non-Kharijites if rebellion was not possible.[113]

Other doctrines

The Kharijites also asserted that faith without accompanying deeds is useless and anyone who goes against injunctions of religion is an unbeliever (kafir) and must repent to restore the true faith. However, the Kharijite notion of kufr differed from the mainstream Muslim one, which understood a kafir as someone who was a non-Muslim, whereas the Kharijite accusation of kufr implied that the accused was a defective or pseudo-Muslim who rejected the true Islam.[22][114] Azariqa held a more extreme position that such unbelievers were in fact polytheists and apostates who could not reenter Islam and could be killed along with their women and children. Azariqa also held non-activist Kharijites as unbelievers.[114][115] Of the moderates, Sufriyya and Bayhasiyya considered all non-Kharijite Muslims unbelievers but also abstained from taking up arms against them, unless necessary.[85] Ibadiyya, on the other hand, did not declare the non-Kharijites as polytheists rather as disbelievers of a lower degree: kuffar bil-nifaq (hypocrites), or kuffar bil-ni’ma (ungrateful for God’s blessings).[115] They also permitted marriages outside their own sect.[106]

The Kharijites also held the idea of equality of all Muslims regardless of ethnicity and advocated for equal status of the mawali (sing. mawla; non-Arab, freed Muslims of conquered lands especially Iraq and Persia) with the Arabs.[116] Najdat faction in fact chose a mawla fruit seller as their Emir. This, however, did not go well with their ethnic feelings and they soon asked him to step down and choose an Arab Emir for them, which he did.[117] The leader of the Azariqa, Nafi ibn al-Azraq, is said to have been the son of a mawla of Greek origin.[118] The Kharijites also advocated for equality of women.[116] On the basis of women fighting alongside Muhammad, the Kharijites viewed fighting jihad as a requirement for women. One famous example is the warrior and poet Layla bint Tarif.[119]

The Kharijites rejected the punishment of adultery with stoning,[17] which is prescribed in other Islamic legal schools. Although the Qur’an does not prescribe this penalty, Muslims of other sects hold that such a verse existed in the Qur’an, which was then abrogated. A hadith is ascribed to Umar, asserting the existence of this verse in the Qur’an.[120] The Kharijites rejected the authenticity of such a verse.[17] One of the Kharijite groups also refused to recognize the Sura Yusuf being part of the Qur’an for its contents were considered to be too worldly and frivolous.[121]

Legacy of the Kharijites

Wellhausen has argued that Kharijite dogmatism influenced the development of the mainstream theology, in particular their debates in relation of faith and works, and legitimate leadership.[122] According to Levi Della Vida, Mu’tazila in particular were influenced by them. The influence on the mainstream dogma could have been direct adaptation of some Kharijite ideas, or that Kharijite views confronted mainstream theologians to the questions of faith.[17] The Kharijites were the first group to declare other Muslims kuffar, a designation previously reserved for non-Muslims. The influence of this led to the transformation of the concept of kufr in later Sunni theology; in addition to unbelief, kufr acquired the meaning of heterodoxy and heresy.[123]

Traditional Muslim view

The non-Kharijite Muslims attribute several hadiths to the Islamic prophet Muhammad prophesying the emergence of the Kharijites.[124] After the Battle of Hunayn, a man named Dhu al-Khuwaysira is reported to have accused Muhammad of unjustly distributing the spoils. Umar reportedly asked for Muhammad’s permission to kill the man, but the latter declined, saying:

Let him go, there will be people from him who will pray and fast so eagerly that your prayer and fasting will seem comparatively small to you; they plunge so deeply into the religion that they come out on the other side, like a sharp arrow through a target on which no trace of blood and flesh remains.[125]

According to Wellhausen, the report is legendary and was invented retrospectively. Nevertheless, he describes the content of the hadith as an apt criticism of the Kharijites: “By tightening onto the principles of Islam, they are taken beyond Islam itself.”[125] A similar hadith attributed to Muhammad says:

There will emerge from [Iraq[124]] a people who will recite the Qur’an but it will not go beyond their throats, and they will stray from Islam as an arrow strays from the animal.[124]

Other hadiths with themes of “arrow through the target” or “the Qur’an not going beyond throats” are reported. Though the hadiths never name the Kharijites or any particular Kharijite individual, these are generally seen by the non-Kharijite Muslims to be referring to the Kharijites. Some hadiths of this sort encouraged other Muslims to eliminate them.[126]

The Kharijites drew condemnation by traditional Muslim historians and heresiographers of subsequent centuries.[127] The term Khawarij, which originally meant those who went out of Kufa to gather at Nahrawan during the time of Ali was subsequently understood as outsiders—those who went out of the fold of the Muslim community—[3] and rebels.[128]

Modern times

In the modern era, many of Muslim theologians and clerics have compared the beliefs and actions of the modern Islamic extremists, like ISIL, Al-Qaeda, Muslim Brotherhood, and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, to those of the Kharijites,[129][130][131][132] labeling them as modern or neo-Kharijites.[133] In particular, the groups are alleged to share the militant Kharijites’ anarchist and radical approach whereby self-described Muslims are declared unbelievers and therefore deemed worthy of death. However, ISIL and Al-Qaeda preachers reject being compared to the Kharijites, instead calling themselves the true Muslims and their opponents lax Muslims.[134][135] The intended effect of these accusations is usually to deny the Islamists any widespread public support given the very unpopular image of the Kharijites among the Muslims.[136] The comparison is criticized by the modern historians who argue that the socio-political context and environment giving rise to the modern militants differs widely from that of the Kharijites to warrant any justifiable comparison between the two, and that such comparisons often result from a superifical understanding of the doctrines of either group.[137][6]

Although most modern Arab historians have been critical of the Kharijites, some have presented a more favorable view. The latter group argue that the Kharijites rebelled against economic injustice and had valid grievances. They also compare the Kharijite ideals of ethnic and gender equality with the modern equivalents of these values.[138][5] Patricia Crone even went as far as to describe the philosophy of Kharijites, particularly that of the Najdat, as an early form of anarchism, due to their belief in the inherent dispensability of the imamate.[139] Modern Ibadi scholars have attempted to soften the image of the Kharijites in order to reconcile the differences with rest of the Muslims. They assert that mainstream Muslim accounts of the Kharijite history are tempered and distorted and that Harurites did not rebel against Ali but only had a difference of opinion with him. It was not Ali, they assert, who fought them at Nahrawan but the Kufan nobleman Ash’ath ibn Qays.[140] They also protest against being labelled as a Kharijite sect.[141]

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