The Khawarij (الخوارج‎, al-Khawārij, singular خارجيkhāriji), Kharijites, or the ash-Shurah (الشراة‎,  ash-Shurāh “the Exchangers”) were a sect that appeared in the first century of Islam during the First Fitna, the crisis of leadership after the death of Muhammad. It broke into revolt against the authority of the Caliph Ali after he agreed to arbitration with his rival, Muawiyah I, to decide the succession to the Caliphate following the Battle of Siffin (657). A Kharijite later assassinated Ali, and for hundreds of years, the Khawarij were a source of insurrection against the Caliphate.

The Khawarij opposed arbitration as a means to choose a new ruler on the grounds that “judgement belongs to God alone”. They considered arbitration a means for people to make decisions while the victor in a battle was determined by God. They believed that any Muslim—even one who was not a Quraysh or even an Arab—could be the Imam, the leader of the community, if he was morally irreproachable. If the leader sinned, it was the duty of Muslims to oppose and depose him. The only surviving sect of Khawarij are the Ibadis.


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”, as in the basic word خرج “to go out”.

However, the group called themselves ash-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)”.

Battle of Siffin

Battle of Siffin


Further information: First Fitna and Muhakkima

The Kharijites originated during the First Fitna, the struggle for political leadership over the Muslim community, following the assassination in 656 of the third caliph Uthman. Ali, a cousin and son-in-law of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, was elected caliph but soon had to face with 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), and later from Mu’awiya, the governor of Syria and cousin of Uthman. Ali and Muwaiya faced each other at the Battle of Siffin in July 657. On the verge of defeat, Mu’awiya ordered his soldiers to hoist Qur’an on their lances; a signal to stop the fight and negotiate peace. The pious group of Qur’an readers (Qura) in Ali’s army were moved by the gesture, which they interpreted as an appeal to the Book of God, and demanded that Ali stop the fight immediately. Although unwilling, he had to yield under pressure and threats of violence against him. An arbitration committee was setup with representatives from both Ali and Mu’awiya’s side with a mandate to settle the dispute in the light of the Qur’an. While most of Ali’s army accepted the agreement, one group, mostly from the tribe of Tamim, vehemently objected to the arbitration and raised the slogan “judgment belongs to God alone”.




As Ali marched back to Kufa, his capital, resentment against the arbitration became widespread in his army. Some 12,000 dissenters seceded from the army and went to a place called Harura. They thus became known as the Harurites. They held that the third caliph Uthman had deserved his death because of his faults, and that Ali was the legitimate caliph, while Mu’awiya was a rebel. 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:

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. (Quran 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). From this expression, which they were the first to use as a motto, they became known as Muhakkima. They also believed that Muslims owe allegiance only to the Quran and the sunna of Muhammad, Abu Bakr, and Umar, and denied that the right to the imamate should be based on close kinship with Muhammad.

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 Ali 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.


The arbitration proceedings continued however and after a few months (March 658), when Ali refused to denounce the arbitration and sent his arbitration delegation headed by Abu Musa Ash’ari to carry out the talks, Kharijites 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 Tigris. Some five hundred of their Basran comrades were informed and they too joined them in Nahrawan, amounting to a total of 4,000 men. Following this exodus, they were called as Khawarij. They declared Ali and his followers apostates and killed several people who did not share their views.

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. He invited Kharijites to join him in war against Mu’awiya 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. 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. Kharijites refused to surrender the murderers and consequently Ali’s 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. Some 1200 of them, however, surrendered and were spared. This bloodshed sealed the split of Kharijites from Ali’s followers, and Kharijite calls for revenge ultimately led to Ali’s assassination in 661 by a Kharijite.

Later history

For hundreds of years the Khawarij continued to be a source of insurrection against the Caliphate. Five small Kharijite revolts, involving about 200 men each, following Nahrawan were defeated during the caliphate of Ali. Under Mu’awiya, Basra replaced Kufa as the center of Kharijite disturbance. His governors of Iraq Ziyad ibn Abihi and Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad dealt with Kharijites with a heavy-hand and sixteen Kharijite revolts, with rebel numbers in individual revolts varying between 30 to 500, were suppressed. From now on, they started the practice of raiding undefended towns in the neighborhoods of Basra in rapid cavalry attacks whereby they would seem to appear from nowhere, pillage the towns and disappear quickly before the government forces could respond. If pursued, they would flee into mountainous regions of Iran. In Basra, Ibn Ziyad is reported to have been particularly hard on them. He jailed any Kharijite whom he suspected of being dangerous and executed several Kharijite sympathizers who had publicly spoken against him. Ziyad and Ibn Ziyad are said to have killed thirteen thousand Kharijites in total. To avoid suppression, Basran Kharijites fled to Arabia around 680 CE.

Second Fitna

After the death of Mua’wiya 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. When Yazid sent an army to end the Hijazi rebellion in 683 and Mecca was besieged, Kharijites assisted Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr, who was based in Mecca and opposed Yazid, in defending the city. However, Yazid died in November 683 and Ibn al-Zubayr proclaimed himself caliph. Kharijites, after discovering that Ibn al-Zubayr had proclaimed caliphate and did not share their view of Uthman and condemned his murder, abandoned him and went to Basra. In the meantime, Basran tribal chiefs expelled Ibn Ziyad and the city fell to tribal warfare. Kharijites took over the city, killed the deputy appointed by Ibn Ziyad and broke 140 of their comrades free from Ibn Ziyad’s prison. Soon afterwards, Basrans recognized Ibn al-Zubayr and he appointed Abd Allah ibn Harith, more commonly known as Babba, his governor there. Babba drove Kharijites out of Basra and they escaped to Ahwaz. Doctrinal differences led to split between two of their leaders: Najda ibn Amir al-Hanafi and Nafi ibn al-Azraq.


Najda, with his followers, moved to Yamama and the faction became known as Najdat. There he took over, in 685, another Kharijite faction led by a certain Abu Talut whose followers were impressed by Najda’s leadership abilities and deposed Abu Talut to appoint Najda as their chief. Najda started raiding towns in Ibn al-Zuabyr’s domains and soon extended his control to entire 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. Ibn al-Zubayr was consequently cornered in Hejaz and Najda controlled much of Arabia. He was later deposed for being too soft and was subsequently executed in 691 by his own fellow Kharijites. Abu Fudayk took over the leadership and defeated several Zuabyrid and later Umayyad attacks. He was finally killed along with 6,000 followers in 692 by Umayyad forces in Bahrain and the Najdat faction came to an end.


From Ahwaz area, Ibn Azraq, after whom his band became known as the Azariqa, raided Basran suburbs. These are described in the sources to be most fanatic of all the Kharijite groups for they approved of the doctrine of Isti’rad: indiscriminate killing of 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 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 their Emir. 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. Azariqa consequently returned to Iraq and attacked Mada’in, in the neighborhood of Kufa, ravaged the town and after pursuit fled again to Iran and besieged Isfahan. They were driven away and fled to Fars and latter to Kirman. However, they 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.


This sect of the Kharijtes is generally attributed to a man called Abd Allah ibn Saffar or Asfar, who broke away from Ibn Azraq due to the latter’s radical ideology. Sufriyya are thus described to have been a milder variety of the Kharijites. However, modern historians consider Ibn Saffar to be a legendary figure and assert that the name Sufriyya derives from sufr al-wujuh (yellow-faced), an appellation applied to the earliest Kharijites because their faces turned grey from excessive prostrating. Basran Kharijite leader, Abu Bilal al-Mirdas, a moderated Kharijite, is counted among their Imams. In early 680s, when the Kharijite activities surged, those who preferred remaining inactive (qa’ad), as opposed to the activists Najdat and Azariqa, were called Sufriyya. A split within Sufriyya in 683-684 resulted in emergence of Ibadiyya. During the entire period of the Second Fitna, Sufriyya remained idle. However, in mid-690s they also started militant activities in response to persecution by Hajjaj.

The first of their revolts was led in 695 by a certain Salih ibn Musarrih, which was defeated and Ibn Musarrih was killed. 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, attacked Kufa once and later took possession of Mada’in. He now prepared to advance on Kufa once mroe. Hajjaj had already requested Syrian troops from the caliph Abd al-Malik who sent 4,000-strong army which succeeded in defeating Shabib just outside Kufa and he drowned during flight. His band was destroyed, but the Sufriyya continued to exist in the Mosul area.

Late Umayyad period

Although small Sufriyya insurrections continued, all of them from Mosul area, it was during the last days of the Umayyad empire that a major Sufriyya revolt erupted (744). 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 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.

By the mid 8th century, Kharijites, mainly Sufriyya, appeared in North Africa. They were mostly of Berber origin who were recruited through missionary activity. 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.

Abbasid period

Under the Abbasids, Sufriyya revolts in 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. In North Africa, Sufriyya revolts continued for some time but were later replaced by the Ibadiyya into whom the remnants of the Sufriyya were later absorbed around 10th or 11th century.


This sect is attributed to Abd Allah ibn Ibad (or Abad), who like Ibn Saffar, is supposed to have been a moderate Kharijite and having disagreed with and separated from the more extreme Azariqa and Najdat during the Second Fitna. However, some historians, as discussed above, believe that all quietist Kharijites in the early 680s were called Sufriyya and the Ibadis later broke away from them. Ibn Ibad is said to have been the leader of the Basran moderates after the death of Abu Bilal. Ibn Ibad, or his successor Jabir ibn Zayd, was in communication with caliph Abd al-Malik and Jabir had friendly relations with Hajjaj, the governor of Iraq. Jabir, a respected scholar and traditionist, is considered as the real organizer of the Ibadiyya sect. Following the death of Abd al-Malik, the relations between Ibadiyya leaders and Hajjaj deteriorated as the former became inclined towards activism (khuruj). He consequently exiled some of them to Oman and imprisoned others. One of the imprisoned, Abu Ubayda Muslim ibn Abi Karima, who was released after the death of Hajjaj in 714, became next leader of the Ibadiyya. He at first attempted to win over the Umayyad caliphs to the Ibadi doctrine but was unsuccessful. He then sent missionaries 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.

Southern and eastern Arabia

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 648 and the first Ibadi state collapsed.

The majority of the Omani population had converted to Ibadism by the end of the 7th century as a result of missionary activity initiated by Abu Ubayda. 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, but collapsed after the Abbasid recapture of Oman in 893. Abbasid influence was only nominal though and Ibadi Imams continued to wield considerable power and Ibadi Imamates were reestablished in subsequent centuries. Ibadis form the majority of the Omani population to date.

Africa and elsewhere

Ibadi missionary activity met with considerable success in North Africa. In 757 Ibadis seized Tripoli and captured Kairouan the next year. Driven out by the Abbasid army in 761, Ibadi leaders founded 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. In East Africa they are found in Zanzibar. Ibadi missionary activity also reached Persia, India, Egypt, Sudan, Spain and Sicily, although Ibadis communities in these regions ceased to exist.

Beliefs and practices

The earliest Kharijites held that any Muslim of whatever descent could become a caliph if he had credentials of belief and piety, a principle that was adhered to by all the subsequent Kharijite groups and sects. This differs from the position of both Sunnis, who later went on accept the leadership of those in power, and Shi’a, who were to assert that the leadership rightly belonged to Ali and his descendants. Kharijites considered the caliphate of Abu Bakr and Umar to be legitimate and had a high regard for them, but believed that Uthman 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. They also believed that Ali committed a grave sin when he agreed to the arbitration with Mu’awiya, although he too was legitimate caliph before the arbitration. Any leader was subject to deposition if he committed a sin and went off the right path.

Kharijites also asserted that faith without accompanying deeds is useless and anyone who goes against injunctions of religion is an apostate and a polytheist and must repent to reenter the religion else he would be subject to death. They thus deemed Ali, Mu’awiya and all those who agreed to the arbitration as disbelievers, as they had breached the rules of the Qur’an. Azariqa held a more extreme position that such apostates could not reenter Islam and were to be killed along with their women and children. Azariqa also held non-activist Kharijites as apostates.

Kharijites believed that Muslims had the duty to revolt against any ruler who deviated from their interpretation of Islam or failed to manage Muslim’s affairs with justice and consultation or committed a major sin.

Of the moderates, Sufriyya and Bayhasiyya considered all non-Kharijite Muslims polytheists but also refused to take up arms against them, unless necessary. Ibadiyya, on the other hand, did not declare non-Kharijites as polytheists rather as disbelievers of a lower degree.

Other doctrines

Many Khawarij groups believed that the act of sinning is analogous to kufr “disbelief” and that every grave sinner was regarded as a kafir unless they repent. They invoked the doctrine of free will, in opposition to that of predestination in their opposition to the Ummayad Caliphate, which held that Umayyad rule was ordained by God.

Based on Kharijite poetry writings, scholar Ihsan Abbas finds three categories of focus among them:

  • the strong desire of Kharijites for martyrdom and dying for the sake of God
  • detailed descriptions of how Kharijites defined a just and pious ruler
  • their universal tendency to blame the self for failing to establish the previous two categories.

On the basis of women fighting alongside Muhammad, Khārijīs have viewed fighting jihad as a requirement for women. One famous example is the warrior and poet Laylā bint Ṭarīf.

Traditional Muslim view

Non-Kharijite Muslims attribute several Hadiths to the Islamic prophet Muhammad prophesying the emergence of the Kharijites. 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.

According to German orientalist Julius Wellhausen, the report is a fabrication and was invented retrospectively. Although he describes the content of the Hadith as the apt criticism of the Kharijtes. A similar Hadith attributed to Muhammad says:

There will emerge from [Iraq] 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.

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

The Kharijites drew condemnation by traditional Muslim historians and heresiographers of subsequent centuries. The 14th-century historian Ibn Kathir wrote: “If they ever gained strength, they would surely corrupt the whole of the Earth, Iraq and Shaam – they would not leave a baby, male or female, neither a man or a woman, because as far as they are concerned the people have caused corruption, a corruption that cannot be rectified except by mass killing.” Al-Shahrastani compares the Kharijite slogan of hukma to the traditional Islamic account of Iblis refusing God’s command, for Islam demanded obedience to the ruler and by rebelling against the ruler they rebelled against God. 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 those who went out of the fold of Islam and the Muslim community.

Modern times

In the modern era, some of Muslim theologians and observers have compared the beliefs and actions of the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda, and like-minded groups to the Khawarij. In particular, the groups are alleged to share the Kharijites’ radical approach whereby self-described Muslims are declared unbelievers and therefore deemed them worthy of death and their disinterest in Quranic calls for moderation. However, IS preachers strongly reject being compared to the Khawarij.

In the 18th century, Hanafi scholar Ibn Abidin declared the Wahhabi movement of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab as modern Khawarij although he does not consider them non-Muslims.

Modern historians’ views on the origins

At Siffin the people 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, Qurra supported the proposal because as pious believers in the Qur’an, they felt obliged to respond to the call of making 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. Wellhausen has criticized Brünnow’s hypothesis because all Basran and Kufan inhabitants were Bedouins, including Qurra, and since Brünnow regards these Bedouins 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 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.

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 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. But 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. 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 the cousin of Uthman (Mu’awiya) they felt their status threatened and consequently rebelled. According to him, 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, who 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. 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. Qurra, who had been involved in the murder of Uthman, feared the treaty can result in them being held accountable for the act.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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