Are ISIS really Khawaarij?

An ISIS fighter carrying an assault rifle points towards some grassland in the background. A man stands behind him holding the ISIS flag aloft. The subtitles read "we've brought a bulldozer to take down the barricades".Yesterday I saw a Facebook post which linked to a story about a paper by Craig Considine which claimed that “newly translated” stories from the time of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) demonstrated that ISIS’s treatment of Christians and other non-Muslims in the lands they have occupied are at variance with the teachings of the Prophet and the Salaf (the early Muslims) in that regard. I responded by saying that we already knew that anyway, and that the lack of an English translation for these materials up until now is not that significant because the language of that region is not English and the English-speaking section of the Muslim community, globally, is not that large. The majority of hadith literature, much like the majority of Islamic scholarly works, have not been translated into any other language, and in the case of hadith, a lot of the less well-known compilations are also those of lesser reliability. However, that was not what I wanted to discuss in this. The Facebook post simply read “ISIS are the Khawarij”, a claim that has been made many times since they arose. Are they really, though?

The Khawaarij — the term means those who secede, or who go out (the singular is Khaariji, and this is often anglicised to “Kharijite”) — were a group that arose during the early period of Islam and made trouble for the Muslims over many generations. Initially they arose during the disputes between the Companions Ali and Mu’awiyyah, opposing any negotiated settlement between them and then making ludicrous demands. The majority were won back when reasoned with; others remained obdurate, launching rebellions and assassinations, splitting into small sects which regarded anyone outside their group (which included the majority of Muslims) to not be Muslims. They committed dreadful atrocities, including the murders of Sahaba (Muslims who had been companions of the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) and of pregnant women. Overwhelmingly they came from the desert Arab tribes of eastern Arabia, particularly the Bani Tamim tribe. This article notes how many of them were from that tribe and the other tribes of the Najd.

The book The Four Imams by Muhammad Abu Zahra (Dar al-Taqwa, 2001) notes that, although they had dissenting ideas on such matters as who could be the caliph (leader of the Muslims) and the status of one who commits a sin (i.e. that he is an unbeliever, which is not the belief of most Muslims), another important motive was their enmity for the Mudar tribes of western Arabia, of which the Quraysh was one, and this enmity predated Islam. I mention this as some modern texts portray the Kharijites as idealists with democratic or socialistic ideas, when in fact they were tribalists who resented the rise to ascendancy of a tribe they had long regarded as rivals, if not enemies.

There are hadiths about the characteristics of the Khawaarij. The most notorious was a man named Hurqus bin Zuhair, better known as Dhu’l-Khuwaisira, who challenged the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) over the distribution of some alms, demanding that he “be fair” or “fear Allah” (some scholars regard him as a hypocrite). The incident continued:

‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) said: O Messenger of Allah, give me permission to strike his neck. The Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) said: “Let him be, for he has companions, in comparison to whose prayer one of you would regard his prayer as insignificant, and he would regard his fasting as insignificant in comparison to their fasting. They recite the Qur’aan but it does not go any further than their collarbones. They will pass out of Islam as an arrow passes out of the prey.”

The Khawaarij were indeed noted for assiduousness in worship. It was reported that the camp where plots to murder Companions were hatched “sounded like a beehive” with all the recitation of the Qur’an going on; it was reported that the men found in the camp of some of the early Khawaarij had foreheads that were bleeding from prostrating on the ground in prayer, and were in poor condition from much worship and little of anything else, including self-care. Even the Sahaba would think their worship insignificant compared to these people, yet it counts for nothing; they are, as mentioned in another hadith, the “dogs of Hell”.

Other characteristics of the Khawaarij as detailed in the hadeeth or observed by Companions or classical scholars were that they would kill Muslims but spare idolaters and use verses revealed about non-Muslims and interpret them as if they referred to the Muslims, to justify fighting them. The classical Khawaarij were noted, indeed, for displays of kindness towards non-Muslims; one story I have heard is of a Khariji who was doing business with a Jewish merchant in Iraq, which borders onto their Najdi homeland, and insisted that he kept the change, telling him that the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) had told the Muslims to be good to the People of the Book. The Jew then chastised him for being kind to him while being violent to his fellow Muslims.

Reading any account of the behaviour of today’s extremists, one does not see the important characteristics of the Khawaarij. They are harsh with the Muslims, yes, and often oppressive, but no more so than the Taliban (who in their original Afghan form were Hanafis and whom nobody accused of being Khawaarij) or the Saudis (who have been, but not by some of the people who accuse ISIS of being khawaarij), but their acts of terrorism are aimed at non-Muslims, even if they are civilians and not fighters. Their roots trace back to Arabs who fought against the Russians in Afghanistan. So they are the opposite of the Khawaarij in that regard. As for excessiveness in worship, we have heard from people who have been held captive by ISIS that they never saw a copy of the Qur’an; we have heard that some young people who have travelled to live in ISIS territory and fight for them that they tried to learn their religion at the last minute by buying books with titles like “Islam for dummies”. Again, quite the opposite of the Khawaarij. In the wider extremist-Wahhabi terrorist movement, we have heard that some of their bombers had had a lifestyle quite out of keeping with Islamic behaviour, frequenting bars, drinking alcohol and having girlfriends in the months before they carried out a suicide bombing. This, also, the Khawaarij did not do.

Before comparing any modern group to the Khawaarij, we need to consider who the Khawaarij made an enemy of: the Sahaba. We hear people say that ISIS are Khawaarij because they are run by and attract young people, and encourage them to go against the scholars and rulers. Who were the scholars of that time? The Sahaba. Who were the rulers? The Sahaba. Who were the Believers? The Sahaba and Tabi’een (the Muslims who knew the Sahaba). The Sahaba established Islamic rule — most of today’s rulers do not even try, beyond some aspects of family law, and the Khawaarij fought them as they did that. The Sahaba fought and defeated the non-Muslim powers of the day — Byzantium and Persia — and the Khawaarij fought them as they did that. They passed on what they learned from the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam). How much did we not learn from Ali because a Kharijite murdered him? We’ll never know.

They did not entrust the Muslims’ wealth to Persian banks. They did not have Roman troops stationed in the Arabian peninsula, or get them to sort out disputes between themselves. They would not even think of turning over Muslims, who had fled China in order to live their lives freely as Muslims, back over to the Chinese authorities. And for that matter, they did not expect Muslims to start fasting in the month of Sha’ban and have “Eid” in Ramadan. Going against these men, at least by itself, does not make someone a Khariji. One article lists as a characteristic of the Khawaarij that they “advocate violent opposition of oppressive Muslim leaders” — no! They called one of the most just rulers in all of history unjust, and killed him for no reason. Big difference. (Rebels motivated by justice are called bughaat in Arabic, a separate category from khawaarij.)

We see people link ISIS with the Khawaarij because, for instance, we see young people moving from their parents’ lands to the lands of ISIS, much as the Khawaarij used to expect people to move — make hijra — from the lands of what they called “kufr” to their camps. But we cannot compare moving from a non-Muslim land to a Muslim land to people moving away from the Sahaba to a camp full of ignorant, bigoted, unkempt desert Arabs. Why would anyone move from leafy east London to Raqqa or Mosul? Perhaps because they want to live in a country where most people are Muslim, where nobody is debating whether Muslims even have a place there, where Islam and Muslims are not vilified on the front pages of newspapers, where all the food is halal and where Muslim women are not spat on in the streets. This is not the hijra of the Khawaarij.

In short, I believe ISIS are not the Khawaarij of our time. The similarities between them are only superficial and the differences enormous and fundamental. That they are ignorant and overstep the bounds of decency and humanity is not in dispute but this is not what makes anyone a Khariji, any more than it made some of the tyrannical rulers of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties Kharijites, or their lieutenants such as Al-Hajjaj. In addition, the grievances that motivate ISIS, much like those that motivated al-Qa’ida before them, and those that motivate those that flee to them, bear no resemblance to the complaints of the Khawaarij against Sayyidina ‘Ali, radhi Allahu ‘anhu. This does not mean we should encourage any young person to leave the country behind their parents’ backs and join them (though this is likely to be less common now that ISIS are losing), but you cannot dissuade anyone by comparing them to a group in history that they bear no resemblance to, and these young people can read, and can look these things up.

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