The Ibadiyya (Ibadiyyah/Ibadi) Movement


IBADIYYA. The Ibadiyya sect (also known as the Ibadi sect, or simply as the Ibadis) constitutes one of the main branches of Islam. The Ibadis are relatively few in number in comparison to the Sunnis and the Shi'ah, and for many centuries they have lived largely in isolated areas, principally Oman and Zanzibar, Tripolitania in Libya, the island of Jerba in Tunisia, and the Mzab area of Algeria. This isolation has meant that until the late twentieth century almost all of prejudiced and hostile Sunn¯i sources. However, since the accession of Qaboos b. Said to the sultanate of Oman in 1970, there has been a sustained program for the publication of major Ibadi works, so that it is at last becoming possible to view the Ibadis through their own tradition. Among the works that have come to light are a number that date back to before 800 CE and are crucial for an understanding of the development of Islamic thought in general. Unfortunately, very little has so far trickled through into English.

The origins of the Ibadis go back to not much more than twenty years after Muhammad’s death. They have their (saw) roots in the groups, collectively known as Kharijites, that came into existence during the First Islamic Civil War (656–661 CE). The basic doctrinal beliefs of the Kharijites were the same as those of all Muslims: the five pillars of Islam. It was in the further tier of doctrine that did not fully emerge until after Muhammad’s (saw) death that they had differences with the rest of the nascent Muslim community. Even in these further doctrines there were, in this early period, more similarities than differences with the other parts of that community. Like those who were the precursors of the Sunnis, the early Kharijites held the views that infidels had no legal existence or protection unless they were Jews or Christians, that Muslims should not live among infidels, and that unprotected infidels should be fought until they were converted or killed.

What split the early Islamic community in the first instance were views about the actions of the third caliph, Uthman (raa), and the fourth caliph, Ali (raa). There was much opposition both to Uthman (raa), who was murdered by some of his opponents, and to Ali (raa). With the Kharijite groups that opposition acquired a doctrinal underpinning. Already outraged by the wrongdoings of Uthman (raa) in his later years as caliph, they were further appalled when Ali (raa), during fighting against those who sought vengeance for the death of Uthman (raa), agreed to arbitration about the rights and wrongs of the killing. Summing up their feelings in the slogan “Judgment belongs to God alone,” they broke away from the majority of the believers. They took a stern view of those believers who did not share their opinions, holding that their actions and beliefs had caused them to return to unbelief. At first they designated their opponents by the simple term al-qawm, “those people,” a phrase that, somewhat confusingly, their opponents also used of them. For the Kharijites, al-qawm had fallen into a state of bara'a (dissociation), having lost the walaya (loyalty both to God and fellow-Muslims) that was central to the community of true believers. This applied to those members of the community who accepted the legitimacy of Uthman (raa) or Ali (raa). However, the Kharijites could notagree among themselves about how to deal with the qawm. The majority of early Kharijite groups favored armed confrontation with those whom they considered to have lapsed into infidelity, but a minority favored a live-and-let-live stance. Whenever an opportunity arose, the activist majority pursued its views to the death.

When Ali (raa) was killed by a Kharijite activist in 661 CE, the Umayyad dynasty came to power, and for a time some stability was imposed. It appears that this was the period when there was a growth in the number of those Kharijites who, while holding that the majority of the Muslim community had lapsed into unbelief, came to the conclusion that those who had lapsed should be merely spurned rather than given the choice of submission or the sword.

By the time of the Second Civil War (688–692 CE), the principal quietist group, living mainly in Basra, had become known as the Ibadiyya. This name derives from Abdallah b. Ibad: , who appears to have been the political mentor of the group, though its spiritual leader was Jabir b. Zayd, a man universally recognized for his learning and piety, who became the first imam of the group.

While Jabir was alive, the Ibadiyya were tolerated by the central authorities (unlike the violent Kharijite groups, who fought and were fought to the death). The community devised rules, which still hold, to enable them to survive among a non-Ibadi Muslim majority (the qawm). Thus it is permitted to marry non-Ibadis and to enjoy mutual inheritance with them. Religious dissimulation (taqiyya) is also permitted, though not to the point of serving non-Ibadi rulers.

After the death of Jabir in 711 CE, the Ibadis found it more and more difficult to live in Basra, and their next two imams encouraged them to migrate to places where they could follow their own faith without harassment. Most moved to the remote parts of the Arab world—Oman, the Hadramawt, Yemen, and North Africa—although some also went to Khurasan. It was only in Oman and the Mzab that they survived in numbers, with a religious, legal, and political tradition going back unbroken to their earliest days in Basra. In North Africa, in particular, the Ibadis suffered from some schisms. None of the breakaway groups was particularly important, and only one, the Wahbiyya, survived to the twentyfirst century.

The early Ibadis were an earnest lot, much concerned with the coherence and rectitude of their beliefs and with their relationships with the qawm, whom they now increasingly called ahl-al-qibla (people who use the qibla'), or ahlal-jumla (people who utter the shahada'), both phrases ironically indicating the superficial nature of any belief that such persons might have. These included not only those now called Sunnis and Shi'ah but also the violent, activist Kharijite groups, such as the Azariqa and the Najdiyya, and other movements that have failed to survive, such as the MurjiDa. The Ibadis designated such “lapsed” Muslims as infidels of a special category, classing them as hypocrites who claimed to be Muslims but whose deeds showed them to be ungrateful for the blessings of God (kafir kufr ni'ma). As such, they were to be shunned and not killed unless they had committed a capital offence or become mischief makers (muhdithun). Ibadis who are corrupt or do serious wrong also lose their walaya.

Because of their doctrines about walaya and bara'a, the Ibadis have also retained the original Kharijite view about who may be the leader of the community, the imam. They believe that any believer who is morally and religiously irreproachable may be elected imam, regardless of his race or tribe, “even if he is an Ethiopian slave,” as the texts graphically put it. Equally, the community has the right to vote to depose an imam from office if he goes astray and becomes corrupt, and it must take every step to remove him if it possibly can do so. This is the most democratic stance toward leadership in traditional Islamic thinking and is one of those points that sharply differentiates the Ibadis from the Sunnis, who basically believe that the imam must be from Quraysh, the tribe of Muhammad (saw), and from the Shi'ah, who believe that he must be from the family of Ali (raa).

In legal matters the Ibadis put more weight on the Qur'an and less on the hadith than other branches of Islam. Thus, they do not impose the (non-Qur'anic) punishment of stoning for adultery. The nature of their community has also led to more thinking through of problems (ijtihad) than is found in the other branches, and unlike the Sunnis but like the Shi'is, they have never “closed the gates of ijtihad.” Ibadi scholars have never shut their eyes to the value of major works by writers from other sects, particularly Sunnis and Mutazilis, though such writings are always viewed from the standpoint of Ibadi intellectual tradition, which has always managed to flourish despite its isolation.

The fact that the Ibadis differed so radically from the Azariqa and the Najdiyya in their views about infidels led some Ibadi thinkers to deny their Kharijite origins. This view appears to have emerged in the ninth century, and it has become stronger ever since. Modern Ibadis, therefore, tend to minimize these Kharijite origins, and even those whose accept that there is a historical link are outraged to be classed as latter-day Kharijites. This has recently become a matter of some importance, as modern Islamist groups have sometimes been likened to the activist Kharijites of the early Islamic era. It is a matter of pride for the Ibadis that they have consistently opposed terrorist activity for over thirteen hundred years.


Cook, Michael A. Early Muslim Dogma. Cambridge, U.K., 1981. A general book on the development of Islamic doctrine; good on the Kharijites and Ibadis.

Crone, Patricia, and Fritz Zimmermann, eds. The Epistle of Salim ibn Dhakwan. Oxford, U.K., 2001. Though the main part of the work is a specialist edition and translation, it also contains much invaluable background material on the Kharijites and on the Ibadis, mainly in chaps. 4 and 5.

Ennami, Amr Khalifa. Studies in Ibadhism. Benghazi, Libya, 1972. Originally the English part of a 1971Cambridge Ph.D. dissertation, this work is poorly printed but contains much information not available elsewhere.

Levi della Vida, Giorgio. “Kharidjites.” In The Enyclopaedia of Islam, 2d ed., vol. 4, pp. 1074–1077. Leiden, Netherlands, 1960. Rather dated, but still useful.

Lewicki, T. “Al-Ibadiyya.” In The Enyclopaedia of Islam, 2d ed., vol. 3, pp. 648–660. Leiden, Netherlands, 1960.

Wilkinson, J. C. “The Early Development of the Ibadi Movement in Basra.” In Studies on the First Century of Islamic Society, edited by G. H. A. Juynboll, pp. 125–249. Carbondale, Ill., 1982. An excellent article that is still useful.



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