Kharijites: Early Muslim rebels espoused democratic principles

Little-known sect retains appeal to freedom, equality 
Tamim al-Barghouti

While most people know about the two major sects of
Islam, Sunnism and Shiism, few non-Muslims know about
the third major Islamic sect: Kharijism. Kharijism was
the second Islamic sect to be given a name. 
When the question of succession after the Prophet
Mohammed’s death came up, those who supported the
candidacy of Ali, based on his divine right to rule,
were called the partisans of Ali: the Shiites. The
partisans of Ali had to go to war with other Muslims
who did not believe in Ali’s right to rule. 
In the course of the battle, a peace proposal was made
by the anti-Ali forces. They proposed that instead of
the ongoing civil war, each party would send an
arbiter, and that both parties would commit to
accepting whatever decision the two arbiters reached. 
The proposal turned out to be a trick; the envoy from
the anti-Ali faction suggested to Ali’s envoy that
they should impeach both Ali and his competitor,
Muawyya, and that they should let Muslims elect a
third leader. Ali’s envoy agreed and impeached Ali,
but Muawyya’s envoy did not keep his word and refused
to impeach his master. 
Of course Ali recognized that it was all a setup, and
the war resumed. But the event caused Ali’s camp to
split. A group of his supporters, who had been
fighting in his name believing that he was divinely
chosen and therefore infallible, saw that he had made
a mistake by accepting the enemy’s proposal. When Ali
told them that he was against the deal from the
beginning and that it was his supporters who had urged
him to accept it, they still argued that if he were
really infallible he wouldn’t have listened to them. 
That group decided to desert Ali’s army. Moreover,
they concluded that no human being was infallible,
that no human had a divine right to rule and that,
therefore, no hereditary rule should be allowed in
According to them, a ruler does not have the power to
unilaterally legislate, and he is under continuous
scrutiny by the community as an executive officer. If
Muslims think that a ruler is no longer fit to rule,
or if they think that he has misused his powers, they
must impeach him. Legislative power was in the hands
of the people. Everyone had the right to interpret the
Koran, and it was assumed that the people would follow
those who would present the most convincing
interpretation of the Koran ­ i.e., that they would
follow their scholars. 
Thus, the “Khawarij,” whose name simply meant “the
rebels,” at least theoretically, became the first
democrats in Islam. One of their scholars even argued
that if people were to abide by their interpretations
of the Koran, there would be no need for a government
Yet, one should not rush judge the influence of
Kharijism in Islamic history. Not only did Kharijites
believe that it was the people’s right to rebel
against an unjust ruler, they actually believed that
it was the people’s duty as Muslims’ to do so. Whoever
did not join their cause was therefore an abdicator. 
Whil, in Islam, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and
even infidels were tolerated, abdicators ­ i.e., those
who became Muslim yet betrayed the faith ­ were not.
In practice, this meant that the Kharijites declared
war, not only against a tyrant ruler, but against any
entire society that failed to rebel against him. 
Moreover, a bad ruler was simply a ruler that
Kharijites thought was bad, the opinion of others
This unforgiving radicalism drove the Kharijites into
morally paradoxical situations. In the Middle ages,
the Azraqites, a faction of the Kharijites, used to
massacre Muslim civilians, including women and
children, yet refrain from cutting a palm tree owned
by a non-Muslim. They would accept death with epical,
almost superhuman courage, yet they would also kill
with no restriction. And it was the Kharijites who
killed Imam Ali, dearly loved by both Shiites and
Yet it was also the Kharijites who posed the greatest
military threat to the Umayyads, Ali’s principal
enemies and the ones who set up the trick that
resulted in the Kharijites’ disappointment in him.
During most of the Sunni Umayyad rule, the Kharijites
devoured one Umayyad army after the other. Their
courage and their brutality were the subject of dozens
of Arabic poems. 
The expression “talks like a Kharijite” meant that the
speaker was making the utmost powerful argument both
in style and content, yet the expression also meant
that the speech might have terrible consequences. The
typical slogan of the Kharijites was: “Only God should
rule,” implying that no legitimacy should be derived
from any source other than the Koran. Thus hereditary
rule was considered illegitimate. A typical
Shiite/Sunni answer to that used to be the repetition
of Ali’s words to his first Kahrijite dissidents “this
is a true argument whose purpose is false,” referring
to the fact that his authority was based on the Koran
as well. 
It is paradoxical that, while the Sunnis ruled, those
who argued for the divine right, namely the Shiites,
could compromise, while the democrats, whose slogan
was almost “all the power to the people,” turned out
to be the most violent and least tolerant. 
Today, Kharijism has lost much of its revolutionary
zeal, but it still retains all of its logical appeal
to freedom and equality, as well as its legacy as the
utmost resistance to tyranny. In the modern era, many
governments in the Muslim world hasten to call every
revolutionary movement a Kharijite movement. Had those
rulers read the real history of the Kharijites, they
would have thought twice before giving that name to
the opposition, for their own good! 

Tamim al-Barghouti is a Palestinian poet. He writes a
regular feature for The Daily Star 


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