In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Kharijites

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Classical Sources
  • Ideology
  • Spread, Division, and Survival of Kharijite Groups
  • Contemporary Significance: “Neo-Kharijties”

Islamic Studies Kharijites
Tamara Sonn, Adam Farrar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0047


The Kharijites (Arabic: khawarij; sing. khariji) were the first identifiable sect of Islam. Their identity emerged as followers of Muhammad attempted to determine the extent to which one could deviate from ideal norms of behavior and still be called Muslim. The extreme Kharijite position was that Muslims who commit grave sins effectively reject their religion, entering the ranks of apostates, and therefore deserve capital punishment. This position was considered excessively restrictive by the majority of Muslims, as well as by moderate Kharijites, who held that a professed Muslim could not be declared an unbeliever (kafir). The Kharijites believed it was forbidden to live among those who did not share their views, thus acquiring the name by which they are known in mainstream Islamic historiography—khawarij means “seceders” or “those who exit the community.” Radical Kharijites, on the other hand, declared those who disagreed with their position to be apostates, and they launched periodic military attacks against mainstream Muslim centers until they ceased to be a military threat in the late 8th century CE. The Kharijites were also known as Haruriyah (from Harura, the site of one of one of their main camps in Iraq), and more generically as ghulat (extremists).


The specific context for the emergence of the Kharijites was the struggle for leadership of the Muslim community following the murder of the third caliph, ʿUthman, in 656 CE. The community leaders chose Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, ʿAli ibn Abi Talib, as ʿUthman’s successor. ʿAli had broad support based upon his reputation for piety, wisdom, and courage. Some supported him because he was Muhammad’s closest surviving male relative. Muʿawiyah, the governor of Damascus, however, rebelled against ʿAli’s leadership. In a battle at Siffin (in modern Syria) in 657 CE, ʿAli’s troops were poised to defeat Muʿawiyah’s forces when the latter sought arbitration. ʿAli agreed, whereupon some of his supporters turned against him. Believing Muʿawiyah and his supporters had apostasized through their rebellion, some held that ʿAli was duty-bound to fight them, and that his victory had been divinely ordained. The agreement to arbitrate was thus a violation of the divine will, rendering ʿAli and his supporters apostates as well. This faction—the Kharijites—continued to fight against ʿAli’s troops, and ʿAli was eventually assassinated by a Kharijite in 661 CE. Although radical Kharijites were eventually defeated by the caliphal forces and virtually disappeared in urban areas, some moderate Kharijite groups survived, particularly in rural and tribal areas, where they continue to exist today. In addition, the radical Kharijite legacy has been revived in the context of late 20th-century terrorist activities by some Muslim groups. Crone 2006 and Salem 1956 provide the best overviews of Kharijite history and ideology. Kenney 2006 characterizes the Kharijites as political rebels and therefore forerunners of contemporary militant movements.

  • Crone, Patricia. God’s Rule: Government and Islam. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2006.

    Discusses the Kharijite position on governance, political theory, rebellion, and radical egalitarianism. This volume relies heavily on the 8th-century Kharijite text The Epistle of Salim ibn Dhakwan (Oxford 2001), but includes a broad range of other classical sources. Particularly useful for its detailed account of the origins of the Kharijites.

  • Kenney, Jeffrey T. Muslim Rebels: Kharijites and the Politics of Extremism in Egypt. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006.

    Begins with a discussion of the origins of the Kharijites and discusses four classic historiographers/heresiographers: al-Ashʿari, al-Baghdadi, Ibn Hazm, and al-Shahrastani. The crux of the text is modern extremism in Egypt and the labeling of it as Kharijism or neo-Kharijism.

  • Salem, Elie Adib. Political Theory and Institutions of the Khawārij. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1956.

    A classical treatment of the Kharijites. Salem explores the emergence of the Kharijites, noting that no single “Kharijite” identity exists. (Salem considers the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia the modern manifestation of the Kharijites.) Includes a discussion of Kharijite notions of state, law, jihad, and social theory. Thisis a useful survey of premodern sources on the Kharijites.

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