In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Kharijites and Contemporary Scholarship

  • Introduction
  • Background and Origins
  • Early Western Scholarship
  • Historiography and Methodology
  • Classical Sources in Translation
  • Spread, Division, and Survival of the Kharijites
  • Institutions of Authority
  • Kharijite Theology and Praxis
  • Contemporary Scholarship in Arabic on the Kharijites

Islamic Studies The Kharijites and Contemporary Scholarship
Adam Gaiser
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0159


The Kharijites (khawarij, sing. khariji), meaning the “secessionists,” is a blanket term applied to groups of early Muslim sectarians who were neither Shiʿite nor (proto-)Sunni. Although those who would become the first Kharijites initially supported ʿAli during the first fitna (civil war), ʿAli’s decision to arbitrate the Battle of Siffin in 36 AH/658 CE led dissatisfied elements within ʿAli’s army to secede from him. Declaring that there was “no judgment but God’s” (la hukm illa li-lah) (i.e., that the arbitration was an affront to a clear Qurʾanic command to fight), these Muslims decamped first to Haruraʾ and then to Nahrawan, where ʿAli’s army attacked and virtually annihilated them. Small pockets of Kharijites survived up to the second fitna, when several small subgroups of Kharijites again emerged, primarily in Iraq. The more belligerent groups, such as the Azraqites and Najdites (i.e., the Azariqa and Najdat, who likewise have their respective subgroups), considered any who would not join their group, as well as sinners, to have left the community of Muslims, becoming unbelievers (kuffar) or polytheists (mushrikun): this meant that they could be legally fought. Moreover, these Kharijites also held it impermissible to live among non-Kharijites, and so they may have sequestered themselves (thus another possible meaning of khawarij is “those who leave the community”). Other, less confrontational (“quietist”) Kharijites sprang from the cities of Basra and Kufa, where they eventually coalesced into the Ibadites (Ibadiyya) and the Sufrites (Sufriyya). These Kharijites held it permissible to practice “dissimulation” (taqiyya) and to interact with non-Kharijite Muslims. As the more militant expressions of Kharijism tended to attract the attention of the early Islamic state, and therefore tended to be eliminated more quickly (with the exception of some groups of Najdat, who endured into the 4th/10th century), the quietist Kharijites survived into the ʿAbbasid era to form polities in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The Ibadiyya continue to exist up to the present day and can be found in North and East Africa and in Oman. This article will not deal with the Ibadiyya (those interested should consult the article on Ibadiyya) but will concern itself, rather, with the remaining Kharijites, addressing newer scholarship that has emerged to deal with the many problems inherent in the study of the Kharijites, as well their legacy to contemporary Islamic scholarship and popular thinking.

Background and Origins

A number of scholars have recently attempted to investigate the religious and sociohistorical conditions that led to the emergence of the first Kharijites, known also as the muhakkima because they uttered the phrase la hukm illa li-lah in response to ʿAli’s decision to arbitrate the Battle of Siffin. Hawting 1978 views the phrase and other references to Qurʾanic punishments (hudud) as reflective of a dispute about the nature of scriptural authority among early Muslims. Hinds 1972b scrutinizes variant textual accounts of the decision to arbitrate the battle. Madelung 1997 provides an in-depth examination of the first four Caliphates, in the course of which it discusses the Battle of Siffin and its aftermath. Juynboll 1975 and Juynboll 1973 examine the pious Qurʾan reciters (qurraʾ) with an eye toward excavating and harmonizing the various possible meanings of the term. Hinds 1972a steps away from religious explanations of Kharijite origins in favor of a sociopolitical account stressing tensions between the Islamic provinces and central authorities in Medina. Hinds 1971 argues that Kharijite opposition to the Umayyads manifested itself in rebellion against the tribal notables in Iraq upon whom the Umayyads depended. Like Hinds, Shaban 1971 finds the origins of the Kharijites in the socioeconomic dislocations of the early Islamic period but traces the Kharijites to the qurraʾ, which to him translates as “villagers,” and who represent a group dispossessed by ʿUthman. Kfafiʾ 1952 (cited under Kharijite Sources in Translation), a translation of al-Qalhati’s chapter on the Caliphate of ʿAli from his al-Kashf waʾl-Bayan, provides a medieval Ibadi view of the emergence of the first Kharijites. Al-Minqari 1962 (cited under Other Islamic Sources) provides specific details about that battle from a Shiʿite perspective.

  • Hawting, Gerald R. “The Significance of the Slogan La Hukm Illa Lillah and the References to the Ḥudūd in the Traditions about the Fitna and the Murder of ʿUthmān.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 41 (1978): 453–463.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0041977X00117550

    Analyzes references to Qurʾanic punishments and the Kharijite la hukm phrase, seeing through them a disagreement in the early community between those who upheld the authority of scripture and those who advocated oral law—a split not unlike that between certain Jewish groups during the early Islamic period. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Hinds, Martin. “Kūfan Political Alignments and Their Background in the Mid-Seventh Century A.D.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 2.4 (1971): 346–367.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020743800001306

    Argues that Khariji opposition in the early Umayyad period was directed against the tribal leaders of Iraq, through whom the Umayyad Caliphs exercised their authority. In the face of this tribal order, the Kharijites advocated an Islamic social order of the kind they enjoyed under ʿUmar. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Hinds, Martin. “The Murder of the Caliph ʿUthmān.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 3.4 (1972a): 450–469.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020743800025216

    Examines the event that led to the first fitna, the killing of the Caliph ʿUthman, seeing it as reflective of a conflict between those who benefited from the power structures established by the first Caliphs in Medina and those whose interests were rooted in more traditional Arabian patterns of leadership. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Hinds, Martin. “The Siffin Arbitration Agreement.” Journal of Semitic Studies 17 (1972b): 93–129.

    DOI: 10.1093/jss/17.1.93

    An examination of different textual variants of the agreement between ʿAli and Muʿawiya to arbitrate the Battle of Siffin, a decision that alienated significant portions of ʿAli’s army and led to the formation of the Kharijites. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Juynboll, G. H. A. “The Qurrāʾ in Early Islamic History.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 16 (1973): 113–129.

    Discusses the possible derivations and meanings of the word qurraʾ, which usually refers to “Qurʾan reciters.” Islamic sources point to the importance of the qurraʾ among the first Kharijites.

  • Juynboll, G. H. A. “The Qurʾān Reciter on the Battlefield and Concomitant Issues.” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morganländischen Gesellschaft 125 (1975): 11–27.

    Documents how the term ahl al-qurʾan (also hamalat al-qurʾan), which initially appears to refer to a distinct group of people and then formed part of a battle cry (shiʿar) at the Battle of ʿAqrabaʾ, came to denote by ʿUmar’s time authorities on the Qurʾan.

  • Madelung, Wilferd. The Succession to Muḥammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    A book-length study of the early Caliphates of Abu Bakr, ʿUmar, ʿUthman, and ʿAli, with emphasis placed on pro-ʿAlid historical traditions that are usually ignored by other historians. A substantial portion of the chapter on ʿAli concerns the first Kharjites.

  • Shaban, M. A. Islamic History: A New Interpretation. Vol. 1, A. D. 600–750. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

    Shaban’s treatment of the Kharijites highlights their rebellion as a protest rooted in the loss under ʿUthman of socioeconomic status gained under ʿUmar. In the view of the Kharijites, by agreeing to arbitration ʿAli showed himself not as someone akin to ʿUmar, but on the level with ʿUthman’s kin, Muʿawiya.

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