ISIS and the Khawarij


The article will examine similarities between ISIS and the Khawarij for the purpose of drawing lessons from this comparison. Firstly, a history will be given of the Khawarij, focusing more on their ideology and the position of Amir al-Mumineen with respect to this ideology, than on historical details. After this a brief history will be given of the emergence of ISIS from the hotbed of the jihadi Salafi movement, having its roots in the thoughts of Ibn Taymiyya and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhaab. And then the ideology of takfir will be examined in terms of the textual evidences which they use and their arguments will be criticized; showing that their practices go against even what jihadi Salafi scholars have said in their books, let alone what mainstream Sunni scholarship says. It will thus be shown that the ideological position of ISIS and the likes of ISIS is untenable religiously, has no basis in Islamic scholarship, and is merely a politically motivated puritanism. It will also be shown how groups like ISIS harken back to the religious puritanism of the Khawarij, and thus that the position of Amir al-Mumineen with respect to the Khawarij can be taken as a role model.

The Khawarij in the light of history

As the world watched in horror the sudden meteoric rise of the group known as ISIS or The Islamic State, which took terrorism to a new level of sophistication – both in its use of social media and in its organization and viciousness on the ground, historians of Islam will have noted the resemblance that this group bore to another famous group, which emerged during the caliphate of Ali bin Abi Talib – the Khawarij. In this article the similarities between ISIS and the Khawarij will be examined, and what lessons can be drawn from this comparison.

In the battle of Siffin between the Iraqis, led by Ali bin Abi Talib, and the Syrians, led by Muawiya bin Abi Sufyan, a point was reached when the Syrians were on the verge of defeat. In desperation Muawiya turned to his advisor Amr ibn al-Aas and told him to think of something. So Amr told Muawiya to get the soldiers to raise Qurans on spears and call for a truce based on the Quran. A group of simple minded people in Ali’s army fell for this ploy, with the connivance of the hypocrites led by Muhammad ibn Ashath. And so they turned against Ali and his command to carry on fighting, threatening to kill him if he didn’t order his commander Malik al-Ashtar to pull back. Then a pact of truce was made between the Iraqi side and the Syrian side in which it was declared that two arbitrators would be appointed to come to a judgment based on the Quran, and if they didn’t find the ruling in the Quran then based on the Sunna. [1]

But when the result of the arbitration came out and it became clear that Amr ibn al-Aas had tricked Abu Musa al-Ashari in to removing Ali from the caliphate, the very same group who had forced the arbitration on Ali turned against him and accused him of kufr for having allowed the arbitration to take place. They then politically and militarily separated themselves from Ali and his followers and became infamous in history as the Khawarij. [2] Their slogan was “لا حکم الا لله” (There is no judgment except that of Allah) and thus that anyone who takes other than Allah as judge and arbitrator is a kafir. They declared that they had repented from having done the arbitration and demanded that Ali do the same as well. In answer to them Amir al-Mumineen said:

“کلمِة حق یراد به باطل! نعم انه لا حکم الا لله ولاکن هولاِء یقولون: لا امرة الا لله و انه لا بد للناس من امیر…”

“A true word intended by it falsehood! Yes there is no judgment except that of Allah, but what these people are saying is: No governance except that of Allah, while people must have a ruler…” [3]

And also he made it clear to them that he had not submitted to the judgment of men, but as is clearly mentioned in the pact of truce, the judgment was given to the Quran:

“انما لم نحکم الرجال و انما حکمنا القران…فاذا حکم بالصدق فی کتاب الله فنحن احق الناس به و ان حکم بسنة رسول الله فنحن احق الناس و اولاهم بها”

“We did not appoint men to judge, we appointed the Quran to judge…so if judgment was made truly based on the Book of Allah then we are the most rightful of people for it, and if judgment was made based of the tradition of the Messenger of Allah then we have priority with respect to it” [4]

 What the Khawarij were and represented was a type of religious puritanism. That is why when Ali was asked if they were disbelievers, he replied in the negative, saying: “هم من الکفر فروا” (They fled from disbelief). And when he was asked if they were hypocrites he again replied in the negative. Then he said: “اخواننا بغوا علینا”  (Our brothers who rebelled against us). But it was a puritanism lacking in rationality and depth of understanding of the religion, which is something that was manifest in the weakness of their arguments and the contradictions in their behavior. For example, that accepting human arbitrators is kufr, whereas the Quran in 4:35 and 5:95 clearly allows the use of human arbitrators. And when the Khawarij were on their way to Nahrawan, they came across two people, one a Muslim and one a Christian. So they killed the Muslim because they didn’t find him to be following their ideas and they gave safe passage to the Christian because the Prophet had said to be good to the unbelievers under the protection of Islam! [5]

 So the Khawarij represented a type of superficial puritanism which was as much a mentality as it was just a group of people. That is why at the battle of Nahrawan when nearly all of the Khawarij were wiped out and one of the companions expressed his happiness at this, Imam Ali said:

“کلا! و الله! انهم نطف فی اصلاب الرجال و قرارات النساء کلما نجم منهم قرن قطع حتی یکون لصوصا سلابین”

“Never! By Allah! They are seeds in the  loins of men and the wombs of women, whenever they raise their head it will be cut off until the last of them will be robbers” [6]

And also in the time of the Prophet when he was busy distributing the war booty after the battle of Hunain, a person called Dhul Khuwaysirah came to him and admonishingly said: Maintain justice in distributing the booty. Umar said: Give me permission to kill him. The Prophet said:

“دعه فان له اصحابا یحتقر احدکم صلاته مع صلاته و صیامه مع صیامهم یمرقون من الدین کما یمرق السهم من الرمیة…”

“Leave him, for he has companions next to whose praying your praying will seem insignificant and next to whose fasting your fasting will seem insignificant, they will shoot away from the religion the way an arrow shoots from a bow…” [7]

And this is why they were such a dangerous internal enemy because they would fool people with their extremely pious outward appearance. This is reflected in some of the narrations which have come from the Prophet and Ali about them:

عن رسول الله: “فاذا خرجوا فاقتلوهم ثم اذا خرجوا فاقتلوهم”

From the Messenger of Allah: “If they come out then kill them, then if they come out again then kill them” [8]

When Masrooq asked Aisha what she had heard from the Prophet about the Khawarij, she said I heard him say:

“انهم شر الخلق و الخلیقة یقتلهم خیر الخلق و الخلیقة و اقربهم عند الله وسیلة”

“They are the worst of creation, and they will be killed by the best of creation and the closest of them to Him as a means” [9]

علی: “الا من دعا الی هذا الشعار فاقتلوه، و لو کان تحت عمامتی هذه”

Ali: “Kill the one who calls to this way, even if he is under this turban of mine” [10]

 This same mentality and type of thinking, which existed in the Khawarij, could be seen in the group ISIS and their slogan of takfir, although the modern from of this way of thinking has its roots in the ideas of Ibn Taymiyya and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

 Salafism is a movement within Sunni Islam which calls for a return to the beliefs, practices, and sincerity of early Islam. By rejecting centuries of scholarship and interpretation, they maintain that the only sources of authority necessary are the Quran and the Sunnah. And it is the decentralization of authority resulting from this stance and the simplistic interpretation of the texts which has led to the proliferation of violent jihadi groups in the modern world. Although Salafis draw inspiration from the scholarship of Ibn Taymiyya (d.1328).

 Ibn Taymiyya lived in a tumultuous time, and wrote as the Muslim community grappled with the invasion of the Mongol empire, the destruction of Baghdad, and the assassination of the last Abbasid caliph. These events marked the end of a period of great prosperity, intellectual achievement, military success, and cultural development during which the entire region was politically united under the caliphate. Ibn Taymiyya argued that the end of this era was the result of a corruption of Islam, and he believed that returning to the beliefs and practice of the early Muslim community would lead to a revival of the Muslim world. He thus adopted a very literalist and puritanical interpretation of Islam which was rejected by the mainstream scholarship. It was only centuries later that his ideas were revived by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d.1792).

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab drew upon the writings of Ibn Taymiyya and argued for a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam. He believed that Muslims who engaged in practices that he considered idolatrous – practices such as polytheism, venerating the graves of saints, mysticism, and Shi’ism in general – were not Muslims at all. He too, like Ibn Taymiyya before him, was widely rejected and criticized by the mainstream scholarship, but his alliance with Muhammad bin Saud (d.1765) proved instrumental in the spread of his ideas. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Wahhabis worked with the Saud family to unite the people living on the Arabian Peninsula under a single religious and political authority. This effort culminated in the creation of the modern state of Saudi Arabia. And it is this state sponsored terrorism, backed by massive petro-dollars, which has given rise to the modern ultra-violent jihadi Salafism. Because modern Salafism can be divided into three factions: The quietist faction, which has its base in Saudi Arabia, is more scholarly, and is more concerned with the purification of Islam from within than from launching jihads. Then there is the political faction, which criticizes the quietist faction for its political naivety. This faction was greatly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood founded by Hasan al-Banna (d.1949), and its influence expanded when a subset of its members fled persecution in Egypt and migrated to Saudi Arabia, subsequently injecting their political engagement into Saudi Arabia’s more quietist Salafism. And finally there is Jihadi Salafism, which coalesced in large part due to the 1980’s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The war functioned as an incubator in which Salafis from across the region came into contact. [11]

The main ideological weapon of ISIS was that of takfir, by means of which they legitimized the killing of any Muslims, let alone non-Muslims, who stood in the way of their expansion. And their defense of this position rested upon the issues of polytheism (shirk), innovation in religion (bida’) and the committing of sins, where they widened the scope of the first, following on from Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, to include the practices of a wide sway of the Muslims, and like the Khawarij they claimed that the third takes a person out of the religion.

 As for the issue of shirk, they accused the Muslims of polytheism in worship due to practices such as seeking the help of the Awliya, seeking their intercession, requesting Allah by their right, seeking blessing from their remnants, making nadhr for the people of the graves etc. And their proof in this regard is that the polytheists in the Age of Ignorance have been condemned in the Quran for similar practices:

وَيَعْبُدُونَ مِنْ دُونِ اللَّهِ مَا لَا يَضُرُّهُمْ وَلَا يَنْفَعُهُمْ وَيَقُولُونَ هَٰؤُلَاءِ شُفَعَاؤُنَا عِنْدَ اللَّهِ ۚ قُلْ أَتُنَبِّئُونَ اللَّهَ بِمَا لَا يَعْلَمُ فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَلَا فِي الْأَرْضِ ۚ سُبْحَانَهُ وَتَعَالَىٰ عَمَّا يُشْرِكُونَ

“And they serve beside Allah what can neither harm them nor profit them, and they say: These are our intercessors with Allah. Say: Do you (presume to) inform Allah of what He knows not in the heavens and the earth? Glory be to Him, and supremely exalted is He above what they set up (with Him).” (10:18)

وَالَّذِينَ اتَّخَذُوا مِنْ دُونِهِ أَوْلِيَاءَ مَا نَعْبُدُهُمْ إِلَّا لِيُقَرِّبُونَا إِلَى اللَّهِ زُلْفَىٰ

“and (as for) those who take guardians besides Him, (saying), We do not serve them save that they may make us nearer to Allah” (39:3)  

Thus the Muslims today who do these things are also mushrik (polytheists) and kafir (unbelievers).

However, the flaw in their argument lies in this that the reality of worship lies in the combination of belief and action, not in only one of them by itself. So the actions of the people was polytheism in worship because they combined acts of submission with belief in the Lordship of that to which they were submitting. Otherwise if the action of humility and submission alone was enough then the sajda (prostration) of the angels to Adam(as) would have been shirk (polytheism) as would have been the sajda of Yusuf’s family to him. Whereas the practices of the Muslims in honouring the Prophets and the Awliya (saints) is something which has the pleasure of Allah behind it and is an example of:

ذلِكَ وَمَنْ يُعَظِّمْ شَعَائِرَ اللَّهِ فَإِنَّهَا مِنْ تَقْوَى الْقُلُوبِ

“That (shall be so); and whoever respects the signs of Allah, this surely is (the outcome) of the piety of hearts.” (22:32)

In the case of the second issue by which ISIS and their like do takfir of other Muslims, which is the committing of sins, they take a very loose approach in implementing the rules of takfir which even the likes of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the most influential living jihadi Salafi scholar, have laid down. And in this they only reveal their own ignorance of the religion of Allah and the fact that their driving force is as much political as it is religious. A person’s actions do not reveal his beliefs, except when the link is very explicit. So somebody who sins, or works for a kafir authority, or doesn’t know the rules of the religion properly cannot be accused of kufr unless it is ascertained for definite that it stems from a rejection of Allah or his Messenger. And so the mass exocommunicating and subsequent slaughtering of Muslims by ISIS can only be taken as a very liberal application of the rules of takfir such as the following, taken from Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s book ‘Tuhfat al-Muwahhidin fi Ahammi Masail Usul al-Din’:

1. من قال و فعل ما هو کفر, کفر بذلک, و ان لم یقصد ان یکون کافرا (ابن تیمیة)

2. الرضی بالکفر کفر

3. من حلل حراما, او حرم حلالا فقد کفر

4. من لم یکفر الکافر, او شک فی کفره, فقد کفر

5. من لم یکفر المشرکین او شک فی کفرهم, او صحح مذهبهم کفر اجماعا (ابن عبد الوهاب)

1. The one who says or does something which is kufr, becomes an unbeliever by that, even if he didn’t intend to be a disbeliever. (Ibn Taymiyya)

2. Satisfaction with disbelief is disbelief.

3. The one who makes a lawful thing unlawful, or makes an unlawful thing lawful, has become a disbeliever.

4.  The one who doesn’t consider the disbeliever as a disbeliever, or doubts in his disbelief, has become a disbeliever.

5. The one who doesn’t consider the polytheists as disbelievers, or doubts in their disbelief, or considers their religion as correct, has become a disbeliever. (Ibn Abd al-Wahhab) [12]

And this harkens back to the belief of the Khawarij that the one who commits one of the major sins becomes a kafir and must be killed (thus they argued that Ali accepted the arbitration of people over the Quran and so became a kafir and his followers too are like him, and all of them must be killed). And their proof for this belief was various verses of the Quran, such as:

“و من یعص الله و رسوله فان له نار جهنم خالدین فیها ابدا”

“And whoever disobeys Allah and His Apostle, surely he shall have the fire of hell to abide therein for ever” (72:23)

Because remaining in Hell forever is something exclusively reserved for the disbelievers, so the one who sins must be kafir. However, there is consensus amongst the scholars that every sin does not commit a person to hell forever, so the reference in the verse is to the disbelievers and polytheists, i.e. to the sin of kufr itself.

Even the likes of Ibn Taymiyya rejected the Khawarij, when he said:

“وَالْخَوَارِجُ هُمْ أَوَّلُ مَنْ كَفَّرَ الْمُسْلِمِينَ يُكَفِّرُونَ بِالذُّنُوبِ، وَيُكَفِّرُونَ مَنْ خَالَفَهُمْ فِي بِدْعَتِهِمْ وَيَسْتَحِلُّونَ دَمَهُ وَمَالَهُ. وَهَذِهِ حَالُ أَهْلِ الْبِدَعِ يَبْتَدِعُونَ بِدْعَةً وَيُكَفِّرُونَ مَنْ خَالَفَهُمْ فِيهَا.”

“And the Khawarij were the first to call muslims disbelievers, as a result of sinning. And they called a disbeliever the one who opposed them in their innovation and they considered as lawful his blood and wealth…” [13]

And Amir al-Mumineen had this to say in answer to them:

“فَإِنْ‏ أَبَيْتُمْ‏ إِلَّا أَنْ تَزْعُمُوا أَنِّي أَخْطَأْتُ وَ ضَلَلْتُ فَلِمَ تُضَلِّلُونَ عَامَّةَ أُمَّةِ مُحَمَّدٍ ص بِضَلَالِي وَ تَأْخُذُونَهُمْ بِخَطَئِي وَ تُكَفِّرُونَهُمْ بِذُنُوبِي سُيُوفُكُمْ عَلَى عَوَاتِقِكُمْ تَضَعُونَهَا مَوَاضِعَ الْبُرْءِ وَ السُّقْمِ وَ تَخْلِطُونَ مَنْ أَذْنَبَ بِمَنْ لَمْ يُذْنِبْ وَ قَدْ عَلِمْتُمْ أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ ص رَجَمَ الزَّانِيَ الْمُحْصَنَ ثُمَّ صَلَّى عَلَيْهِ ثُمَّ وَرَّثَهُ أَهْلَهُ وَ قَتَلَ الْقَاتِلَ وَ وَرَّثَ مِيرَاثَهُ أَهْلَهُ وَ قَطَعَ [يَدَ] السَّارِقَ وَ جَلَدَ الزَّانِيَ غَيْرَ الْمُحْصَنِ ثُمَّ قَسَمَ عَلَيْهِمَا مِنَ الْفَيْ‏ءِ وَ نَكَحَا الْمُسْلِمَاتِ فَأَخَذَهُمْ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ ص بِذُنُوبِهِمْ وَ أَقَامَ حَقَّ اللَّهِ فِيهِمْ وَ لَمْ يَمْنَعْهُمْ سَهْمَهُمْ مِنَ الْإِسْلَامِ وَ لَمْ يُخْرِجْ أَسْمَاءَهُمْ مِنْ بَيْنِ أَهْلِه”

“If you refuse to stop claiming that I have gone wrong and been misled, why do you consider that the common men among the followers of the Prophet Muhammad (S) have gone astray like me, and accuse them with my wrong, and hold them unbelievers on account of my sins. You are holding your swords on your shoulders and using them right and wrong. You are confusing those who have committed sins with those who have not. You know that the Prophet (S) stoned the protected (married) adulterer, then he also said his burial prayer and allowed his successors to inherit from him. He killed the murderer and allowed his successors to inherit from him.

He amputated (the hand of) the thief and whipped the unprotected (unmarried) adulterer, but thereafter allowed their shares from the booty, and they married Muslim women. Thus the Prophet (S) took them to task for their sins and also abided by Allah’s commands about them, but did not disallow them their rights created by Islam, nor did he remove their names from its followers.” [14]

 Thus it can be seen that the ideological position of jihadi takfiris is untenable religiously, has no basis in Islamic scholarship, and is merely a politically motivated puritanism acting as a magnet attracting members with vicious, violent and barbaric tendencies. Unfortunately though, through the slick use of media ISIS was able to portray itself as a very holy Islamic crusade and thus fool many religious youth around the world into joining its ranks. It is up to the mainstream Sunni scholarship to take a much stronger approach in exposing these kind of fake religious credentials and in promoting a much more balanced and profound understanding of Islam which calls for unity and peace in the Ummah rather than division, hatred and bloodletting.


[1] Nasr bin Muzahim al-Minqari al-Tamimi, Waqat Siffin (Qom, Maktabah Ayatullah al-Marashi al-Najafi, 1404 A.H.), p.467 – 483.

[2] Ibid., p.512 – 514.

[3] Nahj al-Balagah (Dar al-Uswah li al-Tabaah wa al-Nashr, 1425 A.H.), sermon 40.

[4] Ibid., sermon 125.

[5] Al-Tabari, Tarikh al-Tabari (Beirut, Dar al-Turath, 1387 A.H.), vol.5, p.82

[6] Ibid., sermon 60.

[7] Manaqib Aal Abi Talib (Najaf, Al-Matbaah al-Haydariyyah, 1956 C.E.), vol.2, p.368.

[8] Tafsir Noor al-Thaqalayn (Qom, Al-Matbaah al-Ilmiyyah, 2nd edition), vol.2, p.227.

[9] Al-Mustarshid fi Imamati Ali bin Abi Talib (Qom, Kushanpur, 1415 A.H.), p.281.

[10] Nahj al-Balagah (Qom, Dar al-Uswah li al-Tabaah wa al-Nashr, 1425 A.H.), sermon 127.

[11] K. McBride, Megan, ISIS The State of Terror (New York, HarperCollins, 2016), Appendix.

[12] Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Tuhfat al-Muwahhidin fi Ahammi Masail Usul al-Din (Jerusalem, Al-Lajna al-Shariyya fi Jamah al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, 1430 A.H.), p.113.

[13] Ibn Taymiyya, Majmu al-Fatawa (Medina, Majma al-Malik Fahd, 1416 A.H.), v.3, p.279.

[14] Nahj al-Balagha (Dar al-Uswah li al-Tabaah wa al-Nashr, 1425 A.H.), Sermon 127.

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