The First Civil Wars In Islam And The Rise Of The Khawarij – Part Two

In the previous article, we looked at the battles of Jammal and Siffeen that took place during the reign of Ali ibn Abu Talib (ra). In this second instalment of our two-part historical analysis of the leadership of Ali, we will focus on what occurred after these two battles concluded; the emergence and formation of a group who would become known as the Khawarij.


The Khawarij

The Khawarij are known by different names including the Kharijites which is taken from the Arabic word Kharaja which means ‘to exit or leave’. The original Khawarij referred to themselves as Ashoora, which means those who ‘sell themselves for Allah’. Another term for this group refers to them as Hawroori, which is taken from the name of an area known as Hawroora and this was the first place where they camped.

There are many signs from the hadiths from the Prophet (saw) who predicted the emergence of such a group:

They will recite the Quran with words, but they will not effectively comprehend it or spiritually benefit from it: There will come a people from the east who recite the Quran but it will not go beyond their throats. (Hadith Bukhari)

They will not be a people of knowledge and will have a very rudimentary understanding of the texts. They will therefore leave the true teachings of Islam: They will pass through the religion just as an arrow pierces its target and they will not return just as the arrow does not return to the bow.” (Hadith Bukhari)

Their excessive ibadah (worship, rituals) such as prayer, fasts etc would appear outwardly impressive: There would arise in this nation a people and you would hold insignificant your prayers compared with their prayers.” (Hadith Muslim)

In reference to a prediction of the battle of Siffeen, the Prophet (saw) predicted they would emerge after this: There will be two groups in my Ummah and there would emerge another group (seceding itself from both groups) and the party nearer the truth among the two would kill them (the Kharawij). (Hadith Muslim).

Their words, slogans and arguments, will come across as very convincing and persuasive which are often based on very literal readings of the texts: There would arise at the end of age a people who would be young in age and immature in thought, but they would talk as if their words are the best among the creatures.” (Hadith Muslim)

They will make other Muslims their enemy and go to war with them: “They would kill the followers of Islam and would spare the idol-worshippers” (Hadith Muslim)


The Khawarij Depart From The Side Of Ali

At the end of the battle of Siffeen, the camp of Muwaiyah (ra) proposed that the Quran would judge between the two sides. Ali (ra) was initially hesitant to accept this as an ‘outcome’ to their battle, but a group from the side of Ali known as the Qurra (who would later become the Khawarij) insisted he accept the offer of ‘Ini alhukmu illa lillah’ (‘Judgement belongs to Allah i.e. ‘ruling by the Quran’). They said if Ali did not accept then they would fight Ali. But when Ali agreed to end the fighting with Muwaiyah and agreed to the conditions mentioned earlier, this infuriated the Qurra as the conditions showed that Ali was now judging by ‘man’ rather than by the Quran as they saw it. They then asked Ali to recommence fighting otherwise he and his army have committed a sin. Ali refused to give in to their demands and the Qurra, of which there were around 6,000 men, then decided that they could no longer be a part of Ali’s ranks so they departed for a place known as Hawroora.

Abdullah Ibn Abbas Debates The Khawarij

The cousin of the Prophet (saw), Abdullah ibn Abbas (ra) who was known as ‘the interpreter of the Quran’ went to visit the group some time later, with the permission of Ali in order to reconcile the situation. Ibn Abbas himself narrates the following:

“He (Ali) gave me permission to go. So, I put on a very nice garment, the best of what one could get from Yemen and I combed my hair. Then, I visited them at midday while they were eating.

I had entered upon a people, the likes of whom I had never seen with regards to their exertion in worship. Their foreheads were wounded due to (constant) prostration (in prayer) and their hands had become rough like camel’s feet …… and worn out faces (due to not caring for themselves).

So, I greeted them and they said, “Welcome, oh son of Abbas! And what is this cloak you are wearing?” I asked, “What deficiency do you see from me? Indeed, I saw the messenger of Allah (saw) dressed in the best of what you can find in Yemeni clothing”. Then I recited this verse: Say, “Who has forbidden the adornment of Allah which He has produced for His servants and the good things of provision?” (Quran 7:32)

Then they asked, “What has brought you here?” I told them, “I have come to you from amongst the companions of the Prophet (saw), the Muhajirun and the Ansar and from the son of the uncle of the Prophet (saw). And upon them descended the Quran: they are more knowledgeable about it than you and there is not one of them (companions) amongst you.

A group amongst them said, “Do not debate with the Quraysh because verily Allah says”: “Nay! But they are a quarrelsome people” (Quran 43:58)

So I said, “Come forward, what is the grudge you have against the companion of Allah’s Messenger and the son of his uncle (meaning Ali)?” They answered, “Three points”. They said, “One of the points is that he had men judge in a matter of Allah while Allah says: “The judgement is for none but Allah”. They said, “As for the second point, then he fought and did not take captives nor did he take the war booty. If they were disbelievers, then their captives are permissible for us and if they were believers then their captives are neither permissible to take nor was it allowed to fight them (in the first place).” They said, “He should remove the title of ‘Leader of the Believers’ (Amir ul Mumineen) and if he is not the ‘Leader of the Believers’ then he is the ‘Leader of the Disbelievers’ (Amir ul Kafireen).”

I said to them, “Do you understand that if I read to you from the book of Allah and from the Sunnah of His Prophet (saw) that which refutes what you say, will you then return?” They said “Yes”. Do you not understand the saying of Allah: “Oh you who believe, do not kill the game while you are in a state of Ihram, and whosoever of you kills it intentionally, then the penalty is an offering equivalent to the one he killed, as judged by just men among you.” (Quran 5:95)

I ask you by Allah, is it better that men judge in something regarding reconciliation in disputes and in preventing bloodshed or regarding the hunting of a rabbit? They said “Of course, this is better.”

Have we finished with this point?” They replied “Yes”.

I said, “As for your statement, ‘He fought but did not take captives and did not take war booty’, then would you take your mother, Aisha (ra) as a captive?” And if you say, “She is not our mother”, then you have also committed disbelief.

Have we finished with this point?” They replied “Yes”.

“As for Ali removing the title of ‘Leader of Believers’ then I will give you something that will please you: verily, the Prophet of Allah (saw) contracted an agreement with the Mushrikin on the Day of Hudabiyyah, and the Prophet (saw) said to Ali: “Write, oh Ali: This is what Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah, agrees with”. They, the Mushrikin, said “If we knew you to be the Messenger of Allah, we would not have fought you”. So, the Messenger of Allah (saw) said: “Oh Allah, indeed You know that I am Your Messenger. Erase it, Ali, and write: This is what Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah agrees upon”.

I swear by Allah that the Messenger of Allah is better than Ali and even he erased his own name, and erasing his name does not erase his prophet-hood

Have we finished with this point?” They replied “Yes”.

So, 2,000 of them came back while the rest of them rebelled and fought.

Source: Narrated by Al-Darimi in his Sunan (1/68-69) (Some of the narration and quotes have been reduced or removed for succinctness of this article)


The Khawarij Engage Directly With Ali

There was also a time when the Khawarij engaged with Ali, after they challenged him whilst he gave a khutbah (sermon) in Kufa. They asked him to ‘repent’ from the treaty and to ‘re-embrace’ Islam and once again to fight Muwaiyah. They said they would only accept the hukm of the Quran (‘Ini alhukmu illa lillah’). Ali then gathered some of them and asked for a copy of the Mushaf (Quran) to be brought. He then said to the Mushaf, words to the effect of:

Judge between us!



The Khawarij then said the Quran does not speak. Ali responded and said: “if you know the Mushaf is scrolls and ink then it needs men to read and interpret it” ~.

When it was clear they would still break away from the Ummah, Ali then gave them 3 rights:

  1. They can pray in the Mosque.
  2. They would continue to get the stipends from the State.
  3. Ali (ra) will ‘let them be’ as long as they did not harm them.

The Khawarij then retreated back to Hawroora and elected their own Amir ul Mumineen. They then tried to recruit to increase their numbers, having previously lost 2,000 who re-joined the ranks of Ali. Due to their slogans and persuasiveness in speech, their numbers grew by thousands. “…but they would talk as if their words are the best among the creatures.” (Hadith Muslim)


The Killing Of Abdullah Ibn Khabab

The Khawarij then began a campaign of attacking caravans and committing highway robbery. Ali heard about this and repeatedly asked them to stop what they were doing. One day, they attacked a small caravan that was led by a Sahabi, whose father was also a Sahabi, although deceased at this time.  His father, Khabab ibn al-Araat was a great Sahabi and one of the first 10 people to convert to Islam. The Kharwarij stopped him and asked him who he was. He gives his name and the Kharwarij recognised both his name and the name of his father. They then asked him to tell them something from the Prophet (saw), so he decides to narrate the hadith: “A time will come when fitna (difficult trials and tribulations) takes place. The one who sits is better than the one who stands, and the one who stands is better than the one who walks, if you catch that time then be the one who is killed rather than the one who kills.” (Hadith Bukhari)

This infuriated the Khawarij as they knew he was referring to them. They then surrounded him, tied him up and made him march with his hands bound. They confiscated his goods. They then passed by a garden that belonged to a Christian and there was a date on the floor and one of them picked it up and ate it, another then smacked him and told him to fear Allah as he did not get permission to eat that date. In the same garden, there was a pig and one of the Khawarij attacks and kills it. Again, someone tells him to fear Allah as he killed the pig that belonged to a Christian and they had to go and compensate him for this. Abdullah sees this and is shocked asks them if the life of a Muslim is not more valuable to them than a date or a pig.

This made them angry, they then brought him forward and slaughtered him by cutting his throat from the front and they let his blood run into a stream of water in that area. When he was killed, a pregnant woman that was travelling with him appeared from the caravan and screamed. The Khawarij then brought her forward and cut her stomach open.

News of the incident spreads and eventually reaches Ali who decides to take action against them. Initially, he sends a small band of troops to the Kharijites and asks them to hand over the group who killed the Sahabi and the woman. The Kharijites then sent a message to say they are all involved and they share equally in the killing. Ali then declared war and this became known as the battle of Nahrawa’. As per Ali’s character in such battles he set conditions that anyone who fled, turned away, went back etc would be safe. Thousands of them took up this offer and abandoned the battlefield. The battle was a resounding victory for the army of Ali and only a small number, around ten, of the other side managed to survive by escaping.


The Assassination Of Ali

Sometime later, three of the leaders of the Khawarij that escaped the battle of Nahrawan met up in the shade of the Kaaba and plotted revenge. Each of them pledged to kill one of Ali (ra), Muwaiyah (ra) and Amr ibn al-As (ra) on the 17th of Ramadhan. One of them, Ibn Muljam, declared he would be the one to kill Ali.

Ibn Muljam spent a month planning the assassination of Ali. He continuously sharpened his sword and laced it with poison. Ibn Muljam also spent lots of time in the mosque that Ali would lead prayer in. This was so he could plan the assassination and so others in the mosque would become used to seeing him and not be suspicious if he suddenly turned up on the day of the 17th.

When the 17th of Ramadhan arrived, Ibn Muljam attended the fajr (dawn) prayer with two accomplices. Upon seeing Ali, the three men pounced and attacked him with Ibn Muljam chanting: “Ini alhukmu illa lillah” (‘Judgement belongs to Allah’). Ibn Muljam then wounded Ali in his chest area with the poisoned sword. One of the accomplices escaped, but Ibn Muljam and the other accomplice were captured. When Ali passed away from the wound on his chest, Ibn Muljam was then executed with his own sword.

The assassination attempts by the Kharawij of Muwaiyah (ra) and Amr ibn al-As (ra) failed.



The early signs of the Khawarij and their type of behaviour actually goes back to the time of the Prophet (saw). After one of the battles, the Prophet (saw) was distributing the acquired wealth and possessions. A group of them who were Bedouins from a particular remote area and known to be quite uncivilised, felt they were not given their fair share. One of the members of this group, who was described as having a coarse beard and a shaved head, walked directly up to the Prophet (saw) and he crudely said “Ya Muhammad. Be fair”. The Prophet (saw) responded and said “Woe to you. Who will be just in this world, if I am not just?”. The man then arrogantly turned around and walked away.

The Khawarij were the first group to break away from the Ummah. The Prophet Muhammad (saw) in around ten different narrations predicted their emergence and characteristics. When we look at some of the events that took place and some of the signs of the Khawarij, you cannot but help draw comparisons to modern day fanatical individuals and movements. Scholars have said among their signs are that they take verses in the Quran and the Hadith that are meant for disbelievers but they apply it to Muslims.

They have very rudimentary and simple-minded literalist interpretations of the Quran. Whilst some level of literalism is a sign of Imaan and Taqwa (Belief and God-consciousness), not every verse can be taken literally, used in every context or generically applied to all scenarios. An example of this is when they quoted: “Nay! But they are a quarrelsome people” (Quran 43:58). This verse is actually in reference to the disbelievers of the Quraysh. Yet the Khawarij deemed it appropriate to use against a companion of the Prophet (saw). Furthermore, the Prophet Muhammad (saw) was from the tribe of Banu Hashim which is a sub-tribe of the Quraysh, his daughters all married within the tribe of Quraysh and the ten Sahabi (Ashara Mubashara) who were promised Jannah (heaven) in a famous hadith, were all from Quraysh.

Another sign is a ‘binary’ type of thinking, where there is no room for spectrum of opinions or the concept of taking the middle path. For the Khawarij, Ali (ra) was either ‘Amir ul Mumineen’ or ‘Amir ul Kafireen’. Either you are with them or you are with the disbelievers (a la George W.Bush). Ali was willing to let them live in peace and continue receiving stipends from the State, even with their different approach and methods. This demonstrates that Ali was willing to accept a spectrum of opinions and different groups under his Khilafah.

Their slogans such as ‘Ini alhukmu illa lillah’ sounded good as does the phrase we often hear today: “go back to the Quran and Sunnah”. Whilst they are virtuous concepts and ideals we should strive towards, we need to ensure our rhetoric does not become empty and sloganised to a point where we are not quite sure what they mean in practice. We strive as Muslims to live our lives as closely as Islam teaches us, by following the example of our Prophet (saw) and taking from those with knowledge and wisdom. But blanket statements from groups, militant literalism and excessive refutation of others can lead us down a dangerous path.  Even the Khawarij were stumped when Ali (ra) ordered the Quran to ‘judge’ and they conceded it couldn’t literally judge by itself. Another potential danger is the idea that laymen and the regular person on the street can achieve this ideal by themselves, when in reality we still need Ulema (scholars), qualified people and those of knowledge to interpret, make ijtihad, provide context and Qiyas (analogies) to these texts.

When they killed Abdullah ibn Khabab and executed him by cutting his throat the way you would slaughter a sheep or a lamb, rather than from back of the neck, this is said to be the first time in ‘Islamic’ history that a person was executed in this manner. This type of slaughtering has continued with the Kharijites till this day when you see some groups executing hostages or those taken captive.

One of their common traits was to Takfir (excommunicate) those that were not on their side. This included Ali (ra) and they described him as Amir ul Kafireen. Unfortunately, we see this very same behaviour today where if you are not of a particular movement or following a certain Manhaj (method/path) then you are described as deviant, misguided and in some cases a kafir. Even scholars and people of knowledge are smeared with these labels, in a similar way to the Khawarij looking down on the likes of Ali and ibn Abbas. Ali did not engage in the same tactics as was done to him. When it was said to Ali by someone that the Khawarij were kuffar, he rejected this notion and said they are our brothers but have fought against us. He did not takfir (excommunicate) them, even though they declared him a sinner and disbeliever. This is an important lesson and example for us today where we see some organisations or public speakers denouncing extremists and terrorists as ‘not Muslim’. This is an incorrect stance and has no legitimacy, as can be proven by the example of Ali in dealing with the extremists of his time. Whilst we should openly denounce the actions of terrorists and extremists as not being in accordance with Islam and teachings of the Prophet (saw), we should not employ a Khawarij-like mentality and start labelling troublesome people as kafir because we seek an easy way and quick-win to appease certain elements of society.

Another important lesson we can learn from the rule of Ali is despite the civil wars, major divisions between the companions of the Prophet (saw) and the emergence of the Khawarij, was that the key to reconciling all of this was uniting as one body and under one leader of the Muslims (Amir ul Mumineen). At no point was the solution to disband the Khilafah just because there were too many problems and fitnah – this is sometimes used as an argument against having a Khilafah in our times or in the future. There was fitnah from the time of the Prophet (saw) and all the way through the leaderships of Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali (May Allah be pleased with them), yet the Khilafah continued and flourished.

We will end with some advice from the Quran and from our Prophet (saw) about the dangers of going to extremes:

Thus we have made you a just, a balanced nation, so that you may be witnesses over the people, and the Messenger a witness to you.” (Quran 2:143)

O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion” (Quran 4:171)

O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm for Allah, witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness.” (Quran 5:8)

None makes the religion difficult except that it overcomes him. So, aim for what is right, stick to the moderate way” (Hadith Bukhari)

Beware of excessiveness in religion for those before you only perished due to excessiveness in religion.” (Hadith Ahmad)


Featured image: ‘Battle of Nahrawan’ by Ghalib Almansoori



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