Making Sense of Wahhabism – 4

Wahhabism and Kharijism – 1

In Part 1 and Part 2 (as well as the entry Are Wahhabis Sunnis? Chechnya Conference and Saudi Anger), we got an overview of the life and thoughts of the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn Abdl-Wahhab, and his close ties with the Saudi family since his initial contact with them. In Part 3, we took a quick look at the history of the Saud family, because of the very close ties between Wahhabism and the Saudi regime.

In this entry, we are going to start exploring the deeper historical and ideological roots of Wahhabism, beginning with their striking similarities to the Khawarij.

Many journalists, thinkers and authors have referred to Wahhabis over the years as the modern-day Khawarij (or Kharijis / Kharijites, as they are usually referred to in English). It is noteworthy to mention that once ISIS appeared on the scene, and their leader proclaimed himself as the caliph that everyone had to accept and pay allegiance to, some Wahhabi Saudi scholars, including their grand mufti, started referring to ISIS as Khawarij (when both Wahhabis and IS share the exact same ideology and principles!). In other words, while they are all relying on Salafism (which we’ll explain in detail in future posts), Saudi scholars (official Wahhabi ideology that is the foundation of such groups as al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra) declared IS a Kharijite movement. Of course, there are numerous reasons for this, but the main one is that Wahhabis are completely loyal to Saudi Arabia, whereas IS is now working independently with its own agenda, which may or may not overlap with that of the Wahhabis, whose agenda is often simply that of Saudi Arabia. Because of a number of factors, IS was able to grow much faster (geographically, militarily, financially) than anyone expected, becoming a competitor to the extremist movements blessed by the Wahhabism, the Saudi verion of Islam, especially in terms of recruitment of their agents…

So who are the Khawarij and what do they have to do with Wahhabism?


Please be patient as we delve into Islamic history to give a much fuller picture than what mainstream media usually reduces to generalities. The aim here is to show the main ideological and historical roots of Wahhabism today. Kharijism is our first stop, followed by a few others…


A bit of context


In 657 AD, a battle called Siffin took place in Syria between the army of the caliph, Imam Ali and that of Muawyiah, one of the 2nd caliph Umar’s governors who was one of the heads of the Umayyad tribe trying to establish itself as rulers over the Arabian Peninsula, and which was strongly enabled by Uthman (3rd Caliph). Uthman was the previous head of the Umayyad tribe, but he used his power to openly place the members of his family and tribe in all the important positions of the state. Under his rule, the Umayyads started to rule as monarchs, and dealt with the wealth of the Islamic state as their own private property. While Uthman and his family were getting exponentially wealthier by the day, the rest of the citizens were struggling to survive. In addition to the open corruption, anyone who dared oppose Uthman or criticize his family members was severely punished, tortured, exiled, imprisoned, or killed. Eventually, the situation got so bad, that the citizens revolted against him, and ended up attacking him in his house and killing him for all these reasons.


The Umayyad were a powerful and rich tribe within Quraysh. As soon as Prophet Muhammad began his mission, it became clear that the rich and powerful would have to make concessions and sacrifices in order to allow for a just society to arise. While a few of the rich and powerful, such as the tribe of Banu Hashim, welcomed the opportunity even if its meant that they would have to make sacrifices as well, the majority of those who had a lot to lose became staunch opponents of the new mission and were willing to do anything to maintain the status quo. That is because they quickly realized that their wealth was entirely dependent on their oppressive and unjust ways of living off interest, attacking weaker clans, taking their wealth, enslaving their women and killing their men, and that this is precisely what Islam wanted to change. The Umayyad therefore repeatedly tried to kill Muhammad, and when he left Mecca to Medina, they organized and led battles against him for years, until they were completely defeated and forced to accept Islam or be killed, shortly before the death of Muhammad.


After Uthman, the head of the Umayyad was Muawyiah, the son of Abu Sufyan, who battled Prophet Muhammad throughout the entire period of his prophetic mission and tried to kill him at every opportunity he got, until he accepted Islam in appearance so that he would not get killed. The mother of Muawyiah was Hind bint Utbah, whose legendary mission after the Battle of Badr (in which her father, her son, her brother and her uncle were killed) was to eat the heart or liver of Prophet Muhammad, but she settled for doing this to the organs of his uncle Hamza, because the killer she hired mistook one for the other, and because Hamza had participated in the killing of her relatives as well. So she had him killed, then she tore his torso open, and extracted his liver and ate from it raw and may also have cooked his heart and eaten from it, in addition to mutilating the corpses of other Muslims who had been killed, and cutting off their noses and ears and making necklaces and anklets with them. Those were the parents of Muawyiah.


When Uthman became caliph, he appointed his Umayyad family members in all the official positions of the state, as governors and representatives over every aspect of government. The legendary corruption and incompetence of the Umayyad led the masses to revolt against Uthman, and finally kill him, leaving his body to rot in the same place he was killed inside his house. They then went to Ali and convinced him to accept being caliph.


Ali had always said that the caliphate is divinely appointed, and that none other but him should have been caliph because he had been divinely named by Muhammad at the event of Ghadir and other public events, but there was a coup organized against him from the major tribe of Quraysh who had already lost everything to Muhammad, so they wanted to regain leadership and rule, now that Muhammad had passed away, and not let his cousin and son-in-law (Ali), another Hashemite, be the king of all Arabs. And so Abu Bakr and then Umar became caliphs, followed by Uthman.


Ali finally accepted, when the masses insisted and as a result of the mess left by Uthman, which required prompt action. His first mission was to replace all the governors in place and appoint new ones who were not corrupt. But when he came to power, Ali did not have the luxury of appointing anyone he wanted immediately to the various official positions of the state for numerous reasons. He was in many instances, forced to work with the infrastructure and men that had been put in place before him by Uthman and Umar, the previous caliphs. In other words, the allegiance of those in sensitive positions was not with Ali…


Ali’s justice and equity were legendary, and Muawyiah, who had been appointed by Umar as governor, knew that he would soon lose everything if Ali ruled as he wished. So he began scheming to remain in power and take over the caliphate of the Levant autonomously in any way possible. Muawyiah wrote multiple times to Ali asking to rule over the Levant and Egypt, but Ali would refuse every time, saying that he would never seek the help of misguided and immoral people, meaning Muawyiah. Muawyiah’s only goal was to expand his rule during Ali’s reign, and then extend it to becoming the caliph. The repeated requests of Muawyiah to rule over the Levant are evidence about his true motives for the events that later took place and an indication of what he was ready to do to get to his dreams.

Muawyiah could not compete with Ali in any respect. It was unanimous: everyone (except about 8 men) had paid allegiance to Ali as the caliph, so he had the political legitimacy. As for the religious legitimacy, Ali was the first to enter Islam; he was known for his piety and religiousness; and he had very strong and close family ties with the Prophet, which was very important in the tribal culture that reigned. No one was in a position to compete with the distinctions of Ali, but Muawyiah was in an even more difficult position because of his history and that of his entire family of spending every waking moment fighting against Islam for all those years until they were defeated, and people had not forgotten yet. If he wanted to take on Ali, Muawyiah had to use all of his resources and work on all fronts. Here are the main points of his next moves:


  • He promised the governance of Egypt to Amr bin al Aas, an experience and devious negotiator and strategist, who had just been removed by Ali, in return for his services against Ali. History tells us that when Muawyiah first approached Amr, he told him: I am inviting you to fight against this man (Imam Ali) for he has sinned against God, killed the previous caliph, caused problems in society, and did not respect our blood relatives. Amr replied: I swear by God that you and Ali are not equals in any respect. You did not migrate as he did, nor were you of the early adopters of Islam as he was, nor did you fight for it as he did, nor do you carry his knowledge nor his understanding. I swear that all of these are his merits and his alone, as a result of the difficulties that God has made him go through. So what will you give me if I support you, and you know better than anyone the misguidance and danger of doing this? Muawyiah replied: rule. Amr said: bait me with Egypt. Muaywyiah said: I would hate for the Arabs to think that you only accepted this for some worldly gains. Amr said: stop this nonsense. Muawyiah said: had I wanted to trick you, I would have already done so. Amr replied: one like me is not duped, I am smarter than that. Muawyia then told him: come closer to me so that I may tell you a secret, so when he brought his head closer to him, he bit his ear and told him: this was a trick, don’t you see that there is no one else in this house except us!
  • He leveraged the killing of Uthman to the maximum. He got up on the pulpit, placed the bloodied shirt which Uthman was wearing at the moment of his murder, and gathered the people to tell them how Uthman had been oppressively killed, so the people cried and gave him their allegiance accepting him as their prince so that he avenges Uthman.
  • Muawyiah was a well known mastermind of manipulation of the masses. He strategically spread rumours that Ali is the one who killed Uthman, which got him more supporters, including military and political leaders.
  • He wrote many letters to a number of important personalities, such as Abdallah bin Umar (the son of the second caliph) telling them that he wants them to revolt against Ali, and explaining that his only motive is to see them rule, although most of them refused his invitation and weren’t duped by these attempts, or simply did not want to be associated with him.


Battle of the Camel


The best pretext for Muawyiah was the ‘shirt of Uthman’ and Muawyiah milked it; the shirt that Uthman was wearing when he was killed, and which was now bloodstained. This shirt became the slogan and symbol to rally everyone against Ali, under the pretext that those who killed Uthman were now among those around Ali. Muawyiah also wrote to Zubayr (a companion who wanted to become caliph as well and who had just paid allegiance to Ali) telling him that he had accepted the allegiance of the people of the Levant on behalf of Zubayr (which was of course a lie), and that they were all with him, but that he had to start asking for justice, in the name of Uthman’s shirt – only to cause dissent against Ali. This eventually led to the Battle of the Camel…


When the revolts had started against Uthman, Aisha, the widowed wife the prophet, had left to Mecca. Aisha was on very bad terms with Uthman because he refused to give her the same special treatment that had been given to her by the first two caliphs, such as giving her a higher salary than the other widows of the prophet. She would often be heard saying, in reference to ‘Uthman: “Kill the stupid senile man, for he has become a disbeliever.” But she hated Ali, out of jealousy and other reasons, even more than she hated Uthman. So when she learned that Ali had been chosen by the people as a caliph, she said it is as though the heavens are collapsing on the earth, and she went back to Medina and asked to give a speech, so when the people gathered she said “Uthman was killed unjustly, and I swear that I will avenge his blood.”


And so Aisha, Zubayr and the Umayyads who had left their positions against Uthman when Uthman was killed and Ali came to power, gathered their forces in Basra and prepared to attack Ali. Of course, Muawyiah did not want Aisha or Zubayr to emerge victorious anymore than he wanted Ali to win. He simply wanted both sides to exhaust their resources and kill each other, so he did everything he could to instigate and encourage the war. Aisha’s men killed the guards who were defending the treasuries of the state, and tortured and killed others on their path, making it clear that they were a threat to the state, and that they wanted to take over. Four months after taking over the caliphate, Ali left towards Basra with 700 men and asked Abu Musa, who had been appointed by Uthman as governor over Kufa, to ask Kufa’s people to join him, but Abu Musa told them not to participate in Ali’s battle, because his allegiance was only to Uthman, and now he wanted Abdullah bin Umar to become the caliph. Finally about 7000 men joined Ali in Basra for the battle. Ali asked Zubayr and Aisha not to fight him, and asked them why they insisted on a war against him, but they refused any talks and insisted on fighting. So the fight took place and in the end, Ali was victorious. He appointed Abdallah ibn Abbas over Basra, and forgave those who betrayed him and fought against him.

After that battle, Ali wrote again to Muawyiah, asking him to openly declare his allegiance, but Muawyiah refused. As his dissenting activities increased and he continued garnering support to engage Ali in battle, Ali’s companions, advisors and leaders told him that it was time to get rid of Muawyiah, who was at the root of most of the unrest.


Battle of Siffin


Ali prepared an army of about 90 000 men and came to the Levant, while Muawyiah came to him with an army of about 85 000 men. The men of Muawyiah were in control of the water, and Muaywyiah refused to allow Ali’s men from drinking. So Ali ordered his chief, Malik Al Ashtar, to attack with 4 000 men, and Ali followed him with the rest of the army. When Ali’s army were in control of the water, Muawyiah sent a letter to Ali, asking for his men permission to drink. He allowed it.


Ali then sent letters trying to convince Muawyiah to accept Ali’s caliphate and enter into his allegiance as the rest of the Muslims have done. In the end, they agree to postpone the fighting until the end of the month of Muharram year 37 (A.H. after the migration of Muhammad), but when the time came, Muawyiah’s side insisted on fighting.


Very intense fighting began in the month of Safar and went on everyday until the tenth of the next month, at which time Muawyiah’s army had been severely weakened, and Ali delivered a sermon inciting his troops to deliver the final blow. When Muawyiah told his advisor Amr bin al Aas “I swear this is the night Ali will come to us with his sword. What do you recommend?” Amr said: “Your men are no match for his men. And you are not like him. He is fighting you for something (religion) and you are fighting him for something else (throne). You want to live eternally, and he is looking forward to dying. The people of Iraq fear you if you were to rule over them (because of your oppression), while the people of the Levant do not fear Ali if he were to rule over them (because of his justice). So throw something at them which will break their unity whether they accept it or reject it, and tell them to use the Book of Allah (Qur’an) as the arbiter between you and them. This will enable you to reach your purpose over them. I wanted to postpone resorting to this solution until you had no other options left.”


The next morning, Muawyiah’s army carried 100 copies of the Qur’an in the center, and 200 copies on each side, all tied to the ends of their spears, and carried as banners. Some of Muawyiah’s men spread themselves and cried out:


“Oh Arabs, have mercy on your women and children. Who will fight the Romans and the Persians tomorrow if you kill yourselves today? Take care of your religion. This is the Book of God between us (as judge and arbiter).”


Ali said “Oh God, you know that their purpose is not Your Book.”… and the army of Ali disagreed among itself. One group was of the opinion to keep fighting them; but the ruse worked on the others, who agreed to use the Qur’an as arbiter. And that is how the fighting ceased between the two sides.


The majority of Ali’s men refused to believe Ali when he told them that this was simply a scheme from Muawyiah to use the sacred Qur’an in this manner and avoid the fatal loss. (Let us not forget that by this time, some 60 000 lives had been lost on both sides, although Ali’s side was clearly winning.) He gave a sermon at that time in the middle of his army in which he said:


“Oh people! I am the one who is most worthy of answering the call of the Book among you. But Muawyiah, Amr bin al Aas […] are not people of religion nor Qur’an. I know them better than you do. I was their companion in their childhood and their adulthood. They were truly the worst of children and the worst of men. The words they utter are true, but they hide evil. I swear by Allah that they did not carry the copies of the Qur’an because they believe in it or apply it; it is nothing but trickery and scheming. Loan me your arms and bodies for one hour; truth has reached its destination, and there is nothing left to do except to cut the means of the oppressors.”


Beginning of the Khawarij


While his explanation had a positive effect on some, it was not long before a group of 20 000 of his own men, which included most of the Qurraa’ (plural of qari’ meaning memorizer and reciter of the Qur’an), with covered faces and branded swords, came and stood before him, and told him “Ali, accept the invitation to use the Qur’an as arbiter, or we will kill you as we killed Uthman before you.”


He replied: “Woe unto you! I am the first to have called to the Book of God, and the first to have believed in it… I am in fact only fighting them so that they agree to accept the law of the Qur’an… I already explained you to that they are tricking you.” They refused his explanation and asked him to call back Malik al Ashtar, his commander, who was on the verge of waging the final attack on Muawyiah’s army.


When Ali sent his messenger to Malik, Malik told him that this was not an appropriate time for him to retreat, and sent him back to Ali. By the time the messenger reached Ali to tell him, cries of victory were being heard from the men of Malik. The dissenters told Ali that he tricked them and secretly ordered Malik to attack, to which Ali replied “Did I not call my messenger to Malik before you and talk to him publicly?” Then he asked his messenger to go back to Malik and order him to come back immediately because dissension has taken place in the army.


When the messenger came to Malik and told him, Malik asked the messenger whether this had anything to do with the raised copies of the Qur’an. When the messenger said yes, Malik commented that this was a trickery from Amr bin al Aas, and that he knew that it would work and cause dissension. He then told the messenger: “Do you not witness the victory that God is granting us? How are we supposed to walk away from this?” To which the messenger replied: “Does it make you happy to be victorious while your leader is about to get killed. They swore that if he does not call you back, that they will kill him as they killed Uthman.”


When Malik came, he cried out loud: “Oh people of misery and weakness! Do you not see that they only raised the Qur’an and pretended to call you to what it contains when you became superior and they knew that you were subduing them? By God, they have left behind God’s orders and ignored the tradition of the one upon him it was revealed (i.e. Muhammad). Grant me but the time it takes my horse to race to their camp, for I have felt the victory.” They replied that they would not give him any time, otherwise, they would see themselves as partners in his sin.


They then insulted him, and he insulted them back, and after some back and forth that was clearly escalating into something more, Ali cried out: “Stop!” Some argumentation continued between the two sides, until Ali spoke: “I was the one giving orders, and now I am being ordered… I want to stay the course, but I cannot force you to do that which you hate.”


The Arbitration


The leaders of the tribes then spoke, some agreeing to stay with Ali, while others saying that they no longer wish to fight because they do not wish to lose any more of their men. And that is how the trickery of Muawyiah worked and Ali was forced to accept the arbitration of the Qur’an.


Ali said that his representative could only be either Abdallah bin Abbas (Ali’s cousin and a bright scholar) or Malik al Ashtar (his commander in chief, whose courage, knowledge and piety were legendary). After his own men betrayed him and forced him to accept the arbitration, they shamelessly betrayed him a second time by refusing his choice of representative, and insisted that it be Abu Musa al Ash’ari. Remember that this is the same man who was known as an opponent of Ali’s caliphate, and whose loyalty to the Umayyad Uthman was such that he refused to support Ali while he was still considered his governor, and discouraged the people from obeying him.


Ali refused Abu Musa, but they told him that they would accept no one else, and that Abu Musa had warned them of these problems before the war. Everyone knew that Abu Musa was a shallow simpleton who would be easily duped, and it was clear that he was not one of Ali’s supporters. But Ali was forced to accept him as his representative.


In order to show everyone how much of a simpleton Abu Musa truly was, one of the companions of Ali asked him a few questions to test him. He then went to Ali and told him to remove Abu Musa because he would be duped, and to only accept a representative who would not see the removal of Ali as an option. Ali said that he had no choice, and as Abu Musa walked away, Ali said “It is as though he has been already duped.”


So once the arbitration took place, a pact was written granting the right to rule for both Ali and Muawyiah so long as they respect the Qur’an in all of their decisions. While Ali was suffering a huge political loss as a result of this pact (but he had no choice because of the massive betrayal of his own men), Muawyiah was now going to be recognized as a legitimate caliph, or at least an equal to Ali, when he was until now the disobedient and illegitimate governor who was willing to use any pretext to remain in power. Once the pact was written, the same group of dissenters came to Ali, and told him that they now realized that they made a mistake by accepting an arbitration between the two sides, because rule can only belong to God, not to men. They told Ali that he had committed a grave sin from which he had to repent and that he had to go back to fighting Muawyia. When Ali replied that this was what he wanted to do all along, but his men did not listen to him, so he was forced to accept the arbitration, and promises had now been given and he was not going to break his word. They insisted and told him that they would kill him if he doesn’t ask for God’s forgiveness and cancel the pact. When Ali refused to break his word and betray the pact, they rejected him as a legitimate leader and formed their own group from that moment on (Khawarij, or Kharijites). These daring words against Imam Ali also empowered others in Ali’s army and spread doubts about his wisdom and his decisions.


It is interesting that, years before these incidents, Prophet Muhammad had identified some men who objected and questioned his own justice, and about whom he said that they will constantly question religion until they will exit it in the same manner an arrow exits its bow.


The ease with which Muawyiah was able to dupe the men with Ali in general, and the 20 000 Khawarij in particular, in both the raising of the copies of the Qur’an as well as the arbitration, can be explained in large part by the tribal mentality as well as the simple-mindedness of the Bedouin Arabs with Ali. The tribal mentality imposed on every member of the tribe and clan to listen and follow the decision of its leader, without having a say. And the Bedouins did not have the sophistication and wit to quickly uncover any underlying causes or strategies that require deeper analysis and experience in the manner in which states are run… They followed superficially and blindly a few words (“rule only belongs to God”) without any nuanced thinking about who is saying them, or how they are being used, or what repercussions might ensue. They see no harm in betraying a pact they just signed; they consider their understanding of religion as the only valid one and therefore play the role of gate keepers of religion, and their first threat is that they will kill whoever objects to them, while not minding to die in the process if they have to.


In the next entry, we shall continue exploring the development of the Khawarij as an anarchist movement which quickly became quite dangerous and violent. They had made up their definition of what a good Muslim was (such as paleness from fasting, praying all night, and other external signs of extreme religiousness), and this excluded pretty much everyone except their small group. Everyone else was an apostate, an unbeliever, who had to be killed, according to them. They took pride in what they considered courage and what we call “suicide missions” today, charging bystanders and salesmen in the market with their swords and killing the ‘non-believers’ and ‘apostates’ until they themselves would eventually get killed. Their greatest annihilation came at the hands of Ali, who battled them directly in the Battle of Nahrawan in 659 AD, almost exterminating them…


It is important to keep these traits of the Khawarij in mind as we continue following their development and movement as a group. I hope that the similarities between them and the Wahhabis of today are too evident to require further pointing out…


see all the articles of Making Sense of Wahhabism series:

Are Wahhabis Sunnis? Chechnya Conference and Saudi Anger

Making Sense of Wahhabism – 1: Links between the House of Saud and Wahhabism

Making Sense of Wahhabism – 2: Roots of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab

Making Sense of Wahhabism – 3: History of the House of Saud

Making Sense of Wahhabism – 4: Wahhabism and Kharijism 1

Making Sense of Wahhabism – 5: Wahhabism and Kharijism 2

Making Sense of Wahhabism – 6: Québec City Shooting

Making Sense of Wahhabism – 7: Wahhabism and Kharijism 3

Making Sense of Wahhabism – 8: Wahhabism and Kharijism


8 thoughts on “Making Sense of Wahhabism – 4

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