Making Sense of Wahhabism – 5

Wahhabism and Kharijism – 2

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 founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn Abdl-Wahhab, and the alliance he established with the Saud family. In Part 3, we took a closer look at the history of the house of Saud.

From this point on, we wanted to start exploring the deep ideological and historical roots of Wahhabism in its main manifestation today (including Islamic State), by going back to early Islamic history and following the main foci of inspiration. In Part 4 (Wahhabism and Kharijism – 1) we started explaining the early history of the Khawarij, to expose the striking similarities between them and the Wahhabis.

In this entry, we will continue dealing with the Khawarij as one of the main ideological and historical roots for Wahhabism.

Continuing from where we left off…

The two men chosen for arbitration, Abu Musa and ‘Amr bin al Aas first met in secret to discuss what they would announce as the outcome of their negotiation, which as you recall, had to be entirely based on the Qur’an. It was well known to everyone that if it were completely up to them, Abu Musa would have chosen Abdillah bin Umar[1] as the caliph, while ‘Amr would have chosen Muawyiah (who had promised to give him Egypt to rule if he helped him defeat Ali)… They agreed that they would remove both Imam Ali and Mu’awyiah from their positions, and then ask the people to choose a new leader for themselves as they see fit.


Then they came before the crowds and ‘Amr asked Abu Musa to speak first. So Abu Musa said that after consultation, they both agreed to remove both Imam Ali and Muawyiah. Then ‘Amr spoke and said that he also accepts removing Imam Ali, but that Muawyiah had to remain in power as he was the only legitimate successor and avenger or Uthman. This caused a big commotion and some fighting, after which the companions of Muawyiah went to him and saluted him as the new caliph.


A real, logical arbitration should have addressed the following points:

  • the real motives that led people to kill ‘Uthman: ‘Uthman was killed openly, in his house, surrounded by his family, by a popular uprising, and people from every camp were either encouraging it and participating in it, or simply not getting involved and letting the events unfold. He had unjustly given all the power and wealth to members of his family and completely ruined the economy, in addition to having tortured and oppressed anyone who was seen as criticizing the caliph or his appointed governors.
  • the legitimacy of Imam Ali’s caliphate and how he had been chosen by the people themselves: Abu Bakr became caliph by creating a coalition with some of those who had migrated from Mecca, but his caliphate was strongly opposed by Prophet Muhammad’s tribe (Bani Hashim) as well as the tribe of Khazraj. As for Umar, he became caliph simply by being appointed by Abu Bakr. Then Umar named six men who would choose who would became the caliph after him. As for Imam Ali, when ‘Uthman was killed, the masses hurried to him and imposed the caliphate on him. In other words, it was the first true caliphate that had been chosen by the majority of the people, who refused anyone else as caliph. (history has only mentioned that a maximum of ten men abstained from paying allegiance to Ali…)
  • the illegitimacy of Mu’awyiah’s rule, given the previous point.
  • the illegitimacy of Mu’awyiah forcing a war in which 70,000 people were killed under the pretext that he would avenge ‘Uthman before accepting Imam Ali as caliph, when Ali had been chosen by the masses as caliph.
  • If it were to be established that ‘Uthman was indeed killed unjustly, then it would be to the legal heirs of the victim to seek revenge and see justice by punishing the perpetrators, and Mu’awyia was definitely not the legal heir, though he was from the same tribe. If the heirs wish to seek punishment, then they can raise the issue as a legal manner before the legitimate caliph and his state to avenge him by punishing those who committed the crime. If the tribunal fails to re-establish justice for them, then they may seek other means. And though everyone agrees that their heirs do wants to see their victim avenged, this may not have been practically possible, because the attack on ‘Uthman was committed by the general population, and trying to punish them would have resulted in an uprising against the new caliph, whoever he may be. Finally, for argument’s sake simply, why can’t it be argued that it should be up the caliph to punish or forgive, as the previous caliph ‘Uthman himself did when some companions killed people (including a child) and he decided to forgive them without any punishment. The caliph may at least decide that the punishment be in monetary form only for instance.
  • and if it was considered a simple mistake on the part of A’isha and her men (led by Talha and Zubayr) to betray their allegiance to Imam Ali whom they were some of the first to force into accepting the caliphate, wage war against him (battle of the Camel), why would it not be considered a simple mistake on the part of the killers of ‘Uthman that they killed him? Why do they have to be punished and killed?


Instead of discussing these topics during the arbitration, what happened was a quick trickery and duping, and once the dust settled, Muawyiah seemed much closer to being the new caliph while Imam Ali had been removed…


Imam Ali rejected the results of the arbitration because the only condition for the arbitration was that they were supposed to rely only on the Holy Qur’an in their negotiation, but they did not, and they did not even agree on an outcome. So he gave a speech before his men and said that they would resume the fighting in the next morning, then he wrote a letter to the Khawarij – who had gathered in a village away from both armies at this point – to join him in fighting their common enemy because the arbitration had not worked. While the expectation and logical reaction from the Khawarij should have been to accept fighting again when that was precisely why they criticized Imam Ali and considered his acceptance of the arbitration as a major sin as we just saw. But instead, they refused to join him. So he left him and asked men from the surrounding areas to join him so he could go back and finish the battle against Muawyiah. His army at this point was around 68 000 men.


Battle of Nahrawan


The Khawarij considered Ali and those who were loyal to him as outsiders to religion and heretics, and they even went as far as killing Muslims who disagreed with their views because they consider them apostates even if they had nothing to do with their political movement, while they respected non Muslims and did not harm them. The entirety of their wrath was directed against fellow Muslims, while they took explicit precautions to avoid harming non Muslims.


While Imam Ali was preparing to engage Muawyiah again, the Khawarij agreed that they would secretly gather near a bridge a little outside Baghdad in a place called Nahrawan, and that they would write to their supporters and friends to join them there, so that they may establish God’s rule on earth, and force the people of that region to accept their rule or be killed. When they agreed on this, they would ironically spend their nights in worship and prayer. Their supporters started coming from Kufa and Basra until those gathered in Nahrawan became an army of about 4 000. People in nearby towns started talking about them and their horrific actions with great fear.


(Not all the Khawarij participated in this. Many of them lived in hiding and started gathering around themselves groups of bandits, criminals and outlaws, and committing many atrocious crimes against innocent people, a pattern that we see today in the same manner. Some of them rejected even the other Khawarij. History mentioned almost ten men who would gather groups of a few hundreds around them in this manner… we will not go into more detail here about them, but I did want to mention them at least to this extent, because this is clearly relevant to establish their general traits such as the kind of people they tend to attract, their infighting, and the secrecy and outlaw nature of their movements, which we find today in some groups…)


They committed countless crimes and atrocities, but one of their better-known crimes was committed against Abdullah bin Khabbab, and it is worth highlighting because it is very representative of their behaviors then, and their behaviors today.

When the Khawarij were on their way from Basra, they encountered a man, walking beside a donkey on which his very pregnant wife was sitting near the river. They first teased him and scared him, then they asked him who he was, he replied that his was Abdullah bin Khabbab, and reminded them that his father Khabbab was a companion of the Prophet. They asked him to tell them a narration that his father had heard from the Prophet, so he said:

“There will be a tribulation during which the heart of the man will die just like the body of the man will die. He will go to bed a believer and wake up a disbeliever, and he will wake up a disbeliever, and go to bed at night a believer.”

They told him that this is precisely the narration they wanted to hear and that he should not fear them.

Then they asked him about Abu Bakr, Umar, and ‘Uthman (the first three caliphs) about whom he said that they were good men. When they asked him about Imam Ali, he said: “he is more knowledgeable about God than you are, he is more pious and careful in religious matters, and he has greater spiritual insight.” They told him: “you are a follower of your desires, and you follow men based on their names, not their actions. We swear that we will kill you in a manner that no one has heard about.” When they brought him under a palm tree, one of them noticed a date on the ground, so he picked it up and put it in his mouth. Another told him: how do you allow yourself to eat it without paying for it or getting the permission of its owner? So he spat it out, then he took out his sword and cut his right hand! Then a pig came their way, so he hit it with his sword. Another told him that he was causing corruption on earth by hitting an innocent animal, so when the owner of the pig came, they negotiated a deal with him (most likely meaning they paid him) until he left satisfied. When Abdullah witnessed the ridiculous manner in which they behave while adhering in the strictest manner to the superficial and literal aspects of religion, he tried to reason with them by telling them: “if you are truly as I am witnessing, then I should not expect any harm from you, for I am a Muslim man and I have not done anything against religion, and you promised me safety.” They beheaded him, then poked the pregnant belly of his wife killing her unborn child, and left her to die.


Similar crimes were taking place everywhere they went, and people started talking about them much more. That is why when the men gathered in Imam Ali’s army, they insisted that he fight the Khawarij first, before fighting Muawyiah again. Imam Ali wrote them a letter and gave it to one of his companions to deliver it to them and investigate, but as soon as he reached them, they killed him. When the army of Imam Ali heard, they told him that they had to go fight them or the Khawarij would soon be doing the same thing to their own families.



Imam Ali and his army came to where the Khawarij had regrouped and the Imam asked them to surrender only those who had committed the crimes. They refused and told him that they had all participated together, and that they would do the same thing to anyone else who disagreed with them, including Ali and all his men. The Imam first delivered a sermon in which he reminded them how they did not listen to him so they were duped by the trickery of people who have no religion (when the copies of the Qur’an were raised), then they forced him to accept the arbitration, so he did on condition that they rely on the Holy Qur’an, but they didn’t, so things were now back to where they were in the beginning. They refused everything he said and told him that they had become disbelievers while they were with him, but that they had repented and that he and everyone with him were all still disbelievers, and they had to repent or they would be killed. The Imam warned them by prophesizing that they would soon all be corpses spread across the river, and left them.


He later came to them and asked them to split into 2 parts so that he can talk to each group of men on their own: those who were part of his army, and those who had joined them since they deserted. He then spoke to both groups at length, but it led to nothing. When he felt that they were not going to accept any reasoning and they insisted that they wanted nothing but fight him, he organized his army for battle.


He then came with a group of 2 000 men to their smaller battalions, and would tell them that he only wanted the men who had committed the crimes of killing the innocent, and offered safety to those who had not committed any crimes yet if they left and surrendered, so many of them did surrender along with the leaders. These strategies from Imam Ali reduced the number of those who remained standing against him to about 2,800 men.


At the end of the battle, only about 400 of the Khawarij survived. Imam Ali ordered their tribes to take them back and take care of them. He ordered that all of their weapons be taken by his army, and as for the people they had enslaved and the wealth they had taken, that it all be returned to its owners.


The Khawarij were in appearance strict followers of Islam and its teachings, to the point where most people considered themselves as lacking in religion when they compared themselves to the Khawarij. It would have been very difficult to try to fight them given the social context of the time, in which all aspects of life had to be seen through the religious lens. No one dared to stand up to them except Imam Ali, to whom no one could be compared in piety or knowledge; and no one knew how it should be done exactly. This was also the case with the Battle of the Camel, which was led by ‘Aisha, the widow of the Prophet against Imam Ali, and about which people were not sure what to do, until Imam Ali made the position clear.


Following the Battle of Nahrawan, the men of Imam Ali thought that it was the end of the Khawarij, to which he replied: I swear that it is not the end. They are seeds in the backs of men and bellies of women…” and many of them became thieves and bandits.


Imam Ali then said these famous words: The one who seeks the truth but mistakes it is not like the one who seeks falsehood and reaches it.


In other words, the Imam is saying that though the intentions of the Khawarij were initially good, they have such a primitive, naïve and superficial understanding of religion and life in general combined with such stubbornness, that it led to them committing all of these atrocious actions and crimes. But they are still to be distinguished from Mu’awyiah and his supporters, who hid evil intentions all along, whose aim was to remove Ali at all costs, dupe everyone with the story of the avenging of ‘Uthman, and be willing to do whatever it takes to get to the throne of the caliphate.


A bit more context following the battle of Nahrawan


The Khawarij still had about 2 000 of their men in Kufa and working together with some of their supporters, they organized an assassination attempt that was successful against Imam Ali. And that is how Imam Ali was struck by the poisoned sword of Abdirrahman Bin Muljam while the Imam was raising his head back from the ground in prostration while leading the dawn prayer, in the Grand Mosque of Kufa, on the 19th of Ramadan year 661.


When Imam Ali was killed, the people came and paid their allegiance to his son, Imam Hasan, who no longer had any men willing to fight with him. Muaywyiah became a much more powerful leader, and his advisor and strategist ‘Amr bin al Aas was given Egypt to rule. The latter killed the previous ruler, Muhammad bin Abu Bakr, and established himself as ruler. Muawyiah now wanted to extend his rule over Iraq, in addition to the Levant and Egypt which he controlled.


Muawyiah was able to easily bribe and dupe the men around Imam Hasan who not only changed camps and left the Imam alone, but they also emptied the coffers of the state in the process. Many of those men were Khawarij, while others were secretly working for Muawyiah all along. Imam Hasan eventually had no choice but to sign a peace treaty with Muawyiah, agreeing to let him rule, on the condition that his brother, Imam Hussain, would take over the rule after him.


From the moment Muawyiah took over the caliphate, the Khawarij started their attempts to destabilize his state, and this continued throughout the Umayyad reign.


In addition to believing that ‘Uthman, Imam Ali, Muawyiah and others were all apostates, one of their main tenets is that whoever commits a major/cardinal sin is also a disbeliever and an apostate, who will suffer eternal damnation and punishment.


Back to Today


The many different schools and factions of Khawarij were all exterminated throughout history save for one group, called Ibadhyyia. Today, the Ibadhyyia reject having anything to do with Kharijism. Of course, given the known history and atrocious reputation of the Khawarij, no one wants to be associated with them. And that is why the Saudi scholars refer to IS (ISIS and ISIL) as Khawarij, to incite the feelings of Muslims against them because they are not their obedient servants, as Al Qaeda or Al-Nusra are. In any case, books of theology and history tell us that the Ibadhyyia are in fact clearly the descendants of the Khawarij. They are found in North and East Africa, and Ibadhi Kharijism is the official religion of the Sultanate of Oman, where they are dominant and whose Sultan himself is a member.


So why do we claim that, in order to understand Wahhabism, one must know about Khawarij?

By now, the reader should have identified many of the commonalities and overlaps between these two groups. For example:

  • their naïve and superficial understanding of religion: This stems from a naïve, superficial, uneducated outlook on life in general, where everything is black or white, according to their interpretation.
  • Their excessive worship and exaggerated adherence to the ritualistic and literal aspects of religion.
  • They are the ones who formed the group known as Qurra’; the memorizers and reciters of the Holy Qur’an. In other words, an exaggeration of the importance of memorizing and reciting the Qur’an, when knowledge of its meanings beyond the literal meaning is frowned upon… Their simplistic, reductionist and literalist interpretation, combined with blind adherence to the ritualistic aspects of religion was a very dangerous mix. (hence the importance of real religious education, and not simplistic, reduction and unqualified teachings counting as religion…)
  • Their absolute stubbornness and complete inability to even imagine that their understanding of religion may be mistaken or incomplete, and that someone else may have a more complete or more correct understanding of religion.
  • Their exaggerated reactions against anything that does not fit what they deem acceptable. They annihilate anything that they disagree with and are entirely incapable of dialogue and logical argumentation.
  • Their inability to deal with anything except with brute and unwarranted force and barbaric actions that are against all Islamic teachings (enslaving whomever they wish, killing of children and women, and people who have committed no crimes and have nothing to do with them or their cause…)
  • Etc.


Of course, this is not to say that Wahhabism and Kharijism are one and the same, because there are important differences between these groups. For instance:

  • Wahhabis are Salafist (which we will explain in detail in a future post), meaning that they consider the behaviour and actions of the companions and the first generations of the Muslims as the main source of authority and inspiration for everything (and if you analyze the thinking and vision of Salafist, you will realize that they are in fact simply trying to recreate the same kind of society that existed 14 centuries ago, down the clothes, the food, the mannerisms, the society, etc. as if that is the point of Islamic teachings!). Khawarij reject a lot of what those first generation Muslims did and consider it major sins that makes those first generation Muslims disbelievers in the eyes of the Khawarij.
  • Khawarij were generally very opposed to ever harming a non-Muslim (for reasons that we will not get into now) whereas Wahhabis have no problem oppressing minorities and non-Muslims.
  • It must be said that some Khawarij (the more moderate ones such as the ones that are now known as Ibadhis, mentioned above) are opposed to violence unless directly attacked.


But these differences do not take away from the striking similarities between Kharijism and Wahhabism (Salafism), making the latter an obvious extension of the former. It is laughable that Wahhabism and Salafism, which has purposefully engineered and managed groups such al Al Qaeda and Al Nusra, are now claiming that IS are khawarij, when they stem from the exact same ideological roots. The bottom line is that IS has simply been able to move faster, and fulfill many of the ambitions of the Wahhabis much more fully than their other groups, while not obeying the Saudis. They are stemming from the same sources, and are all inspired in no small part from the ideology and history of the Khawarij (despite the declarations of some of their scholars…)



[1] This is the same man who came to the ruthless governor Al Hajjaj to pay his allegiance to him the moment he heard that he had been appointed over Hijaz. When he reached him in the middle of the night, Al Hajjaj told him – to degrade him further and humiliate him – that if he wanted to pay his allegiance to him, he would have to take hold of his foot instead of his hand, because his hand was busy (some say he was writing, others that he was eating). So he did hold onto his foot and then he left. Al Hajjaj is reported to have said “You idiot. You have left behind allegiance to Ali and came to me in the middle of the night? It is only your fear from the sword that has led you here.”



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


10 thoughts on “Making Sense of Wahhabism – 5

  1. I found my way here trying to make sense of what is happening in the world these days. I had thought I had some understanding of world religions but after reading this series on Wahhabism only realized just how little I actually knew about the early days of Islam and what shapes the US-SA alliance.

    It has been a pleasure to read such well-written, eloquent and analytical texts. You also have the ability to make history come alive. Reading about Imam Ali and Khawarijites was really frustrating, yet he was able to deal with all the struggles with such patience one can only dream of doing the same.

    Thank you for your hard work here!


  2. Hi Janna. Thank you for your feedback. Because of the questions, comments and general interest in these articles, I now plan on continuing with the series Making Sense of Wahhabism for many more articles, to explain the roots of Wahhabism from the Umayyad dyansty, Hanbalism (and Ahlul Hadeeth), and Ibn Taymiyya… Any comments or questions are appreciated along the way.


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