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John Alden Williams, Justin Corfield
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


The third major sectarian grouping in Islam, neither Sunnīs nor Shīʿīs, came into existence as a result of “the great fitnah” (strife) between 656 and 661 CE and became known as the Khawārij (exiters, plural of Khārijī).

When the caliph ʿAlī agreed to submit his quarrel with Muʿāwiyah to arbitration at the battle of Ṣiffīn, a number of his followers, mainly from the tribe of Tamīm, accused him of rejecting the word of the Qurʿān, sūrah49:9: “If two parties of the faithful fight each other, then conciliate them. Yet if one is rebellious to the other, then fight the insolent one until it returns to God 's command.” ʿUthmān, they held, had deserved to die for his faults, ʿAlī was the legitimate caliph, and Muʿāwiyah was a rebellious aggressor who was not entitled to arbitration. By agreeing to it, ʿAlī had committed the grave sin of rejecting God 's āyahs (signs; verses of the Qurʿān) and had excluded himself from the true community of the faithful. He should, they held, have obeyed the Qurʿān, sūrah8:39–40: “Fight them until there is no fitnah (temptation), and religion is wholly unto God.” God had given his ḥukm, or ruling, and there could be no other. “Lā ḥukma illā lillāh” (no ruling but for God) became their watchword.

As a result, the dissenters left ʿAlī  's camp and gathered at Ḥarūrāʿ on the Nahrwan Canal, earning the name Ḥarūrīs. They were persuaded by ʿAlī to return to Kufa, but when the attempted arbitration failed, they left the city with many sympathizers, and it was at this point that they were labeled Khawārij, or “exiters.” From Nahrwan they agitated and raided ʿAlī 's territories. When attempts at conciliation failed, ʿAlī was forced to fight them on July 7, 657, at the Battle of Ṣiffīn. ʿAlī gave orders for those who escaped to be captured to prevent them spreading their new beliefs in nearby cities. The bloodshed during that fighting caused them to swear vengeance, and on a Friday in January 661 ʿAlī was murdered at the mosque in Kufa by Ibn Muljam al-Murādī, seeking retribution for “the slain of Nahrwan.”

Khawārij always insisted on absolute equality of races, with all Muslims treated equally, regardless of tribe or race (“there is no nasab [inherited honor] in Islam”). “Even a black slave” might be the first in the community if he had enough support. This meant that they were successful in recruiting non-Arabs for their cause, although many early Khawārij came from the Bedouins, as well as from South Arabian tribesmen opposed to the hegemony of the northern Arabs and to their ban on agriculture by Arabs. They also took very seriously—at a time when few did—the obligations of Muslims toward dhimmīs, or protected non-Muslims. From 690 until 730 they gained much support in southern Mesopotamia.

Basra soon became the intellectual center of the Khawārij, who also had adherents in South Arabia and upper Mesopotamia. Arab armies carried the doctrine to North Africa, where it soon became the dominant form of Islam among the Berbers. The Khawārij are noted for steadfastness and unwillingness to compromise. Heresiographers mention more than twenty sects, each of which tended to elect its own imam and to regard itself as the one true Muslim community.

Khārijism 's basic tenets affirmed that a Muslim who commits a major sin (kabīrah) is an apostate from Islam and outside the protection of its laws. Also, if the imam sinned or lost his rectitude (ʿadālah), he might be deposed. Non-Khārijī Muslims were deemed to be either polytheists or infidels, but people of the scriptures who sought Khārijī protection were to be treated generously. They also believed that the Qurʿān was created, and that human beings have free will.

The most well-known sects of Khawārij were the Azāriqah, the Ṣufrīyah, and the Ibāḍīyah; the first were probably named after Nāfiʿ ibn al-Azraq, the son of a Greek ex-slave. The Azāriqah excluded from Islam all Muslims who would not make common cause with them, and they practiced istiʿrāḍ, the review of the beliefs of their opponents. Those who failed to pass were killed, including women and children, since the children of polytheists were to be damned with their parents. They left the other Khawārij of Basra in 684 to fight in southern Iraq and Iran, and all of them were killed in wars.

The Ṣufrīyah also believed that non-Khārijī Muslims were polytheists, but that it was permissible to dwell in truce with them as long as they did not attack. After failure to establish a firm base in the east during the third fitnah at the end of the Umayyad period, they concentrated on North Africa and established an imamate around 770 at Sijilmāsah in southern Morocco, where they were active traders, like other Khawārij.

The Ibāḍīyah has survived to modern times, and holds that non-Khārijī Muslims are infidels, not polytheists. They produced some of the earliest mutakallimūn (theologians) in Islam and were willing to live peaceably with other Muslims who did not harass them. From their Basra headquarters they sent out teams of teachers to spread their doctrine and, where possible, set up imams in the provinces. Like the Zaydī Shīʿīs and many Muʿtazilīs, with whom they were in close contact, they admitted the possibility of more than one imam at a time, if true believers were widely separated. Under the Rustamī imams of Persian origin who ruled at Tahert in central Algeria from about 760 to 909, they had a great following among Berber tribes from Tripolitania to Morocco and were recognized as far away as Oman. Ibāḍīs admit four possible positions: manifestation (of the imamate), defense (where a war leader is recognized), shirāʿ or vending (this world for Paradise, in a struggle that must end in martyrdom), and kitmān or concealment (when no imam is possible and a council of shaykhs makes religious decisions)—all equally appropriate at their times. Many adherents of the Ibāḍīyah now reject the term “Khawārij.” At present there is no imam; the time for one will come.

Members of the Ibāḍīyah first settled in Oman in 686, and they now form the majority of Muslims in the Sultanate of Oman, where the ruling family are Ibāḍīs. They are also found in the oases of the Mzāb and Wargla in Algeria, on the island of Jerba off Tunisia, in Jabal Nafūsa and Zuwāghah in Libya, and in Zanzibar and some ports in East Africa. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, they may not number many more than one million. In this period of kitmān, Ibāḍīs dislike being called Khawārij; they emphasize their sympathy with other Muslims (with whom they will pray and cooperate socially and politically, though rarely intermarry), and they prefer to be called Sunnīs, never Shīʿīs.

See also FITNAH; IBāḍī DYNASTIES; and IBāḍīYAH.


  • Baghdādī, ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-. Moslem Schisms and Sects (Al-Farq bayna al-Firaq). Translated by Kate C. Seelye. New York, 1920. Reprint, New York, 1966.
  • Levi della Vida, G.“Khāridjites.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 4, pp. 1074–1077. Leiden, Netherlands, 1960–.
  • Lewicki, T.“Ibāḍiyya.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 3, pp. 648–660. Leiden, Netherlands, 1960–.
  • Muqaddimat al-Tawḥīd. Masqat, Oman, n.d. An extensive Ibāḍī statement of doctrine, with commentaries, dating perhaps to the tenth century c.e. This creed has been translated with other Ibāḍī materials in John Alden Williams, The Word of Islam, chap. 6 (Austin, 1993), and is still highly regarded by Ibāḍī scholars today.
  • Rubinacci, R.“Azāriḳa.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 1, pp. 810–811. Leiden, Netherlands, 1960–.
  • Salem, Elie Adib. Political Theory and Institutions of the Khawārij. Baltimore, Maryland. 1956.
  • Shahrastānī. “Kitāb al-Milal waʿl Niḥal (The Khārijites and the Murjiʿites).”Abr-Nahrain10 (1970–1971): 49–75. Like Baghdādī, this Sunnī author gives a hostile but useful description.
  • Vaglieri, L. Veccia. “Ḥarūrā .” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 3, pp. 235–236. Leiden, Netherlands, 1960–.
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