Polarization around the Character of 'Ali ibn Abi Talib
Martyr Murtada Mutahhari
Chapter 8: The Distinguishing Features of the Khawarij
The spirit of the Khawarij is a very special one. They were a mixture of the ugly and the beautiful, and, as a whole, were such as to take their place in the end among the enemies of `Ali. ‘Ali’s personality “repulsed” them; it did not “attract” them.
We shall mention both the positive and beautiful aspects and the negative and ugly aspects of their spirit which, when combined, made them dangerous and even horrifying.
(1). They had the spirit of struggle and self-sacrifice, and they strived valiantly in the way of their beliefs and ideas. In the history of the Khawarij, we find completely altruistic men who have few equals in the history of mankind, and their altruism and self-sacrifice was the life of their bravery and their power.
Ibn `Abdu Rabbih said about them: “Among all the sects, none were more convinced or exerted more effort than the Khawarij, and also none could be found more ready to die than them. One of them was once hit by a spear and the spear had gone deep into him. Even then, he rushed towards his killer saying: `O God! I am hurrying towards you so that you may be pleased.’ “
Mu’awiyah sent a man after his son who was a Khawarij so as to bring him back, but the father was unable to make his son change his mind. In the end, he said: “My son, I will go and bring your infant child that the sight of him together with your fatherly instincts may bring you to your senses and force you to give this up.” The son replied: “I swear by God, I am more eager for sword-thrusts than for my son!”
(2). They were people of worship and devotion; they spent their nights in prayer and were without any desire for the world and its charms. When ‘Ali sent Ibn `Abbas to admonish the people of the battle of Nahrawan, he came back and described them as twelve thousand men whose foreheads had been calloused by an excess of prostration, whose hands had become hard like camels’ feet from being so frequently pressed to the dry, burning ground and from striking the dust before their Lord, whose shirts were tattered and worn down to their skins, but who were unwavering and determined.
The Khawarij were strictly obedient to the laws and outward practices of Islam; they never put their hands to anything they considered a sin. They had their own principles and standards, and they never mixed these with principles against their own; they showed their disgust with anyone who was tainted with sin. Ziyad ibn Abih killed one of them and then sent for the man’s slave and enquired of him what kind of a man he had been. The slave said that he had never brought food for him during the day, nor laid out his bedding at night; during the day he had fasted and he had spent the nights in prayer.
Wherever they placed their footsteps, they referred back to their beliefs and they were devout in all their actions. They would kill to forward their beliefs.
‘Ali (as) said of them
Do not kill any Khawarij after me, because one who seeks the truth and errs is not the same as one who seeks falsehood and finds it. 15
He meant that they were different from those around Mu’awiyah, for they wanted truth, but had fallen into error, whereas those around Mu’awiyah were imposters from the start whose way was that of falsehood. Thus, if they were to kill the Khawarij after `Ali had gone; it would be to the advantage of Mu’awiyah who was worse and more dangerous than them.
It is necessary; before we go on to describe the other particularities of the Khawarij, to remember one point, since we are talking about their pretension to devotion, piety and asceticism. One of the wonderful distinctive and extraordinary points in the history of the life of ‘Ali, whose like cannot be found; is his courageous and brave stand when fighting against these fossilized and haughty pietisms.
In front of people who clung to, and adorned themselves with, the externals of devotion, and whose faces affected truth, whose clothes were in tatters and who were professional worshippers. ‘Ali drew his sword and subjected them to its sharp edge.
Surely, if we had been in the place of his companions and had seen the face of these people, our feelings would have been moved, and we would have remonstrated with ‘Ali about drawing swords against such people.
This story of the Khawarij is one of the most edifying lessons for the history of Shi’ism in particular, and for the world of Islam in general.
`Ali was himself aware of the importance and the exceptional nature of what action he took in these circumstances, as he recounted when he said:
“I have put out the eye of revolt. No-one had the daring to do this except me when its gloom had surged up and its rabidity had become severe.” 16
Amir al-mu’minin (as) gives two interesting expressions here. One is its “gloom”, which causes doubt and uncertainty. The manner of the external saintliness and piety of the Khawarij was such that every believer with strong faith became again uncertain; and in this sense a dark and vague atmosphere was created, a space which became filled with doubt and hesitation.
The other is that he likened the condition of these pietisms to rabies that is to hydrophobia, the madness which exists in dogs so that they bite anyone they come across. Since such a dog is a carrier of an infectious microbial disease, when the fangs of the dog penetrate the body of any man or animal, and something enters the blood of the man or animal from its saliva, this man or animal after a short while becomes afflicted with this disease; he too becomes rabid and bites and makes others rabid. This is why wise people will immediately kill a rabid dog; so that at least they can save others from the danger of rabies.
‘Ali said that they behaved like rabid dogs; they were not curable; they bit and infected and regularly added to the number of cases of rabies.
Alas, for the condition of the Muslim community of that time. A pietistic, one-geared, ignorant and uninformed group were walking around on one foot and falling on this soul or that. What power could stand up against these charmed snakes? Where was the strong and powerful spirit that would not waver before these ascetic and pious faces? Where was the hand which would raise itself to bring down a sword on their heads without trembling? This is what ‘Ali meant when he said that no-one had the daring to do this except him. Apart from ‘Ali and his insight and firm faith, no-one of the Muslims, who believed in God, the Prophet and the Resurrection dared to unsheathe their swords against them. Only someone who did not believe in God and Islam could have dared to kill this kind of people, not the ordinary believer.
It was this that ‘Ali mentioned as a kind of great honor for himself:
“It was I, and only I, who realized the great danger that was pointing from the direction of these pietisms towards Islam. Neither their calloused foreheads, nor the ascetic-like clothes, nor their forever God-remembering tongues, nor even their strong and steadfast beliefs, could become an obstacle to my insight into them. It was I who understood that if they got a footing everyone would be afflicted with their blight that the world of Islam would become inflexible, adhering to the external aspects, superficial and fossilized, that Islam’s back would become bent. Is it not this that the Prophet mentioned: ‘Two groups will break my back – those who know but act recklessly, and those who are ignorant but profess piety.'”
‘Ali wanted to say that if he had not fought against the Kharijite movement in the Islamic world, no other person would have come forward and dared to fight against them. Apart from him there was no-one who saw that those whose foreheads were calloused by excessive prostrations were pious and religious men but a barrier in the way of Islam, people who saw themselves as working to the advantage of Islam, but who were in fact the real enemies of Islam; there was no-one to fight against them and spill their blood. Only he could do that.
What ‘Ali did smoothed the path for the subsequent caliphs and rulers so that they could fight against the Khawarij and kill them; so that the soldiers of Islam also would obey them without any why or wherefore; for `Ali had fought with them. In fact, ‘Ali’s conduct also opened the way for others so that they could, without fear, fight against any group that showed itself to be outwardly pious, to have pretentions to saintliness and to be religious, but who were really fools.
(3). The Khawarij were ignorant and unknowing people, and because of their ignorance and lack of knowledge they could not understand realities, and wrongly interpreted events. Gradually this warped understanding of things took the form of a religion or faith in the process of establishing which they exerted themselves to their greatest self-sacrifices. In the beginning, the Islamic precept of forbidding evil shaped them into the form of a party whose only aim was to revive an Islamic practice.
Here it is necessary to pause and reflect more carefully on a point from Islamic history. When we refer back to the life of the Prophet, we see that in the whole of the thirteen year Meccan period he never gave permission for jihad or even for defensive warfare to anyone, to the point that the Muslims really got into straits, and, with the Prophet’s permission, a group immigrated to Abyssinia. However the rest remained and suffered persecution; it was only in the second year in Medina that permission was given for jihad.
In the Meccan period the Muslims saw the teachings; they became acquainted with the spirit of Islam. The Islamic way of life penetrated into the depths of their spirits, with the result that after their entering Medina each one of them was a true emissary for Islam, and the Prophet of Islam, who sent them all over the region, was able to employ them to advantage. Also, when they were sent to do jihad, they knew what they were fighting for. In the words of Amir al-mu’minin (as):
“They linked their profound understanding with their swords.”
Their swords were thus tempered and the men so well instructed that they could accomplish their mission within the limits set by Islam. When we read history and see what these men said who, till a few years previously, had known nothing but the sword and the camel, we are overwhelmed and amazed by their lofty ideas and their profound practice of Islam.
In the time of the caliphs, most regretfully, more attention was directed towards conquests, ignoring the fact that, along with opening wide the gates of Islam towards others, and pointing them in the direction of Islam, when anyhow they were attracted by the monotheism of Islam and its justice and equality towards Arab and non-Arab, it was necessary to teach Islamic culture and its way of life and make people thoroughly aware of the spirit of Islam.
The Khawarij were mostly Arabs, although there were also several non-Arabs; but all of them, Arab or not, were ignorant of the principles, and unacquainted with the culture, of Islam. They wanted to redress all their shortcomings by emphasis on prostration. ‘Ali (as) described their morale in these words:
People who are crude, lacking lofty ideas or subtle feelings; people who are feeble, like slaves, rogues assembled from every corner, come together from all quarters. They are people who should first of all be instructed, taught Islamic behavior, and who should acquire skill in how to live as true Muslims. A guardian should rule over them and take them by the hand; they should not be left free, to keep swords in their hands, and to voice their opinions about Islam. They are neither émigrés (from Mecca) who have fled from their homes for Islam nor Ansar (of Medina) who welcomed the émigrés among themselves.
The appearance of an ignorant stratum of the community with beliefs affecting false piety, of which the Khawarij were a part, was to Islam’s great cost. Forgetting, for the moment, the Khawarij, who, with all their drawbacks, were endowed with the virtues of bravery and self-sacrifice, another group came into existence from this pietistic trend that did not have these virtues. These people pulled Islam towards monasticism and retreat from the world; they were responsible for the widespread occurrence of pretension and sanctimoniousness. Since they did not possess the above virtues with which they could wield the steel sword against those in power, they wielded the sword of words against those who possessed learning. They made it a custom to call the learned unbelievers, immoralists and irreligious.
At any rate, one of the most evident distinguishing features of the Khawarij was their ignorance and lack of knowledge, and one of the manifestations of their ignorance was their inability to distinguish between the outward nature of the Qur’an, that is, its writing and binding, and its meaning, and thus it was that they fell for the trick of the easy ruse of Mu’awiyah and `Amr ibn al-`As.
With these people, ignorance and worship went hand in hand. ‘Ali wanted to fight against their ignorance, but how could he separate the ascetic, pious and devotional side of them from their aspect of ignorance, since their devotion was the very same as their ignorance? For ‘Ali, whose acquaintance with Islam was of the first degree, worship hand in hand with ignorance was of absolutely no value. Therefore he destroyed them, and they could not use their asceticism, piety and devotion as a shield between themselves and ‘Ali.
The danger of the ignorance of this kind of people, and the more so of this kind of group, is the way in which they become tools and instruments in the hands of the cunning, and a barrier to the way which is in the higher interests of Islam. Irreligious hypocrites can always incite simple pietisms against the interests of Islam; they become swords in these people’s hands, and arrows in their bows.
‘Ali explained this characteristic of theirs in a very sublime and subtle way, when he said:
“Thus you are the worst of people; you are arrows in the hand of Satan which he uses to strike his target, and through you he casts people into confusion and doubt.”
We have said that in the beginning the Kharijite party came into existence to keep alive an Islamic tradition, but that lack of insight and unknowing dragged them to the point where they misinterpreted the verses of the Qur’an. It was from here that they began to take on a religious coloring and become delineated as a sect and as a way. There is a verse in the Qur’an which says:
The judgement (hukm) is Allah’s alone, He relates the truth and He is the Best of deciders. (Qur’an, 6: 57)
In this verse, hukm has been explained as one of the special attributes of God’s essence, but it is necessary to see what the meaning of hukm is.
Without doubt, the meaning of hukm (judgement) here is the law and order of man’s life. In this ayah, the right to lay down the law has been denied to: any other than God and this has been recognized as one of the degrees of God’s essence (or of a person who has been given authority by God). But the Khawarij took hukm in the meaning of hukumah (government), which also contains the idea of hakamiyah (arbitration), and made their own slogan: la hukma illa li’llah – government and arbitration is Allah’s alone. Their intention was that government (hukumah), arbitration (hakamiyah) and leadership too, just as lawgiving, was the special right of God, and that, apart from God, no-one had the right to-arbitrate among, or govern, people, just as they had no right to create laws.
Once Amir al-mu’minin was at prayer (or maybe addressing people from the minbar) when they called out and addressed him:
“la hukma illa li’llah, la laka wa li ashabik”
“O `Ali, governing is only for God. It is not for you or your friends to govern or arbitrate!”
In reply, he said:
“The sentence is right but what (they think) it means is wrong. It is true that law-giving (hukm, judgement) is God’s alone, but these people say that governance is God’s alone. The fact is that men need a governor, a ruler, whether he is good or (maybe) bad. Under (the shadow of) his rule, the believer performs good actions while the disbeliever profits from his worldly life; and God brings everything to its end. Through the ruler, taxes are collected, enemies are fought, the roads are kept safe, and the rights of the weak are taken from the strong, so that the virtuous enjoy peace and are given protection from the wicked.”
In short, the law does not get put into practice all by itself; there must be someone, or some group, who tries to put it into practice.
(4). They were narrow-minded and a short-sighted person, who’s thought, evolved below very inferior horizons; they enclosed Islam and the Muslims within the four walls of their own limited ideas. Like all other narrow-minded people they claimed that everyone else had misunderstood, or had not understood at all; all had taken the wrong way and were destined for Hell. The first thing that this kind of narrow-minded person does is that he gives his narrow-mindedness the form of a religious belief; he restricts God’s mercy, make Him sit forever on a throne of wrath, waiting for his slave to make some error so that He may cast him into eternal punishment. One of the fundamental beliefs of the Khawarij was that the perpetrator of any great sin, for example lying, backbiting or drinking alcohol, was a disbeliever (kafir) and was beyond the pale of Islam, eternal led condemned to the Fire. Thus, apart from a very limited number of people, everyone was condemned to the Fire. Religious narrow-mindedness was a special characteristic of the Khawarij, but we see this once again among the Muslims today. It is for this reason that we said that the banner of the Khawarij is dead and gone but the spirit of their religion still lives on, to a greater or lesser extent, among similar individuals and groups.
We can find some bigots who look on all the people in the world except themselves and a very small number of people like themselves as disbelievers and infidels; they deem the number of those included within Islam and the Muslims to be very limited indeed.
We mentioned, in the previous chapter, that the Khawarij were not acquainted with the spirit of Islamic culture but that they were courageous. Since they were ignorant, they were narrow-minded; and since they were narrow-minded, they were quick to condemn people as infidels and iniquitous, to the point where they restricted the meaning of Islam and Muslim to themselves, and marked other Muslims who did not subscribe to their beliefs as infidels. Since they were courageous, they often came up to those in power and, according to what they imagined, subjected them to “bidding to good and forbidding evil”, but then were killed themselves. We also said that in the subsequent periods of Islamic history their inflexibility, ignorance, pietism and pretensions to sanctity were inherited by others, but without their bravery, heroism and self-sacrifice.
The non-heroic Khawarij, that is, the cowardly sanctimonious ones, put their steel swords on one side, dispensing with “bidding to good and forbidding evil” as far as those in power were concerned, who were a danger to them, and then fell upon the learned with the sword of words. They brought some kind of accusation against every learned person so that few are the learned persons in Islamic history who have not been the target of the accusations of this group. They would call one a denier of God, another denier of the Resurrection; a third they would call a denier of the bodily ascension of the Prophet (mi`raj-a jismani), a fourth a dervish, a fifth something else, and so forth. In this way, if the opinions of these half-wits were taken as a criterion, no real scholar could ever have been a Muslim. When ‘Ali was charged with being an infidel, the position of others is clear. Ibn Sina, Nasiru ‘d-Din at-Tusi, Mulla Sadra, Fayd al-Kashani, Sayyid Jamalu ‘d-Din al-Asadabadi (al-Afghani), and, more recently, Muhammad Iqbal are a few of those who have tasted the bitter draught of this cup. Ibn Sina wrote, in connection with this matter:
“Calling me an infidel is no easy exaggeration, for there is no faith stronger than mine; If at one time there is only one like me and he an infidel, was there ever a Muslim in any period?”
Khwajah Nasiru’d-Din at-Tusi, who was accused of being an infidel by a person by the name of Nizamu’l-`Ulama’ (the one who puts order among the learned) said:
“If the “Organizers” who lacks order call me an infidel, I can console myself that the lamp of falsity will never shine bright, I shall call him a Muslim, for there is no answer to a lie except a lie.”
Anyway, one of the special characteristics of the Khawarij was narrow-mindedness, and it was their short-sightedness which called everyone irreligious. Against this short-sightedness, ‘Ali argued that it was a very mistaken way of thinking which they followed. He said that the Prophet would punish someone and then read the burial prayers over his corpse, whereas if the committing of a great sin made one an infidel, the Prophet would not have done this; for it is not permissible to recite prayers over the corpse of an unbeliever, being something which the Qur’an has prohibited.18 He gave lashes to the drinker of alcohol, cut off the hand of the thief, whipped the unmarried adulterer, and then gave them all a place in Muslim meetings, did not cut off their wages from the treasury (baytu ‘l-mal), and married them to other Muslims. The Prophet meted out Islam punishments as they were due, but he never crossed the names of the punished off the list of the Muslims. ‘Ali asked the Khawarij to suppose that he had gone wrong, and that, as a result of that he had become an infidel. But why then did they condemn the Muslim community as infidels? Did that mean that because someone had gone astray the others too were necessarily lost and in error and should be called to account? He asked them why they carried their swords on their shoulders, and subjected the sinless and the sinners alike to the edge of their swords.19
Here Amir al-mu’minin objected to them on two accounts; his “repelling” repulsed them on two sides. One was that they had generalized the sin to those who were guiltless, and had taken them to account for it, and the other was that they deemed the perpetrator of sin as necessarily an infidel and outside of Islam, that is, they had restricted the extent of Islam and said that anyone who stepped beyond the limits of some of the prescriptions of Islam had stepped out of Islam.
`Ali condemned the narrow-minded and the shortsighted, and in reality the struggle of `Ali with the Khawarij was a struggle with this way of thinking not a struggle with individuals. For, if these individuals had not thought in this way, `Ali would not have behaved with them in the way he did and split their blood so that these ideas would die with them, that the Qur’an would be correctly understood, and the Muslims would understand Islam and the Qur’an as they are and as their Law-maker wished.
The result of this short-sightedness and crooked thinking was that they were taken in by the politics of holding the Qur’an up on spears, and thereby created the greatest of dangers for Islam. And `Ali, who had gone to dig out the root of hypocrisy and destroy Mu’awiyah and his plotting once and for all, had to turn back and deal with them. What a ominous event it was which happened to the Muslim community on that occasion.20
As a result of their short-sightedness, the Khawarij practically refused to recognize other Muslims as Muslims, refused to recognize the animals they slaughtered as lawful food, recognized the spilling of their blood as lawful and marriage with them as prohibited.
15. Nahju ‘l-balaghah, Sermon no.60.
16. ibid., Sermon no.92
17. ibid., Sermon no.40.
18. Surah at-Tawbah, 9:84
19. For the text of this sermon see Nahju ‘l-balaghah, Sermon no. 126.
20. In the assessment of most people, the most serious misfortunes that have befallen the world of Islam have been the spiritual blows which have fallen on the Muslims. The Qur’an established the foundation of the call to Islam on true understanding and thinking, and itself recommends the way of striving after understanding (ijtihad) and intellective perception:
But why should not a party of’ every section of them go forth to acquire understanding (yatafaqqahu) in religion? (at-Tawbah, 9:122)
“tafaqqaha” (to acquire understanding) is not used for easy understanding, but it is rather understanding through exercising effort and perspicacity.
If you fear Allah, He will grant you a distinguishing (light). (al-Anfal, 8:29)
But those who struggle in Our cause, surely We shall guide them in Our ways. (al-`Ankabut, 29:69)
The Khawarij started an inflexibility and stagnation that was completely opposed to this way of teaching of the Qur’an which wanted Islamic knowledge (fiqh) to remain for ever moving and alive. They conceived Islamic education as something deadening and motion less and dragged solid forms and shapes into Islam.
Islam has never been concerned just with forms, shapes and the outward manifestations of life; Islamic teachings are all directed to the spirit and meaning and the way in which man can reach that goal and these meanings. Islam has taken as part of its domain these goals and meanings and the guidance to the way to reach these goals, while it leaves man free in what is other than this, and thus it steers clear of any clash with the development of civilization and true culture.
No material means or outward form can occur in Islam with a “sacred” side which Muslims could regard it their duty to preserve. And this avoidance of collision with the outward forms of scientific or cultural development is one reason why the conformity of the religion of Islam with the requirements of the times has been made easy, and any great obstacle to its continuing survival removed.
It is this very mixture of intellection and religiosity which has, on the one hand, been taken as the foundation, and which, on the other hand, divorces this latter from forms. It gives us universal considerations, and these universalities can take on a number of different outward manifestations without the changing of these manifestations causing any change in the truth.
However the harmonization of the truth with its outward manifestations and referents is not such an easy matter that anyone can do it, for it needs penetrating perception and genuine understanding. The Khawarij were people congealed in their thinking, distant from what they heard, and lacking the ability to understand. Thus when Amir al-mu’minin sent Ibn `Abbas to argue with them, he said to him: “Do not reason with them by the Qur’an, because the Qur’an has many sides to it: you will speak and they will speak. But reason with them by the sunnah, because they cannot find any escape from that.” (Nahju ‘l-balaghah, Letter no. 78)
He meant by this that the Qur’an is concerned with universalities, and in disputation one side will take one thing as its referent and reason according to that, while another Side will take another thing and use that in arguing and disputing; this will naturally give no result. The Khawarij, he wanted to say, did not have enough understanding that they could perceive something true in the Qur’an and harmonize it with its real applications. Thus he advised Ibn `Abbas to speak with them following the sunnah which is particular, and has pointed out the applications. `Ali pointed here to the inflexibility and mental ossification in their religiosity which showed their inability to harmonize intellection and religion.
The Khawarij were just a growth of ignorance and stagnation. They had no power to examine and analyze, and they were unable to differentiate between the universal and its application; they imagined that since the arbitration had gone wrong in this instance, its whole foundation must have been null and void, even though there existed the possibility that it would have been well-established and firm, only its application in this instance being incorrect. Thus we see three stages in the story of this arbitration:
i) On historical evidence, `Ali was not happy to have arbitration; he knew the proposal of Mu’awiyah’s companions to be a trick and a deception, He strongly insisted on this point and refused to be moved.
ii) He said, once it had been decided to form an arbitration council, that Abu Musa was a man without foresight and had no competence for the job; a competent man had to be chosen, and he himself recommended Ibn `Abbas or Malik al-Ashtar.
iii) The basis of arbitration is correct and is not dangerous. ‘Ali also insisted on this point.
In al-Kamil fi ‘l-lughah wa ‘l-adab, the author, Abu ‘l-`Abbas al -Mubarrad writes (Egyptian ed., vol.2, p.134):
“‘Ali had personally pleaded with the Khawarij, and had said to them: `By God, were any of you, like me, against arbitration?’
“`By God,’ they replied, `you are witness that none of us were!’
“`Did you not encourage me,’ he said, `to accept?’
“`By God,’ they replied, `you are witness that we did!’
“`So why?’ he continued, `are you against me now, and why have you ostracized me?’
“`We have committed a great sin,’ they went on, `and we must repent. We have repented, and you must repent.’
“Hereupon ‘Ali said: astaghfiru ‘llah min kulli dhanbin – O God, I ask your forgiveness for every wrong-doing. Then these people, who were about six thousand, returned and said that ‘Ali had repented and that they were ready for his order to march on Damascus. al-Ash’ath ibn Qays al-Kind! came to ‘Ali and said: `The people say that you recognize arbitration to be an error, and keeping to it to be disbelief in Islam.’
“‘Ali went up on the minbar and delivered a speech in which he said: `Anyone who imagines that I have gone back on the arbitration imagines mistakenly, and anyone who thinks that arbitration is an error is himself in greater error.’
“Then the Khawarij left the mosque and once again rebelled against ‘Ali.”
‘Ali had said that in this case there had been a mistake, in the sense that Mu’awiyah and his companions had wished to resort to deceit, and in the sense that Abu Musa had been inefficient even though `Ali had from the beginning said that he should not have been chosen. But that was not to be taken to mean that the basis of arbitration was void.
As for any difference between the rule of the Qur’an and the rule of individual people, no differentiation was made. The acceptance of the rule or governance of the Qur’an means that in all events whatever the Qur’an exhorts us to do should be done, whereas the rule or governance of individuals means following the decisions and opinions of these persons. Now, since the Qur’an cannot speak, its truth must be derived by the implementation of particular applications, and that would be impossible without individual persons. On this matter `Ali said
“We did not name people as arbitrators, but we named the Qur’an as arbitrator. The Qur’an is a book, bound, between two covers, and it does not speak. It therefore needs an interpreter. Only men can be such interpreters. When these people invited us to name the Qur’an as arbitrator between us, we could not let ourselves be the party which turned away from the Book of Allah. Since He has said:
“And then, if you quarrel about anything, refer it to Allah and the Prophet.” (an-Nisa’, 4:59)
“Reference to Allah means that we should decide according to the Qur’an, while reference to the Prophet means we should follow his sunnah. Now, if arbitration were truly implemented through the Qur’an, we should be the most rightful of people to receive it (the caliphate); and if the arbitration is through the sunnah of the Messenger of Allah, we should be the first of them to receive it.”,(Nahju ‘l–balaghah, Sermon no. 124 )
There is a problem here concerning the harmonization of the beliefs of the Shi’ah and the person of Amir al-mu’minin (see the end of sermon no. 2 in Nahju ‘l-balaghah ). Ruler ship and Imamate in Islam is by divine designation and according to textual bases (nass), so why did ‘Ali submit to the decision of arbitration and afterwards firmly defend it?
We can very well understand the answer to this objection from the preceding words of the Imam, for, as he said, if the consideration and judgment were correctly made through the Qur’an, no conclusion could be derived apart from his right to the caliphate and the Imamate, and the sunnah of the Prophet gives the same conclusion.
The Influence of Islamic Sects on Each Other:
The study of the lives of the Khawarij is profitable for us in so far as we can understand to what extent they have had an effect in Islamic history, from the aspect of politics, from that of beliefs and disposition, and from the legal or prescriptive aspect.
However much various sects and groups may differ from each other in their slogans and principles, it may sometimes happens that the spirit of one sect will penetrate into another one, and the latter, although it may be an opponent of the first, will absorb its spirit and soul. The nature of man is a thief; sometimes one can find people who, for example, may be Sunni, but who, in spirit and soul, are Shi’ah, and sometimes the other way round. Sometimes someone is naturally very dogmatic, legalistic and outward, but spiritually he is a Sufi, and vice versa. Similarly it is possible that some people are Shi’ah by imitation and by their speech, but spiritually and practically Kharijite. This is both true of individuals, and of communities and nations.
When social groups are associated with each other, even though each of them try to preserve their beliefs, these will spread from one to the other, just as, for example, “qam-a zani” [striking the head with a sword in order to self-inflict wounds, a practice among the common people, like the following two, associated with processions during the mourning ceremonies in the month of Muharam] and the beating of drums and blowing of horns, penetrated Iran from the Orthodox Christians of Caucasia [at one time part of Iran] , and since the spirit of the people was receptive to these customs, they spread like wild-fire.
For this reason, the spirit of each sect must be uncovered. Sometimes sects are born from a willingness to see good in certain events or persons to “look upon your brother’s deed in the best light”; for example, the Sunni, who were born of a favorable predisposition towards certain personalities. And some sects may be born from a kind of special perspective and emphasis on the principles of Islam, not from individuals and personalities. And occasionally they will be critical people, like the early Shi’ahs. A sect may be born of an emphasis on the inward spirit and the interpretation of this inwardness, like the Sufis, and a sect may be born of an emphasis on bigotry and inflexibility, like the Khawarij.
When we have come to understand the spirit of a sect and its first historical circumstances, we are in a better position to judge what ideas passed from this sect to other sects in subsequent centuries, and who adopted their spirit as well as the slogans and the framework of stock phrases. In this respect, beliefs and ideas are like words when, without there being any intention, they enter from the language of one people into the language of another. For example, after the Muslim conquest of Iran, Arabic words entered the Persian language, and, in the opposite direction, some thousand Persian words entered the Arabic language. There is a similar influence of Turkish on the Arabic and Persian languages; as for example with the Turkish of the time of the Caliph al-Mutawakkil, and the Turkish of the Seljuqs and the Mongols; and it is the same story with the rest of the world’s languages. Such examples could easily be extended to fashions and tastes.
The way of thinking and the spirit of the ideas of the Khawarij – the inflexibility of their minds and the disengagement of intellection and religiosity in their thought – have leaked into the Islamic community down through the history of Islam in various forms. However many other sects may have considered themselves opponents of them, we can still see the spirit of the Kharijism in their ways of thinking; and the only reason for this is the result of what we said: the nature of man is a thief, and it is easy to keep company with this thief.
A number of the Khawarij have always believed that their slogans should battle with anything new. They even give a holy aura to the means of life, about which we spoke when we said that no material means or external form has been sanctified in Islam, and they consider the use of every new means as disbelief in Islam and atheism.
Among Islamic schools of beliefs and sciences, and in law too, we see those which were born from the spirit of the disengagement of intellection from religion, and such schools of thought are a perfect example of Kharijite thought. They completely repudiate the use of the intellect in discovering reality and in deriving secondary laws; they call the following of the intellect innovation and ungodliness, even though in many verses the Qur’an summons man in the direction of his intellect and establishes human insight and understanding as the cornerstone of the Divine call.
The Mu’tazilah, who came into existence at the beginning of the second century of the Hijrah, took their origins in the wake of the discussion of, and investigation into, the interpretation of belief and unbelief, as to whether commission of the larger sins necessarily resulted in the sinner becoming a disbeliever or not; and naturally their coming into existence was connected with the Kharijites. The Mu’tazilah were people who wanted a degree of free thinking, and to create an intellectual life. Although they did not benefit from any kind of scientific basis or origin, they managed to investigate, and think about, Islamic problems, to a certain extent quite freely. They critically evaluated ahadith to a certain degree, and they only followed those ideas and opinions which had been researched according to their own beliefs.
From the beginning, the Mu’tazilah took a stand against the disputes and opposition from those who based everything on ahadith, and from the exoterists. These latter, who only recognized the outward meaning of ahadith as evidence, and who would have nothing to do with the spirit or inner meaning of the Qur’an and ahadith, did not believe that any clear judgments could follow from the intellect. However much the Mu’tazilah valued intellectual reflexion, these people considered that value could be attached only to outward meanings.
In the space of the one and a half centuries that passed in the life of this intellectual school of dissent, amazing ups and downs befell them, till, in the end, the Ash’arites came into being, and once again the value of sheer intellectual thinking and reflexion and the reckonings of pure metaphysics were denied. These Ash’arites claimed that it was necessary for Muslims to believe in the exoteric meanings of traditional explanations and not to think or reflect upon their deeper meanings; every kind of question and answer, or why and wherefore, was an innovation for them. Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who was one of the four Imams of the Sunnis, was strongly opposed to the way of thinking of the Mu’tazilah, to such an extent that he went to prison for his opinion and was tortured, but he still affirmed his opposition.
In the end, the Ash’arites were the winners, and the school of intellectual thinking closed down; and this victory dealt a great blow to the intellectual life of Islamic sciences.
The Ash’arites thought the Mu’tazilah innovators, and one of the Ash’arite poets wrote after their victory:
“The reign of the people of innovation has come to an end, their yarn has become brittle and has broken; the party which the Devil formed from them, have warbled away to each other till they became split up. ‘O Companions in thought!’ Did they have a jurist, or an Imam to lead them in their innovations?”
The Akhbari School was also a kind of dissociation of intellection and religion. They were a Shiite school of jurists, and they reached the height of their powers in the eleventh and twelfth centuries of the Hijrah (18th century A.D.). They had a lot in common with the exoteric school and the traditionalists among the Sunnis. In their way of deriving laws, both schools followed the same method, their only difference being in which ahadith they chose to follow.
The Akhbaris completely shut down the work of the intellect, and denied any value or power of proof to the perceptions of the intellect in the derivation of the rulings of Islam from their texts. They considered the following of the intellect to be absolutely forbidden, and in their writings they led a campaign against the Usulis, who were the followers of the other Shiite school of legal thought. They said that the only sources of proof were the Qur’an and the sunnah. Of course, they also said that the power of proof of the Qur’an was by way of the exegesis given by the sunnah and ahadith; so, in fact, they virtually disregarded the Qur’an as a source of proof and only recognized the outward meaning of ahadith to be trustworthy.
Now we are not planning to go into a discussion of the ways in which various currents of Islamic thought differ from each other, and consider in detail those schools which have adopted the split between intellection and religion, which is what we have called the spirit of Kharijism. This would be a very lengthy discussion. Our only aim was to show what the influences of the sects have been on each other, and that the Kharijite sect, although it did not last long, continued to manifest its spirit in every century and age of Islam up to the present when a number of contemporary writers and “intellectuals” of the Islamic world have produced their way of thinking in a modern and up to date form by associating it with empirical philosophy.