The Kharijites [Kharidjites, in Arabic Khawarij, singular Khariji, meaning "those that seceded"] were members of the earliest sect in Islam that left the followers of Ali [cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad]. The third Caliph, Uthman, was killed by mutineers in 656 AD, and a struggle for succession ensued between Ali, and Mu'awiya, governor of Damascus. The Kharijites left the followers of Ali [the Shia] because of Shia willingness to allow human arbitration of Ali's dispute with Mu'awiya in 657, rather than divine judgment. The Kharijites believed that the Imam should be elected for his moral qualities. The Kharijites considered that Ali made a mistake in looking for a compromise with Mu'awiya. For this reason they are not considered as properly Shiite by some commentators. Ali defeated their rebellion, but the Kharijites survived and an adherent of the movement murdered Ali in 661.
Kharijites rejected primogeniture succession of the Quraysh, the tribe of Muhammad, and assert that leadership of Islam, the caliphate, should be designated by an imam elected by the community from candidates who possess spiritual and personal qualities.
The Kharijite theology was a radical fundamentalism, with uncompromised observance of the Quran in defiance of corrupt authorities. Kharijites considered moderate Muslims to be "hypocrites" and "unbelievers" who could be killed with impunity. The Khawarij made takfir -- declaring a person to be Kafir -- of the main body of believers. The Kharijite held that only the most pious members of the community could be entrusted with political power.
The most prominent quality of the Kharijite movement was opposition to the caliph's representatives and particularly to Muawiyah, who became caliph after Ali. Although the Kharijites were known to some Muslims as bandits and assassins, they developed certain ideal notions of justice and piety. The Prophet Muhammad had been sent to bring righteousness to the world and to teach the Arabs to pray and to distribute their wealth and power fairly. According to the Kharijites, whoever was lax in following the Prophet's directives should be opposed, ostracized, or killed.
The Kharijites Islamic sect in late 7th and early 8th century AD was concentrated in today's southern Iraq. Kharijite uprisings continued under the Umayyads in Iraq, Iran, and Arabia. The apogee of Kharijites influence came between 690 and 730, when their main city, Basra, emerged as a center of Islamic learning. Finally, under the Abbasids, Kharijism was suppressed in Iraq.
Modern Kharijites are sometimes called Ibadites after Abu Allah ibn Ibad (ca. 660-ca. 715), a moderate Kharijite who spent considerable time in Basra, Iraq. Ibad's followers founded communities in parts of Africa and southern Arabia.
In the eighth century, some Kharijites began to moderate their position. Leaders arose who suppressed the fanatical political element in Kharijite belief and discouraged their followers from taking up arms against Islam's official leader. Kharijite leaders emphasized instead the special benefits that Kharijites might receive from living in a small community that held high standards for personal conduct and spiritual values.
The Kharijite movement continued to be significant on the Persian Gulf coast in the ninth through the eleventh century. It continued to play an important political role in eastern Arabia, North Africa, and eastern Africa. Over time the views of the movement moderated and adherents became less antagonistic to the rest of Islam. Eventually, the Kharijite insistence on the primacy of religion in political life moved into the mainstream of Islamic thought.
The Kharijites Islamic sect survived into the twentieth century in the more moderate form of Ibadi Islam. Ibadites refer themselves back to the Kharijites but reject their aggressive methods. There is a Kharidjite majority in Oman and, there are significant Kharidjite minorities in Algeria (in the Mzab, more than 100,000). Some 40,000 Berber-speaking Ibadi people living on Jerba [Djerba] Island in Tunisia still kept to austere Kharidjite beliefs in the mid-1980s.
Ibadi leadership is vested in an imam, who is regarded as the sole legitimate leader and combines religious and political authority. The imam is elected by a council of prominent laymen or shaykhs. Adherence to Ibadism accounts in part for Oman's historical isolation. Considered a heretical form of Islam by the majority Sunni Muslims, Ibadis were not inclined to integrate with their neighbors.
The term Kharijites became a designation for Muslims who refused to compromise with those who differed from them. The uncompromising fanaticism of the original Kharijites was indicative of the fervor with which the tribal Arabs had accepted the missionary ideology of Islam. It was this fervor that made it possible for Arab armies to conquer so much territory in the seventh century. This same spirit helped the Al Saud succeed at the end of the eighteenth century and again at the beginning of the twentieth. Some observers compare today's radical Salafis with the ancient Khawarij terrorist sect, since they pioneered the political killing of Muslims considered heretic.
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