Since the Syrian rebellion went to war with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in January, there has been a parallel campaign of political warfare by the rebels and al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, Jabhat an-Nusra, to delegitimize ISIS. This has often taken the form of referring to ISIS as Kharijites or the Khawarij.
This Khawarij are an ancient sect who broke from the Rashidun (Rightly-Guided) Caliphate in the name of righteous revolt in 658, and continued their campaign against the caliphate—by then in the hands of the Umayyads—for a century and more. Regarded as perhaps the first terrorists in Islamdom (by another definition it would be the Nizaris, a.k.a. “The Assassins”), the connotations of the Khawarij label are extremism and deviance, particularly a tendency to excommunicate (make takfir against) Muslims not only for sins that do not merit excommunication, but simply for reasons of political exclusivism.
The Historical Khawarij
In June 656, the Third Caliph, Uthman, had been murdered, and was succeeded by the most prominent remaining companion of the Prophet Muhammad, his cousin, who was also married to his daughter, Ali. (A faction of the early Muslims believed this familial tie should have made Ali into Muhammad’s successor. The Shi’at Ali—Partisans of Ali—would in time become a separate sect, the Shi’a, and Ali would be recognized as their First Imam.)
Uthman’s kin, led by Muawiya, the governor of Syria, had vowed revenge and Ali’s failure to punish the regicides led Muawiya to refused allegiance to Ali as Caliph. Ali attempted to compel recognition by force and a civil war broke out. Muawiya sued for arbitration by religious scholars and Ali had little choice theologically but to accept; the result recommended the selection of a new caliph and Ali rejected it.
A Bedouin faction broke from Ali in consequence of his refusing the arbitration decision, and these became the Kharijites (literally “those who walk out”). Some Kharijites were convinced by Ali’s son, Abbas, to return to the fold; those who continued in rebellion were crushed on 17 July 658 by Ali at Nahrawan, along the banks of the Tigris in southern Iraq, where they had set up camp.
Muawiya had carefully registered his grievance only in the name of a blood-feud, until July 660 when he had himself proclaimed Caliph in Jerusalem, a claim registered not only in name but in steady military advances in the Maghreb as well as the Mashriq.
Some Kharijites had survived Ali’s onslaught, and declared everybody outside their band to be heretics, making war on them all. Unable to fight as a conventional force, the Kharijites moved to asymmetric tactics; they nearly assassinated Muawiya and did kill Ali on 29 January 661, unwittingly handing the caliphate to Muawiya. Muawiya moved the caliphal capital to Damascus, which would be the seat of the Umayyad dynasty for the next ninety years. The Khawarij themselves remained a fringe menace during that period.
The Modern Khawarij?
So how does ISIS stack up against the Khawarij? There is a strong resemblance. Both groups consider themselves a moral minority set against a corrupt order. Both use assassination and asymmetric techniques. ISIS does make free use of takfir against those outside its number. Historically speaking, however, the Kharijites never came to control territory in the way ISIS has. And in ideological terms there is probably among modern jihadists a more exact parallel in the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which went further even than ISIS.
In August 1997, GIA declared all Muslims in Algeria—not just political and religious leaders—who did not join GIA to be heretics, and began massacring whole villages. ISIS has previously specifically rejected as a “lie” the idea that it makes takfir on people for lesser sins like adultery, drinking alcohol, and theft, and says it treats all who recite the shahada and follow Islam’s practices as Muslims until they prove themselves to be an apostate in word and deed.
While ISIS regards democracy as a heresy—indeed an alternate religion—it does not regard every individual who participates as murtadun (apostates). ISIS is clear that it regards the leaders of Iraqi political parties—the Muslim Brotherhood’s Iraqi Islamic Party being its particular bête noire—as heretics who must be slaughtered, but the rank-and-file party members, not just voters, are not axiomatically considered disbelievers. ISIS did, in 2005, enforce a ban on elections in the Sunni areas of Iraq and threatened the process, saying for example that if Iraqi Sunnis were harmed at polling stations they had only themselves to blame. This is a narrow but deep distinction with what the GIA did exactly ten years earlier, apostatizing every single person who took part in the election and threatening them, “one vote, one bullet”.