Skip to main content

If they ever gained strength, they would surely corrupt the whole of the Earth, Iraq and Shaam [Syria] – they would not leave a baby, male or female, neither a man or a woman, because as far as they are concerned the people have caused corruption, a corruption that cannot be rectified except by mass killing.

This prescient description by 14th-century Muslim theologian Ismail ibn Kathir alluded to the Khawarij, a fanatical sect that broke away from both the Sunni and Shia traditions of Islam. The very name is derived from the Arabic root kharaja, which means to leave.

Contemporary theologians have been drawing comparisons of the extremist beliefs and actions of the Khawarij to those of the Islamic State. The analysis illuminates the dangerous allure of this militant group, and Muslims' duty to combat them by all means. The sword and the pen have now joined forces: Nations have mobilized to destroy the Islamic State, while more than 100 international Muslim scholars have issued a refutation of the group's anti-Islamic ideology.

The Prophet Mohammed had warned the nascent Muslim community about a sect that would emerge from Iraq; its followers would pray, recite the Koran, call for sharia and invoke God in persuasive fashion. Yet, the Prophet warned, they would have nothing to do with Islam, for their actions would betray the very fundamentals of the faith. In the name of God, they would kill those who did not agree with their interpretation. They would consist mostly of youths with "foolish dreams" of grandeur. And, if he were alive when they emerged, he would fight them, for they would be the "worst of creation."

The Khawarij emerged shortly after the Prophet's death, during the seventh-century Battle of Siffin near the Syrian-Iraqi border, between the fourth caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib and Muawiyah, the Muslim governor of Syria. The group was initially in Ali's camp, but denounced both leaders for agreeing to arbitration to end hostilities. A few thousand Khawarij broke away and settled outside of Kufa (in Iraq). Ali sent a representative to persuade them to return to the fold. A few did, but the remainder insisted that their interpretation of the Koran was the only correct one. In their view, any Muslim who did not agree was deemed a disbeliever whose blood could be shed.

They killed in the most brutal manner, and revelled in bloodletting. There is one account in which Abdullah ibn Khabbaab al-Aratta, one of Ali's governors, was travelling through land under their control. He was apprehended and questioned about his beliefs and allegiance to Ali. When his answers did not satisfy the Khawarij, they took his wife, nine months pregnant, and slit her belly. They then butchered the governor, who had been forced to watch. This was deemed an act of war, and Ali laid siege to the group. Before fighting began, he engaged in a theological battle, rebutting each of their false interpretations by pointing to the example of the Prophet. About half of the group realized the error of its ways and returned to the fold. The rest were routed by Ali and his army. Nonetheless, a Khawarij later assassinated Ali during a communal prayer.

Today, theologians are warning Muslims about the dangers of the Islamic State by pointing to the movement's similar theological underpinnings. Don't be fooled by the flowery language, the invocation of God and the Koran, the readiness for martyrdom or the call to sharia – this is a fanatical cult that has deviated from the path of Islam, and its actions belie its adherents' professed faith.

As with the Khawarij, the Islamic State has attracted misguided youth with "foolish dreams." The Khawarij declared those with theological differences as "disbelievers" warranting death; the Islamic State has killed thousands of Muslims – Sunni and Shia – during its takeover of villages in Iraq and Syria. The Khawarij demanded the enslavement of women and children during the battle of Siffin (the Caliph Ali refused); the Islamic State has carried out this abominable practice. Both groups are willing to die in a heartbeat for their "beliefs." Like the Khawarij, Islamic State members believe they are the only "true Muslims" while the rest are disbelievers, worthy of death. It has threatened all opponents, including Muslim theologians warning against its fanatical ways. Their self-professed piety is built on a foundation of arrogance.

If history is any lesson, this fight will not be for the faint of heart. Nonetheless, for Muslims, it will be a necessary battle for the very soul of their faith.

Interact with The Globe