Does Tabari have anything to teach us?

The foremost idea which is common to the Kharijites and the modern movement of Jihad is that of takfir -- a Muslim who commits a major sin is no longer a Muslim and should be killed. So what does Tabari have to teach us on this…

Does Tabari have anything to teach us?

On the eve of 8th of Muharram (November 2, 2014), when the city of Lahore was already tense as the Ashura was about to begin, a suicide bomber killed 60 people and injured about 80 people near the Wagah border. Between 2003 and this year, about 25,463 people have been killed. Pakistan is facing a life threat. Has Muslim society faced such threats before?

For answers one may turn to the original sources such as the Tareekh-e-Tabari. This is a compilation of narratives by Abu Jafar Muhammad Jarir al-Tabari (839-923) who was born in Iran and whose work on the exegesis of the Quran as well as history is highly reputed. This particular book has been translated from the original Arabic into English in 40 volumes (the last volume being an index) by several translators including the scholar Franz Rosenthal. I have read a shorter work (10 volumes) in Urdu translation by Muhammad Ibrahim Nadwi and others. It has been published by Nafees Academy in Karachi from 1977 onwards.

The ten volumes provide so much material on the worldview of the Arabs, the culture of three centuries of Arab rule and the political history of the Arabs -- especially the Omayyads (661-750) and the Abbasides (750-1258) -- that there is no shortcut to this crucial information but to read the book itself.

What I will do in this short article is to bring out the history of the Kharijite movement which challenged the empire and was responsible for blood-curdling violence. The aim is to draw parallels between them and the present-day militants using Islam as their ideology for fighting Muslim states and the world.

The Khawarij or Kharijites (sing. Khariji) i.e. those who are outside (the ummah) were supporters of Hazrat Ali ibn-e-Abi Talib, the fourth caliph of Islam, in the battle of Siffin in present day Syria in 657. As Hazrat Ali had permitted arbitration after Ameer Muawiyyah’s forces had raised the Quran on their lances, they left him. The Kharijite position was that anyone committing a sin was an unbeliever and that they would fight him (Takfir). This is evidenced by the dialogue of a Kharijite with the Caliph Ali which is quoted from Tabari below:

Kharijite: because we accepted arbitration [in the battle of Siffin] so we became sinners and for this sin we became unbelievers [kafir]. So we turned back from this sin so if you do the same we will join you but if you do not we will fight you since God does not like transgressors.

Hazrat Ali replied that this decision was not a sin but was certainly a mistake and that is why he had initially argued against it. Upon this al-Tai Khariji said that if Hazrat Ali did not change his decision he would fight against him. After this the Kharijites would often raise the slogan "there is no order except that of God’s" in mosques and assemblies. It was at Nahrawan that the Kharijites fought their first major battle against the Caliph Ali and lost it. They had a force of 4,000 in the beginning but were left with only 2,800 in the end. The Kharijites started shouting "Let us go to paradise! Let us go quickly to paradise" and joined the fray. Their enthusiasm for battle was so great that the narrator, as quoted by Tabari, says:

The meeting of the hosts in battle had just begun when it seemed as if some voice was telling them to die. And they welcomed that voice and even before finding glory and power in the world they entered the mouth of death.

Also read: Takfir and terrorism

In this battle the leaders of the Kharijites, including their leader Wahab, were killed in battle. However, despite losses in this battle the Kharijites remained a force to reckon with for nearly three centuries. Both the Omayyads and the Abbasides had to keep sending forces against them and they even came to occupy and rule territories. Even in 295 Hijri, which is the last period recorded by Tabari, an Abbaside commander, defeated Urf al Hakeemi, the Kharijite ruler of a part of Yemen.

The doctrines of the Kharijites have been described by many scholars. There are original sources, such as the Epistle of Salim Ibn-e-Dhakwan who was an 8th century Kharijite writer, which give these doctrines clearly. Syed Abul Ala Maudoodi too has referred to the sect in his book Khilafat aut Malukiyat. A number of scholars have drawn parallels between the rise of Islamist movements in the contemporary Muslim world and the rise of the Kharijites. The foremost idea which is common to the Kharijites and the modern movement of Jihad is that of takfir. The Kharijites believed that a Muslim who commits a major sin is no longer a Muslim. They further argued that such a person should be killed as Islam should be cleansed of such renegades.

This was not merely a theoretical position since they actually killed people merely because their religious convictions were different from them. For instance, they killed a peasant called Zazan Farogh, who was saying his prayers, because he praised the Caliph Ali and called him the Commander of the Faithful (Ameer ul Momineen). When one of their commanders, Abu Hamza, ruled in Medina for a short time he called the fornicators and thieves infidels (kuffar) (Tabari Vol. 6: 512).

Like the throat-slitting seen in videos of the present-day Islamic militants, the Kharijites’ methods of killing people were cruel in the extreme as, in the case of Farogh, they cut his body up in small parts (Letter of Qarzata bin Ka ‘ab in Tabari Part 3: 401). Another example is that a group of Kharijites came across Abdullah bin Janab, a companion of the Prophet of Islam [peace be Upon Him], along with a pregnant woman. They caught him and subjected him to an inquisition about the caliphate, the murder of Hazrat Uthman and the battle of Siffin. And when he said that he found Hazrat Ali better in following Islam than them, they said they would kill him. The actual act of murder is described as follows in one account:

After that those Kharijites caught him and laid him down on the ground and slit his throat with a knife. His blood flowed in the water. Next they caught his woman. She said "I am only a woman! Are you not afraid of God?" Those people cut her stomach. After that they killed three other women of Banote and Umme Sanan al-Saedavia also.


As mentioned above, the Kharijite preoccupation with doctrinaire questions and the cruel death as well as the idea that human life is cheap are notions found in the works of many of the modern Jihadi thinkers. Whether directly inspired by these Kharijite predecessors or not, these ways of thinking and acting seems to echo in groups like al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State in part of Iraq and Syria.

But the Kharijites also impressed ordinary Muslims by their adherence to Islamic law as interpreted by their preachers. In accounts of Osama bin Laden and others one finds many such instances of adherence to Islamic norms of behaviour which is very impressive for ordinary people who see so much lying, cheating and hypocrisy around them. Obviously, it becomes difficult to convince young people that cruelty is much worse than hypocrisy and corruption -- especially because ‘corruption’ is a buzzword these days and young people are prone to take it more seriously than fanaticism and cruelty.

The Kharijites, like some of the preachers of violent jihad these days, were excellent debaters. For instance Khalid bin Abdullah, an officer of the Omayyad Caliph Hisham (691-743), was so impressed by the debating skills of the Kharijite leader Wazir ul Sakhtiani, a man who had burnt villages and killed people, that he used to bring him out of captivity to listen to him and was reluctant to punish him. In the end the Omayyad caliph Hisham has to issue strict orders to Khalid to kill him. The Kharijites were burnt and, though others cried out with pain, Wazir kept reciting the Quran till the end (Tabari Vol. 6: 233-234).

This combination of courage, fortitude, piety and argumentation seems to be irresistible for many people, especially the young. That is one reason modern militants are able to convince young people in the West as well as in the rest of the Muslim world to join them.

In common with militant groups everywhere the Kharijites too had people not inspired by religious zealotry in their ranks. They had ‘peasants not willing to pay the tax [Kharaj] and many thieves’ (Tabari Part 3: 407). This is also true about the groups of militants operating in Pakistan. However, the more dangerous militants are people with conviction, courage and the readiness to lay down their lives. These were the type of the Kharijites who persisted in their revolt while the thieves and the peasants melted away under adversity.

So can anything be done against the modern-day militants?

Let us remember that it took about three hundred years of fighting by two of the mightiest empires of the medieval ages to put down the Kharijites. So, while actions like the Zarb-e-Azb are successful in the short run, they are not the final answer. Essentially it is a battle for the hearts and the minds. The hearts can only be won if the ruling elite manifests the same courage, commitment ( in their case to peace and justice) and sincerity as the militants do in their own cause. The minds are an even more difficult matter. This is where the ulema as well as other scholars are needed. Only they can provide counter-narratives to ideas that sinners are unbelievers (takfir) and that ordinary people can kill them or that a religious war can be declared by non-state actors.

Historians also have a role to play. They may teach the young that such groups and their philosophies have created untold mayhem and been the cause of immense misery and violence in the past. Indeed, all educational institutions must give lessons in values of humanitarianism, human rights, freedom of conscience, tolerance and pluralism. For some reason the proponents of these values do not impress them upon the others. Thus the young hear only about values which make human life appear cheap. They are misled in the name of nationalism, glory, revolution and religion.

The young are susceptible to listen to narratives about violence because they are filled by a vague sense of the moral bankruptcy of the elite both local and global. While this bankruptcy is a fact, the way to deal with it is by evolution, by education, by reform and not by promoting militancy whether in the name of religion or in any other name.

This is what Tabari will teach us if only we turn his pages willing to learn from him.

Does Tabari have anything to teach us?