Editor's note: Over the next few weeks Maydan will publish articles presented at the Sectarianism, Identity and Conflict in Islamic Contexts: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives conference held at George Mason University in April 2016. We hope this series will help the broader public to develop a healthier engagement with the concept of sectarianism, an often misunderstood phenomenon.
Viewed from afar, typically the West, sectarianism in the Middle East symbolizes the age-old struggle among Muslims, and within Islam, to modernize. Lingering atavistic hatreds, so this narrative goes, prevents equal recognition and treatment of all citizens and thus undermines the successful functioning of nation-states. Moreover, sectarianism creates seemingly insurmountable divisions between nations whose foreign policy prioritizes religious commitments over the practical matters of statecraft. The Sunni-Shi‘i divide, then, thwarts development and security, both nationally and internationally. Viewed closer to home, it is not sectarianism per se but sectarian politics that obstructs socio-political cohesion and drives conflict in the region. The old sectarian identities are not dead but rather have been reinvented for a modern purpose: transplanted into the dynamic contestation for control over limited state resources and claims on power and authority. In this sense, as Ussama Makdisi has argued, “sectarianism is a modern story.”[i]
“Viewed closer to home, it is not sectarianism per se but sectarian politics that obstructs socio-political cohesion and drives conflict in the region. The old sectarian identities are not dead but rather have been reinvented for a modern purpose: transplanted into the dynamic contestation for control over limited state resources and claims on power and authority.”
But this story has many variant versions, each shaped by context and interpretive need. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the reinvention of the Khawarij in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries in the twentieth century. One might easily be forgiven for misunderstanding the modern significance of the Islamic sectarian group known as the Khawarij. Indeed, one might be easily confused about the sect’s very existence, for while the name “Khawarij” can be readily found in books and media publications in Egypt, the Middle East, and even in the West, the movement itself is nowhere to be found. Unlike Sunnis, Shi‘a, Druze, and Christians, the Khawarij have no territory under their control, no central authority upholding their teachings, and no body of believers voicing their commitment to a cause. It is a sect in name only, but that name has a powerful impact because it evokes fears of uncompromising zealotry and Muslim-on-Muslim violence. In Egypt, fear of the Khawarij emerged in the mid- twentieth century as Islamism confronted the secular direction of the state. It was a fear driven by those concerned about the dangers of Islamism, especially its militant variety. The “return of the Khawarij” in Egypt, then, marks the rise of a sectarian discourse intended to shape public opinion about the role of Islam (-ism) in politics—a very modern story indeed.
“In Egypt, fear of the Khawarij emerged in the mid- twentieth century as Islamism confronted the secular direction of the state. It was a fear driven by those concerned about the dangers of Islamism, especially its militant variety. The “return of the Khawarij” in Egypt, then, marks the rise of a sectarian discourse intended to shape public opinion about the role of Islam (-ism) in politics…”
As a religio-political protest movement, the Khawarij died off in the tenth century or so; as a symbol of religious zealotry and rebellion, the Khawarij have lived on. This was no accident.
The origins of the Khawarij lie in that period of conflict known as the first civil war (CE 656-661), the same conflict over leadership that gave rise to Islam’s two major factions: Sunnis and Shi‘a. In fact, the protest movement of the Khawarij (Arabic for those who “go out” or “rebel”) created the impetus to shape a mainstream, majoritarian version of Islam. With the gradual dominance of Sunnis, other factions—Shi‘a and Khawarij—were cast by the Sunni tradition as deviant Muslims, heterodox factions that threaten true Islamic teachings and the stability of the community (umma). The Khawarij, especially the subsect known as the Azariqa, were infamous for acts of violence directed against fellow Muslims. They argued this would purify the Muslim community. The dramatic impact of this violence is evident in the attempts within classical Sunni sources to denounce the Khawarij as beyond the pale of acceptable Muslim behavior. Even Prophet Muhammad supposedly voiced concern about the dangers of the group, predicting its rise and the threat it would pose to the umma: “There would arise at the end of the age a people who would be young in age and immature in thought, but they would talk (in such a manner) as if their words are the best among the creatures. They would recite the Qur‘an, but it would not go beyond their throats, and they would pass through the religion as an arrow goes through the prey. So when you meet them, kill them, for in their killing you would get a reward with Allah on the Day of Judgment.”
Medieval scholars, anxious to provide guidance to future generations, cast the group as a threat to the established political order and thus worthy of religious sanction. Thus the very name “Khawarij” became synonymous with rebellion against legitimate rule. This is showcased in the definition of a Khariji provided by the twelfth century theologian Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Karim al-Shahrastani (d.1153) in his book on sects: “Whoever rebels against the rightful leader agreed upon by the community is called a Khariji, whether this rebellion occurred at the time of companions against the rightly guided leaders, or against their beneficent successors and leader of any time.”
In this definition, which is often repeated by modern commentators, we encounter the notion of the Khawarij as a transhistorical phenomenon, an “ism” in its own right that might reoccur and manifest itself in different settings. Put differently, Islamic tradition frames the Khawarij as a useful sectarian notion to reflect upon. To borrow a phrase from Levi-Strauss, the Khawarij were viewed as “good to think,” because if contemplated in the right way, i.e., if taken as a negative model of behavior, Muslims will avoid rebelling against established authorities.
Modern Reinvention of the Khawarij in Egypt
This negative model was awakened in mid-century Egypt as the Islamist message of the Muslim Brotherhood began to take root and tensions with ruling authorities developed. Isolated accusations of being Khawarij or adopting Khariji-like behavior were directed at Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Brotherhood. This trend picked up pace dramatically after the Free Officers came to power following the 1952 revolution and relations between the government of Gamal Abdul Nasser and the Brotherhood began to deteriorate. A government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood led to full-scale conflict between Islamists and the state. The Brotherhood was declared an illegal organization and thousands of Brothers were imprisoned, often without formal charges. As tensions rose, discursive attacks on the Brotherhood also saw an uptick, including charges of being Khawarij. The specific target of these attacks was Sayyid Qutb, a Brotherhood ideologue whose radical primer Signposts Along the Way seemed to demonstrate Khariji-leanings. Written largely in prison, after experiencing and witnessing torture at the hands of fellow Egyptians, Qutb argued in Signposts that all Egyptian society was in a state of jahiliyya (sinful ignorance, associated with pre-Islamic Arabia) and must be cleansed; the means of cleansing such wickedness was jihad, just as the Prophet Muhammad had cleansed Arabia of jahiliyya.
The upshot of labeling Egypt’s leaders and most of its citizens, aside from the besieged members of the Muslim Brotherhood, as living in a state of jahiliyya is that everyone has essentially been accused of being an unbeliever, a kafir. Such an act, pronouncing the takfir, has deadly potential since the life of unbelievers is forfeit if they do not convert (back) to Islam. The Khawarij themselves were infamous for killing fellow Muslims after pronouncing the takfir upon them. For this reason, in the current discourse on Islamist radicalism, the names takfiris and Khawarij have become synonyms.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Brotherhood passed through a phase of soul searching over the best means to transform Egyptian society, to Islamize it. As a result, the more militant elements split off and created their own movements. These radicalized elements carried out attacks against government officials and institutions, claiming that the state was corrupt and un-Islamic. It was common practice for these radicals to be labeled Khawarij in the popular press by representatives of al-Azhar, the voice of official Islam in Egypt, government figures, and public intellectuals. None of the radicalized Islamists accepted the label as accurate, but discourse about the Khawarij provided a framework in which Egyptians debated the legitimacy of the state and Islamist attempts to overthrow it.
To recognize Islamist radicals as Khawarij was tantamount to allowing the state to eliminate the threat of this “historic” sectarian group, just as the early caliphs had done during the classical period. Thus the label was a way of anathematizing and empowering the state to act, to act on behalf of Islam. In this sense, the appeal to Khawarij discourse was much like the militant Islamist appeal to jahiliyya discourse: both contained within them an assessment of a condition—in this case, the condition of modern politics and the relationship between Islamism and the state—and a way to deal with that condition: with force. As I examine in depth elsewhere, if Egypt were truly swimming in a sea of jahiliyya, as Qutb maintained, then this situation had to be rectified by good Muslims; and if militant Islamists were actually Khawarij, and not the moral reformers they claimed to be, then they had to be eliminated.
Sectarian Identity and Sectarian Discourse
Identifying Khawarij, then, has not simply been a matter of pointing out a surviving sectarian group. It entails a judgment—a condemnation really—and one that has potentially deadly implications. It is also an engagement of sorts in a public debate about legitimate governance, one that occurs all too often through the coded language of religion and not that of political ideas and policies. For this reason, it is never simply an issue of who is or is not one of the Khawarij that becomes a topic of the discourse. The nature of state authority and power is also part of the conversation, along with the status of those charging others with being Khawarij, and these topics fuse into debates about who is a good Muslim or a good Muslim leader.
Most Egyptians have been prepared to condemn radical Islamism, but over the course of the late twentieth century, it became increasingly difficult to condemn radical Islamism if that meant defending the oppressive, authoritarian behavior of the state. Entrenched autocratic rule had come to stifle debate and thwart politics as usual in Egypt. Moreover, the state proved both incompetent and corrupt at providing essential services, administering justice, and overseeing the economy. In this context, discourse about the Khawarij, about radicalization, became an occasion to question the modern conditions that drove youth to become neo-Khawarij, and those responsible for creating those conditions—lack of economic opportunities, poor religious education, social and political corruption. Thus what was supposed to be a clear-cut rejection of Islamist radicalism (i.e., the charge of modern Kharijism) became a debate about what caused radicalism. And the answers were not to be found in origins of the historical Khawarij but rather that of the modern Egyptian nation-state.
Islamism, even its moderate incarnation, had never had the opportunity to prove itself in Egypt’s political arena. Indeed, the failure to accommodate Islamism into national politics contributed to radicalization and erected a fine line between militant and moderate Islamism.
“Islamism, even its moderate incarnation, had never had the opportunity to prove itself in Egypt’s political arena. Indeed, the failure to accommodate Islamism into national politics contributed to radicalization and erected a fine line between militant and moderate Islamism.”This allowed Egyptian authorities to argue, at times, that all Islamists, all Muslim Brothers, were Khawarij, and as such beyond the pale of acceptable society. This trend has gained strength after the events following the Arab uprising of 2011.
Immediately following the Arab uprisings, when democracy seemed to be in the offing and authoritarian forces on the run, Mohamed Morsi, a candidate from the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, was elected president in Egypt’s first free election (in 2012), and Islamism seemed to be coming out of the shadows. Interestingly enough, during this same period Khawarij discourse disappeared from the Egyptian scene. Then, in August 2013, a popular uprising, egged on by the forces of the so-called “deep state,” overthrew Morsi and, a few months later, the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed as a terrorist organization and its properties were seized. Publications linking the Brotherhood with the Khawarij began to appear after the August overthrow, and these publications picked up pace after the rise of the Islamic State (IS) and the declaration of a Sinai outpost of IS. Since that time, religious authorities have been waging an all out battle against the IS, presenting it as the newest manifestation of the age-old Khawarij.[iii] And many regime supporters and long-standing Brotherhood critiques are using the emergence of IS and the global fear of jihadism to paint the Brotherhood as part of a larger problem. Thus the Islamic State and Muslim Brotherhood are being cast as part of the same sectarian problem of the Khawarij, a problem that must be dealt with in the same manner as the early caliphs had.
The current prominence of discourse on the Khawarij in Egypt speaks to the concern about religiously justified violence against existing rule, and the unfinished business of sorting out the relationship between religion/Islam and politics in Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations. This violence has spilled over into the West, where references to the Khawarij also have begun to appear in public discourse on radicalism. Of course, the fact that the name “Khawarij” seems to be everywhere might be regarded as a good sign, an indication that Muslims are in fact trying to address the violence in their midst. The discourse, however, has a very different resonance and meaning in places like Egypt than it does in the West. Thus, while sectarian violence may have become a global problem, the sectarian politics of the Khawarij is rooted in Muslim-majority societies, in the interpretive dynamic between Muslim culture and the modern state.
[i] The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2000), 2.
[ii] For a good example of this, see Yusuf al-Qaradawi, al-Sahwa al-islamiyya bain al-judud wa’l-tatarruf (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1983).
[iii] Shawki Allam, The Ideological Battlefield: Egypt’s Dar al-Iftaa Combats Radicalism (http://dar-alifta.org/BIMG/The%20Ideological%20Battle%20(2).pdf).