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Kharijites

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The first group worth mentioning, even if briefly, are the Kharijites. In Arabic, the word kharaja means "to go out" - they were, in effect, the first Mulism dissidents and rebels, being present almost from the dawn of Islam. Like later dissidents, they chose to separate themselves from the main body of believers, feeling that the majority of Muslims had lost the "true path."

The Kharijites, like so many religious reformers through history, asserted that Islam had strayed from the real directives established by Allah and that all those Muslims who failed to agree with their reforms were essentially outlaws and unbelievers. Like later extremists, they "excommunicated" Muslims who held to the mainstream. A "sinner" who fails to follow the laws of Islam is not simply an errant Muslim, but has ceased to be a Muslim at all.

As a consequence, the Kharijites declared jihad against the unbelieving, apostate Muslims who refused to follow what they considered the "true path" of Islam. They even engaged in violence and political assassination in order to advance their cause. One of their victims was Ali, the fourth Caliph and the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, in 661. Thus even from the very beginning, radical reformers engaged in violent opposition to the accepted leaders of the Muslim community.

The main issue which distinguished the Kharijites was the question of faith vs. practice - very similar to how Protestants and Catholics divided. For Kharijites the profession of faith - "There is no God but Allah; Muhammad is the prophet of God" - was not enough to make a person a Muslim. Instead, this profession had to be accompanied by righteousness and good works.

Thus, the Kharijites took the Quranic command to "command the good and forbid the evil" is a very literal manner, something to be applied without exception. They divided the world very strictly into the realm of "true Muslims" and the realm of "nonbelievers," with the former consisting only of those who followed what the Kharijites taught. Anyone who violated any religious rules was guilty of unbelief and thus liable for excommunication. Anyone guilty of breaking more serious religious rules was guilty of being an apostate and of treason, thus making them liable for execution.

One of the sources of the popularity of Kharijites was the numbers of dissatisfied non-Arab converts. Although Islam taught that all Muslims were part of the ummah, the community of believers, irrespective of race or ethnicity or class, in practice the rulers tended to favor Arabs and even particular tribes when it came to booty from war and conquest in the name of Islam.

Thus, many regarded the rulers as corrupt for not practicing what they preached, whereas the Kharijites made a greater effort to be genuinely egalitarian. For example, they taught that the caliph was not someone who inherited authority but instead who was given authority by the people through a free election (but only so long as he remained morally pure and sinless). As a result, they could tell people that a return to a more pure form of Islam would help solve their economic and social problems.

Because of their uncompromising views and the harsh brush with which they painted all of those who disagreed, the Kharijites believed that they were fighting a war of good against evil. This allowed them to convince themselves that the end justified the means - in order to defeat evil, it was permissible for them to commit any evil in the pursuit of victory.

The Kharijites are even today regarded as the "original heretics," but their influence extends further and deeper than most people will want to admit. Their fanaticism and violence put them outside the mainstream of Islamic tradition, but even today the problems of economic hardship and social displacement come into conflict with Islamic ideals. When this happens, it isn't hard for revolutionaries to find support when they tell people that a return to those ideals will cure their ills.

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