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  • Modern Intellectual Readings of the Kharijites
  • Shabbir Ahsen
Modern Intellectual Readings of the Kharijites. By Hussam S. Timani. American University Studies, Series 7, Theology and Religion, vol. 262. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2008. Pp. ix + 144. Hardcover $59.95.

Modern Intellectual Readings of the Kharijites by Hussam S. Timani focuses on a seventh-century Muslim sect known for its extreme views and militant methods, and [End Page 310] brings to light a vast literature on the subject in both Arabic and Western languages from the late eighteenth century to the present. The emergence of the Kharijites is closely connected with some of the religious, social, and economic issues of the time, and the political thought and philosophical schools that later developed among Muslims are often linked to the questions raised by the Kharijites. Thus, this group provides a context for understanding and appreciating intellectual activity in the early Islamic period. The present work throws light on the philosophical outlook of the Kharijites and offers some insight into the present-day Arab society within which both fundamentalists and liberals have spent their energies in reinterpreting the Kharijites to gain support for their respective ideologies.

The volume comprises five chapters, each of which stands alone as a complete unit. A loose link between them is made by an introduction and conclusion both to the book and to each chapter. The study begins with a survey of early Islamic history from the perspective of modern Arab and Western historiography. This is followed by a chapter on the image of the Kharijites in the Arab heritage literature (turath), which in turn is followed by a chapter on contemporary groups showing similarities with the Kharijites.

Relying on the works of classical Muslim historiographers, the author describes the circumstances that led to the emergence of the Kharijites, first as a political entity and then as a religious one. They were identified by this name when they seceded from 'Ali's camp at the battle of Siffin by refusing to accept arbitration, on the grounds that arbitration is not appropriate since judgment belongs to God alone. In their opinion, both 'Ali and Mu'awiya, his opponent, had sinned in agreeing to arbitration, and were therefore no longer believers.

While the Western writers discussed in the book have had a more-or-less unfavorable image of the group, the view held by Arab historiographers and turath scholars has generally been positive. There is, however, a great deal of disagreement regarding the background of the group and about the motives that led them to rebel. Those holding a positive image maintain that the Kharijites were pious Muslims who were fighting for a noble cause consistent with the teachings of the Qur'an. They also point out that the Kharijites believed in equality, justice, and free will and even accepted women as active agents in their world. The idea of a perfect Muslim fighting against the forces of evil appealed to fundamentalists while the images of an Arab rejection of non-Arab influences, of a peasant uprising against the landed aristocracy, and of the issue of gender equality have great appeal for Arab nationalists, Marxists, and feminists, respectively. It is easy, therefore, to understand the growing interest in the Kharijites. The writers discussed here have pursued a selective model in bringing forth a romantic picture of them. Not all Arab writers, however, hold such a positive image, some arguing that the Kharijites were bandits with no philosophical or political program and that they would have been a constant threat to any civilization. The author makes it clear that history has not been kind to the Kharijites and that Sunni scholars have been mainly responsible for this negative image.

The present day al-Takfir wal Hijra group bears remarkable similarities to the Kharijites, according to the author. Like the Kharijites, most of their members come [End Page 311] from far-flung and less developed areas in Egypt. Their rejection of the entire Egyptian society as infidels, their migration (Hijra) from the main centers of power to places where there is hardly any government control, and their belief that the killing of Muslims who do not subscribe to their...