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The Ibadis are the only remnants today of the once powerful Khariji movement, the earliest Muslim sect. They number some 1.5 million members, of which 1.2 million live in Oman where they are the dominant political force and make up 75% of its Arab population. The others are Berbers scattered around North Africa - mainly the Mzabis of the Ghardaia oasis in Algeria (some 150,000) - and smaller communities on Jerba island and in some villages of Tunisia and of the Jebel-Nafusa of Libya. A few Ibadis also live on Zanzibar Island and in other parts of East Africa.

The Kharijis were extreme fanatics who often rebelled against the accepted order in the first two centuries of Islam. They developed a doctrine of continuous Jihad (holy war) against all Muslims who would not accept their teaching and authority and whom they therefore considered to be infidels.

The Ibadis were founded by 'Abd Allah ibn-Ibad in Basra in the 680s as a moderate Khariji group opposed to armed rebellion and political assassination and willing to live in harmony with other Muslims. Because of their legalism and strict moral code they are called "the puritans of the desert".





In 656 AD the third Caliph, 'Uthman, was assassinated and 'Ali ibn Abi-Talib installed in his place as the fourth Caliph. The governor of Syria, Mu'awiya ibn abi-Sufyan who was 'Uthman's cousin, demanded vengeance for 'Uthman's murder and rebelled against 'Ali. At the battle of Siffin in north Iraq, 'Ali agreed to accept arbitration on their dispute. This concession angered some of his more extreme supporters who believed that 'Uthman had sinned and was therefore justly killed, so there was no need for human arbitration. "Judgement belongs to God alone," was their motto.

They withdrew from 'Ali's camp, stating that he had lost the right to the Caliphate by his concession to sinners, and that his followers were no longer Muslims. They were called Kharijis, meaning those who go out or secede. They taught that it was their religious duty to rebel against any impious ruler. 'Ali defeated them in the battle of Nahrawan (658), but a Khariji survivor later assassinated him in 661 AD. ÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿ

The Kharijis regarded 'Uthman and 'Ali as Caliphs whose appointment was valid, but who were rightfully killed after they had sinned and become infidels. All Muslims must distance themselves from them and their supporters or be considered infidels too. Every backsliding Caliph must be deposed by force.

During the next two hundred years the Kharijis constantly rebelled against both Umayyad and 'Abassid rulers. They appealed both to the Beduin warriors who felt that they had not received their fair share of the plunder of war, and to the Mawali, the new converts, who resented the fact that they were not being treated as equals by the Arabic elite.

The Umayyads were alarmed at the large number of Muslim converts, especially in Iraq, seeing them as a potential danger to their regime. They exiled some of them to the Syrian coast as a preventive measure and they laid heavy taxes on them. The elite Arab ruling class treated the Mawali with contempt. They were not allowed to ride on horses in battles and were deprived of their fair share in the loot. Arabs would not walk on the same side of the street, nor sit with them at the same meal. They were segregated into separate camps and mosques and marriage between them and Arabs was discouraged.

Egalitarian Khariji doctrines thus fell on open ears and many oppressed Mawali fled for refuge to the Khariji camps, joining in their rebellions both in Iran-Iraq and in North Africa. The stern Umayyad governor of Iraq, al-Hajaj defeated them in many battles in Iraq and Iran, but Khariji states were established for varying lengths of time in Arabia and in the Maghreb.

The Umayyads had turned to Arabic nationalism as a centralising force, giving all main government posts to Arabs, especially from the Quraish clan. The Kharijis rejected this practice, denying that the Imam must be of the Quraish or even that he must be an Arab. They also rejected the hereditary principle introduced by the Umayyads, stressing that all Muslims were equal and that the position of Imam should be elective and open to all, a stand that strongly appealed to the Mawali.

Under the 'Abassids the Kharijis rebelled again in Khorasan (East Iran) during Haroun al-Rashid's reign. They also managed to establish themselves again for a while in parts of Iraq.

All Khariji revolts across the Empire were eventually suppressed and they were exterminated. Only in Oman and in North Africa did small Khariji communities survive in their moderate Ibadi form.





The Kharijis were puritan and exclusive, seeing themselves as the only true Muslims faithful to original Islam. Their goal was to create an Islamic community in which no one could deviate from the commands of the Qur'an. They differed from other Muslims in their conception of the Caliphate (or Imamate called it) and in their concept of the relationship between faith and works.

Their basic doctrine was that anyone who committed a major sin, even the Caliph himself, ceased to be a Muslim and must be expelled from the Faith as an unbeliever and killed unless he repented. The oral profession of faith (reciting the Shahadah) was not enough to assure a person's status as a true Muslim worthy of salvation, it had to be coupled to a life of righteousness and good deeds. Their stress on works made them into extremely exclusive legalists who forbade all luxuries such as music, games and ornaments. Intermarriage and relations with other Muslims were also discouraged. The Qur'an could only to be interpreted literally.

The Kharijis rejected the dynastic approach to the Caliphate. They demanded that the most pious Muslim in every generation should elected Imam, his authority based on his righteous character and piety. They rejected both the Sunni teaching that the Imam must be of the house of Quraish, and the Shi'a teaching that he must be a descendant of 'Ali. They believed that any qualified Muslim - Arab, non-Arab, slave, even a woman - was eligible to the post if he had the necessary qualities.

They had very strict guidelines for the Imam's character and qualifications. He must obey the Qur'anic precept to "command what is proper and prohibit what is reprehensible", he himself must be just and lead a moral life in total obedience to the Qur'an and the Shari'a, and he must lead the Jihad against non-Khariji Muslims. A violation of religious law would render him illegitimate, and he must then be removed by force if necessary. He and his supporters were then to be treated as infidels unless they repented.

Another basic principle was Jihad, which they saw as the sixth pillar of Islam. It was the obligation of all true Muslims to use the sword in order to establish truth. They saw it as their religious duty to rebel against all established authorities who always fell below their high standard of behaviour. Khariji teachings appealed to many because they seemed to be radically egalitarian, emphasizing the brotherhood of all Muslims without distinction of class or origin. They also had an anarchic element that caused endless rebellions and infighting. They were a highly intolerant, militant and fanatic force that was eventually wiped out during the first two centuries of Islam.

Kharijism forced the religious establishment to define the orthodox position on the divisive issues. In this way they had a major impact on Islam. Their zeal and militancy have also been a model for many later Islamic reform movements.





When the extreme Khariji groups left Basra in the 680s, Abd Allah ibn-Ibad stayed in the city and founded the moderate Ibadi community. They followed the main Khariji doctrines, but modified them by defining under what conditions they were willing to live in harmony with other Muslims. They are to be found today in Oman (1.2m), North Africa (the Mzab Oases 150,000, Jerbah Island 50,000, Zuwarah 15,000 and Jebel Nafusah 50,000) and Zanzibar (10,000), and are the only Khariji sect to survive into the present.

Ibadis do not believe in violent rebellions and assassinations, and were more conciliatory towards other Muslims than the original Kharijis.

They believe they must always have an elected Imam under whose guidance they can fulfill the important Qur'anic injunction of "promoting good and preventing evil", thus establishing the true Muslim community. They believe that any Muslim of blameless character can be elected Imam even "an Abyssinian slave with his nose cut off". Should he later commit a serious sin they must withdraw their recognition and depose him.

Anyone who commits a serious sin becomes a Kafir, an unbeliever, who must be excommunicated from the community. Whilst other Kharijis considered such a person to be a Mushrik (polytheist) worthy of death, Ibadis saw him as still being a Muslim who had to repent.

Ibadis accept that there are times when conditions make it impossible to rebel against illegal Islamic rulers. Accordingly they defined four states in which their true Muslim community could exist: 1. The state of manifestation (Zuhur), when the community was strong enough to impose its dominion on all Muslims and openly elect a universal Imam. 2. The state of defense (Difa'), when it could survive by fighting off enemy attacks. A special Imam al-Difa' is temporarily appointed with the specific task of combating its enemies. 3. The state of self-sacrifice, when a small group would attack the enemy as martyrs, thus assuring themselves of Paradise. 4. The state of concealment (Kitman) when the faithful are forced to live under the rule of their opponents and to practice dissimulation (Taqiyah). The obligation to appoint an Imam could be waived in these circumstances.

The Ibadi Imam was elected by a committee of the Mashayekh (elders, religious scholars) whose decision was publicly proclaimed. In addition to his religious functions he was also the supreme military commander and judge. His rule was absolute and no one could oppose him as long as he conformed to religious law. Only the Mashayekh could decide whether he had deviated from the divine law, in which case they would depose him. Theoretically there could be only one Imam, but in practice there were often several Imams at the same time in the various Ibadi centres.

The religious scholars, Mashayekh, are the main power-brokers in the Ibadi system. They form a watchdog committee supervising the Imam's behaviour to ensure that he remains faithful to all the commandments. Should he fail, they can remove him. The most important Mashayekh are called 'Azzaba, meaning those who lead a retired life. They form the Halqas, formerly religious schools, but now religious orders with their own rules.

Ibadis are taught to show friendliness (Wilaya) to all followers of the true faith (other Ibadis), but aggressive hostility (Bara'a) towards all others.


Some Ibadi doctrines which differ from the orthodox Sunni beliefs include:


1. God's attributes and essence are one.

2. The Qur'an is created.

3. Backsliding Muslims face eternal punishment in hell just like infidels.

4. God cannot be seen by believers in Paradise.

5. Muhammad and the Prophets don't intercede for every Muslim - only for repentant sinners.


Breaking the commandments results in a ritual impurity that necessitates ceremonial steps for purification. The Ibadis are strict legalists who oppose all innovation. They forbid all luxuries such as music, tobacco, the ornamentation of mosques, etc.

Although opposed to Sufism, they have accepted some mystical principles such as the science of intuition (ma'rafah), the oneness of God (tawhid), the pre-existence of the Prophet's soul (Nur Muhammad), and they attribute special baraka or karamat (grace, blessing, power) to the great leaders who they venerate as saints.

In the last decades of the 7th century the Ibadis conquered south Arabia, occupied San'a and took Mecca and Medina, before the Umayyads managed to drive them south-east to the Hadramaut and Oman. There they survived repeated attacks by the 'Abassids.

In the 8th century they also established themselves in North Africa, with their centre at Tiaret. Further east in the Maghreb, Ibadism survived on the island of Jerba in Tunisia. At the time of the Beduin invasion in the 11th century, the Ibadis of Tripolitania withdrew to Jabal-Nafusah where they preserved their faith and their Berber language and customs. Another small group survived in the coastal centre of Zuwara.





Oman became a Khariji centre early in the Islamic era, its mountains and geographic isolation providing them with a secure haven. The first Ibadi Imam of Oman, al-Jundala ibn-Mas'ud was elected at the beginning of the 'Abassid caliphate (751). For over a century the Ibadis of Oman defended themselves against attacks by 'Abassid forces attempting to bring Oman under 'Abassid rule. Their capital Nazwa eventually became the spiritual centre of the Ibadi movement as the Mashayekh (doctors of the faith) gradually migrated there from their original centre at Basra. The Ibadis were ruled by elected Imams until 1154 when the Banu-Nahban established a dynasty of kings. In 1428 Imams were once again elected by the community. ÿÿÿ
ÿÿÿÿÿIn 1624 Nasir ibn-Murshid of the Ya'ribi tribe was elected Imam and ended tribal conflict. He and his successors fought the Portuguese (who had taken control of the Omani coast in 1507) throughout the 17th century, and under them Oman became the strongest power on the Indian Ocean coasts, expanding to Zanzibar. Their strong fleet was feared by all other powers.

The Persians dominated Oman for a while, until in 1741 Abu-Sai'd became Imam and expelled them. The rivalry between the two tribal confederations of the Hinawis (Yamanis, Qahtanis, south Arab) and the Ghafiris (Qaysis, Nizaris, North Arab) was renewed in his time - it had always characterised Omani history. In the 18th century Abu-Sa'id's descendants, who styled themselves Sultans and had Muscat as their capital, built an empire which included Zanzibar, was based on trade, and lasted until Oman came under British influence.

The Sultans and the elected Imams of Oman struggled for dominance in the 19th and 20th centuries. The tribes of the interior supported the Imam against the coastal tribes who supported the Sultan. The British, hoping to exploit oil found in the interior, backed the Sultans and in 1959 expelled the last Imam, Ghalib, who fled to Saudi Arabia.

Oman has the largest group of Ibadis in the Islamic world. Sultan Qabus, though an Ibadi, is not the Imam and is not recognised as the religious head of the sect. The Ibadis live mainly in the landward side of the al-Hajar mountains around Nazwa, the old capital of their Imams. They are equally divided between the two main tribal groups: the Hinawis, representing the South Arabian branch and the Ghaffiris who are of North Arabian stock.





After their defeat in Iraq and central Arabia in the 8th century, some Kharijis fled to North Africa where the Ibadis succeeded in 776 to found a state with its centre at Tiaret (Tahart in Algeria) under 'Abd al-Rahman ibn-Rustam.

In 908 the Fatimids conquered the kingdom of Tahart and the Ibadi survivors migrated south. The invasion of the Maghreb by the Banu-Hilal Beduin tribes drove them still further south into the desert, to the oasis of Wargla where they founded a new state based at Sadrata. To evade persecution by the fanatical Sunni al-Murabitun and al-Muwahidun dynasties of the 11th and 12th centuries they were again forced to migrate southward. For safety's sake they decided to settle in the most inhospitable region they could find along the Oued Mzab where they founded the Ibadi league of five towns in the Ghardaia oasis.

The Mzabis are Berbers numbering today some 150,000. Their first settlement, el-'Atf, was founded in 1010 AD. Their league of five walled cities is administered by a council of 12 elders-scholars called 'Azzabah who have taken over the authority once vested in their Imams. The population is divided into two groups: the Talaba, who are the religious elite, and the 'Awamm, or common people who form the majority. A lay person of good character can join the religious class by attending a Qur'anic school and passing examinations.

The 'Azzaba rule the community in both religious and secular areas. They make sure that the Shari'a is strictly kept and offenders punished in accordance with their laws. The strongest punishment they can mete out is excommunication, the mere threat of which is sufficient to restore the offender.

The commoners have their own assembly, the Jama'a, responsible for public order. A Qa'id (judge) presides over the Jama'a and relies on special guards, Makari, to perform police functions.

Ghardaia is the most important town and the administrative capital. It is fortified and has white and red clay houses that rise in terraces towards the pyramid-like mosque at its centre. Banu-Isjan is the Mzabi Holy Town and strangers are banned from entering it for four hours each day during the midday prayers. Strangers are also banned from spending the night within its walls (restored in 1860). At its west end stands a white 12th century mosque.

Malika is a town populated mainly by black African Mzabis and Bou-Nouara is built on a rock overlooking the river-bed. Two other towns, Garara and Barian were added in the 17th centuries.

Mzabis are strict Ibadis with a rigid moral code who do not permit non-members to enter their mosques. The Mzabis do not marry outside their own religious community. The men travel to other towns of Algeria to find work, mainly as shop keepers and owners of small businesses, but the women are discouraged from leaving the oasis.

The Mzab oasis is a large cultivated grove of date palms that stretches for 8 kilometers along the riverbed. It is watered with the help of six dams built across the riverbed by more than 4000 wells accessed by motor driven pumps. Various fruit, grains and vegetables are grown beneath the palm trees. A small industrial zone is helping to modernise the area. The traditional handicrafts are pottery, brassware, jewelry and carpets.