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Kharijism in Islamic North Africa (700-900): A Summary Overview

In the traditional framework of Islamic historiography, the Kharijites are constructed within the broader narrative as the very antithesis of a centralizing Islamic polity and an increasingly “orthodox” (Sunnī) religious establishment in the early period. The classical sources often represent the Kharijites solely as violent rebels, strongly opposed to centralized political authority, whose coming was foretold by the Prophet as inaugurating an era of unprecedented discord and destruction, thereby guaranteeing for themselves the enmity of God and the Muslim community and were thus destined for eternal punishment in Hell.[1] Most of these early texts seek to depict the Kharijites as a radical, fringe movement which was both theologically deviant and destabilizing to the proper political and social order. These sources were written during the emergence and consolidation of a Sunnī theological and historical narrative in the ninth and tenth centuries, and as such, consciously portrayed the Kharijites—in addition to other “heretical” sects—as violating “orthodox” Islamic beliefs and practices.  As Jeffrey Kenney has noted, the Kharijites, in particular, were represented as a “negative paradigm” and served as a symbol for everything that “orthodox/true” Islam stood against.[2] 

Modern scholarship, largely dependent upon these classical sources, has reproduced these representations and focused on the purported theological deviance and political instability caused by the Kharijites in the early centuries of Islam.[3] In other words, the assumption that the Kharijites were indeed disruptive to the “natural course” of the development of early Islamic civilization and theology has been taken for granted as an established fact. This problematic macro-historical interpretation and misrepresentation of such a complex religio-political phenomenon as the rise of the Kharijites is underpinned by the fact that little attention has been devoted to the rich textual sources which were composed by the Kharijites themselves during the first three centuries of Islam. As a result, much of the historical writing about this movement and its adherents continues to be represented merely as a chain of wanton violence undertaken by a theologically unsophisticated group of tribal individuals. Moreover, rather than presenting critical historical analyses, many Arabic-language publications in particular appear to be little more than updated heresiographies which reproduce traditional assumptions about the movement and which are intended to reinforce classical arguments. Indeed, these studies are limited by the very fact that their authors have tended to rely disproportionately upon classical heresiographies composed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, rather than upon literary sources which speak directly to the question of the social, political, religious, or even economic context which facilitated the rise of this movement.[4]

To be sure, there have been several scholars who have sought to provide a more nuanced picture by emphasizing that, although they were opposed and rejected by the Sunnī and Shī‘ī legal and theological schools which would emerge by the tenth century, the Kharijites nevertheless represented a substantial portion of early Muslims and essentially constituted a third major political-theological sect of Islam during the first three Islamic centuries.[5]  In particular, these scholars have sought to underscore the diversity of the various groups subsumed under the heading of “Kharijtes” by emphasizing, in particular, the emergence of the Ibāḍīs as representing a particularly significant trend in the development of Islamic thought during the eighth and ninth centuries. Moreover, several of these scholars have contextualized the rise of the Kharijites within the various social, economic, political as well as religious-theological developments in early Islam rather than seek, as traditional scholarship has done, to exclusively identify the Kharijites with a singular cause.[6] In the past decade, a number of important studies of the Kharijites, and the Ibāḍīs in particular, have been published which have sought to provide clearer insight into the doctrinal, social, and political dimensions of the movement.[7] These studies have been facilitated by the increased availability and accessibility to Ibāḍī texts in Mzab, Djerba, Jabal Nafusa and Oman. In the past few years, several of these texts, including those found in private libraries in North Africa, have been carefully edited and made available to the public. It is the close engagement with these texts which offer an important opportunity by allowing scholars of the early medieval Islamic world to understand, as much as possible, the historical reality and intellectual contributions of Ibāḍīs during the early centuries.

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The importance of the history of early Islamic North Africa for further understanding the course of the development of Kharijism is paramount. Not only did Kharijism shape the course of Islamic political and religious history in North Africa during the eighth and ninth centuries, but the movement itself was also transformed in fundamental ways. The importance of the Kharijites in the so-called Great Berber Revolt of 740–743, which played a key role in weakening and eventually overturning Umayyad political authority in North Africa, in addition to the rise of important Kharijite entities in the Maghreb in the eighth and ninth centuries are two key developments which closely link the political history of North Africa in the early Islamic centuries with the religious development of Kharijism as a distinct, sectarian identity. In fact, the first three centuries which witnessed the establishment of Islamic political authority in North Africa can be interpreted as a succession of religio-political doctrines—Umayyad universalism, Kharijism (both its Sufrī and Ibāḍī manifestations), Fatimid Isma‘īlism—before the eventual triumph of Malīkī Sunnī “orthodoxy” in the eleventh century.[8] The period of Kharijite religious and political ascendancy in North Africa, wedged as it is between the Umayyad and Fatimid periods, has received relatively little attention, primarily due to the lack of literary sources.

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Islamic North Africa and the Kharijites (ca. 730–909): A Brief Historical Survey

In the early 740s, Berber dissatisfaction with the discriminatory fiscal and social policies of the Umayyad authorities in North Africa, in conjunction with a number of other factors, culminated in the outbreak of a major rebellion in 740.[9] It has been suggested by several scholars that the increased da‘wa (religious propagation) activities of Ibāḍī and Sufrī missionaries among the Berber tribes since the 720s was intimately connected with the outbreak of this revolt, which lasted until 743 and ultimately destroyed Umayyad political authority in North Africa west of the province of Ifriqīya (modern-day Tunisia).[10] Rather than viewing Kharijism as the essential causal factor of the revolt, several modern scholars have suggested that the adoption of Kharijism by the rebelling tribes could be understood in two different ways. Firstly, it appears that it was Kharijite missionaries, mainly originating from Baṣra in Iraq and promoting their distinct interpretations of the faith, who played an active role in spreading Islam among the Berber tribes of north-west Africa, owing to the relative inaccessibility of the location where these tribes resided and the receptivity of these tribes to Kharijite religious doctrine (which was, to be sure, rather amorphous and undeveloped at this early period).[11] Hence, it was as a result of their Kharijite religious views that the Berber tribes rebelled against the injustice of the Umayyad regime. Conversely, it has been argued that Kharijism, with its emphasis on social equality and its implacable opposition to “unjust” political authority, gave religious expression to the long-standing political and social grievances of these Berber tribes vis-à-vis Umayyad political domination.[12] In other words, Kharijism as a religious doctrine was not necessarily the cause of the rebellion but, rather, it provided the Berber tribes with an important ideological framework within which they could adequately articulate their struggle against the Umayyads and, later, the Abbasids.

In addition to these two explanations, it should also be emphasized that the autochthonous tribes of North Africa, who are often subsumed under the deceptively simple term “Berber” (which conceals their diversity and geographic extent), had had a tendency towards autonomy and rebellion against central governing authorities throughout the Roman-Byzantine period. Indeed, there were a series of rebellions against the Byzantines (who struggled to pacify the tribes in the provinces of Tripolitania, Numidia and Mauretania), and there had even existed several independent Berber (or “Moorish”) principalities in the region following the Vandal invasions in the fifth and sixth centuries which weakened Roman authority in North Africa.[13] It should also be remembered that Berber tribes played an instrumental role in attempting to resist the Arab conquerors of North Africa in the seventh century.[14] It is thus a combination of factors and considerations which make the adoption of Kharijism by the rebelling tribes appear in retrospect as a logical development, which allowed the Berbers of north-west Africa to complement their political disaffection and desire to break away from Umayyad political authority with a religious justification. In particular, the ostensibly egalitarian emphasis of Kharijism, which was attractive to many mawālī (non-Arab converts to Islam) along with its austere vision for the Islamic community appealed to the Berber tribes and provided the ideological force which underpinned the rebellion against the Umayyads.[15]

tlemcen__tlemcen_province__algeria

Following the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate in 750, there was a brief interlude in which several Berber tribes espousing either Sufrī or Ibāḍī variants of Kharijism took the opportunity to establish several autonomous entities in the Maghreb following the disintegration of Arab rule.[16] Seeking to take advantage of the political vacuum following the end of Umayyad rule, in 757 five Ibāḍī missionaries, or ḥamalāt al-‘ilm, were sent from Baṣra to North Africa “with the express mission of propagating an Ibāḍī imamate.”[17] It was during this period that Ibāḍism spread among certain Berber tribes, notably the Hawāra, Zanāta and the Nafūsa, who were located in the Tripolitania region.[18] An Ibāḍī imamate, backed by the support of these powerful tribes, was declared by the leader of the ḥamalāt al-‘ilm, Abū al-Khaṭṭāb (d. 761) in Tripolitania and served as the main political and religious center for the movement in North Africa for a short period.[19] Several Kharijite Berber entities were also established in the region extending from the province of Ifriqīya to Tangiers, with an Ibāḍī authority even installed in Qayrawān under the auspices of Abū al-Khaṭṭāb’s fellow missionary, ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Rustam, who was of Persian origin.[20] However, by 771, the ‘Abbāsid caliphate successfully established its authority in North Africa, and eliminated much of the Kharijite political presence in the region east of the Aures mountains, with the Ibāḍī representative in Qayrawān, ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Rustam, fleeing westwards, where he eventually founded a town (Tahart) in 761, which would become the center of another, more long-lived polity: the Rustamid dynasty.[21]

tunisia_rustamids-division_720px_03

Those entities in the extreme north-west, from Tangier to Tlemcen, which were probably associated with the more extreme Sufrī branch of Kharijism were eventually absorbed into the newly-established Idrissid kingdom (r. 788–974), which was based around the city of Fez; the notable exception was the Midrarid emirate (r. 771–909) established at Sijilmassa, located on a major Saharan trade route, which maintained its independence until its final destruction by the Fatimids in the 950s.[22]  As under the Umayyads, the Berber tribes in Tripolitania and Ifriqīya (and ultimately, those areas west of the Aures mountains) articulated their political opposition to the ruling ‘Abbāsids (and subsequently the Aghlābids) through their adoption of Kharijism, with the more moderate Ibāḍī variant becoming more firmly rooted among the tribes throughout the eighth and ninth centuries, gaining adherents at the expense of the more radical and hitherto dominant Sufrī sect.[23]

By 778, the oppositional Ibāḍī tribes (including the Nafūsa, the Hawwāra, the Lawāta, and the Mazāta), fleeing from the ‘Abbāsid armies which had conquered Tripolitania and Ifriqīya, had converged upon the town of Tahart in modern-day northern Algeria and had elected the Persian dā‘ī ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Rustam, who had been one of the five missionaries sent in 757, as imām.[24] According to the ninth-century Mālikī chronicler Ibn al-Saghīr, he was chosen to be imām for the very reason that, due to his Persian origin, he was unconnected with any major tribe in the region, and, as such, would not subvert the power of the major Berber tribes; this lack of tribal affiliation was also probably the reason why until the very end of the Rustamid polity power remained in the hands of the descendants of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān.[25] His own charisma, sense of justice, and political ability is also cited as a major reason for his elevation to the imamate. ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Rustam (r. 776–784) and his descendants would rule an Ibāḍī imamate extending roughly from Tlemcen in the west to Tripolitania in the east and centered on Tahart, until its final conquest by the Fatimids in 909.[26] The Rustamid dynasty represents the “golden age” of the Ibāḍīs in North Africa, characterized as imāmat al-ẓuhūr, or “open manifestation” of the imamate.[27]

mzab

This polity was predicated upon the allegiance of several Berber tribes to the figure of the imām, based in the urban setting of Tahart, and was enriched by its role as a major emporium along the trans-Saharan trade route, which allowed it to expand both its wealth and its influence among the Berber tribes of the region.[28] Indeed, the Rustamid dynasty succeeded in securing the allegiance of various Berber tribes, even those beyond the confines of its limited territorial base, and its capital, Tahart, became an important and prosperous urban center, which was home to Ibāḍīs, non-Ibāḍī Muslims, as well as a sizeable non-Muslim (primarily Christian) population.[29] Moreover, the Rustamids maintained important intellectual and economic ties with the Ibāḍī community at Baṣra, facilitating the flow of ideas and wealth between Iraq and North Africa.[30] This reinforced the role and legitimacy of the Rustamids as the political and intellectual center of North African Ibāḍism. It was under the Rustamids that Ibāḍism was most widely and successfully disseminated throughout North Africa and across the Sahara, as a result of trade links, important tribal ties, as well as the political force represented by the imamate itself. It is within this context of expanding Rustamid political influence and the increased importance of Ibāḍism in North Africa that the articulation of doctrine and the development of a distinct identity and historical narrative of the Ibāḍīs in North Africa took place.

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[1] Jeffrey T. Kenney, Muslim Rebels: Kharijites and the Politics of Extremism in Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 26–28. Indeed, even the term used to designate the movement denotes “rebels” (from khurūj, “rebellion”) thereby reinforcing the association between violent rebellion and the religio-political movement known as the Kharijites

[2] Kenney, Muslim Rebels, p. 20

[3] Kenney, Muslim Rebels, pp. 20–21

[4] For example, see Nāyef Ma‘rūf, Al-Khawārij fī al-‘asr al-Umawī (Beirut: Dār al-Nafā’is, 2006).

[5] Fred Donner, Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 191

[6] Kenney, Muslim Rebels, pp. 23–25

[7] See, for example, Adam Gaiser’s Muslims, Scholars, and Soldiers: The Origin and Elaboration of the Ibāḍī Imāmate Traditions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), Latīfah al-Bakkāy’s Ḥarakat al-Khawārij: Nasā’tuha wa taṭawwurha ila nihāyat al-‘ahd al-umawī (Beirut: Dār al-Ṭalī‘ah, 2001), Muḥammad Ḥasan Mahdī’s Al-Ibāḍīyya: nashā’tuha wa ‘aqā’iduha. Beirut: al-Ahlīyyah, 2011. This is not to suggest that critical historical writing about the Ibāḍīs is a recent phenomenon. The pioneering work of Tadeusz Lewicki, in particular, during the 1960s and 1970s has been a major influence upon the development of the field

[8] Abdallah Laroui, The History of the Maghrib: An Interpretative Essay (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), pp. 105–106

[9] Khalid Yahya Blankinship, The End of the Jihād State: The Reign of Hishām ibn ‘Abd al-Malik and the Collapse of the Umayyads (New York: City University of New York Press, 1994), pp. 199, 204–206; Abdelkader El-Ghali, Les États Kharidjites au Maghreb (Tunis: Centre de Publication Universitaire, 2003), pp. 51–53; Rajab Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Ḥalīm, al-Ibāḍīyya fī Masr wal Maghreb wa ‘ilaqātihim bi-Ibāḍīyyat ‘Umān wal Baṣra (Sīb, Oman: Maktabar al-Damārī lil Nashr wal Tawzī‘, 1990), pp. 36–39; al-Bakkāy, Ḥarakat al-Khawārij, pp. 217–218

[10] Elizabeth Savage, A Gateway to Hell, A Gateway to Paradise: The North African Response to the Arab Conquest (Princeton, New Jersey: The Darwin Press, 1997), pp. 44–45; Tadeusz Lewicki, “The Ibadites in Arabia and Africa” Journal of World History 13 (1971), pp. 75–76; Jamil M. Abun-Nasr, A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 37–39; ‘Abd al-Azīz Filālī, al-Maẓāhir al-kubra fī ‘asr al-wilāh bi-bilād al-Maghrib wal Andalus (Susa: Dār al-Ma‘ārif lil Ṭibā‘ah wal Nashr, 1991), pp. 47–53; Maḥmūd Ismā‘īl, al-Khawārij fī al-Maghreb al-Islāmī (Beirut: Dār al-‘Awda, 1976), pp. 35–45, 48–51; Blankinship, The End of the Jihād State, p. 206; al-Bakkāy, Ḥarakat al-Khawārij, pp. 218, 232–233; El-Ghali, Les États Kharidjites au Maghreb, pp. 39–50; ‘Abd al-Ḥalīm, al-Ibāḍīyya fī Masr wal Maghreb, pp. 52–53. According to later Ibāḍī sources, both Ibāḍī and Sufrī missionaries were actively propagating among the Berbers in the early eighth century (Abū Zakarīyya al-Warjlānī, Kitāb al-sīra wa akhbār al-a’imma [Tunis: al-Dār al-Tūnsīyya lil Nashr, 1985], pp. 42–43)

[11] Elizabeth Savage, “Survival through Alliance: The Establishment of the Ibadiyya” Bulletin of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies 17 (1990), p. 11; Blankinship, The End of the Jihād State, pp. 100, 138; Filālī, al-Maẓāhir al-kubra, pp. 47–53. Abun-Nasr even asserts that Maysara al-Metghārī, the original leader of the revolt, was a Sufrī Kharijite (Abun-Nasr, A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, p. 39)

[12] Savage, A Gateway to Hell, A Gateway to Paradise, p. 2; Blankinship, The End of the Jihād State, p. 206; al-Bakkāy, Ḥarakat al-Khawārij, p. 218; Abun-Nasr, A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, pp. 37–38; Lewicki, “The Ibadites in Arabia and Africa,” pp. 83–85

[13] Yves Modéran, Les Maures et L’Afrique Romaine (Rome: Ecole française de Rome, 2003), pp. 375–376, 565–680

[14] Walter E. Kaegi, Muslim Expansion and Byzantine Collapse in North Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 220–246; Modéran, Les Maures et L’Afrique Romaine, pp. 780–788

[15] For a skeptical perspective regarding the role of Kharijism as a primary, or even significant, driving force behind the Great Berber Revolt of 740–743 see Blankinship, The End of the Jihād State, p. 340, n. 26

[16] Savage, A Gateway to Hell, A Gateway to Paradise, p. 27

[17] Savage, “Survival through Alliance,” p. 11; Lewicki, “The Ibadites in Arabia and Africa,” p. 76; Ismā‘īl, al-Khawārij fī al-Maghreb al-Islāmī, p. 64; Abun-Nasr, History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, p. 38

[18] Savage, “Survival through Alliance,” p. 12 El-Ghali, Les États Kharidjites au Maghreb, pp. 62–63; Ismā‘īl, al-Khawārij fī al-Maghreb al-Islāmī, pp. 62–64; ‘Abd al-Ḥalīm, al-Ibāḍīyya fī Masr wal Maghreb, p. 106; Abun-Nasr, History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, p. 38

[19] Abū al-‘Abbās Aḥmad al-Shammākhī, Kitāb al-Siyar (Beirut: Dār al-Mudār al-Islāmī, 2009), pp. 248–249; Savage, “Survival through Alliance,” p. 12; Lewicki, “The Ibadites in Arabia and Africa,” pp.76–77; El-Ghali, Les États Kharidjites au Maghreb, pp. 65–69; Ismā‘īl, al-Khawārij fī al-Maghreb al-Islāmī, pp. 64–65; ‘Abd al-Ḥalīm, al-Ibāḍīyya fī Masr wal Maghreb, pp. 107–108; Abun-Nasr, History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, p. 41

[20] al-Shammākhī, Kitāb al-Siyar, pp. 250–253; Savage, “Survival through Alliance,” p. 12; Savage, A Gateway to Hell, A Gateway to Paradise, p. 46; El-Ghali, Les États Kharidjites au Maghreb, p. 63; Ismā‘īl, al-Khawārij fī al-Maghreb al-Islāmī, p. 65; ‘Abd al-Ḥalīm, al-Ibāḍīyya fī Masr wal Maghreb, p. 107; Laroui, The History of the Maghrib, p. 114; Abun-Nasr, History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, pp. 41, 43; Lewicki, “The Ibadites in Arabia and Africa,” p. 89

[21] al-Shammākhī, Kitāb al-Siyar, pp. 257, 264–265; Lewicki, “The Ibadites in Arabia and Africa,” pp. 77, 90; El-Ghali, Les États Kharidjites au Maghreb, p. 72; Ismā‘īl, al-Khawārij fī al-Maghreb al-Islāmī, p. 70; ‘Abd al-Ḥalīm, al-Ibāḍīyya fī Masr wal Maghreb, p. 109; Abun-Nasr, History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, p. 43

[22] Laroui, The History of the Maghrib, pp. 110–111, 113; El-Ghali, Les États Kharidjites au Maghreb, pp. 97–133; Ismā‘īl, al-Khawārij fī al-Maghreb al-Islāmī, pp. 82–107; Abun-Nasr, History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, pp. 49–50; Paul M. Love, “The Sufris of Sijilmasa: Towards a History of the Midrarids” The Journal of North African Studies 15 (2010), 173–188

[23] Savage, A Gateway to Hell, A Gateway to Paradise, p. 86

[24] al-Shammākhī, Kitāb al-Siyar, pp. 265–267; Savage, A Gateway to Hell, A Gateway to Paradise, pp. 4, 124; El-Ghali, Les États Kharidjites au Maghreb, pp. 136–141; Ismā‘īl, al-Khawārij fī al-Maghreb al-Islāmī, p. 107; Laroui, The History of the Maghrib, p. 114; Abun-Nasr, History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, pp. 43–45; Lewicki, “The Ibadites in Arabia and Africa,” p. 91

[25] Ibn al-Saghīr, Akhbār a’immat al-Rustamiyyīn (Cairo: Dār Nimr lil Tibā‘ah, 1984), pp. 239–240; al-Shammākhī, Kitāb al-Siyar, p. 265 Savage, A Gateway to Hell, A Gateway to Paradise, p. 49; Abun-Nasr, History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, p. 45

[26] It is important to note that these territorial boundaries reflect the extent of Rustamid influence, and not direct political control. It would be best to interpret these regions beyond Tahart as being the areas of influence of the major Berber nomadic tribes associated with the Rustamids.

[27] Savage, A Gateway to Hell, A Gateway to Paradise, p. 47; El-Ghali, Les États Kharidjites au Maghreb, p. 141; Ismā‘īl, al-Khawārij fī al-Maghreb al-Islāmī, p. 111. For a detailed discussion of this title, see Gaiser, Muslims, Scholars, Soldiers, pp. 19–48

[28] Savage, A Gateway to Hell, A Gateway to Paradise, p. 85; El-Ghali, Les États Kharidjites au Maghreb, p. 210; Abun-Nasr, History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, p. 45

[29] Laroui, The History of the Maghrib, pp. 114–115; Abun-Nasr, History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, p. 45. For a detailed discussion of the institutional, social, political, and economic dimensions of the Rustamid dynasty, see Savage, A Gateway to Hell, A Gateway to Paradise, pp. 49–66; El-Ghali, Les États Kharidjites au Maghreb, pp. 141–213; Abun-Nasr, History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, pp. 45–49; Lewicki, “The Ibadites in Arabia and Africa,” pp. 102–110

[30] ‘Abd al-Ḥalīm, al-Ibāḍīyya fī Masr wal Maghreb, pp. 135–221


1 Comment

  1. abdulahadislam says:

    Reblogged this on Abd'ul-Ahad .

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