To paraphrase an aphorism coined by a 20th century philosopher, those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them until they learn them.
The earliest strain of extremism in Islamic history emerged in the late 7th century with the Kharijites, a sect that scholars have said will continue until the end of the Ummah’s time. In other words, as long as there are Muslims, the pathology of extreme sectarianism and anathematization of fellow Muslims will persist in segments of the community.
It is imperative that the Muslim community, especially the youth, be made aware of the dangers inherent in extremism. To do this, we must understand the mentality of extremist sectarianism, its etiology, and its outward signs and symptoms, which will help us to counter it when confronted by it. The most problematic aspect of the Kharijites and their ilk is that they are often cloaked in religiosity and may even exhibit intense devotional practices, especially prayer, Qur’an memorization, and its recitation. This display of puritanical piety often leads many Muslims to deem them rightly guided.
Below is a translation of a narration given by Imam al-Dhahabi, in his magisterial Biographies of Noble Notables(Siyar A’lam al-Nubala’), concerning Wahab b. Munabbih’s insights into the pathology of sectarianism and its degenerative effects if left unchecked.
Wahab b. Munabbih was a Yemeni scholar and transmitter of hadith. He is sometimes described in the biographical literature as a Jewish convert to Islam due to his vast knowledge of the Torah and Talmudic stories, but other scholars mention that he was actually of mixed descent, his father being a Persian aristocrat and his mother a Himyarite Yemeni, though not Jewish. In any case, he was born during the Caliph ‘Uthman’s reign, in year 34 after Hijrah. Wahab b. Munabbih was a student of several notable companions, including Ibn ‘Abbas and Jabir b. ‘Abd Allah, from whom he narrates one of the earliest hadith collections.
The vast majority of hadith scholars considered Wahab b. Munabbih a sound narrator: both imams al-Bukhari and Muslim narrate his transmissions. Imam al-Nasa’i, who has some of the strictest requisites for narrating hadith, considers him absolutely reliable. Ibn Hajar said that Wahab b. Munabbih was “trustworthy” (thiqah). Unfortunately of late, he has come under attack from some modern redactors of Islam because he narrated what are known as Isra’iliyat or Jewish stories, and they accuse him of introducing unsound Jewish traditions into Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir). These attacks are in spite of the Prophet’s permission to “Relate the stories of the people of the Bible, but neither assert nor negate their veracity.” (It is permitted to use our own sources to assert or negate them; scholars negate them if they clearly contradict our sources, especially those narrations that put prophets in a bad light, such as the story of Bathsheba and Uriah with David, or that of Noah and his daughters).
The following story illustrates the dangers of sectarian pathology in the social body of Islam and why it is imperative that scholars and advanced students of knowledge warn simple believers, especially those among the youth who may fall prey to such seductively simplistic yet ultimately destructive distortions of Islam.
Imam al-Dhahabi relates the following in his section on Wahab b. Munabbih in his work, Biographies of Noble Notables (Siyar A’lam al-Nubala’):
Dawud ibn Qays narrates the following story about Wahab b. Munabbih:
I had a friend who was called Abu Shamir Dhu Khawlan. I departed from Sana’a to visit him in his village. As I approached his village, I stumbled upon a letter addressed to Abu Shamir. Upon my arrival, I found him disconsolate and depressed. When I inquired as to why, he explained, “A postman from Sana’a came to deliver a letter from some friends I have there but confessed that he had lost it.”
“No worries, I found it!” I said.
He cried, “Praise be to Allah!” He then opened its seal and read it silently.
“Why don’t you read it to me?” I asked.
He replied, “I consider you a little too young.”
So I asked him, “What is in it?”
He said, “The striking of necks!”
I then said, “Maybe some people from among the Haruris [Kharijites] have written it.” 1
Nonplussed, he asked, “How did you know that?”
“Because my friends and I sit with Wahab b. Munabbih,” I replied, “and he always says to us, ‘Beware all of you young and inexperienced ones from these extremists: don’t you let them pull you into their deviant views. Indeed, they are an evil that has afflicted this Ummah.’”
At this point, Dhu Khawlan tossed the letter to me, and I read the following in it: “Peace be upon you. We praise Allah to you and counsel you to piety. Verily, the religion of Allah is discrimination and guidance. Surely this religion is obedience to Allah and disobedience to whoever disobeys the way of His Prophet, Allah’s peace and blessings upon him. When our letter arrives, ponder deeply, in sha Allah, whom you fulfill your zakat obligation through. By doing so, you will earn a close place with Allah and the protection of His allies” [i.e. the Kharijites].
I then said to him, “I prohibit you from associating with them.”
To this, he replied, “Tell me why I should follow your opinion and abandon one from those older than you.”
I then suggested to him, “How about if I take you for an audience with Wahab so that you can hear his counsel?”
He agreed, so we set out for Sana’a, and I took him to Wahab b. Munabbih. At that time, Mas’ud b. ‘Auf was the governor of Yemen appointed by ‘Urwah b. Muhammad. When we arrived, we found a group of people sitting with Wahab. One of them said, “Who is this elder with you?”
I said, “He has a problem that needs addressing.”
The group stood up, and Wahab said, “What is your need, Dhu Khawlan?” 2
On hearing his name [from one he had never met], he was rendered mute from fright. Wahab turned to me and said, “Speak on his behalf.”
I said, “He is a man of Qur’an and virtue, as far as I know, but Allah knows his inner state. He told me that some Kharijites had appealed to him and said that his poor-tax paid to the rulers was invalid because they do not distribute it to its rightful recipients. They said to him it was valid only if paid to them. Given that, I thought it appropriate to bring him to you, O Abu ‘Abd Allah Wahab b. Munabbih, knowing that your words would have more of a healing effect on him than mine.”
At this, Wahab said to Dhu Khawlan,
Is it your wont to become an extremist at this late age of yours, Dhu Khawlan? Do you want to testify that those better than you are astray? Tell me, what will you say to Allah tomorrow when He has you stand on the Day of Judgment with those you have condemned as disbelievers? Allah testifies to their belief, and yet you claim they are disbelievers! Allah declares they are guided, and yet you claim they are astray! Where will you end up if your opinion contradicts Allah’s decree and your testimony belies His testimony? Tell me, Dhu Khawlan, what are these extremists saying to you?
Now able to speak, Dhu Khawlan said to Wahab, “They demand that I give charity only to those who follow their opinion and that I should ask forgiveness for them alone.”
Yes, what you say is correct: this is their calamitous, deceitful sedition. As for their claim about charity, it reached me that the Prophet, Allah’s peace and blessings upon him, said that a woman from Yemen was punished for locking up a cat [and starving it to death].
Is a human being who is free of idolatry and worships Allah declaring His oneness closer to Allah or is that cat? Isn’t this person who worships Allah free of idolatry more worthy to be relieved of his hunger than that cat? Allah says, “They give food out of love of Allah to the destitute, the orphan, and the prisoner.” As for their saying that none should seek forgiveness for others except for those who are like him, are they better or the angels? About the angels, Allah says, “They ask forgiveness for whoever is in the earth.” By Allah, the angels are doing only what Allah commanded them to do, as He tells us, “They don’t do anything before they hear the word from Allah, and they do what they are told to do.” It has been made clear in the verse, “They ask forgiveness for those who believe.”
Dhu Khawlan, I saw the beginning of Islam. By Allah, this group of Kharijites and all others like them did not appear except that Allah scattered them due to the evil of their states. And none of them puts forward their opinions except that eventually Allah destroys him. Had Allah allowed their views to spread and flourish, corruption would fill the earth, and you would see no security on the roads or even for those on the Hajj, and this religion of Islam would become an ignorant and zealous affair (jahiliyyah). And then every group will declare their caliphate, each one fighting the other. Every group of ten thousand will fight all the others, each group accusing the others of disbelief, until the believer is afraid for his life, his religion, his blood, and his wealth and doesn’t know who to be with. Allah says, “Had not some protected others, the whole earth would be corrupt,” and “We will give victory to Our messengers and those who believe.” If they were true believers, they would be given victory, as Allah says, “Our soldiers will have victory.”
Khawlan, does not Noah’s response to the idolaters of his time suffice you in responding to these extreme Muslims today? The idolaters challenged him about the believers following him, saying, “Should we believe like these lowly outcasts believe?” [Noah merely responded, “And what knowledge have I of what they did? Their reckoning is only with Allah, and I am not going to drive away the believers. I am but a plain warner.”] 3
Dhu Khawlan then said, “What do you tell me I should do?”
Wahab replied, “Give your zakat to those who Allah has put over us. Dominion is Allah’s alone. It is in His hand, and He gives it to whomever He pleases. If you give it to whoever is in charge, you are absolved of your obligation. If anything remains, give it to your next of kin, those in your employ, your neighbors, and your guests.”
At this point, Dhu Khawlan declared, “Bear witness all of you that I no longer follow the deviant opinions of the extremists!” 4
It is worth pondering the lesson of this story from the early years of Islamic history, given that history does indeed repeat itself, and once again we are faced with a strain of extremism first embodied by the Kharijites. Wahab b. Munabbih’s remarkable concluding statement should be a reminder to many modern Muslims, especially the extremists, who have lost sight of this truth: “Dominion is Allah’s alone. It is in His Hand, and He gives it to whomever He pleases.”
When Muslims prove themselves worthy of being caretakers of power through moral rectitude, Allah will restore once again our glory, but as long as we are in the inglorious condition that we find ourselves in, the destructive and corrupting danger of power is best kept from us. Many of the Prophets in the Qur’an were oppressed, but they were always exemplary in their response to oppression. Imam al-Ghazali, who witnessed the collapse of the Seljuk state and the advent of civil strife during that period after the assassination of Malikshah, knew that states collapse but that the righteous man, if purified and protected, does not collapse. Politics invariably fails us, but piety never fails us. “And whoever is pious, Allah will prepare for him a way out and provide for him from where he least expects.” Imam al-Ghazali then set out to record a roadmap for the traveller who lives in this world of instability and uncertainty. That roadmap is always available – in times of light and in times of darkness. It begins with knowledge and ends with death.
- The Haruris were Kharijites from Harura’ near Kufa in Iraq. They are the very first innovators in Islamic tradition, and this was their base. When they opposed Imam ‘Ali, their headquarters was in Harura’, and so they came to be known as Haruriyyah. It is essentially synonymous with Kharijite or extremist. In a sound hadith, ‘A’ishah was asked why women have to make up fasting from menstruation but not prayers. She replied, “Are you a Haruriyyah?” It is interesting to note that upon merely hearing his cryptic phrase “the striking of necks,” Dawud b. Qays suspected that it was from the Kharijites.
- Wahab knew the man’s name without previously knowing him or being told his name, which frightened the man leaving him unable to speak. This is known as kashf and can occur among the deeply righteous whereby they know something that is not possible for them to know by ordinary means. Usually the righteous hide this gift, but sometimes it is necessary for them to reveal it, as it can help their words to penetrate the heart of the one they are trying to guide. I have witnessed this many times with my own teachers, so it does not strike me as contrived, which is generally how orientalists, unfamiliar with this phenomenon, view such narrations. Kashf can also occur without the one at whose hands it occurs being aware of it, but the one hearing it will know clearly that Allah inspired that person. This is due to the veil that many of the righteous have concerning their own state with Allah.
- Wahab knew this man was a man of Qur’an, so he quoted only the first part of the story. The verses are in the chapter entitled “The Poets.” The disbelievers challenged Noah, peace be upon him, concerning those who followed him, saying they were lowly and insignificant people, so why should they, in their stature, follow along with these lowly ones? Noah’s reply is what Wahab is telling this man to follow – that it is not our business to judge people who follow or claim to follow prophets. Allah will judge them. In judging them ourselves, we will end up driving away true believers, which is exactly what the Kharijites and their ilk among fanatical and sectarian Muslims do to other Muslims: they drive them out of Islam.
- Siyar A’lam al-Nubala’, Volume 4, 554-557.