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Islam’s First Terrorists

Clive Foss introduces the Kharijites, a radical sect from the first century of Islam based in southern Iraq and Iran, who adopted an extreme interpretation of the Koran, ruthless tactics and opposed hereditary political leadership. After causing centuries of problems to the caliphate, they survive in a quietist form in East Africa and Oman.

This mosque in an-Najaf, Iraq, is widely considered by Shi'as to be the final burial place of Ali.Before dawn on the seventeenth day of the holy month of Ramadan in the year 40 of the Hegira (January 24th, AD 661), the Caliph Ali entered the great mosque of Kufa to prepare for the day's prayers. A conspirator lurking in the shadows sprang at him and plunged a poisoned sword into his head. The Caliph died later the same day. He was the third of the Prophet's four successors to be assassinated, but the first to fall victim to religion. The murderer, who was soon caught, was part of a conspiracy to kill all the leaders of the Islamic community: Ali himself, Muawiya, governor of Syria, and Amr ibn al-As, governor of Egypt. It only succeeded in the case of Caliph Ali.

The plotters belonged to a new sect, the Kharijites, who had only come into existence four years previously. When the Caliph Othman had been assassinated in 656, Ali, who was the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, was recognized in Medina as the new head of the Islamic community – but not by everyone. He soon faced the opposition of Muawiya, who demanded revenge for the murder of his cousin Othman (both were members of the powerful Umayyad family that was to found the first dynasty of Islam after Ali’s death). War soon followed. The course of its only armed conflict, the battle of Siffin in 657, was indecisive but apparently going against the Syrians, when they raised the Koran on their lances and brought the fighting to a standstill, demanding instead arbitration by the authority of the sacred text. Ali agreed, but the result of his agreement turned out to be fatal.

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