The Kharijites[i] were a religio-political group which emerged amidst the backdrop of an uncertain Arabia. An Arabia which was finding its foothold after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Prophet Muhammad was, among many things, a leader. Hence, his succession was an extremely contentious issue. So contentious in fact, that it was enough to drive a wedge between Muslims such that by the time of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, Muslims were not only identified by their monotheistic faith, but by their factional allegiances too.
However, this article sets itself apart (no pun intended) from other Kharijite related articles/essays as it explores an often-neglected aspect[ii] of the Kharijites – its poetry. Kharijite poetry is a collective term that refers to the group’s literary output.
So, the questions we must then ask ourselves are two-fold:
Firstly, why was Kharijite poetry neglected? And secondly, if it was neglected in the first place, does it merit any academic or scholarly study?
Before answering the first question, it is important to view and understand the importance of literature, specifically poetry, in ancient Arab societies.
Poetry and poets were very significant then, such that oratory competitions were regularly held and the best works were hung on the Ka’ bah.
In fact, Ibn Rashiq Al-Qairawani[iii]provides an apt commentary on the significance of the poet to the tribe,
“The old practice of the Arab tribes if one of them flourished as a poet; was to gather its tribesmen in congregation and congratulate him. In celebration of this milestone, food was prepared, women gathered to play the lute just as in weddings and the men and young boys mingled happily. This was because the poet served as the protector of the tribe’s dignity and lineage. He also immortalizes the tribes’ exploits and eulogizes its fallen. And the Arab tribes never celebrated except for these occasions: the birth of a boy, the success of its poets or the breeding of its horses.”[iv]
In ancient Arabia, poets served as the de facto spokespersons of their respective tribes. As time went on and Arabs shifted from a nomadic lifestyle to an urban one, poetry still enjoyed an important place in society, even in the Rashidun, Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates.
Here, we can see history repeating itself. Just as poets in the past aligned themselves tribally, poets in these eras aligned themselves politically. There were poets who sympathised with the Umayyads, poets who supported the Abbasid cause and poets who championed Kharijite legitimacy.
Even so, the works of the Umayyad and Abbasid poets were collected and preserved in dawaween (compendiums) while a significant number of works by Kharijite poets were lost and scattered to the sands of time. The body of work that survives is understandably incomplete.[v]
Why was that so? A possible explanation is that the Kharijite’s narrative[vi], while popular to certain individuals and sections of society, did not appeal to the larger populace. After all, the Kharijites were seen as renegades and social pariahs. Ultimately, this was the nail in the coffin in the preservation of their literary works as Arab society despite its advances and urbanisation was still relatively an oral society.
The popular poems will undoubtedly be recited by many people and this symphony of wagging tongues eventually reaches the ears of the scribes who eventually will record and preserve these poems in written records or compendiums.
Unfortunately, most of Kharijite poetry was not accorded this privilege. Simply put, Kharijite poetry disappeared by virtue of being the unpopular narrative of the day. Even so, this is not an isolated incident. Literatures from other cultures have disappeared for similar reasons.
What comes to mind in fact, is Hesiod’s Theogony.[vii] Modern scholars believe that there was not a single Theogony, in fact there were many. However, Hesiod’s version of the Theogony is the only version that survives today.[viii]
Interestingly, ancient Greece too was an oral society. While ancient Greece preceded the Kharijites by a very long time, a similar phenomenon occurred slightly before the advent of the Kharijites.
During the early years of the Prophet’s call to Islam, he faced opposition and threats in many forms. Most people were acquainted with the physical dimension of the threats which manifested in the form of wars, battles and skirmishes.
However, the Prophet also faced threats verbally and this came in the form of poets. Ka’ab ibn Zuhair, before embracing Islam, recited verses of poetry in opposition to the Prophet. In fact, the Prophet had a companion who specialised in defending the Prophet through the eloquent use of poetry – he was Hasan ibn Tsabit.
Thus, just as there were poems recited in praise and in defence of the Prophet, there were also poems recited in mockery and in defamation of the Prophet during his era. However, as the Prophet’s mission succeeded and the whole of Arabia embraced Islam, the laymen and the poets began to abandon the vile poetry that desecrated the persona of their prophet and messenger. Naturally, that form of poetry slipped into oblivion.
As such, we arrive at the conclusion and the answer to the first question: When competing narratives exist, the most popular and most appealing narratives to the masses tend to withstand the test of time. It is no coincidence then that Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam have endured to this today.
As for the second question, with regards to studying Kharijite literature, it certainly merits an academic or scholarly endeavour.
Previously, it was established that the Kharijites did not leave behind for future generations much of their literary body. It is especially so then, that their surviving works be given the required scholarly scrutiny and study.
Studying Kharijite poetry provides a glimpse into the inner-workings of the Kharijite himself, as in addition to the poems revolving around their ideology, Kharijite poetry deals with very intimate topics too, from bravery in the battlefield to the mourning of a lost loved one.[ix]
Most importantly, a linguistic study of Kharijite poetry will undoubtedly offer insights on how language is weaponised for nefarious ends.[x]
It is easy to forget that Kharijite poetry existed amidst a backdrop when poetry had a special standing in society as poetry was and still is a potent vector of ideas. Even if the Kharijites themselves did not have a significant following as compared to other factions, the fact remains that their ideology appealed to certain people and sections of society.
For better or for worse, Kharijite poetry was a victim of circumstance and history. What remains today is a far cry of what could have been, had it survived.
Studying Kharijite poetry then has its merits for it offers many interesting lessons and insights, especially so when many parallels can be drawn when juxtaposing the actions of the Kharijites and its violent modern-day incarnations.
[i] Arabic: Khawarij. It refers to a group of Muslims who were initially followers of the fourth caliph of Islam, Ali Bin Abi Talib but later went against Ali and broke away from him. They are believed to be the first Muslim group in history to practise the ex-communication of believers (takfir). This legitimised violence on those whom the Khawarij deemed to be infidels.
[ii] Notable academic research on Kharijite poetry has been done by MS Sullivan, A. Flayyeh and A. Al-Salehi. See MS Sullivan, Manifestations of religious individualism in Kharijite poetry, The University of Texas at Austin and A. Flayyeh and A. Al-Salehi, Al-Shurat picture in the Kharijite poetry, The University of Jordan.
[iii] Ibn Rashiq Al-Qirawani (1985), Al-UmdahFiMahasin Al-Shi’r Wa Adabih, Dar Al-jail, 5th edition p. 65.
[v] Fragments on Kharijite poetry that survived can be found in Al-Mubarrid’s Al-Kamil, Al-Asfahany’s Al-Aghany and Al-Tabari’s Tarikh Al-Umam Wa Al-Muluk.
[vi] The Encyclopaedia Britannica described the Kharijites as “highly inflammable fanatics, intolerant of almost any established political authority. They incessantly resorted to rebellion and, as a result, were virtually wiped out during the first two centuries of Islam’’.
[vii] ‘’Theo’’ meaning God and ‘’Gony’’ meaning origin, the Theogony is an epic poem on the origin of the universe according to the ancient Greeks. It also recounts and details the tumultuous relationships between the gods which culminates in the establishment of Zeus as the final and definitive ruler of the world.
[viii] See the introduction in Hesiod’s Theogony by Richard S. Caldwell.
[ix] Ali Jaffal cites an example of such a verse in his book Al-Khawarij: Tarikhuhum Wa Adabuhum. Here he recounts a vivid example of the mourning of Imran ibn Hittan over the death of Mirdas ibn Adiyyah. The opening verse reads: “O eye! Cry for Mirdas and his loss, O lord of Mirdas I ask that you give me the same fate as him!”. The translation of this verse is my own.
[x] For an in depth look on this issue, see Asma Asfarudin as she elaborates more on the modern-day usage of poetry by IS in her article titled, A new weapon of Islamist extremists is…poetry?, for The Conversation.