To turn the discussion of Khawarijism and the Khawarij into a discussion about a religious sect is pointless and to no effect, for there is no such religious sect in existence in the world today. However, a discussion about the Khawarij and the reality of what they did is nevertheless instructive for us and for our society, because, although the Khawarij sect has become extinct, their spirit has not died. The spirit of Khawarijism has been incarnated in the campaigns of many of us.
I should start with an introduction. It is possible that some sects may die as far as their motto is concerned, but live in spirit, just as the opposite may also happen: an ideology may live as a motto but be completely dead in spirit. Thus it is possible that one or several individuals may be counted as followers and adherents of some sect in name but not be followers of that sect in spirit, and vice versa, that is, some people may follow some sect in spirit although they do not accept the motto and slogans of that sect.
To give an example well-known to Ali, right at the beginning, after the death of the Prophet, the Muslims divided up into two groups, Sunni and Shi'ah; the Sunni believe in one motto and one frame-work of beliefs, and the Shi'ah in another.
The Shi'ah say that the caliph immediately after the Prophet is 'Ali, and that he designated 'Ali for the caliphate and as his successor by divine decree. This position is thus 'Ali's by special right after the Prophet. But the Sunni say that as far as the legislation of Islam is concerned, it has no special provisions in the matter of the caliphate or the Imamate, rather the matter of choosing a leader was handed over to the people themselves. The most that can be said is that the choice should be made from among the Quraysh.
The Shi`ah have some criticisms to make of many of the Prophet's companions who are counted as great personalities, distinguished and famous men, while the Sunni take a position complete opposed to that of the Shi`ah in this matter; they regard every person who was called a "companion" with an amazingly extravagant deference. They say that all the companions of the Prophet were just and upright men. The raison d'etre of Shiite Islam is to work through criticism, research, putting forth objections and exactitude ; the raison d'etre of Sunni Islam to work through finding the most convenient solution, justification after the act and trust in providence."
In the day and age in which we live, is it enough for us to recognise a man as a Shi`ah that he says:" 'Ali is the caliph immediately after the Prophet", without requiring anything more from him? No matter what spirit or what kind of way of thinking he may have?
However, if we were to return to the advent of Islam, we would meet with a particular way of thinking which would be the way of thinking of Shiite Islam, and it would be only those who thought in that way who could unreservedly accept the successorship to the Prophet as belonging to 'Ali without being subject to any doubt or wavering. Opposed to this spirit and this way of thinking was another spirit and way of thinking which, by a kind of justification, explanation or interpretation, ignored the successorships to the Prophet while having complete faith in him.
In fact, this Islamic "schism" sprung from here, for one group, who were, of course, the majority, only looked at the superficial aspect, not being sufficiently sharp-sighted or penetrating to reach the depth and truth of every reality. They saw what was most apparent and found the most convenient solution. They said that some of the great men, the companions and elders, those who had served Islam for a long time, took a certain way, and it cannot be said that they were in error. But another group, who were the minority, said at the same time that they would respect anyone who respected the truth; however, where they saw that the fundamentals of Islam were violated at the hands of these very people who had served Islam for a long time, they would no longer respect them. They said they were partisans of the principles of Islam, not partisans of the personalities of Islam. Shi`ism came into existence in this spirit.
When, in the history of Islam, we follow in the tracks of Salman al-Farisi, Abu Dharr al-Ghifari, al-Miqdad al-Kindi, `Ammar ibn Yasir and the such like, and look to see what had persuaded them to gather round 'Ali and leave the majority, we find that they were men of principle, who knew the fundamentals - that they both knew the religion and practised it. They said that they were not going to give their seeing and understanding into the hands of others, so that when these people made mistakes they themselves would also make mistakes. In reality the spirit of these people was a spirit over which principles and truths held command, not individuals and personalities.
One of 'Ali's companions was badly seized by doubt during the battle of Jamal. He looked round about himself, and saw on one side `Ali and great figures of Islam who were gathered round him striking away with their swords; and on the other side he saw the wife of the Prophet, `A'ishah, about whom the Qur'an said: And his wives are as their mothers. Gathered round `A'ishah he saw Talhah, one of the forerunners in Islam, a man with a good past record, an expert fighter in the field of battle for Islam, a man who had done valuable services for Islam; and he saw az-Zubayr, too, a man with an even better past record than Talhah, who had even been among those who had gathered in 'Ali's house on the day of Saqifah."
This poor man was in a state of great bewilderment. What was going on! Are 'Ali, Talhah and az-Zubayr not among the forerunners of Islam, the most devoted men, the strongest forts of Islam? Now they are fighting face to face. Who is the nearer to the truth? What must be done in this conflict?
But take care: this man must not be blamed too much in his confusion. Perhaps if we found ourselves in the same situation as he had found himself, the personalities of Talhah and az-Zubayr would also dazzle our eyes.
Now that we see 'Ali and `Ammar, Uways al-Qarani and others face to face with `A'ishah and az-Zubayr and Talhah, we do not feel any hesitation, for we wee the second group as people with the look of criminals, that is, the effects of evil and treachery are evident on their faces; and when we look at the faces and their characters we guess that they are people of the Fire. But if we had lived in those times, and had know their pasts from close-up, perhaps we would not have been immune from doubt.
Today, when we know that the first group were for truth and the second group for falsehood, it is because we have come to know 'Ali and `Ammar, on the one hand, and az-Zubayr, Talhah and `A'ishah, on the other, as a result of history's passing and the clarification of the facts, and in this context we have been able to judge correctly. Or, at any rate, if we are not researchers and students of history, we have been inculcated with the idea that things were like this, right from our infancy. But in those days, neither of these factors existed.
Anyway, this man was able to come up to Amir al-mu'minin and say: "Is it possible that Talhah and az-Zubayr and `A'ishah are gathered together for falsehood? How can personalities like these great companions of the Messenger of God err, and follow the way of falsehood? Is such a thing possible? "
In his reply, `Ali said something about which Taha Husayn, the Egyptian scholar and writer has said that no more forceful or greater thing has been said. He wrote that after the revelation had ceased and the call from heaven had come to an end, words with such greatness as these were not heard .  `Ali said:
"It is you who have been cheated; truth has become an error for you. Truth and falsehood are not to be known by the measure of the power and personality of individuals. It is not right that you should first measure up the personalities, and then weigh truth and falsehood according to these weights: this is true because it accords with this, and that is false because it does not accord with this. No, individuals must not be made the criteria for truth and falsehood. It is truth and falsehood which should be the standards for individuals and their personalities."
This means that one should be a knower of truth and falsehood, not a knower of individuals and personalities; one should measure individuals, whether they be great personalities or small, according to truth - if they accord with it, then accept their personalities, if not, then leave them. Then there is no question as to whether Talhah, az-Zubayr and `A'ishah are with falsehood or not.
Here `Ali establishes truth itself as the criterion of truth, and the spirit of Shi`ite Islam is none other than this. In fact, the Shi `ah sect is born from a special perspicacity and a granting of importance to principles, not from individuals and persons. It is natural that the Shi'ah were the first believers and idol-breakers.
After the death of the Prophet, 'Ali was thirty-three years old with a small group less than the number of the fingers on one's hands; opposing him were old men of sixty years with a large and numerous majority. The logic of the majority was that this was the way of the leaders and the Shaykhs, and they do not make mistakes, so their way must be followed. The logic of the minority was that that which does not err is the truth, the elders must accord themselves with the truth. And for this reason it can be understood how numerous are the people whose motto is the motto of Shi`ite Islam, but whose spirit is not the spirit of Shiite Islam.
The way of Shi`ism is just like its spirit: the discernment of truth and the pursuance of it. And one of the greatest effects of this is attraction and repulsion. Not any attraction or any repulsion - we have said that attraction is sometimes attraction to falsehood, evil and crime, and repulsion is sometimes repulsion from the truth and human virtues - but attraction and repulsion of the like of attraction and repulsion to 'Ali. Because the true Shi'ah is a copy of 'Ali's conduct; the Shi'ah must also, like 'Ali, have two sides to his character.
This introduction was so that we should know that a religious sect may be dead, but its spirit lives on among other people who apparently are not followers of that sect but who deem themselves opposed to it. The Khawarij sect is dead, that is to say that today, on this earth, there is no observable group with the name of Khawarij which a number of persons, with that name, follow; but is the spirit of the Khawarij dead too? Has this spirit not incarnated itself, for example (may God forbid it), among us, especially among those of us who are, so to speak, pretenders to piety?
This is a matter which must be investigated separately. If we can truly recognise the Khawarij spirit, we can perhaps answer this question. This is, indeed, the value of a discussion about the Khawarij. We must know why 'Ali "repelled" them, that is to say, why his attraction did not pull them, but, on the contrary, his power of repulsion pushed them away.
It is certain, as we shall afterwards see, that not all the spiritual elements which had an effect on the personality of the Khawarij and the formation of their way of thinking were such as to be subject to the pressure and rule of 'Ali's force of repulsion. A good many bright distinctions and positive points are also to be found in their way of thinking, which, if they had not been there together with a series of dark points, would have been subject to the power and effect of `Ali's power of attraction. But the dark side of their spirit was so strong that they took their place in the ranks of 'Ali's enemies.
. The original reads: "looking for a hair in their yogurt." (tr.)
. The text reads, literally, "insha'allah it was a cat". This is a reference to a well-known story of a pious and learned mulls whose cloak was touched by a dog, thus rendering it impure (or, according to some versions, he was told after he had drunk from his bowl that it had been touched by a dog - the result is the same), and who there upon said: "insha'allah it was a cat." The point is that the cat is not considered as a defiling animal. (tr. )
. For information on these persons and events see: S. H. M. Jafri: The Origins and Early Development of Shi'a Islam. (London 1979) , especially chps. 2 & 4. (tr. )
. In 'Ali' wa banuh (`Ali and His Sons), p. 40.