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Leaving Sunni Islam

“Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.”

— Malcolm X's (Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) Letter from Mecca

At first, it may seem contrarian that I’m sharing a quote from Malcolm’s journey to Sunni Islam in an article titled “Leaving Sunni Islam”.  I choose to begin with this quote because it illustrates a larger point on how Malcolm came to understand how he existed in a constant state of evolution. 

Malcolm understood that seeking truth means your core ideas of right and wrong can be unearthed. You have to be willing to let go of ideas you hold dear. He was able to be open-minded while remaining deeply principled. Malcolm’s example reminds me to consistently question and challenge what I believe, in the pursuit of truth. 

This pursuit for me begins 12 years ago. I converted to Sunni Islam when I was 16 years old. The conversion happened under unusual circumstances: 

In search of community, I had begun to get involved with the Muslims in Mississauga. As I spent more time with people, they begin to notice something odd. I prayed with my hands down. People are of course curious and began to probe with questions.

“Are you Shia?”

I replied “No”. At the time I didn’t even know what Shi’ism was. 

“So what are you then?” They would ask. 

“I am Ibadi” 

At this point, neither I nor the people asking knew what Ibadi Islam is. All I knew at the time was that I was Ibadi, and that I pray with my hands down.

Being unable to explain my beliefs became very frustrating and a point of contention for my belief. It’s hard to hold onto something that I don’t have much knowledge of. 

At the time (2008) access to Ibadi knowledge was extremely limited. I couldn’t find any books on the topic, nor anything on the internet. I was now left in limbo - do I continue practicing Ibadi Islam without knowing what it entails? 

On principle, I could not continue through life accepting a belief without full understanding. So I made a commitment and a difficult choice. 

I committed to learning about Ibadi Islam as soon as I could get access to literature. In the interim, for practicality’s sake, I would practice Sunni Islam that way I at least had an accessible framework to use to practice my faith. 

Recently, there has been an increasing amount of literature on Ibadism has been published in English that has become accessible. Ranging from topics on theology, history, jurisprudence and more. 

I’ve taken the time to read these texts and I was pleasantly surprised to come to understand Ibadism as a sect that is tolerant, rational and most of all profoundly misunderstood by most Muslims. I have come to believe that Ibadi Islam has a rationale point of view, especially on issues that are often seen in binary opposition that plague the Sunni and the Shia. Here’s what I know so far that I’ll share with you:

Why I reverted to Ibadi Islam: 

  • Reasoning: Ibadis believe people should not practice taqlid (conformity or blind following) and practice individual reasoning. Sunni scholars suggest taqlid is allowed.
  • Merit-based leadership: Ibadi’s believe the most pious and righteous should lead the Muslims, not based on lineage or ethnicity. Some sunni scholars like al-Mawardi believe leadership should come from the tribe of Quraysh.
  • Defining a Muslim: Ibadi’s believe correct belief and right action make you a Muslim. Sunnis generally believe the shahada (declaration of belief) is sufficient. 

When did Ibadi Islam begin? 

Ibadi Islam begins through the Kharijite secession in 37 AH (after the hijra) in the Battle of Sifin between Mu‘awiya b. Abi Sufyan and Ali b. Abi Talib. Valerie J. Hoffman in The Essentials of Ibadi Islam describes the secession as the following: 

“In the course of the battle, as ‘Ali’s soldiers pressed hard against their opponents, Mu‘awiya’s troops are said to have tied copies of the Qur’an to the end of their lances as a call to subject to arbitration the question of whether or not ‘Uthman was justly killed. Despite his initial reluctance, ‘Ali acquiesced to this request, to the outrage of a significant segment of his followers, who promptly abandoned him on the battlefield. These were known as the Muhakkima, because of their slogan, “Judgment (hukm) belongs to God alone,” and as al-Khawarij, “those who go out.” This last appellation is usually interpreted to mean those who left ‘Ali’s camp, but is interpreted differently by some Ibadi writers, as we shall see.” 

Misconceptions about the Khawarij

Many people including Sunni scholars will often lazy characterize the the Khawarij as a violent puritannical offshoot. Sunni’s themselves have a more violent history then the Khawarij, yet will use the Khawarij as a scapegoat to disassociate from Sunni’s own violent puritanical offshoots. Instead of blaming a sect they have little knowledge of, Sunni’s should instead come to terms with its own legacy and history. 

“Khawarij” was  praiseworthy and “Sunni” was an insult

This is a great example of how our current understanding of the Khawarij has been inverted over time. In The Essentials of Ibadi Islam by Valerie J. Hoffman she writes: 

“According to the Algerian Ibadi scholar, Muhammad b. Yusuf Atfayyish (1820–1914), the term Khawarij was originally praiseworthy, meaning “those who go out to struggle (jihad) in the way of God,” but because of the negative connotations the term acquired, “our companions do not call themselves by this name, but call themselves ‘the people of straightness,’ ahl al-istiqama,” a reference to the Qur’anic prayer that God would “guide us to the straight path” (Q 1:5), in contrast to “those who go astray” (Q 1:7), because of the Ibadis’ “straightness in practicing their religion.” On the other hand, says Atfayyish, the epithet “people of the Sunna” [which came to mean the Sunni Muslims] was originally an insult, referring to Mu‘awiya’s custom (sunna) of cursing ‘Ali from the pulpits. “When [the Umayyad Caliph] ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz [reigned 99–101/717–720] stopped that sunna, people began to think that ‘people of the sunna’ referred to the Sunna (practice) of the Prophet. All of this is explained by al-Mas‘udi” (cited in al-Harithi 1974, 70–71)”

What is Ibadi Islam? 

Ibadi is a sect of Islam that is neither Sunni nor Shia. Ibadi Islam sees itself as a sect defined through mutual understanding and tolerance. 

Al-Harithi described Ibadi Islam as the following: 

“This was the first of the schools of Islam (al-madhahib) to be founded, and its scholars have written more than those of any other school. They were the first to write a commentary on the Qur’an, the first to write a collection of Hadith, and the first to write a book on Law (fiqh). (Al-Harithi 1974, 3)” 

al-Harithi, Abu ‘Abdallah Salim b. Hamad b. Sulayman b. Humayd [d. 2007]. 1974. Al-‘Uqud al-fiddiyya fi usul al-Ibadiyya. Muscat: Ministry of National Heritage and Culture. 

Where are Ibadi Muslims today?

Oman is currently home to the majority of Ibadi Muslims. Ibadi Muslims can also be found in the Mzab Valley in Algeria, in the Nafusa mountains of northwest Libya, Jirba Island in Tunisia and in the Swahili coast.  

Who started Ibadi Islam? 

There are multiple founding fathers attributed to the founding of Ibadi Islam: 

  • ʿAbd Allāh ibn Ibāḍ
  • Jābir ibn Zayd (642-711) 
  •  Abū ʿUbaida Muslim ibn Abī Karīma (d. Between 753 and 775) 
  • al-Rabī' ibn Ḥabīb (d. 786) 

There’s a lot more about Ibadi Islam that’s beyond the scope of this article. There’s still a lot I don’t know, but I hope to continue reading on the topic. I am not a scholar nor a student. My writing intends to share my journey into Ibadi Islam and not mean to be a canonical representation of Ibadi Islam.  Regardless, I hope you learned something new today. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out.