Ibadi Islam in OmanMost people who know anything about the religion of Islamare aware of the Sunni and Shia branches of the faith. However, the type ofIslam practiced in the country of Oman is neither of these two. Their Islam,the Ibadi sect, predates the split between Sunni and Shia. Although there areIbadi Muslims in other countries, they are very small in number outside ofOman.
This short work will examine the Ibadis in Oman by first discussingthe Kharijites, who are their ideological predecessors. With thisfoundation, we will discuss Ibadism, and then the differencesbetween Ibadis, Sunni, and Shia. Following that, there is a short explanationof where else Ibadis are in the world. Afterwards, there is a brief discussionof the history of Oman, and finally concluding with Oman’s place in theworld and how its Ibadism influences its domestic politics and itsinternational relations.
One cannot begin to understand Ibadism without firstlearning about the Kharijites. The Kharijites were an early sect of Islam who,according to Jackson (25-26), and were so called because of the Arabic termkhawarij, or “those who went out.” The Kharijites left the rest of the Muslimcommunity because they rejected the status of Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali as the’best Muslim’ (except for Muhammad) and the fact that Ali disagreed with theSyrian governor, Muawiya. Muawiya had rebuked Ali for not seeking revenge forthe murder of Muawiya’s uncle, Uthman, the Third Caliph.
Other Muslimsconsidered the Kharijites the earliest fundamentalists, and there were manysub-sects of Kharijites. Two of the largest differences between the Kharijitesand other Muslims is that their particular approach to takfir, which is thepractice of declaring someone a kafir, or unbeliever, and the fact that in someways, they were more egalitarian than many Muslims are today. Concerning theirideas on takfir, many Kharijites were willing to declare all those who did notagree with them as kafir, especially other Muslims. Some Kharijite groups woulddo this at the first sign of dissent, while others would give warnings to thosewho were wavering. Most other Muslims believed that it was up to God to decidewho was a believer or not.
However, the Kharijites were quite willing to acceptthe person who they regarded as the best Muslim to lead them, even if thatperson were of a different ethnic group or tribe. A highly unique group was theHaruri, who even accepted that women might be spiritual leaders of thecommunity. Black (16) notes that the Kharijites considered holy war to be aSixth Pillar of Islam; according to them, all their enemies to be polytheists,regardless of whether they were in fact or not. In contrast to its roots in Kharijite beliefs and practices,Ibadism, as practiced today, is much more moderate. Ibadis see themselves asthose who are the most faithful to the Prophet Muhammad (Torstrick and Faier29), and like their ideological predecessors believe that there is asignificant difference between moral and immoral leadership among themselves,and that other monotheists, such as Jews and Christians, are to be toleratedand respected. Some Ibadis do this out of a sense of sorrow for others becauseaccording to some Ibadis, all others are going to hell. Owtram (42-43) notesthat in the eighth century CE when Ibadism was established in Oman, theideology’s focus was on autonomy for the community and that minimalist, butstrict, government would work best. This philosophy has led to some politicaldifficulties in modern Oman, but not so many as to make the countryungovernable.
Nevertheless, Oman without Ibadism as practiced today would notbe the same country. Ibadism differs from both Sunni and Shia Islam in severalrespects. First of all, Ibadis reject the leadership rules of both the Sunni,which is that the leader of the faithful is mostly a political position, aswell as the Shia, with their hierarchy of religious leaders. Also, while anypious, mature male could become the Imam of the Ibadi community, in times ofdanger, the Imam could be hidden under the doctrine of kitman (Owtram 43), orthere might not be an Imam at all at that time until it was safe for thecommunity to elect one. This aspect of Ibadism has some similarity to certainShia sects and the Hidden Imam, but the Ibadi Imam hidden under kitman is notpermanently hidden as is the Shia Mahdi. Hoffman also notes a significant number of other differencesbetween the sect and the other main sects of Islam in her book The Essentialsof Ibadi Islam.
There is not sufficient space to discuss all of them; for thisreason, I have chosen three to upon which to comment. The first is that Ibadisbelieve that God is anthropomorphic, despite descriptions in the Quran of Godhaving attributes like fingers. Ibadis hold that God is in all spaces (36). Thesecond aspect is that in Ibadi belief, the Quran is inlibrate, which is to saythat the Word of God became the Quran. This debate is a familiar debate toChristians, the “logos” debate (38). And finally, in Ibadi jurisprudence, they”do not accept the principle of taqlid (the obligation to follow the opinion ofearlier scholars)” (41, parentheses in original). Such a doctrine gives judgesthe opportunity to change rulings to fit with new information or in differentsituations, and that the law could be flexible and adaptable to changingcircumstances.
Aside from Oman, there are Ibadis found in a few otherplaces in the world. The first place of note is the island of Zanzibar, whichhad been a part of the Omani commercial empire (Wilkinson). The closed andaustere nature of Ibadism did not inspire many sub-Saharan Africans outside ofZanzibar to choose this sect if they converted to Islam. Nor are the Arabcountries with Ibadi populations close to Oman; Hoffman noted that there aresmall communities of Ibadis in Libya (26), Tunisia, and Algeria (21). They aresmall communities concentrated in a small portion of the country, not spreadout. This is because they are a community-oriented sect which does not oftenhave converts; those who leave the sect also leave the community.
Oman was once a great commercial power and empire. Itsinfluence stretched from East Africa to modern-day Pakistan. The Sultan of Omanhad even possessed the island of Zanzibar, and although the Ibadi sect is notvery prominent elsewhere, people are aware of it in that region of Africa forhistorical reasons. By the 17th century CE, Muscat, the capital, had come underPortuguese control, but the British, who controlled India and other regionsclose to Oman, had designs on the region.
Gradually, through trade, Britaincame to a position of great influence in Omani affairs. Cleveland (453) notesthat by the end of the 19th century, Britain maintained heavy involvement inOman. More specifically, the country was a protectorate; not a colony but alsonot truly independent. This situation continued until the post-World War IIera.
At that time, Oman went from a very undeveloped country with virtually nopaved roads to one that is, while not considered fabulously wealthy, known tohave made astounding advances in development. A major factor is that althoughOman has some oil reserves, its economy is more diverse than those of itsneighbors. Oman has some agriculture, fishing, and tourism while its neighborshave oil and very little else. In keeping with the Kharijite roots of its unique Ibaditradition, Oman’s current Sultan, Qaboos, remains the ruler despite ill health.Henderson notes that he has no heirs, and there is a sealed envelope which hasthe name of his successor in his palace in Muscat with an identical envelope inthe Sultan’s palace in the city of Salalah.
Although Oman’s Ibadi traditionwould call for a democratic election of a new ruler, most Omanis do not believethat such an election is a viable way to determine succession (Nereim). Despitethe fact that the majority of Omani citizens are Ibadi, if one adds foreignMuslim workers in the country, as well as native minority sects, Ibadis becomea minority after this consideration. Oman’s strategic location ensures that the world cannot forgetit. The fact that it is neither Sunni nor Shia keep it apart from many of thesectarian conflicts that plague other countries further north such as Iraq,Syria, and Lebanon.
However, this does not mean that it remains completelyneutral. Neubauer and Vatanka note that Oman has been quite concerned withSaudi Arabia’s influence in the Gulf region and its brand of Salafist SunniIslam. These concerns are a factor that feeds into Oman’s alliance with Iran,across the Gulf. Oman’s close ties with Iran, as well as with the UnitedStates, have made it a trusted partner in negotiations between Iran and the US.Unusually for the Gulf region, but in keeping with Ibadi ideology towardsoutsiders, Oman does allow Israeli tourists to visit the country despite havingno official diplomatic relations, and during the late 1990s, the heads ofgovernment met for high-level talks.
Oman’s role as a mediator would be greatlydiminished, or even nonexistent were it either a Shia or Sunni majoritycountry. As we have seen, although most of the world’s Muslims areSunni or Shia, there are other sects of Islam that have a profound influencewhere they are predominant. In the case of Oman, the evolution from Kharijiteto Ibadi was a positive change that enabled it to become a powerful tradingempire in the past and a well-regarded interlocutor in the present. Whilenobody is sure what Oman’s future holds, few predict that it is to suffer manyof the types of sectarian political difficulties that many of its neighbors do.Nor can its relative success be exported without the cultural aspects of IbadiIslam.
Omanis can be rightfully proud of what they have managed to accomplish.