Ibadi how its Ibadism influences its domestic politics

Ibadi Islam in Oman

Most people who know anything about the religion of Islam
are aware of the Sunni and Shia branches of the faith. However, the type of
Islam 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 are
Ibadi Muslims in other countries, they are very small in number outside of
Oman. This short work will examine the Ibadis in Oman by first discussing
the Kharijites, who are their ideological predecessors. With this
foundation, we will discuss Ibadism, and then the differences
between Ibadis, Sunni, and Shia. Following that, there is a short explanation
of where else Ibadis are in the world. Afterwards, there is a brief discussion
of the history of Oman, and finally concluding with Oman’s place in the
world and how its Ibadism influences its domestic politics and its
international relations.

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One cannot begin to understand Ibadism without first
learning 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 term
khawarij, or “those who went out.” The Kharijites left the rest of the Muslim
community 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 the
Syrian governor, Muawiya. Muawiya had rebuked Ali for not seeking revenge for
the murder of Muawiya’s uncle, Uthman, the Third Caliph. Other Muslims
considered the Kharijites the earliest fundamentalists, and there were many
sub-sects of Kharijites. Two of the largest differences between the Kharijites
and other Muslims is that their particular approach to takfir, which is the
practice of declaring someone a kafir, or unbeliever, and the fact that in some
ways, they were more egalitarian than many Muslims are today. Concerning their
ideas on takfir, many Kharijites were willing to declare all those who did not
agree with them as kafir, especially other Muslims. Some Kharijite groups would
do this at the first sign of dissent, while others would give warnings to those
who were wavering. Most other Muslims believed that it was up to God to decide
who was a believer or not. However, the Kharijites were quite willing to accept
the person who they regarded as the best Muslim to lead them, even if that
person were of a different ethnic group or tribe. A highly unique group was the
Haruri, who even accepted that women might be spiritual leaders of the
community. Black (16) notes that the Kharijites considered holy war to be a
Sixth 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 as
those who are the most faithful to the Prophet Muhammad (Torstrick and Faier
29), and like their ideological predecessors believe that there is a
significant difference between moral and immoral leadership among themselves,
and that other monotheists, such as Jews and Christians, are to be tolerated
and respected. Some Ibadis do this out of a sense of sorrow for others because
according to some Ibadis, all others are going to hell. Owtram (42-43) notes
that in the eighth century CE when Ibadism was established in Oman, the
ideology’s focus was on autonomy for the community and that minimalist, but
strict, government would work best. This philosophy has led to some political
difficulties in modern Oman, but not so many as to make the country
ungovernable. Nevertheless, Oman without Ibadism as practiced today would not
be the same country.

Ibadism differs from both Sunni and Shia Islam in several
respects. 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, as
well as the Shia, with their hierarchy of religious leaders. Also, while any
pious, mature male could become the Imam of the Ibadi community, in times of
danger, the Imam could be hidden under the doctrine of kitman (Owtram 43), or
there might not be an Imam at all at that time until it was safe for the
community to elect one. This aspect of Ibadism has some similarity to certain
Shia sects and the Hidden Imam, but the Ibadi Imam hidden under kitman is not
permanently hidden as is the Shia Mahdi.

Hoffman also notes a significant number of other differences
between the sect and the other main sects of Islam in her book The Essentials
of Ibadi Islam. There is not sufficient space to discuss all of them; for this
reason, I have chosen three to upon which to comment. The first is that Ibadis
believe that God is anthropomorphic, despite descriptions in the Quran of God
having attributes like fingers. Ibadis hold that God is in all spaces (36). The
second aspect is that in Ibadi belief, the Quran is inlibrate, which is to say
that the Word of God became the Quran. This debate is a familiar debate to
Christians, the “logos” debate (38). And finally, in Ibadi jurisprudence, they
“do not accept the principle of taqlid (the obligation to follow the opinion of
earlier scholars)” (41, parentheses in original). Such a doctrine gives judges
the opportunity to change rulings to fit with new information or in different
situations, and that the law could be flexible and adaptable to changing

Aside from Oman, there are Ibadis found in a few other
places in the world. The first place of note is the island of Zanzibar, which
had been a part of the Omani commercial empire (Wilkinson). The closed and
austere nature of Ibadism did not inspire many sub-Saharan Africans outside of
Zanzibar to choose this sect if they converted to Islam. Nor are the Arab
countries with Ibadi populations close to Oman; Hoffman noted that there are
small communities of Ibadis in Libya (26), Tunisia, and Algeria (21). They are
small communities concentrated in a small portion of the country, not spread
out. This is because they are a community-oriented sect which does not often
have converts; those who leave the sect also leave the community.  

Oman was once a great commercial power and empire. Its
influence stretched from East Africa to modern-day Pakistan. The Sultan of Oman
had even possessed the island of Zanzibar, and although the Ibadi sect is not
very prominent elsewhere, people are aware of it in that region of Africa for
historical reasons. By the 17th century CE, Muscat, the capital, had come under
Portuguese control, but the British, who controlled India and other regions
close to Oman, had designs on the region. Gradually, through trade, Britain
came to a position of great influence in Omani affairs. Cleveland (453) notes
that by the end of the 19th century, Britain maintained heavy involvement in
Oman. More specifically, the country was a protectorate; not a colony but also
not truly independent. This situation continued until the post-World War II
era. At that time, Oman went from a very undeveloped country with virtually no
paved roads to one that is, while not considered fabulously wealthy, known to
have made astounding advances in development. A major factor is that although
Oman has some oil reserves, its economy is more diverse than those of its
neighbors. Oman has some agriculture, fishing, and tourism while its neighbors
have oil and very little else.

In keeping with the Kharijite roots of its unique Ibadi
tradition, 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 has
the name of his successor in his palace in Muscat with an identical envelope in
the Sultan’s palace in the city of Salalah. Although Oman’s Ibadi tradition
would call for a democratic election of a new ruler, most Omanis do not believe
that such an election is a viable way to determine succession (Nereim). Despite
the fact that the majority of Omani citizens are Ibadi, if one adds foreign
Muslim workers in the country, as well as native minority sects, Ibadis become
a minority after this consideration. 

Oman’s strategic location ensures that the world cannot forget
it. The fact that it is neither Sunni nor Shia keep it apart from many of the
sectarian conflicts that plague other countries further north such as Iraq,
Syria, and Lebanon. However, this does not mean that it remains completely
neutral. Neubauer and Vatanka note that Oman has been quite concerned with
Saudi Arabia’s influence in the Gulf region and its brand of Salafist Sunni
Islam. 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 United
States, have made it a trusted partner in negotiations between Iran and the US.
Unusually for the Gulf region, but in keeping with Ibadi ideology towards
outsiders, Oman does allow Israeli tourists to visit the country despite having
no official diplomatic relations, and during the late 1990s, the heads of
government met for high-level talks. Oman’s role as a mediator would be greatly
diminished, or even nonexistent were it either a Shia or Sunni majority

As we have seen, although most of the world’s Muslims are
Sunni or Shia, there are other sects of Islam that have a profound influence
where they are predominant. In the case of Oman, the evolution from Kharijite
to Ibadi was a positive change that enabled it to become a powerful trading
empire in the past and a well-regarded interlocutor in the present. While
nobody is sure what Oman’s future holds, few predict that it is to suffer many
of the types of sectarian political difficulties that many of its neighbors do.
Nor can its relative success be exported without the cultural aspects of Ibadi
Islam. Omanis can be rightfully proud of what they have managed to accomplish.


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