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OMAN. Although a major component of its distinctiveness derives from Ibadi Islam, Oman is religiously, ethnically, and geographically complex. Its estimated 1992 population of 1,500,000 (17 percent noncitizens) included an Ibadi population of 40 to 45 percent; 50 to 55 percent were Sunni; and no more than 2 percent were Shiah

Roughly the size of Arizona, Oman was relatively isolated and underdeveloped until 1970, when the current ruler, Sultan Qabus ibn Said, usurped his father, Sa’id ibn Taymur (r. 1932-1970), in a palace coup. Except for a few Sunni bedouin tribes, the “inner Oman” of the northern interior, a string of oases separated from the coast by the imposing Hajar mountain range, remains almost exclusively Ibadi and Arab. In contrast, the towns and villages of the Batinah coast, a narrow strip of oases 10 to 20 miles wide, are polyglot and multiethnic, with Arabs (Sunni and Ibadi), Baluch (mostly Sunni), Persians (mostly Sunni and Shi’i), and the Sindi- and Arabic-speaking Liwatiyah (who are Shi’ah) among the principal groups. The settled coastal population and the cattle-herding tribes of the mountainous interior of the southern province of Dhofar (Zufar) are almost exclusively Sunni, as is the remote Musandam peninsula in the north.

From the mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century, the major theme of Omani political and religious history was the conflict between dynastic rule by an Ibadi sultan and rule by an imam, a spiritual and temporal leader chosen by a consensus of Ibadi tribal notables and religious scholars.

Since the late eighteenth century, no sultan of the Al Bu Said dynasty, which has ruled Oman continuously since 1744, has asserted the title of imam except for a brief interval from 1868 to 1871. From the midseventeenth century until Britain’s ascendancy in the Persian Gulf in the early nineteenth century, Oman’s domains included Zanzibar and the East African coast, and the energies of the Al Bu Said dynasty were largely focused away from the Omani interior. By the late nineteenth century, however, the sultanate lost these possessions and entered an economic decline. On several occasions only British intervention prevented tribes from the interior acting in the name of the imam from overthrowing the dynasty.

In formal doctrine, the imamate was the ideal Muslim state. In principle, the imam al-muslimin (“imam of the Muslims”) ruled solely by Islamic law, legitimating actions according to precedents attributed to the prophet Muhammad and his first two successors, Abu Bakr (d. 632) and `Umar (d. 634). In principle, imams were selected on the basis of their moral qualities, knowledge of the Qur’an and Islamic tradition, and capacity for governing; in practice, their selection was the exclusive province of an oligarchic tribal elite. For example, the last imam on whom all tribes agreed, Muhammad ibn `Abd Allah al-Khalili (r. 1920-1954), who sold his personal estates to sustain the imamate as its resources dwindled, was the twentieth of a long line of imams selected from his immediate tribal group.

From 1913 until 1955, the northern interior was one of the world’s last theocracies, ruled by a succession of imams. This arrangement, which did not rule out cooperation between the sultan and the imam (whom the sultan recognized only as a tribal leader) ended in 1955 when Sa’id ibn Taymfir, backed by British troops financed primarily by an oil company, assumed direct control over the region. The imamate continued in exile in Saudi Arabia, and a Saudi-supported rebellion against dynastic rule (1957-1959) was suppressed with British support.

There is little overt sectarian friction in contemporary Oman, although the end of its isolation-in particular, that of the Ibadiyah-has brought major changes in how Islam is expressed and practiced. Until 1970, Oman was almost devoid of modern educational facilities, and Omanis who left the country for education were discouraged from returning. After 1970, the country’s educational institutions developed rapidly, and mass communication permeated even remote villages.

The exposure of large numbers of Omanis to schooling and mass media has altered the style and content of Islam in Oman. For example, in “inner” Oman, only the imam gave regular Friday sermons until 1955. Beginning in the early 180, however, younger, educated Ibads began to ask for sermons like those delivered in Sunni and Shi`i congregational mosques. The government cautiously accommodated this request, setting up a committee to “guide” sermon content. Likewise, mosques named after Sultan Qabus were constructed in larger towns-in Nizwa on the site of the imam’s former mosque-and institutes were created to train religious teachers. Since 19’70 Oman has also had an appointed mufti, or authoritative interpreter of religious doctrine. Although the post is formally unaffiliated with any sect, the first two muftis have been Ibadi. The mufti speaks on public occasions, issues fatwds (religious opinions), and represents the sultanate at international Islamic conferences.

The ruler’s public addresses, like the content of Islamic studies in schools, scrupulously avoid sectarian issues. For instance, the hadith (sayings of the Prophet) included in school texts are only those on which Sunni, Midi, and Shi’ah agree. However, Oman’s reentry into the wider Islamic world has led to a more-explicit discussion of religious doctrine and practice than was formerly the case. Thus, in late 1986, a leading Saudi religious scholar issued a fatwa accusing Shaykh Ahmad ibn Hamad al-Khalili, Oman’s mufti since 1975-and, by implication, all Ibadiyah–of kufr (heresy). In early 1987, al-Khalili replied in a two-hour television address, offering the first contemporary formulation of Ibadi doctrine in Oman. Another of the mufti’s talks, “Who is an Ibadi?” originated in a reply to an Omani student in the United States who requested guidance after “Sunni brothers” questioned whether the Ibadiyah should lead Muslim prayers. These examples suggest how higher education and modern conditions have led Omanis, like Muslims elsewhere, to reformulate doctrine and practice.

[See also Ibadi Dynasty; Ibadiyah.]


Eickelman, Christine. Women and Community in Oman. New York, 1984. Provides insight into women’s religious practices in an oasis of “inner” Oman.

Eickelman, Dale F. “From Theocracy to Monarchy: Authority and Legitimacy in Inner Oman, 1935-1957.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 17 (February 1985): 3-i4. Describes the practical workings of the twentieth-century imamate and its assimilation into sultanate rule.

Eickelman, Dale F. “Ibadism and the Sectarian Perspective.” In Oman: Economic, Social, and Strategic Developments, edited by B. R. Pridham, pp. 31-50. London, 1987. Discusses the changing meaning of “sectarianism” as Oman has lost its former isolation. Eickelman, Dale F. “National Identity and Religious Discourse in Contemporary Oman.” International Journal of Islamic and Arabic Studies 6 (1989): 1-z0. Assesses how mass higher education and the mass media have changed Islamic thought and practice in Oman. Khalili, Ahmad ibn Hamad al-. Who Are the Ibadhis? Translated by A. H. al-Maamiry. Zanzibar, n.d. Although available only through research libraries, this booklet stands out as the most comprehensive expression in English of contemporary Ibadi belief in Oman. Peterson, J. E. Oman in the Twentieth Century: Political Foundations of an Emerging State. London, 1978. The best overall introduction to contemporary Omani political history and religious development. Wilkinson, John C. The Imamate Tradition in OIan. Cambridge, 1987. Difficult but essential reference by a former oil company geographer. Sociologically limited but comprehensive in use of Arabic and European sources.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/oman/

  • writerPosted On: June 16, 2017
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