The Articulation Of Ibadhi Identity In Modern Oman And Zanzibar


With some justification, Ibadhi Muslims complain that although they read the literature of all the sects, non- Ibadhis hardly ever look at Ibadhi literature. Descriptions of Ibadhism in the works of medieval Sunni scholars like Ibn hazm are full of inaccuracies, and modern scholarship on Ibađism has been scant, and has tended to focus on its political dimensions. With the exception of Cuperly, Western scholars have paid relatively little attention to Ibadhi theological perspectives, although Ibadhis have written a great deal on this subject. Sunni and Shi‘i Muslims may have long ago dismissed the old controversies about God’s essence and attributes as obscure and subsidiary issues that have little to do with the spirit of Islam, but for Ibadhi Muslim scholars these problems are of vital importance, separating, in their perspective, the true believers from those who may belong to the community of Muhammad but are nonetheless guilty of a form of kufr that falls short of idolatry.

Ibadhis retain a vital interest in the events of the first sectarian splits and civil war in Islam, as they are key to their own identity and their claim to truth. Nahrawan, east of the Tigris river in southern Iraq, was the site of a slaughter on 17 July 658 CE, when the fourth Caliph of Islam, ‘Ali ibn Abi talib, roundly defeated the Khawarij, his erstwhile comrades, now his enemies. From the perspective of the majority of Muslims, the last of the “Rightly-Guided Caliphs” had defeated a rebellion led by people whose fanatical adherence to a purist vision of Islam threatened to rupture the Islamic state and threatened death for all who did not join their secession. From the perspective of Ibadhi Muslims, whose sect grew out of this Khariji secession, the righteous remnant, the best of the Prophet’s Companions, some four thousand of the most devout and learned Muslims, were massacred by a leader who had abandoned principle in favor of politics and personal gain. Nahrawan is for Ibadhi Muslims what Karbala’ is for the Shi‘a: the symbol of the willingness to sacrifice everything, even one’s life, to answer the call of truth. Nahrawan lives on in the Ibadhi imagination as a symbol of an undying hope, despite overwhelming odds and certain defeat, the hope of actualizing a utopian vision of justice and piety in a state led by a righteous Imam duly selected by the leading scholars and pious men of the true Muslim community. This dream lies at the core of Ibadhi identity, despite centuries of violence, injustice and disappointment. True Ibadhis are shurat, willing to purchase justice at the cost of their lives. The Ibadhis of Oman call the people of the town of Nizwa baydhat al-Islam, the core of Islam, because Nizwa has so often been the center of rebellions that have led to the establishment of a true Imamate.

The last “true Imam” to unite the entire country of Oman under his power was Ahmad ibn Sa‘id (ruled 1754-1783 CE), founder of the Bū Sa‘idi dynasty that remains in power to this day. His descendants took the title not of Imam, with its connotations of religious leadership, but Sayyid, an honorific title held by any member of the royal family. Later, they used the title Sultan, implying purely coercive power. Thus they relinquished all pretense of spiritual authority, although they patronized Muslim scholars and promoted Islamic scholarship. The nineteenth and early twentieth century saw a remarkable renaissance of Ibadhi scholarship, largely fueled by the utopian vision symbolized by Nahrawan. Scholars were actively engaged in trying to actualize the true Islamic state; they poured forth their longings in poetry, even as they elaborated the foundations of piety in lengthy works of jurisprudence. The Ibadhi scholars of Oman–and the Mzab valley of Algeria, although the linkage of Ibadhism with Omani identity has necessarily made Oman the focus of Ibadhi political aspirations–have not merely taught and studied; they have agitated, led revolts, elected Imams, and been the true leaders of Omani society, as both moral exemplars and arbiters of power.

Scholarly interest in Oman has concentrated on its often tortured political history. John Wilkinson’s landmark study of the Imamate tradition of Oman (1987) is rich in information on many aspects of Ibadhi religio-political thought. Dale Eickelman’s anthropological study of Oman has included important aspects of the changes in Ibadhi self-definition in the last few decades, particularly Ibađi rapprochement with Sunni Islam and the broader Muslim world. A few valuable studies have been done by T. Lewicki and R. Strothmann on the emergence of Ibadhism, its early scholarship, and some medieval Ibadhi works of North Africa. But although Wilkinson makes passing mention of key modern Omani scholars and their works, no analysis of those works has yet appeared in any Western language. Furthermore, all Western scholarship has ignored the mystical dimensions of Ibadhism and the collections of poetry written by all Omani scholars.

Ibadhism challenges a number of long-held assumptions regarding permissible juxtapositions in Islamic thought:

1) The juxtaposition of belief in predestination with belief in the creation of the Qur’an. It has sometimes been suggested that it was inevitable that the Ash‘aris and other Muslim sects that uphold predestination would reject the createdness of the Qur’an. It is argued that as predestinarians believe that God is the creator of all things, both good and evil, and of all human acts, including human speech, it is necessary to insist that the Qur’an is uncreated in order to distinguish it as the speech of God Himself. Nonetheless, Ibadhis hold that the Qur’an is the created speech of God, although they also believe that God is the creator of all human speech. Like the Ash‘aris, they distinguish between God’s essential, uncreated speech (His kalam nafsi) and His creation of the Qur’an as a historically-bound revelation.

2) The juxtaposition of a politically activist orientation with predestinarian doctrine. Although such a juxtaposition has been recognized in Calvinism, for example, discussions of the political ramifications of the debate over free-will vs. predestination in Islam have tended toward associating predestinarianism with political quietism and the free-will position with political activism.

3) The juxtaposition of “puritanism” and mysticism—again, a recognized phenomenon in some non-Islamic traditions, but one that has tended to be forgotten in the modern dichotomies that have pitted the legalism of Wahhabism against the ecumenism and tolerance of Sufism. The common use of certain religiopolitical terms, like mutawi‘a, in Ibadhi and Wahhabi Islam, and the common goal of establishing an Islamically-oriented political regime, have led many people to confuse the two, or at least to imagine that Ibadhis must have been quite sympathetic to Wahhabism. This was not at all the case. Although the Buraimi region of Oman was conquered by Wahhabis in the nineteen century, and it is likely that some converts in that region were won to the movement, the Ibadhi scholars in the mountainous region that served as the main base for Ibadhi scholarship and the revivalist movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were positively horrified and scandalized by Wahhabi violence against other Muslims. Western scholars often construct an opposition between mysticism and legalism, or mysticism and militancy. Undoubtedly this essentially Western construction led to the conflation of Ibadhism with Wahhabism in many writings. There is no necessary contradiction between a mystical and a legalistic or militant orientation. Sufism is not just a religious orientation of compassion or openness to a diverse range of behavioral expectations; Sufi history is full of examples of quite the opposite, of mystics who upheld the rigorous application of Islamic law, and mystics who led militant political movements.

There are few Ibadhi prose works devoted to mysticism, but there is much Ibadhi mystical poetry. Sufism does not exist in the organization of the Sufi Orders we find in the Sunni Muslim world, but one should not assume that the puritanism of the Ibadhis is like that of the Wahhabis; mysticism has deep roots in Oman, and was part of the lives of its great modern scholars: Ja‘id “Abū Nabhan” ibn Khamis al-Kharūṣi (1734/5-1822), unquestionably the most powerful and respected scholar of the early Bū Sa‘idi period; his son, Naṣir ibn Abi Nabhan (1778-1847), who was taken by Sayyid Sa‘id to Zanzibar when it became Oman’s capital; Sa‘id ibn Khalfan al-Khalili (1811-1871), who is credited with inaugurating Oman’s literary revival, but is more famous for his role in establishing the Imamate of ‘Azzan ibn Qays (1868-1871); ‘Abdallah “Nūr al- Din” al-Salimi (1869-1914), possibly the most important, productive and influential scholar in modern Omani history; and Naṣir “Abū Muslim” ibn Salim al-Bahlani al-Rawahi (1860-1920)—jurist, judge, theologian and journalist, whose poetry not only expresses mystical ideas and was clearly intended for use in mystical ritual, but is perceived as gushing from the wellsprings of divine illumination. All of these scholars came from families that originated in the mountainous region of Jabal Akhdhar, although some of their families, faced with political oppression, violence, and the seizure of their properties, migrated elsewhere in Oman or to Zanzibar, the East African island that became capital of the Omani empire in 1832.

Although Ibadhism emerged from Kharijism and shares with it a condemnation of ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan and ‘Ali ibn Abi talib, the desire to found a righteous Muslim society, and the belief that true Muslims are only to be found in their group, Ibađis see themselves as quite different from the Khawarij. Whereas the Khawarij had labeled all Muslims who committed a grave sin without repentance mushrikūn–unbelievers whose guilt is tantamount to idolatry and merits the capital punishment deserved by all apostates of the faith– Ibadhis see such people as kuffar ni‘ma–monotheists who are ungrateful for the blessings God has bestown upon them. Ibadhis distinguish between kufr ni‘ma and kufr shirk, which is the unbelief of idolatry. The Khawarij had not made such a distinction, and neither do the Sunni Muslims, who likewise equate kufr with unbelief but, unlike the Khawarij, maintain that a sinning Muslim is still a believer. The word kufr, which is typically translated into English as “unbelief,” literally means “ingratitude.” The characteristic position of human beings, according to the Qur’an, is not their ignorance of the existence of God, but their failure to be grateful for His kindness and blessings, which should prompt people to turn to Him in worship and give generous charity to the poor, orphans and widows. The Qur’an contrasts the believers, who are grateful (shakirin), with the unbelievers, who are ungrateful (kafirin). The Ibadhi attitude toward kuffar ni‘ma, whether they be sinning Ibadhis or non-Ibadhi Muslims, was that one should practice “dissociation” (bara’a) toward them. This “dissociation,” however, is usually an internal attitude of withholding “friendship” (walaya), rather than outright hostility. It is interesting to note that British observers of Omani rule in East Africa commented that Ibadhis are the least fanatic and sectarian of all Muslims, and openly associate with people of all faiths and pray together with Sunni Muslims. Hostile action is reserved for one type of person: the unjust ruler who refuses to mend his ways or relinquish his power.

Rulers are held to the highest standards of morality and justice. A reading of Nūr al-Din al-Salimi’s Tuhfat al-a‘yan fi sirat ahl ‘Uman, a chronicle of the Omani Imamate, reads in a fashion similar to the book of II Kings in the Hebrew Bible: under good Imams prices are low, rain is abundant, crops flourish and people are happy; under bad Imams prices rise, drought prevails and people die of starvation.

In theology, the Ibadhis adopt the positions of the Mu‘tazila on the questions of tawhid: rejecting a literal interpretation of all anthropomorphic descriptions of God; denying the possibility of seeing God in this life or the afterlife; rejecting the existence of eternal attributes in God that are distinct from His essence; and upholding the doctrine of the creation of the Qur’an. They also part ways with Sunni Muslims in their condemnation of ‘Uthman, ‘Ali and Mu‘awiya and their rejection of the Prophet’s intercession on behalf of grave sinners and of all possibility of rescue from hellfire: punishment in hellfire is eternal, as the Qur’an says. They do not uphold the notion of an intermediate position between faith and kufr, but, as we have already indicated, they distinguish between different types of kufr, drawing a sharp distinction between kufr ni‘ma and kufr shirk. However, on the question of free-will vs. predestination the Ibađi position is virtually identical to that of al-Ash‘ari : God is the creator of all human acts, which are termed “acquisitions.”

There are minor differences between the prayer observances of Ibadhis and Sunnis. Ibadhis, like the Shi‘a and the Malikis, pray with their arms down at their sides. They do not say amin after the Fatiha, and they do not say the qunūt invocation in the fajr prayer. They believe that Friday prayer should be held only in major cities in which justice prevails–meaning that for centuries Ibadhis did not observe congregational prayer because of the lack of a just Imam–and they reject the blessing of tyrannical rulers in the khutba.

The importance of Ibadhi-Sunni differences is manifest in an anti-Wahhabi treatise written by Abū Nabhan Ja‘id ibn Khamis al-Kharūṣi (1734/5-1822). This short piece is motivated by concern over the incursion of Wahhabis in Oman in his time. Abū Nabhan describes the Wahhabis as the sect that is most dangerous to Islam. But it is curious that among the bida‘ Abū Nabhan lists in his condemnation of the Wahhabis are prayer practices that are characteristically Sunni: raising the hands to the ears or clasping them during prayer, a practice he deems “frivolous,” saying amin after the Fatiha, and saying the qunūt during the fajr prayer. These practices appear to alarm him as much as the innovations which are more distinctively Wahhabi: declaring non-Wahhabi Muslims idolaters, killing them, enslaving their children, and plundering their wealth. Ultimately, Abū Nabhan characterizes the Wahhabis as a unique combination of elements of Azraqi Kharijism and hanbalism. Abū Nabhan employs typical Ibadhi language and distinctions: the only real Muslims are the ahl al-istiqama, the “people of straightness,” i.e. the Ibadhis. When asked about the status in the afterlife of a pious non-Ibadhi Muslim who had never committed any act prohibited by God, who was an ascetic all his life, devoted to worship, desirous of God’s reward, and not neglecting any of God’s commands, Abū Nabhan replied that non-Ibadhis had no hope of salvation, because they oppose the truth:

There is no escape from God’s punishment for anyone who disagrees with or is ignorant of a single letter of the true religion, so how is it for those who deny many letters and words and countless heresies and deviations, as do the people who oppose the religion of the Muslims, even if he stays up all night praying and fasting and spends his whole life in worship?

Nonetheless, non-Ibadhis who call themselves Muslims and pray facing the direction of the Ka‘ba are ahl al-qibla, not idolaters. They may be kuffar, but not in the sense of idolatry, only in the sense of kufr ni‘ma outlined above. The practice of dissociation (bara’a) does not imply overt enmity. Nūr al-Din al-Salimi (1869-1914) clarified this when asked about the difference between bara’at al-mushrik (dissociation from a polytheist) and bara’at al-muwahhid al- fasiq (dissociation from a corrupt monotheist). Salimi replied:

Although the mushrik is further [from the truth] than the corrupt monotheist, both are cursed. Nonetheless, the Law allows certain things with the corrupt monotheist that it does not allow with the polytheist, such as intermarriage, eating their slaughtered animals, inheritance, giving the greeting of peace, saying “God bless you” if he sneezes (tashmit al-‘atis), praying behind him, praying over him if he dies, accepting his testimony, and interacting with him in all worldly matters just as one would interact with Muslims with whom one has walaya.

He justifies such politeness and assistance to non-Ibađi monotheists by pointing out that “the Muslims helped the Persians against the Byzantines, though the latter are ahl al-kitab and both are kuffar.”

Omanis had settled in East Africa for centuries, and periodically parts of East Africa came under direct rule from Oman, although more often individual Omani families ruled East African city-states, most famously the Mazrū‘is of Mombasa. But Sayyid Sa‘id ibn Sultan (ruled 1806-1856) was able to consolidate central Omani rule over the Swahili coast, and by 1832 he moved his capital to Zanzibar. On the Swahili coast Ibadhis found themselves a minority, ruling over a largely Shafi‘i Muslim population. In the nineteenth century Zanzibar became an important center of Islamic scholarship, attracting scholars from Oman as well as from other parts of East Africa, such as Somalia, Lamu, Mombasa and the Comoro Islands.

It is not surprising that Ibadhi literature became very engaged with Shafi‘i doctrine. For example, an unnamed Ibadhi wrote the following letter to Shaykh ‘Ali ibn Muhammad al-Mundhiri, chief Ibadhi judge in Zanzibar under a succession of sultans following the death of his father, the former chief judge, in 1286/1869, until Shaykh ‘Ali’s own death in 1343/1924:

Shafi‘i says that God descends on the night of 15 Sha‘ban and they claim that He descends on every night in the last half of the month to the lowest heaven, and they claim that God created Adam in His image. Look at what Shafi‘i and his followers say! They describe their creator with the characteristics of creatures, that He sits and descends and has finite dimensions and moves and is at rest. Whoever believes such a thing about his creator has left the words of the people of truth and enters perdition, and in the afterlife he will suffer the punishment of hellfire. What a horrible teaching they have believed! We dissociate from anyone who belongs to such a school and believes such things!

‘Ali al-Mundhiri concurs with his questioner’s horror, although in his response he demonstrates familiarity with the subtleties of Shafi‘i theology. He also criticizes the notion that human deeds would literally be weighed on judgment day, since deeds are accidents, not bodies, and cannot be weighed. Among the other things with which Shaykh ‘Ali finds fault are the allowance of Friday prayer in capitals where the hudūd of God are not observed, the blessing of tyrants from the pulpits, and allowing congregational prayer with a congregation of only two or three. He also faults the Sunnis for failing to recognize that some of the Companions committed grave sins necessitating bara’a.

Ibadhi legal literature on walaya and bara’a can be very dense and difficult to understand, and has been the topic of long volumes, most famously the three-volume work called Al-Istiqama by Abū Sa‛id al-Kudami, an Omani scholar of the fourth century A.H. One of the clearest and most straightford Ibadhi presentations of this topic is found in Al-‘Aqida ’l-Wahbiyya, an unpublished textbook for beginning theology students written in Zanzibar around 1919-20 by Naṣir ibn Salim al-Rawahi, known in Oman as the poet Abū Muslim al-Bahlani (1860-1920).

After professiong faith in the oneness of God, every accountable person is to distance himself from those who rebel against God: to hate them, curse them, and avoid them; this is bara’a. On the other hand, one must draw near to the people of obedience and to love them, praise them, and pray for God’s pleasure, mercy, and forgiveness for them, whether they are living or dead; this is walaya. Anyone who does not know the necessity of walaya and bara’a is guilty of shirk, as is anyone who befriends all people or dissociates from all people or suspends judgment regarding all people. Bara’a is necessitated by commission of a grave sin or persistence in a minor sin, or by belonging to a group that opposes the true Imam or follows an unjust Imam, as long as none of them manifests a grave sin. It is also necessary to befriend a convert to Islam, even if his conversion was at the hand of a non-Ibadhi Muslim, so long as he does not do any grave sin that necessitates bara’a. In addition, one should dissociate from anyone who identifies himself as belonging to a non-Ibadhi sect of Islam. However, there is no harm in feeling natural affection for such a person or treating him kindly, while believing in religious dissociation from him. “There is no harm in high morals, gentleness, polite speech, coexistence in kindness, cooperation, rescuing him from injustice, or helping him in a pious deed, as long as this does not strengthen him in rebellion against God or harming someone else.”

Abū Muslim defines a monotheist as anyone who believes in God’s uniqueness and affirms the prophethood of Muhammad. Such a monotheist should be given the greeting of peace, a share in the inheritance of true Muslims, a Muslim burial, and immunity from being killed or plundered or having his children enslaved, and one should desire good for him. These things are not limited to those with whom one has walaya, because they are obligatory for every monotheist, although Ibadhis do not consider every monotheist a wali. “One should pray for good for every monotheist and command the good and forbid the evil and hasten to meet his worldly needs. If in addition he is worthy of walaya, then you should add love to these things.”

If a person neglects to do one of the requirements of Islam, like performing ṣalat or paying zakat, not because he is unaware of the obligation to do them but merely out of laziness or neglect, such a person is a hypocrite. The unfaithfulness of hypocrisy (kufr nifaq) is equivalent to ingratitude for God’s blessing (kufr ni‘ma). On the other hand, if a person deems it permissible to neglect a religious requirement or believes it necessary to abandon it, he is an unbeliever (mushrik). Unbelieve (shirk) “includes rejecting (inkar) any one of the prophets or any one of His angels or rejecting a single letter from the words of God.”

Naṣir ibn Abi Nabhan (1778-1847), the greatest shaykh of his generation after the death of his illustrious father, was outstanding in the fields of theology, law, and what is known as ‘ilm al-sirr–the knowledge of hidden things, such as divination, the writing of talismans, and other esoteric secrets. He was especially interested in the means of knowledge, especially the knowledge of religious truths, and he composed lengthy works on the subject. Naṣir argues that the truth of religion is evident by the light of the intellect, and implies that only obstinate sectarianism keeps people from the truth. He feels that the worst deviation of the Sunni Muslims has to do with their theology of the essence and attributes of God, especially their doctrine of the eternity of the Qur’an, and their permissive interpretation of the afterlife–that the Prophet will intercede on behalf of grave sinners, and that punishment in hellfire will not be eternal for sinning Muslims. He sees the deviation of the Mu‘tazila as even worse, because they deny God’s decree and determination of all things and God’s creation of human acts. By claiming to have power over something over which they say God has no power, they deny that God is all-knowing and all-powerful, despite the express words of the Qur’an. Interestingly, he is less harsh in his condemnation of the Shi‘a, because whereas the Sunnis and Mu‘tazila have erred with respect to their doctrine of God, the Shi‘a have erred only with regard to their attitude toward the Prophet’s Companions; they erred by dissociating from and cursing Abū Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘a’isha. Although many modern Ibadhi authors take great pains to make a clear distinction between the Khawarij, whose heresy is universally acknowledged among all surviving Islamic sects, and the Ibadhis, who see themselves as “a moderate sect of Islam,” Naṣir sees the Ibadhis as a branch of the Khawarij.

Despite his intellectualism, Naṣir says that the way of love, which Naṣir says is the best (aqrab) way to God, although it is also the most difficult. It means that a person must “strive to make his heart present with God” by engaging in constant recollection of His qualities and disengaging from the thought of anything other than God. In this context Naṣir quotes from Ibn al-Faridh’s Naẓm al-sulūk ila hadhrat Malik al-mulūk (better known as the Ta’iyya), on which he says he wrote a commentary. In fact, his discussion at this point becomes entirely Sufi in orientation, and includes a meditation on the Light passage of the Qur’an (Sura 24:35-40). Discussion on the way of love is inserted neatly into an intellectual discussion on the nature of religious knowledge. His pupil, Sa‘id ibn Khalfan al-Khalili (1811-1871), does the same when he categorizes knowledge into three types: the endowed (wahbi), the necessary (dharūri), and the acquired (kasbi). Endowed knowledge, he says, “God casts into the heart of his servant as a luminous emanation and a merciful gift.” The point here is that mysticism, far from being removed from legal and theological discussions into a separate discipline of Sufism, is fully integrated in Ibadhi texts. It is included in the encyclopedic 90-volume Ibadhi work, Qamūs al-Shari‘a, as well as in other Ibadhi writings.

Naṣir’s pupil, Sa‘id ibn Khalfan al-Khalili (1811-1871) is even more obviously mystical in his orientation than his teacher. In fact, most of the great scholars mentioned here–Abū Nabhan, Naṣir ibn Abi Nabhan, Sa‘id ibn Khalfan al-Khalili, Nūr al-Din al-Salimi, and Abū Muslim al-Bahlani, were renowned mystics, credited with miraculous powers. Abū Nabhan, Naṣir and Sa‘id were all authors of large works combining information on divination, Qur’anic talismans, medicinal herbs, and astrology, a field known as ‘ilm al-sirr. Whereas magic (sihr) is prohibited (though its reality is not denied), astrology, sand divination, the interpretation of dreams, and the magical use of Qur’anic verses are deemed “noble sciences.” Naṣir wrote, “Many scholars say that there is no benefit to astrology, but God made everything for the use of human beings, not in futility.” Indeed, part of the public reputation and political role of these scholars had to do with their knowledge and manipulation of such “secrets.” Abū Nabhan came into sharp conflict with Sayyid Sa‘id ibn Sultan, who came to power in 1806, but the magical powers of the great scholar struck such fear in the heart of the powerful sultan, that he did not dare take any action against him or his family until after the great man’s death in 1822. According to Naṣir ibn Abi Nabhan, after his father’s death Sayyid Sa‘id was deceptively kind to him in order to convince him to write a talisman that would protect him from all other talismans. He did so, only to find himself an object of the sultan’s aggression (Salimi 1928-9:197-9). Sayyid Sa‘id conducted an all-out assault on the strongholds of the family of Abū Nabhan, forcing them after seven months to abandon their homes and property. Naṣir’s family members beseeched him to write a talisman to protect them against Sayyid Sa‘id. He was able to concoct a talisman even more powerful than the one he had given to the sultan, although it took a year and a half to prepare, because of the previous talisman he had written protecting Sayyd Sa‘id. His work on this talisman was supported by the other “pious people” of Nizwa, who kept him awake with coffee to enable him to recite his incantations through the night. Finally the talisman was complete, and the sultan began to experience defeats. Sayyid Sa‘id’s fear of Naṣir grew to the point that he took him into his inner circle and brought him on all his military expeditions and finally to Zanzibar, when Sayyid Sa‘id moved his capital there. There Shaykh Naṣir lived out the rest of his life, and there he died in 1846, ten years before Sayyid Sa‘id, with his head on the sultan’s lap.

In Zanzibar Ibadhis were exposed to British civilization and contemporary Islamic currents in a way that had not been possible in Oman. Sayyid Barghash ibn Sa‘id, who ruled Zanzibar from 1870 to 1888, was well-read and deeply interested in world affairs. The British Consul in residence was his close advisor, and the leader of the Zanzibari troops was a British general. The Anglican cathedral was built, with Barghash’s approval, on the site of the now abolished slave market, and British and French missionaries were allowed to function freely in non-proselytizing capacities among Muslims. Nonetheless, Barghash was extremely zealous to defend Ibadhism against the claims of Shafi‘i Islam: he established a printing press to promote Ibadhi scholarship, and he severely punished prominent Ibadhis who converted to the Shafi‘i sect. During the first generation of BūSa‘idi rule in Zanzibar, Ibadhi and Shafi‘i scholars and students rarely consulted each other or studied together, but in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth century, this became more and more common. Ibadhi scholars were often fresh from Oman and seen as having a superior command of the subtleties of Arabic rhetoric and grammar, and many Shafi‘i students, who were mainly Swahilis, studied these subjects with them. On the other hand, Ibadhi students felt themselves obligated to be familiar with Sunni theological works and sometimes studied these, as well as Sufi texts, with Shafi‘i scholars.

Omani scholars back home might have looked at such trends with some alarm, but far more alarming was the new vogue of sending one’s children to missionary schools and imitating Western styles of clothing. Apparently some Zanzibari Muslims were uncertain enough of the permissibility of such accommodationism to write to Nūr al-Din al-Salimi to ask his opinion on the matter. Salimi retorted that it was absolutely prohibited for Muslims to send their children to the schools of the infidel or to learn the languages of the infidel or to wear their clothes or trim their beards. In contrast, the chief Ibadhi judge in Zanzibar at the time, ‘Ali ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Ali al-Mundhiri, authored a highly original refutation of Christianity based on a thorough reading of the Bible in six different English translations.

Nonetheless, even Salimi was not untouched by events in the broader Muslim world. Aware of the threat of European imperialism, he called on all Muslims to unite and cease sectarian exclusivism. The tension between his strongly Ibadhi orientation with its innate desire for a very particular type of “pure” religiopolitical entity, on the one hand, and the desire for unity among the entire umma, regardless of sect, on the other hand, is never resolved. Salimi’s energies were clearly far more absorbed in the first orientation. Although he did not directly participate in rebellions against the sultan, as did his teacher, Shaykh Ṣalih, he proclaimed the ideals of the Ibadhi Imamate and in his important history, Tuhfat al-a‘yan bi sirat ahl ‛Uman, he kept alive the memory of Shaykh Sa‘id’s extraordinary rebellion to install Imam ‘Azzan ibn Qays. His influence as a teacher was unsurpassed. As the Algerian scholar, Abū Ishaq Ibrahim Atfayyish, said of Salimi in the 1920′s, “It is no exaggeration to say that all the men of learning in Oman today are his students.” Among his students was Salim ibn Rashid al-Kharūṣi, whom Salimi forced in 1913 to accept the role of Imam on pain of death, and Muhammad ibn ‘Abdallah al-Khalili , grandson of Sa‘id ibn Khalfan al-Khalili, who was appointed Imam after the Imam Salim’s assassination in 1920.

Abū Muslim al-Bahlani exemplifies a less conflicted, if somewhat contradictory, integration of traditional Ibadhism with modern ideals than Salimi. His scholarly writings are fully within the tradition of Ibadhi learning, and his extensive commentary on Nūr al-Din al-Salimi’s poem on jurisprudence is a tribute to the range of his learning and his consistency with Ibadhi tradition. He greatly admired the lives of the leaders of Ibadhism, to the point that he said, “God will accept no religion other than theirs.” His poems are of a deeply mystical character, and Abū Muslim has the reputation for being a “divine” in the full sense of the word–a man so enraptured with the divine beauty, so privileged with the vision of the unseen, that his poetry belongs to a realm beyond our own. Yet this otherworldly mystic was also a man of this-worldly politics. As one researcher commented, “His entire diwan indicates that the poet was fighting the opponents of Ibadhism in Zanzibar.” In the movement to establish the Imamate of Salim ibn Rashid al-Kharūṣi (1913), Abū Muslim compared his role to that of hassan ibn Thabit, the personal poet of the Prophet Muhammad.

But moving to Zanzibar enabled him to expand his cultural horizons a great deal. He was chief judge and advisor of Sultans hamad ibn Thuwayni (1893-1896) and hamūd ibn Muhammad (ruled 1896-1902), even traveling with the latter in East Africa in late 1898, penning his observations in a booklet hat has been published by the Ministry of National Heritage and Culture in Oman. He openly admired the improvements brought by British colonialism in the way of life in the region, and wished the British would bring to Lamu the benefits they had brought to Mombasa.

It is a sign of Abū Muslim’s cosmopolitanism and his difference from earlier Ibadhi scholars that he was influenced by the ideas of the Egyptian reformer Muhammad ‘Abduh, and established the first newspaper in Oman or Zanzibar, called Al-Najah, modeled after ‘Abduh and Ridha’s journal, Al-Manar. He corresponded with non-Ibadhi Muslim leaders, and sent a poem to Riyadh Pasha, thanking him for his efforts to reconcile Muslims and Copts in Egypt. Abū Muslim is a fascinating blend of contradictions: ardent supporter of a pure Ibadhi Imamate, friend and counselor of sultans, and admirer of British rule; affirming the traditional Ibadhi doctrine that non-Ibadhi Muslims are kuffar ni‘ma, but expressing his admiration for non-Ibadhi Muslims and advocating a unity that encompasses not only Muslims, but non-Muslims as well; a judge and journalist advocating modern “civilization,” and a mystic who identifies with the generations of Ibadhis ready to sacrifice their lives to establish the true Imamate.

Abū Muslim is the one of the last of the great scholars of the old Ibadhi tradition, the last of the mystics who fought for the triumph and establishment of the Ibađi Imamate. In 1920 the British arranged the so-called Treaty of Sib, the formal agreement which ambiguously divided the authority of the “Sultan of Muscat and Oman” from that of the “Imam of the Muslims,” who ruled in the interior. This division remained in force until Sultan Sa‘id ibn Taymūr secured the allegiance of the tribes of the interior in December 1954. Sa‘id ibn Taymūr, who ruled Oman from 1932-1970, was a staunch conservative who refused to modernize Oman beyond its available economic resources; the country had no paved roads until 1968. But he sent his son, the present sultan Qabūs, to London to study at the Sandhurst Military Academy, and Qabūs deposed his father in 1970 and set about modernizing Oman at a rapid rate. He remains in power today. So far Oman has managed to avoid unthinking Westernization and its corollary, Islamic reactionism. Islam remains an important part of life, but in a thoroughly natural and non-politicized way. Oman has all the conveniences of modern life readily available to its citizens, and Muscat is as cosmopolitan as any city in the world, but the people retain traditional dress and manners. The government supports the publication and dissemination of Ibadhi scholarship, but the rhetoric of Ibadhism is noticeably absent from its public pronouncements. Scholars like Nūr al-Din al-Salimi and Sa‘id ibn Khalfan al-Khalili are sources of national pride, but their struggles against the Bū Sa‘idi sultanate are downplayed. The present Mufti of Oman, Ahmad ibn hamad ibn Sulayman al-Khalili, not coincidentally originally from Zanzibar, believes that the differences between Sunni and Ibadhi Muslims are inconsequential trivialities that in no way impede Muslim unity. One can say that today, Ibadhism is hardly sectarian, and the dream of establishing a modern Imamate has given way to aspirations more typical of modern life.

For a contemporary Ibadhi discussion and refutation of Ibn hazm’s presentation of Ibadhism, see Ahmad ibn hamad ibn Sulayman al-Khalili (Grand Mufti of Oman), Nabdh al-ta‘aṣṣub al-madhhabi, Silsilat muhadharat min ajl fahm sahih li ’l-Islam (Sib, Oman: Maktabat al-dhamiri, 2000), 33-40.

Pierre Cuperly, Introduction à l’Étude de l’Ibadhisme et de sa Théologie (Algiers: Office des Publications Universitaires, n.d.).

The Encyclopedia of Islam, in its article “Nahrawan”1st ed., bases itself on Sunni sources and puts the number of Khariji soldiers at Nahrawan at 2,800 men, of which eight fled during the battle, 400 were wounded, carried off the battlefield and pardoned by ‘Ali, and the rest were killed. Ibađi sources give a figure of 4,000 Khariji dead.

John C. Wilkinson, The Imamate tradition of Oman. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1987.

Dale F. Eickelman, “From Theocracy to Monarchy.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 17 (1985): 3-24; idem, “Ibadhism and the Sectarian Perspective,” in Oman: Economic, Social and Strategic Developments, ed. Briam R. Pridham (London, Sydney, Wolfeboro, New Hampshire: Croom Helm, 1987), 31-50.

Ahmad ibn hamad ibn Sulayman al-Khalili, Al-haqq al-damigh. Sib, Oman: Maktabat al-dhamiri, 2000), 97-181.

Randall L. Pouwels, Horn and Crescent: Cultural Change and Traditional Islam on the East African Coast, 800-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 203, is incorrect when he describes the Ibađi position on this topic as follows: “Free will and the moral responsibility of individuals were stressed while, of course, the Asharite formula concerning free will and predestination was rejected. Therefore, Ibadis believed in the importance of individual action (‘amal), effort and strength of will (irada) in determining one’s ultimate destiny, while passivity and stagnation were condemned, along with luxury and ostentation.” It is obvious from the example of the Calvinists and many other groups that belief in divine predestination does not preclude the imperative of individual action.

E.g., Pouwels, Horn and Crescent, 204.

Mark R. Woodward, Islam in Java : Normative Piety and Mysticism in the Sultanate of Yogyakarta (Tucson: University of Arizona Press,1989) notes that according to Javanese tradition, Sunan Kalijaga, whom Clifford Geertz had used as an example of a Sufi Islam utterly devoid of orientation toward the Shari‛a (Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia, 2nd ed. [Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1979]), served as a chief prosecutor of a radical mystic who had openly denounced the Shari‘a.

The Ṣafavid movement of the sixteenth century and the jihad of Uthman dan Fodio in Hausaland in the early nineteenth century are two of the most well-known examples of militant Sufism.

His Eminence Shaykh Zahir al-‘Ibri, Undersecretary in the Ministry of Justice, expressed precisely such ideas in a conversation with the author on September 12, 2000. Similar ideas were expressed in conversations with the author by Dr. Ibrahim Soghayroun (September 4, 2000) and Dr. ‘Iṣam al-Rawwas (October 11, 2000), both professors in the Department of History at Sultan Qabūs University.

There have always been some Ibadhis who have disagreed with this teaching, including Nūr al-Din al-Salimi, who wrote Al-hujaj al-muqni‘a fi ahkam ṣalat al-jum‘a (Muscat: National Ministry of History and Culture, 1996) in defense of congregational prayer even in the absence of a just Imam.

I have found three copies of this treatise in different manuscripts, in one of which Abū Nabhan’s polemic was reproduced in response to a question written in Muharram 1223/ March 1808, asking which sect was most dangerous to Islam. The three manuscripts are all in the Bū Sa‘idi library in Sib, Oman: 1) Abū Nabhan, Kitab Shifa’ al-qulūb min da’ al-kurūb, Bū Sa‘idi ms. #320, pp. 141-51; 2) Ajwibat Abi Nabhan, Bū Sa‘idi ms. #378, possibly the original in the author’s hand, pp. 1-16; and 3) in a collection of different manuscripts, Bū Sa‘idi ms. #1766, pp. 40-60.

Ms. #378, p. 3; ms. #320, pp. 142-3; ms. #1766, pp. 42-43.

I found this fatwa in a collection of manuscripts in the Zanzibar National Archives, ZA 8/40, but it is undoubtedly included in other collections, and was known to the Grand Mufti of Oman.

Nūr al-Din ‘Abdallah b. humayd al- Salimi, Jawabat al-Imam al-Salimi, ed. ‘Abd al- Sattar Abū Ghadda, vol. 6, 2nd printing, (Muscat: National Ministry of Heritage and Culture, 1999), 210.

This fatwa appears before ‘Ali ibn Muhammad al-Mundhiri’s Risalat Ikhtiṣar al-adyan in the private library of Nūr al-Din al-Salimi in the village of al-Mintirib, Bidiyya district, Sharqiyya province, Oman. It is #209 in that library, which is maintained by the Salimi family, especially his great-grandson, Hamza ibn Sulayman ibn Muhammad al-Salimi. I am grateful for the help and hospitality of the Salimi family, with whom I stayed for a week in November 2000.

I have relied on four different manuscripts of Al-‘Aqida ’l-Wahbiyya, three of which are in the library of Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Sa‘id al-Bū Sa‘idi in Sib, Oman:

1) The oldest and most consistently reliable of the copies is #1739: 181 pages, copied by Salim ibn Sulayman, dated 8 Jumada al-Ūla 1343 AH/ 6 December 1924. The copiest notes that his copy was checked againt the author’s own copy.

2) #270 ‘ayn, 111 pages, copied by Sayf ibn Musallam ibn Nujaym, completed 20 Ramadhan 1380/ 11 March 1961.

3) This unnumbered text was apparently printed with a computer, although it has never been published. It was edited by Shaykh Sayf ibn Muhammad ibn Sulayman al-Farisi, a teacher at the Institute of Shari‘a Studies in Rūwi, Muscat, from an annotated copy done by one of his students, Ṣalih ibn Sa‘id ibn Naṣir al-Qunūbi.

This copy is useful for the footnotes providing references to Qur’anic verses, hadiths and the works of Muhammad ibn Yūsuf Atfayyish and other Ibadhi authors, but the text contains many errors. The Ministry of National Heritage and Culture also has a manuscript of Al-‘Aqida ’l-Wahbiyya, #2443, 191 pages, copied by Abū Muhammad Ahmad ibn Sulayman ibn Ẓahran al-Riyami on 5 Dhū al-hijja 1351/ 1 April 1933. I am currently preparing an annotated publication in Arabic and English translation of Al-‛Aqida ’l-Wahbiyya.

To borrow from a pamphlet by ‘Ali Yahya Mu‘ammar, Al-Ibadhiyya: Madhhab islami mu‘tadal, ed. Ahmad b. Su‘ūd al-Siyabi (Muscat: Matba‘at al-alwan al-haditha, 1988), also available in a poor translation by Ahmed Hamoud al-Maamiry as Ibadhism: A Moderate Sect of Islam (Muscat: Center for Islamic Research No. 16, n.d.).

Naṣir ibn Abi Nabhan Ja‘id ibn Khamis al-Kharūṣi, Tanwir al-‘uqūl fi ‘ilm qawa‘id al-uṣūl, vol. 3 of Al-‘Ilm al-mubin wa ’l-haqq al-yaqin, Ministry of National Heritage and Culture ms. #2306, 331 pp., copied by Khamis ibn Muhammad ibn ‘isa al-Diyami for Shaykh hamad ibn Sa‘id al-tiwani, 1 Rabi‘ al-akhar 1373, 151-2.

Sa‘id ibn Khalfan ibn Ahmad al-Khalili, Tamhid Qawa‘id al- iman wa Taqyid Masa’il al-Ahkam wa ’l-Adyan, vol. 1 (Muscat: Ministry of National Heritage and Culture, 1986), 12.

Jumayyil b. Khamis al-Sa‘di, Qamūs al-Shari‘a al-hawi turuqaha ’l-wasi‘a, vol. 10 (Muscat: Ministry of National Heritage and Culture, 1403/1983). Wilkinson writes, “Jumayyil b. Khamis Yal Sa‘di’s Qamūs al-Shari‘a took 20 years to write, between 1260 and 1280 (1844-63), according to the copy which he presented to Muhammad b. Yūsuf Atfayyish. This manuscript, in the Maktabat al-Ghanna’ at Bani Isguen, is the only complete copy I have seen (some 90 volumes). Part of it (ten volumes?), edited by Yahya b. Khalfan b. Abi Nabhan Ja‘id b. Khamis al-Kharūṣi, was printed at the Barghash press in Zanzibar in the last century (AH 1297-9)” (The Imamate Tradition of Oman, 353, n. 7). The Omani Ministry of National Heritage and Culture has published 21 volumes of the Qamūs. I have also seen the entire 90 volumes of this manuscript in the Bū Sa‛idi library in Sib.

Naṣir ibn Abi Nabhan, Al-Ikhlaṣ bi nūr al-‘ilm wa ’l-khalaṣ min al-ẓulm, Bū Sa‘idi ms. #481 alif, 9, and #247 alif, 6.

Nur al-Din ‘Abdallah b. humayd al- Salimi, Tuhfat al-a‘yan bi-sirat ahl ‘Uman, 2 vols. (Cairo: Al-Matba‘a ’l-Salafiyya, (1928-9), 196-205.

Pouwels, Horn and Crescent, 118-9.

This is evident from a study of Abdallah Salih Farsy, The Shafi‘i ‘Ulama of East Africa, ca. 1830-1970: A Hagiographic Account, trans. Randall L. Pouwels (Madison, Wisconsin: African Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin, 1989).

Kitab fi ’l-radd ‘ala ’l-Naṣara, a response to a ninth-century Nestorian text, manuscript no. 2089 in the Ministry of National Heritage and Culture, Muscat. A partial copy of this text also exists in the Zanzibar National Archives, manuscript # ZA 8/10. The originality of this polemical work lies in the fact that he argues entirely from the Bible, often using very unusual passages to make his points. The usual Muslim arguments against the divinity and Sonship of Christ are absent.

Muhammad ibn ‘Abdallah al- Salimi, Nahdhat al-a‘yan bi hurriyyat ‘Uman (Cairo: Matabi‘ Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, n.d.), 125.

Muhammad ibn Naṣir ibn Rashid al- Mahrūqi , Al-Shi‘r al-‘Umani al- hadith: Abū Muslim al-Bahlani Ra’idan (Casablanca: Al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-‘Arabi, 1999-2000), 67.Ibid.

Naṣir “Abū Muslim” ibn Salim al-Bahlani al- Rawahi, Al-Lawami‘ al-barqiyya fi rihlat mawlana al-Sultan al-mu‘aẓẓam hamūd ibn Muhammad ibn Sa‘id ibn Sultan bi ’l-aqtar al-ifriqiyya ’l-sharqiyya, Silsilat Turathuna no. 47 (Muscat: Ministry of National Heritage and Culture, 1983).

John E. Peterson, “Said bin Taymur” in Political Leaders of the Contemporary Middle East and North Africa: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. Bernard Reich (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989), 475-479.



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