Ibadis Are Ray of Hope for The Middle East

Photo: The writer in front of the Sultan’s Al Alam Palace in Old Muscat. Credit: Manish Rai.

By Manish Rai 10 January 2019

MUSCAT,
Oman (IDN) – It’s widely believed that there are two main branches of
Islam i.e. Sunni and Shia, which differ in their understanding of early
Islamic history and hence they have different ideas about how Islam’s
leadership should have been organised in subsequent eras. But there is a
third, lesser-known body of believers with deep historic roots, and
their identity fractionally predates the Sunni-Shia split in the seventh
century. They are the Ibadis, who number less than 3 million in total.
Only in one country, Oman, do they form a majority. However, significant
pockets exist in North Africa, especially Libya, and along the east
African coast, particularly on the island of Zanzibar.

The
Ibadi branch takes its name from the moderate Islamic scholar Abdullah
ibn Ibad at-Tamimi, who became the leader of the group in Basra around
685 BC. Still, the Ibadis claim that their true founder was Ibn Ibad’s
successor, Jabir ibn Zaid al-Azdi, originally from Oman.

They
are an offshoot of the Khawarij, one of the hardest-line tendencies to
emerge in early Islam, and yet the Ibadis are at the liberal end of the
Islamic spectrum in every way. By contrast, the Ibadis were and are
relatively accommodating towards Muslims of other school of thoughts and
indeed towards Christians and Jews.

On
some touchstone theological issues, the Ibadis take what modern
Westerners analysts would call a liberal line. For example, they see the
Holy Koran as being created by God, rather than a manifestation of
divinity, itself.

Unlike
any other countries in the region, Oman’s legal system offers extensive
protection to religious minorities (Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Hindus,
Sikhs, Jews, Christians and Buddhists). Ibadis have always followed the
attitude of unity with other Muslims, even if they are non-Ibadis.

The
only circumstance in which an Ibadi is allowed to resort to violence is
when there is a need to remove an unjust despot from power. Violence is
never professed for religious reasons and mixed marriages with Muslims
of other denominations are allowed.

Ibadism
has always demonstrated a notable openness to non-Muslims as well. The
Ibadis are the least fanatic and sectarian of all ideologies. In its
school’s curriculum the Sultanate of Oman avoids teaching sectarian
dogma or the history of division within Islam. Curricula are informed
solely by general Islamic principles undisputed by Sunnis, Shias, or
Ibadis. 

In
fact, it is widely perceived as illegal to ask someone what sect they
belong to, as it’s almost always perceived as an insult and, under the
law, an “abuse to a person’s dignity”. Children are taught from a young
age to not inquire about the sect, tribe, or mother tongue of others.
This approach appears to have strengthened the country’s social fabric.

This
is even proven by the figures released by international agencies. In
year 2015, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and
Political Violence at London’s King College found that not a single
Omani had joined the more than 20,000 foreign fighters battling
alongside ISIS.

The
2016 Global Terrorism Index gives the country a score of “0”, which
means there is “no impact of terrorism” within its borders. It’s
noteworthy that Oman is the only country in the Middle East and North
Africa (MENA) with such a score, which makes it one of the safest
countries in the world.

While
tensions between the different branches of Islam have been peaking
throughout the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East, Oman continues to
uphold its traditional liberal stance. Moreover, Oman always pursues an
independent foreign policy which helps it to be seen as friend of all.
That’s why Oman has managed to stay out of disputes, maintaining good
relationships with Western allies and other Middle Eastern countries.

Oman
does not participate in the Saudi bombing campaign and naval blockade
against Yemen. Sultan Qaboos has hosted several negotiation sessions
aimed at stopping this ongoing war. He has kept friendly relations with
both the United States and Iran. Oman facilitated secret U.S.-Iran
meetings that eventually resulted in the Vienna nuclear talks. But not
only Ibadism contributed in this liberal attitude of Omanis alone.

Another
important factor for this is their culture and exposure with the
outside world since ancient times. As the sultanate has an ancient
history of trade with the outside world dating back to pre-Islamic
times, which has done much to contrast its national identity with that
of Arabia and other Persian Gulf sheikdoms. As early as the 4th century,
Omani traders sailed to China from the Sohar harbor, north of Muscat.

Oman’s
success in terms of preventing their young subjects from leaving the
sultanate to fight with global jihadist networks on the battlefields of
Iraq and Syria, or waging “lone wolf” attacks in the Gulf Arab nation,
is a notable achievement given the thriving radicalisation in the
region. Much of this success can be attributed to the nature of Oman’s
foreign policy and the manner in which the nation has managed its own
society.

Other
Arab states can learn from Oman that the best way to prevent foreign
meddling in their internal affairs is to accommodate all ethnic and
religious groups to avoid granting outsiders opportunities to exploit
tensions between regimes and historically marginalized communities.

* Manish Rai, a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency Viewsaround, can be reached at manishraiva@gmail.com. [IDN-InDepthNews – 04 January 2020]

Photo: The writer in front of the Sultan’s Al Alam Palace in Old Muscat. Credit: Manish Rai.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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Source: South Asia Journal
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