Oman and Ibādī Islām

Recently, I had been blessed with the opportunity of visiting the Sultanate of Oman. The dominant branch of Islam practiced in this state is known as Ibādism, which, owing to its size of being less than one per cent of the global Muslim population, is often misunderstood. There are other smaller communities of Ibādīs living in Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Zanzibar and elsewhere along the East African coast. During my stay in Oman, I was immediately impressed with the way Sunnis, Shias and Ibādīs peacefully coexist and pray together in the same place. In fact, at no point during my time in Oman did anyone inquire as to what ‘sect’ or ‘group’ was I affiliated with – something Muslims in the UK could do well to learn from.

Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding of Ibādīs stems from them being simplistically labelled as the Muhakkima, or what later became known as the Khawārij, which was a group that emerged during the Battle of Siffin (36/656). Whilst the roots of Ibādīsm can be traced back to this early movement and consequently, they have been associated with some of the extremism of the Khawārij, the Ibādīs, however, did not inherit any of their ideological features such as defining corrupt Muslims as unbelievers. Abu Bilal Mirdas ibn Udayyah (d.681), the founder of this group and one of the leaders of a Khawārij sub group, opposed this extremist approach. [1] The Ibādīs refer to themselves as the ahl al istiqama, ‘the people of straightness’ but were soon named after an early scholar of the school in Basra, Abdullah ibn Ibād. First hand experience of being with the Ibādīs confirm that they are people who seek actively to live peacefully even with those with whom they disagree. The association of the Ibādīs with the Khawārij must be seen as historical and incidental, the exclusionary principles adopted by the Khawārij are not adopted by the Ibādīs.

There are other theological differences, which I was able to discuss with the son of the grand Mufti of Oman, Shaykh Aflah bin Ahmad bin Hamad al-Khalili. Three issues in particular are of significance: their denial of seeing God in the hereafter; their opinion of the creation of the Qur’ān; their belief in the permanent staying in the fire of those who have committed major sins (i.e. without repentance). [2]

Notwithstanding the differences mentioned above, I was personally inspired by this visit. I attended Mass at one of the many state funded churches in Oman and met with people of other faiths, who were all positive about the level of religious tolerance and inclusionary approach that is practiced in Oman. As for the Muslims of Oman, I found their hospitality and humility second to none. In an age where our own insecurities configure us to expose faults in others, perhaps we could do well by appreciating the rich tapestry our faith offers and extracting what we find good in others for our own benefit.

And only God knows best.

[1] For more, one may want to read ‘The differences between Ibādīs and Khawarij’ by Shaykh Ibrahim Attfayish.

[2] It is not the purpose of this article to engage in any theological discussion. One can read ‘The overwhelming truth – A discussion of some key concepts in Islamic theology’ by the Grand Mufti of Oman, Shaykh Ahmad bin Hamad al-Khalili. I am grateful to my friend and host, Mahmood al Qarni for providing books on this topic and for arranging this meeting.


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