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Ibadism: The Roots of a Tolerant Sect of Islam

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A worshipper prays at Muscat’s Dhu Al-Nurayn mosque in the Gulf sultanate of Oman. Photo AFP

Although Ibadism is often described as conservative, it is considered a tolerant sect of Islam, which emphasizes the ‘rule of the just’ and rejects violence as a means to political ends. The Ibadi popu-lation is very small compared to the Sunni and the Shiite sects. There are roughly 2.72 million Ibadis worldwide, most of whom live in Oman. Indeed, Oman is the only country in the Muslim world with an Ibadi-majority population. There are also small Ibadi communities in Zanzibar, Tripolitania in Libya, the island of Jerba in Tunisia and the Mzab area of Algeria.

The Ibadi sect’s emphasis on tolerance and moderation is underscored by the accommodations that Oman’s leadership provides the 25 percent of the population that is not Ibadi. Unlike any oth-er country in the region, Oman’s legal system offers extensive protection to religious minorities (Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists). Although Oman is by no means a democracy, in terms of religious pluralism and social inclusion, it is far ahead of its Arab neigh-bours. Arguably, this tolerant culture is at least partly rooted in Ibadism.

For centuries, Ibadis have lived in relative isolation and often were misunderstood by other Mus-lim communities. Nevertheless, when Qaboos bin Said became the sultan of Oman in 1970, he adopted a more active approach to publicizing and disseminating the important Ibadi works. Some of the works that have been published in Arabic date back to before 800, but English translation of Ibadi theological books remains limited.

The roots of Ibadism go back to the 7th century, 20 years after Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632. As such, Ibadism is distinct from either Sunni and Shia Islam and emerged before the Shia-Sunni schism. Ibadis can be traced back to the Kharijites, who came into existence during the First Islamic Civil War (656-661). Kharijites were the earliest Islamic sect, which emerged as the result of the religio-political controversy over the Caliphate. Although Ibadis strongly object to being defined as Kharijites, they acknowledge that their sect originated with the Kharijite secession of 657. Hence, to understand Ibadism, it is imperative to pay attention to the early history of the Kharijites. The Kharijites believed in the five pillars of Islam and the same Islamic principles that were advocated during Muhammad’s life. It was not until the doctrine that only fully emerged after Muhammad’s death that differences appeared between the Kharijites and the rest of the early Muslim community.

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The emergence of the Kharijites was a reaction to the rule of the third caliph, Uthman, and the fourth caliph, Ali. Discontent mounted over the favour Uthman showed to his own Ummayad family, who seemed to enjoy a monopoly of influential and lucrative appointments. Kharijites were outraged by Uthman’s actions, particularly in the later phase of his rule before he was killed by his opponents. Uthman’s death added to the instability and division among Muslims. However, the Kharijites were just dismayed by Ali, particularly when, while fighting those who sought vengeance for Uthman’s death, he agreed to arbitration about the rights and wrongs of the killing. The Kharijites strongly opposed the move because they believed that ‘judgment belongs to God alone’. Hence, they split from the majority of the early Muslims because they did not recognize the legitimacy of either Uthman or Ali. The Kharijites called the Muslims who did not share their opinions al-qawm. The Kharijites believed that al-qawm have lost walaya (loyalty both to God and fellow Muslims). However, the Kharijites could not agree among themselves about how to deal with al-qawm. The majority of early Kharijite groups favoured armed confrontation with those whom they considered as infidels, but a minority favoured a ‘live-and-let-live’ position. This more tolerant approach paved the way for Ibadism. Ibadism, the name of which derives from Abdallah ibn Ibad, who appears to have been the group’s political mentor, though its spiritual leader was Jabir ibn Zayd, who became the group’s first imam. Ibadis refer to themselves as ‘the Mus-lims’ or ‘the people of straightness’ (ahl al-istiqama), so they see themselves as quite different from Khawarij.

In theology, the Ibadis are close to the Mutazila, which means they do not have a literal interpreta-tion of all anthropomorphic descriptions of God; they reject the existence of eternal attributes in God that are distinct from His essence. They also reject the possibility of seeing God in this life or the afterlife and of upholding the doctrine of the creation of the Koran. Similarly, the Mutazila and Shias interpret anthropomorphic references to God in the Koran symbolically rather than literally. They believe it is acceptable to disguise one’s beliefs under certain circumstances, parallel to the Shia notion of taqiyyah. Taqiyyah is the practice of concealing one’s belief and foregoing ordinary religious duties when under threat of death or injury. Unlike in Shia Islam, however, it is not neces-sary for the ruler of the Muslims to be descended from the Quraysh tribe, which was the tribe of Prophet Muhammad. They also believe that an imam should be chosen for his knowledge and pie-ty, without any regard to race or lineage. He should be chosen by the elders of the community, who are also obligated to depose him if he acts unjustly.

There are minor differences between the prayer observances of Ibadis and Sunnis. Ibadis, like the Shiites and Malikis, pray with their arms at their sides instead of folding their arms. For centu-ries, Ibadis did not observe congregational prayer because they believed that did not have just imam. On principle, Ibadis reject the blessing of tyrannical rulers in khutbas or sermons. Therefore, they believe that Friday prayer should be organized only in major cities where justice prevails.