return to Islamic Studies, Islam, Arabic, and Religion    



Valerie J. Hoffman (Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Illinois)


Ibadism, a distinct sect of Islam that is neither Sunni nor Shi‘i, exists mainly in Oman, East Africa, the Mzab valley of Algeria, the Nafus mountains of Libya, and the island of Jerba in Tunisia.  The sect developed out of the seventh-century Islamic sect known as the Khawarij, and shares with that group the desire to found a righteous Muslim society and the belief that true Muslims are only to be found in their own sect.  Ibadis refer to themselves as “the Muslims” or “the people of straightness” (ahl al-istiqama).  Nonetheless, Ibadis see themselves as quite different from Khawarij. 

Whereas the Khawarij had labeled all Muslims who committed a grave sin without repentance mushrikun--i.e., unbelievers whose guilt is tantamount to idolatry and merits the capital punishment deserved by all apostates of the faith--Ibadis see such people as kuffar ni‘ma--monotheists who are ungrateful for the blessings God has bestown upon them.  Ibadis 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 (shakirun), with the unbelievers, who are ungrateful (kafirun). 

The Ibadi attitude toward kuffar ni‘ma, whether they be sinning Ibadis or non-Ibadi Muslims, was that one should practice “dissociation” (bara’a) toward them.  This “dissociation,” however, is usually an internal attitude of withholding “friendship” (wilaya), rather than outright hostility.  Nonetheless, non-Ibadis 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 enmity.  Nur al-Din al-Salimi (1869-1914) clarified this when asked about the difference between dissociation from an unbeliever (bara’at al-mushrik) and dissociation from a corrupt monotheist (bara’at al-muwahhid al-fasiq).  Salimi replied:

Although the mushrik is farther [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, 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 wilaya.[1]

It is interesting to note that British observers of Omani rule in East Africa commented that Ibadis 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. 

In theology, the Ibadis 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 Ibadi 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 Ibadis and Sunnis.  Ibadis, 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 qunut 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 Ibadis 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 righteous Imamate is a topic of great importance in Ibadi legal literature.  The Imam should be chosen for his knowledge and piety, 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.  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 BuSa‘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.  Ibadi scholars were often 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 Ibadi scholars of Oman--and the Mzab valley of Algeria, although the linkage of Ibadism with Omani identity has necessarily made Oman the focus of Ibadi 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.  Shaykh Sa‘id ibn Khalfan al-Khalili (1811-1870), a mystic, poet and scholar of Arabic grammar and rhetoric who is credited with inaugurating Oman’s literary revival, is even more famous for his role in leading a rebellion against Sultan Turki and establishing the Imamate of ‘Azzan ibn Qays (1868-1871), which was overthrown only through British intervention.  Nur al-Din al-Salimi led a new Imamate movement in 1913, and forced his student, Salim ibn Rashid al-Kharusi, to accept the role of Imam on pain of death.  When Salim was assassinated in 1920, another of Salimi’s students, Muhammad ibn ‘Abdallah al-Khalili, grandson of the great Sa‘id ibn Khalfan al-Khalili, who was appointed to succeed him.  For seven years the British defended the Sultan in Muscat and eventually in 1920 arranged the so-called Treaty of Seeb, 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 Taymur secured the allegiance of the tribes of the interior in the 1950's.

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 Mazru‘is of Mombasa.  But Sayyid Sa‘id ibn Sultan (ruled 1806-1856) was able to consolidate central Omani rule over the Swahili coast, and in 1832 he moved his capital to Zanzibar.  On the Swahili coast Ibadis 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.  In Zanzibar Ibadis were exposed to 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, and established a printing press to promote Ibadi scholarship.      Ibadis in Zanzibar continued to take great interest in the political affairs of Oman, and many ardently supported the movement that established the Imamate of ‘Azzan ibn Qays (1868-1871).  In the period following this Imamate, many Omanis fled unstable economic and political conditions at home and settled in Zanzibar.  Among them was Nasir al-Rawwahi, a great poet, scholar, mystic and judge known in Oman as Abu Muslim al-Bahlani (1860-1920), who emigrated to Zanzibar as a young man, along with his father, who had served under Imam ‘Azzan ibn Qays as judge in Nizwa.  Rawwahi was an ardent supporter of the Ibadi ideal; his scholarly writings reflect fully the tradition of Ibadi learning, and his extensive commentary on Nur al-Din al-Salimi’s poem on jurisprudence is a tribute to the range of his learning and his consistency with Ibadi tradition.  His poems are of a deeply mystical character, and Rawwahi has a reputation for being a “divine” (rabbani) poet 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.  Some of his poems, dhikr meditations on the Divine Names, were intended to be used for devotional purposes.  Like the other great Ibadi scholars, he disdained either to write love poetry or panegyric.  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 Ibadism in Zanzibar.”[2]  He greatly admired the lives of the leaders of Ibadism, to the point where he said, “God will accept no religion other than theirs.”[3]  In his youth he was a close friend of Ahmad ibn Sa‘id al-Khalili, son of the great Shaykh Sa‘id ibn Khalfan al-Khalili, and the latter’s influence on Nasir al-Rawwahi is palpable.  In the movement to establish the Imamate of Salim ibn Rashid al-Kharusi, Rawwahi 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 Hamud ibn Muhammad (ruled 1896-1902), even traveling with the latter in coastal East Africa in late 1898, penning his observations in a booklet that has been published by the Ministry of National Heritage and Culture in Oman.  His attitude toward modern innovations may be compared with that of Nur al-Din al-Salimi, who had written that it is impermissible to learn the languages of the Europeans or adopt any of their manners or send one’s children to their schools.[4]  In contrast, Rawwahi openly admired the improvements brought to the region by British administration.  He observed that the town of Lamu, a traditional center of Muslim culture and scholarship on an island off the coast of Kenya, had narrow streets and old, crooked buildings, and its inhabitants manifested diseases of body and soul.  The British, he says, had left the city as it was, restricting themselves to road repair and building hospitals.  He expressed his hope that the English would not leave Lamu in this condition, but would plant the “civilization” (tamaddun) in it that they had in their own capitals.  He praised the justice of British administration in Zanzibar.

It is a sign of Rawwahi’s cosmopolitanism and his difference from earlier Ibadi 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, to propagate ‘Abduh’s ideas.  He corresponded with non-Ibadi Muslim leaders, and sent a poem to Riyad Pasha thanking him for his efforts to reconcile Muslims and Copts in Egypt.  Like Sa‘id ibn Khalfan al-Khalili, Rawwahi is a fascinating blend of contradictions: an ardent supporter of a pure Ibadi Imamate, a friend and counselor of sultans, an admirer of British rule; affirming the traditional Ibadi doctrine that non-Ibadi Muslims are kuffar ni‘ma, but expressing his admiration for non-Ibadi 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 longs for the righteous Ibadi Imamate.

Sultan Sa‘id ibn Taymur, who ruled Oman from 1932-1970, was a staunch conservative whose resistance to Westernization was so strong that Omanis were not allowed to own automobiles, and the country had no paved roads until 1968.  But he sent his son, the present sultan, Qaboos, to London to study at the Sandhurst Military Academy.  This Qaboos deposed his father in 1970 and set about modernizing Oman at a rapid rate.  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.  The government supports the publication and dissemination of Ibadi scholarship, but the rhetoric of Ibadism is noticeably absent from its public pronouncements.  Scholars like Nur al-Din Salimi and Sa‘id al-Khalili are sources of national pride, but their struggles against the BuSa‘idi sultanate are downplayed.  It is noteworthy that Nur al-Din al-Salimi’s son, Muhammad, wrote a poem in praise of Sultan Qaboos.  Abu Nabhan Ja‘id ibn Khamis (1734/5-1822), an important Ibadi scholar of the early BuSa‘idi period, confidently wrote that regardless of how kind, pious and good non-Ibadi Muslims may be, they will inevitably go to hell in the afterlife.[5]  But the present Grand Mufti of Oman, Shaykh Ahmad ibn Hamad al-Khalili, believes that the differences between Sunni and Ibadi Muslims are subsidiary issues that are of little eternal consequence and in no way impede Muslim unity.[6]  One can say that today Ibadism is hardly sectarian, and the dream of establishing a modern Imamate has given way to aspirations more typical of modern life.

[1]Jawabat al-Imam al-Salimi, ed. ‘Abd al-Sitar Abu Ghadda, vol. 6, 2nd printing, 1419/1999, p. 210.

[2]Muhammad b.  Nasir b.  Rashid al-Mahruqi.  Abu Muslim al-Bahlani Sha`iran, M.A. thesis, Sultan Qaboos University, 1995, p.72.


[4]Nur al-Din ‘Abdallah ibn Humayd al-Salimi, Badhl al-majhud fi mukhalafat al-Nasara wa ’l-Yahud.  Matabi‘ al-Batiniyya/Maktabat al-Imam Nur al-Din al-Salimi, 1995.

[5]Fatwa in a collection of manuscripts in the Zanzibar National Archives, ZA 8/40.

[6]Interview with author in Ministry of Religious Affairs, Muscat, May 2001.