Advertisement Close

The Third Islamic Division and the History of Oman

posted on: May 13, 2021

A fort in Oman. Photo: Britannica

By: Christian Jimenez/Arab America Contributing Writer

When most people think of the major divisions of Islam, they usually think of the two major sects of the Shias and Sunnis who have fought over Prophet Muhammad’s successor.  However, did you know that there is a existing smaller third sect, and that it is intertwined with the history and identity of Oman?

History of Ibadism

Distribution of the 3 main branches of Islam
Image by

Today the Ibadis number of followers is around 3 million, which is considerably less than the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam, and despite there being some Ibadis in North Africa, such as in Libya, or in East Africa, such as Zanzibar, their numbers do not make up the majority of any predominantly Muslim country.  The only country on the planet that does have a majority Ibadi population is the Sultanate of Oman.  However, the Ibadis originally came not from Oman, but as an offshoot of the Kharijites, who came into being along with the Shias and Sunnis, over the question of succession to  Muhammad.  The Kharijites are most well known for their disillusionment with the nephew of Muhammad, Caliph Ali, due to him accepting arbitration with contender Mu’awiyah of the Umayyads over the title of Caliph at the Battle of Siffin in 657 C.E. during the fitna, or civil war.  During and before these turbulent times, the Kharijites wanted to return Islam back to the time of Muhammad because before the Kharijites broke off to form their own group during the fitna, many of their future members did not look favorably to the third caliph Uthman due to his policies of giving important positions to his own family, the Ummayyads, and they also didn’t see his policies as compatible with the Sunnah and the Qur’an.  Thus when Ali sought arbitration with Mu’awiyah over the future of the caliphate, they left Ali as they claimed that only God and not man decided who would succeed as caliph as dictated in the Qur’an, and they also had the belief that all rebels to this rule, including the Umayyads, needed to be crushed.  This belief convinced the Kharijites to defect from Ali after he accepted arbitration and it even led to a Kharijite assassinating him in 661 A.D.  In addition to this, they also were opposed to the rise of the Umayyad Caliphate and would continue to be against them over the next few centuries while being prosecuted by the authorities, which led to their practices and meetings being conducted in secret.  

Out of the Kharijites came the branch of Islam that would become the Ibadis, who formed during the time of the Umayyad Caliphate.  Their founder was Abdullah Ibn Ibad al-Murri al-Tamimi who gave the Ibadi movement its namesake and who was also a part of the Banu Tamim tribe.  At first, the Ibadi movement originated out of Basra, Iraq, and not Oman as most people would believe.  However, another founder of Ibadi Islam was Jabir Ibn Zayd who was on a more friendly term with the Umayyads and broke off from other more radical Kharijite movements and were favored by the Umayyads over other Kharijites due to their less extreme and radical nature.  Interestingly, Jabir Ibn Zayd was actually from Oman but then moved to Basra, Iraq where he was with other moderate Kharijites like Ibn Ibad where they refuted other Muslim groups including other Kharijites, but they were still a small movement at this time.  However, Jabir Ibn Ziyad would then move or had been expelled by the Umayyads with his followers back to Oman, which could explain Ibadi Islam’s influence and dominance there.  Today the Ibadis stress unity with all Muslims including non-Ibadis and would talk to other Muslim sects about their Ibadism belief in order for them to understand their viewpoints.  Another interesting fact about Ibadism is their view of who would rule the Muslim Community where unlike Sunnis or Shia who prefer or have a member of the Quraysh tribe to be the next ruler, the Ibadi leaders only requirements are that the leader is a pious member of the community and learn fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence.  Ibadism also has the practice of secrecy, which is practiced during times of prosecution.  Another factor is that they place great emphasis on the ijtihad, independent thinking, which is when Islamic jurists solve Islamic legal problems based on their own interpretations of Islam and its texts.  Other interesting facts about Ibadism is that they contain their primary source for hadiths in the Tartib Al-Musnad and that their prayers differ from other groups as they keep their hands on their sides and don’t say amin after the recitation of the al-Fatihah.  These practices and beliefs make the Ibadis a rather unique group in the world of Islam and have also influenced Oman’s role on the world stage.

History of Oman and The Role of Ibadism

Omani Empire at its height
Image by

The first time an independent Oman was ruled by the Ibadis was during the year 750 C.E. after the fall of the Umayyads as they were then ruled by Imams in what was known as the Imamate of Oman with the government being an elective theocracy.  The Ibadi Imams would rule Oman for another four centuries until they were succeeded by the Nabhani Dynasty who ruled more like kings than imams with their dynasty lasting until the 17th century. However, despite this, the Imams of the Ya’rubi Dynasty would recreate the Imamate and halt the European powers with one example being the Imam Sultan bin Saif, who retook Muscat from the Portuguese in 1650 after the Nabhanis lost it previously in 1504.   After this victory, they were then able to push out the Portuguese from East Africa and create their own Indian Ocean empire stretching from Mozambique to Arabia with their principle overseas possession being Zanzibar, which was a vital location in the overseas slave trade in East Africa.  However, the empire split up around 1856 during the Al Busa’idi Dynasty as two sons of the dead sultan, Said bin Sultan, fought for control of the empire, which led to one son, Majid, obtaining Zanzibar and East Africa and the other son, Thuwaini, obtaining Muscat and Oman.  They would then both be under British control by the 20th century, and would have a mixed history of resisting European colonialism and contributing to Ibadi Islam in East Africa and Zanzibar, but they would also be involved in the slave trade devastating millions of people.  

However, today Oman is considered a tolerant and moderate society where they are friendly to both Muslim non-Ibadis and non-Muslims as can be seen by the passage of the Basic Law in 1999 that allowed other religions to build places of worship despite some limitations, which is unlike some other members in the Persian Gulf region like Saudi Arabia. In addition to this, their Ibadi heritage has allowed the Sultanate to serve as a neutral force in the Shia-Sunni, Saudi-Iranian rivalry in their conflicts over the Persian Gulf region and the wider Middle East, such as in providing humanitarian aid to Yemen and mediating negotiations between that country and Saudi Arabia in the war taking place there.  Hopefully, with this article, I was able to show the uniqueness of Ibadi Islam and Oman in the Arab World, as well as Oman’s influence and place in ancient and modern history.

Check out Arab America’s blog here!