Ibadism and Oman’s stance of ‘active neutralisation’

Summary: publication of the winning entry of the inaugural Arab Digest – Anglo-Omani Society Essay Competition for Year 12 and Year 13 students (ages 16 -18).

We are pleased to publish Grace Dunn’s winning entry in the inaugural Arab Digest – Anglo-Omani Society Essay Competition for Year 12 and Year 13 students (ages 16 -18). Grace is a Year 13 student at St George’s Ascot. She plans to study Arabic and Islamic Studies at university. She notes that “Oman became a focal point of interest for me because of its unique status as a country that has balanced its rapid modernisation in the past fifty years, whilst simultaneously preserving its cultural customs and religion.”

Oman is a country balanced in the cross-section between traditional religious beliefs and advances in modernity. It has progressed over the late 20th century into a Sultanate that is internationally respected for its internal peaceful relations within a diverse plethora of religious and ethnic minorities. Being the only nation which has an Ibadi majority, and thus large Sunni and Shi’a minorities, it is exempt from the well-known conflicts that other Arab administrations and non-state performers are partial to, as well as encouraging understanding of other religions. The dominance of Ibadism has contributed to the high level of tolerance seen within Oman, whereby anyone who is not an Ibadi Muslim is allowed to openly practice their culture and religion within limits, although this allowance for peaceful co-existence is not to be confused with open celebration of other religions and Islamic sects.

Sultan Qaboos Mosque, Muscat (photocredit: @ALJVD1)

Under the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the education system and opportunities it has provided have been radically reformed. The Sultanate itself runs on a system which has allowed for modernisation whilst also conserving its cultural and religious traditions. Domestic and international development has progressed greatly since 1970 and the coup that brought Qaboos to power. However,  it has ultimately been down to the people to accept the reforms he instituted. Omani culture and behavioral customs, intertwined with Ibadism, have created the foundation for social and political development, and with that an established tolerance.

Ibadi ideology centralises the belief that the Qur’an was the word of God specifically designed for the Prophet and his immediate followers to understand at the time, and thus they believe that its message should not be held with the same weight in the modern day, and that it should be interpreted within a circumstantial context. This has allowed Ibadi Muslims a much more open response to changing times and circumstances as well as a greater tolerance towards not only other Islamic sects, but other religions. Furthermore, Ibadism shares beliefs with both Shi’a and Sunni sects which gives them the ability to connect with both as well as acting as a middle ground between the two. Thus, Oman, as the world’s only Ibadi majority nation, does not have the same stakes in the Sunni-Shi’a conflicts which have proven to be a prime cause of armed conflict in recent years.

Ibadi neutrality has allowed for a practical approach to global politics as seen in its continuous provisions of humanitarian aid to Yemen, in addition to mediating peace talks between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In addition, the more liberal interpretation of the Qur’an naturally leans away from fundamentalism and towards modern development and a slow evolution of the political, social and economic landscapes within the country.

Oman’s international stance of “active neutralisation” (as discussed by  Cuneyt Yenigun in his paper Oman Security Perspectives and NATO Relations) has also been applied to domestic affairs; from 1965-1975 there were large numbers of insurgents, poverty, harsh restrictions, and a lack of modern structure that underlined the need for domestic reform. Sultan Qaboos’ reforms, starting in 1970, slowly dissipated these issues and by improving internal policies, Oman’s external appearance and role of neutrality between the Euro-Atlantic Zone, the Gulf Cooperation Committee (GCC) and Iran, was consolidated. Thus, global and domestic neutrality go hand in hand.

In the successful coup against his father (with the aid of Britain,) Sultan Qaboos bin Said began slow reformations of Oman with the purpose of modernisation in an ‘evolutionary’ process. One of the most substantial changes was the academic curriculum. Oman went from almost no schools to over a thousand, including a university, within 25 years. The newly founded Ministry of Education in 1971, took on the task of establishing a new academic curriculum that combined a religious and historical framework with modern studies and prescribed a level of compulsory schooling similar to what other Arab nations had at the time. Islamic studies were made compulsory from the first grade through to the twelfth, and were designed to promote unity and avoid secularism. The curriculum focused on the common beliefs of all Muslims and not on any particular beliefs held in either Sunni, Shi’a or Ibadi schools of thought. In comparison to the Bahraini academic curriculum, where religious beliefs and the educational system have clashed, causing discomfort for the Shi’a minority community, Ibadi dominance in Oman has allowed for the creation of a religious and secular curriculum without friction or discomfort within minority sects. This unity of education in both modernity and religion has neutralised sect differences within Islamic studies, and has actively encouraged the participation of both genders up to, and including university education.

Due to the Omani people’s ‘ideology of politeness’, expressions of tolerance towards others are deemed essential to a person’s honour. The Basic Law, established in 1999, allows for other religions and Islamic sects to practice and build places of worship openly, although there are still limitations; religious buildings must be built on land allocated by the Sultan, and religious festivals must be practiced within those buildings (with the permission of the Sultan) and not publicly in order to avoid civil upset and unrest. Thus, Arab, Iranian and Indian cultures and nationalities can co- exist within Oman, alongside each other. Local Omani people claim themselves to be  “non-contentious”, their culture contains formalities and a customary code of honour regarding public behavior which inhibits the articulation of a person’s worth, or criticism about another. It is due to their customs of courtesy, as well as the passing of the Basic Law that has allowed for expressions of nationality and religion, within reason.

Ultimately, Ibadism, nestled within traditional culture, is the foundation of tolerance within Oman; its thought is a large aspect of customs and tradition seen in the local culture. Ibadism is a sect of Islam that exists and survives outside of the Sunni-Shi’a rivalry; it is thus a catalyst for promoting peace, as its differences allow neutral mediation, but its Islamic identity along with certain religious beliefs and practices allow for commonalities. It is this understanding of the function of the Ibadi majority within Oman that has enabled Sultan Qaboos’ reforms within the educational sector to be well received, thus promoting  peaceful coexistence within the Islamic and national majority and minorities.

The understanding of modern theories and other religions and sects provided by a religiously inclusive, modern academic curriculum for all children, has decreased Oman’s tolerance for intolerance. The educational system, along with cultural behaviour, and tolerance enforced by the Basic Law have all been the result of the neutrality of Ibadism in  avoiding religious feuds and their ideologies. Therefore, overall, Oman is responsible for the sustained attitudes of tolerance which reflect the country’s international policy of ‘active neutralisation’. It’s peaceful internal and external relations provides one of the greatest examples of how a country can, and has, successfully flourished in modernity and tradition simultaneously.

Bibliography

Connor D. Elliot, ‘Developing Tolerance and Conservatism: A Study on Ibadi Oman’, UCLA Journal of Religion, Volume 2, 2018.

Yenigun, Cuneyt, and Hakan Akbulut, editor. Oman Security Perspectives and NATO Relations. OIIP – Austrian Institute for International Affairs, 2017, pp. 12–19, NATO, Cooperative Security, and the Middle East – Status and Prospects.

Sebastian Castelier, ‘Oman’s Humanitarian Aid to Yemen Also Pragmatic’, Al-Monitor, Jan 9, 2020.

Qabus, Sultan, and Judith Miller. “Creating Modern Oman: An Interview with Sultan Qabus.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 76, no. 3, 1997, pp. 13–18. JSTOR.

Allen, Calvin H, and W L. Rigsbee. Oman Under Qaboos: From Coup to Constitution, 1970-1996. London: Frank Cass, 2000. Print.

AL-SALIMI, ABDULRAHMAN. “The Transformation of Religious Learning in Oman: Tradition and Modernity.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 21, no. 2, 2011, pp. 147–157.

Razzak, Nina Abdul. “Role-Playing in the Classroom: Gender Differences in Reactions of Bahraini Students.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, 2011, pp. 89–102. JSTOR.

Fredrik Barth, ‘Sohar: Culture and Society in an Omani Town’, 1983.

Siegfried, Nikolaus A. “Legislation and Legitimation in Oman: The Basic Law.” Islamic Law and Society, vol. 7, no. 3, 2000, pp. 359–397.

Robert Rotburg, ‘Oman Offers a Lesson of Stability to the Arab World’, The Globe and Mail, 14 Nov 2018.

Jeremy Jones, and Nicholas Ridout. “Democratic Development in Oman.” Middle East Journal, vol. 59, no. 3, 2005, pp. 376–392.

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