Islam in Oman

Yesterday my host mother and I were sitting in a park watching my host brother play in the playground. I decided to ask her a bit about Islam (since she and my host father are going to Saudi Arabia for a special week of prayer in a month). My host family is a sect of Islam called “Ibadi Islam”. I’m going to be honest: I had never heard of Ibadi Islam before coming to Oman. I soon learned though that this is because Ibadi Islam does not exist largely throughout the world- there are pockets of Ibadis in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, East Africa, and Oman (Oman is the only country with a majority population of Ibadis). Our conversation soon shifted to a more philosophical debate as we talked about the interactions between different religions and fighting that can occur. Similar to me, she believes that most religions are not all that different; that most emphasize loving each other and striving to be a good person (similar to the Ted Talks video I shared on my page a while ago). I think she summed up things well when she said “there are many very bad Muslims and many very good Muslims. This is the same with Christians, Buddhists… all religions. I do not understand why people hate each other because their religion is different.”

Then today, for homework, I had to read a packet about Islam, and specifically Islam in Oman. Appropriately, the reading is called Islam in Oman written by Michael Bos. I’m not very religious myself, but I find learning about religions fascinating, though I thought it could be interesting to share some of what I have learned from my host mother and from my reading.

Heritage of the Different Sects of Islam 

  • When the Prophet Mohammed died, there was a controversy over who would succeed him. Three distinct responses emerged: Sunni, Shia, and Ibadi.
  • Sunni Islam: believe that the successor (called a caliph) must be from the tribe of the Prophet (the Quraysh)
  • Shia Islam: believe that the successor (called imam) must be a descendent of the Prophet
  • Ibadi Islam: believe that the successor (called imam) should be chosen due to being the most knowledgable and devout Muslim. regardless of bloodline or ethnicity.
  • Difference between caliph and imam: Caliph emphasizes political responsibilities, as well as the protection of religion (including tasks of administration of the state, finance, foreign relations, and military matters). At the end of of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, the caliph in Sunni Islam ceased to exist. The imam has a “strong spiritual role as the infallible intermediary between God and the faithful”.

Ibadi Islam

  • The first civil war in Islam occurred due to the controversy over succession. In the Battle of Siffin, it was Caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib (cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet) vs. Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan (Syrian leader). Some of Ali’s followers disagreed with Ali’s decision to accept arbitration and said “judgement belongs to God alone” (la hukma illa lillah), meaning that it is up to God to select the caliph. This group of people became known as the Muhakkima, some of whom would later become Ibadi.
  • Values of the groups of people (the Kharijite): “establishing the centrality of Quranic precepts in governmental rule, rejecting the pre-eminence of one tribe over another, reaching out to exploited groups, and eliminating any racial or class restrictions on leadership” (Bos).
  • The Kharijite disagreed on a central question: how should a Muslim oppose another Muslim. Most of the Kharjities took the approach that their opponents were non-believers. But the ideology that the Ibadis adopted opposed this extremism that rejected “any requirement for a militant revolt against opponents”. “Differences of opinion did not mean others were non_muslims because ‘the faith of Islam unites them'”. So “they were to live peacefully among those with whom they disagreed” and “should never presume to exclude anyone from the community of Muslims” (Bos).

Islam in Oman

  • Oman’s long history with maritime activity allowed contact among people and cultures to spread, allowing Islam to be introduced and spread in Oman during the 17th century.
  • Islam was initially introduced to Oman through interactions among people (a lot due to trade), but it was officially introduced to Oman when Prophet Mohammed’s envoy, Amr ibn al-As, brought a letter to the Kings of Oman (Abd and Jayfar ibn al-Julanda) asking them to embrace Islam.
  • Ibadi Islam is the dominant school of thought in Oman.
  • The imam in Ibadism is closer to the concept emphasized in Sunni Islam, but a great emphasis in Oman is on an imam’s ability to settle trial disputes and conflicts. The imam, therefore, is frequently chosen from neutral tribes or clans, and is many times passed on within a family. In the 19th century this titled was changed to “sultan”. For almost a century, there was disagreement over this, and the sultan controlled the coastal region of Oman while the imam controlled the interior region of Oman. The sultan, however, won and in 1959, the imamate was abolished.
  • The Grand Mufti is the chief religious authority, but he has no judicial authority.
  • Islam is the state religion, but it is Islam, not Ibadism (converting is Islam is not a prerequisite for naturalization and its Basic Law provides that ‘all citizens are equal before the Law, and they are equal in public rights and duties. There shall be no discrimination between them on the grounds of gender, origin, colour, language, religion, sect, domicile or social status’).
  • Sultan Qaboos has granted land for places of worship for Muslims, Hindus, and Christian in Oman.
  • Sharia is the basic of legislation.
  • Muslim students are required to take courses in Islamic studies as part of the public education system, but this does not apply to non-Muslim students.

I found it interesting how inclusive Ibadi Islam is and tolerant it is of other sects of Islam. I think that this may be a major reason as to why so many religious groups can exist peacefully together in Oman (especially between Sunni and Shia Islam).

National Day Holiday

November 27, 2013:

I have a vacation from today until Saturday! A lot of people have asked me why my vacation celebrates National Day, yet National Day was last week. The reason is because if there is a long break, many people leave Oman to visit other cities outside Oman (like Dubai). So to make sure everyone stays in the country during National Day, the vacation is the next week. I really like that idea, because I’m normally not in the US during the 4rth of July as it is in the middle of my summer break.

We left Muscat in the morning and drove to Bahla. The whole family came to our house as my host grandfather hosts a yearly National Day lunch. This year it was an even bigger occasion as one of my host father’s brothers is getting married, so his wife’s family was there too. Additionally, my host grandfather was in the hospital last week (he’s ok now though), so the lunch also celebrated his recovery. There were so many people there, and as usual, men and women sat in separate rooms. We ate fruit and dates, then huge plates of rice with chicken on top were brought out, and then we finished with fruit, dates, and coffee. I met a lot of new people and got to know some cousins my age!

In the evening, we just hung out in the living room. Most people went home, but a lot of the immediate family stayed. I talked to some of my host aunts for a bit and tried to practice my Arabic. It ended up being a mix of English, Arabic, and hand motions, which all together must have looked quite amusing to an onlooker. Not much else to report.

 

November 28, 2013:

I woke up and went to the living room to eat breakfast (same as I do every day in Bahla). I talked to my host grandparents as I ate breakfast (Omani bread with feta cheese and tomatoes– a surprisingly delicious combination). Most of my host family wasn’t there (as in the only people at home were some children, my host grandparents, a host aunt, and a cousin). I hung out with the cousin for most of the day. I had barely talked to him until then (since boys and girls are normally separated), but as he was the only person my age, I decided to get to know him moreI I helped him with his English homework and practiced my Arabic, though unfortunately, I pronounced a lot of the words wrong… typical. Some of the uncles came over too and talked to me for the first time as well. Were they scared of me before? I was so surprised that they talked to me! I think they just didn’t want to make me feel uncomfortable (again, men and women separation), so they waited a while for me to get used to Bahla before I talked to them. I’m really not sure, but at least I got to know some more people!

In the evening, we sat outside and it was surprisingly, kind of cold! I didn’t expect Oman to go below uncomfortably hot, but I’m being pleasantly surprised. My Thanksgiving dinner (almost forgot today was Thanksgiving!) was certainly the most different from any Thanksgiving meal I have eaten (I ate krus wa-asle and laban), but it was delicious so who cares? Also, Happy Hanukkah! Almost forgot about that too, as I will not be celebrating that this year :(

National Day

(Written November 18, 2013)

Today was an exciting day in Oman: National Day (aka: the birthday of Sultan Qaboos)!

We decided to go to school in Omani colors (red, green and white) to show our Omani pride! My host mother showed me pictures, and I soon found that we were not alone in our Omani pride outfits. She told me that there are celebrations all day in school with singing, dancing, and food (think Omani flag decorated cake).

We went to an event at Muscat Bank during the morning. There was traditional dancing and music in an area there (kind of like what I saw at the Opera House). It was really fun and many of the people there were also dressed in Oman’s colors. The people dancing and playing music were so happy. Their happiness was contagious and everyone was having lots of fun. The inside of the bank was also decorated with balloons and streamers to celebrate the day. We walked around a bit and tried date-banana smoothies!

It was interesting to see the people in the bank because it was a business area but unlike the US, where everyone wears suits, people were wearing dishdashas and abayas. There were also people of all ethnicities wandering around.

Driving back was also quite interesting as most of the cars were decorated for the occasion. Many cars were painted or had stickers of the Omani flag (or had actual flags sticking out) or the face of Sultan Qaboos. Some just were fully the colors of the Omani flag. Very patriotic!

Watch 2 videos of the music and dancing!:

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In the evening, my host parents took me to see the fireworks. There are only two areas in Muscat that have big fireworks, and only two cities in Oman with these fireworks (Muscat and Salalah). We drove to an area just off of the highway and parked our car in a dirt area and spread out a mat to have a picnic. There were tons of other cars around us and alongside the highway. People were sitting on their cars, sitting on the ground, walking around, singing, and dancing. Everyone was very excited and joyous.

Finally the fireworks started (at 8 PM) and everyone cheered. The show was about half an hour long and was very impressive. The fireworks were very grand and beautiful and there were many segments for Oman represented by red, white, and green. The crowd kept cheering after different beautiful fireworks. It was really fun, except for the part when it took us an hour to drive home because of all the traffic (even though we live only a few minutes away!). In fact, there was so much traffic in the area that my host mother’s brother couldn’t come to meet us as planned since the police blocked the incoming road to prevent more traffic.

National Day here is celebrated so differently from the 4rth of July in the US. Granted, National Day is not the same as Independence Day (since National Day also celebrates the birth of Sultan Qaboos), but they are the two most similar holidays I can think of. In the US, the 4rth of July (at least for me), is a day to hang out with friends, have a barbecue, and see fireworks. Maybe I’ll wear red, white, and blue. Most years, I’m not even in the US during the 4rth of July. Sure I’m proud to be American, but the 4rth of July doesn’t make me feel especially patriotic. In Oman, however, you can tell everyone loves their country and Sultan Qaboos. People truly love him. My language partner told me that her greatest dream is “have a call that says tomorrow you will meet with Sultan Qaboos”. Even children love him. It is an unconditional love that I think is wonderful. In the 4rth of July, we do not celebrate Obama. In fact, there isn’t even a ‘Celebrate Obama Day’. I am almost envious of this pride in one’s country and leader that unites Oman on this day. For me, it is amazing that one can have so much love for one’s country and leader. Maybe it is the same amount that I love America, but it is certainly expressed here much more.