Dec 18th 2018
ANYBODY WHO studies Islam will know that there are two main branches, Sunni and Shia, which differ in their understanding of early Islamic history and hence have different ideas about how Islam’s leadership should have been organised in subsequent eras. But there is a third, lesser-known body of believers with deep historic roots, and their identity fractionally predates the Sunni-Shia split in the seventh century. They are the Ibadis, who number less than 3m. Only in one country, Oman, do they form a majority. However, significant pockets exist in North Africa, especially Libya, and along the east African coast, particularly on the island of Zanzibar.
The Ibadis have paradoxical antecedents. They are an offshoot of the Khawarij, one of the hardest-line tendencies to emerge in early Islam, and yet the Ibadis are at the liberal end of the Islamic spectrum in certain ways. In the internecine fighting among Muhammad’s successors, the Khawarij broke away from Caliph Ali, a cousin of Muhammad’s who is honoured in the Shia faith, because he was reasonable enough to accept arbitration in a bitter struggle with his rival Mu’awiya. The Khawarij, who have no open followers today but are sometimes compared to modern jihadists, took the darkest view of any Muslim who rejected their reading of the faith. By contrast, the Ibadis were and are relatively accommodating towards Muslims of other persuasions and indeed towards Christians and Jews. On some touchstone theological issues, the Ibadis take what modern Westerners would call a liberal line. For example, they see the Koran as being created by God, rather than a manifestation of divinity itself. That view was held by the Mutazila school of rationalist theology which flourished in Baghdad a millennium ago but was then suppressed.
The persistence of Ibadi Islam matters geopolitically in at least two countries. In part because Ibadis account for 75% of its population, Oman has followed a different course from its Gulf neighbours under its Anglophile leader Sultan Qaboos. It has resisted pressure from Saudi Arabia, the heartland of traditionalist Sunni Islam, to gang up against Shia Iran, or against the maverick Sunnis of Qatar. But the childless sultan has no obvious successor and there are fears for Oman’s stability when he departs the scene. Until the 1950s, the country saw strife between the spiritual authority of the Ibadi imams who dominated the interior and the sultans who held sway on the coast. The present sultan has tried hard to unify the country around a moderate version of the Ibadi creed, but it is not clear whether Oman will be immune from sectarian strife. Neighbouring Yemen, wracked by civil war and a humanitarian catastrophe, stands as a terrible example of what can ultimately happen when once-manageable sectarian differences are fanned by local power struggles and geopolitical competition.
In Libya, meanwhile, there is a risk that antipathy between mainstream Sunni Islam and the Ibadis could have a poisonous effect. It could become one of the many impediments to international efforts to stabilise the country and to end conflict between the Government of National Accord, which holds precarious power in western regions, and the self-styled “Interim Government” (IG), which dominates parts of the east.
Last year the country’s 300,000 to 400,000 Ibadis, mostly living in the western Nafussa Mountains or in the coastal town of Zuwara, was denounced by a spiritual authority close to the IG as a “misguided and errant” group whose adherents should not be allowed to preach or lead prayers. Ironically, the Ibadis were also denounced as being no better than the Khawarij extremists from whose ranks they emerged 14 centuries ago. That seemed unfair: if anybody was evincing the extremist spirit of the Khawarij, it was surely the accusers. All this serves as a reminder that intra-Muslim battles of the seventh century can still fuel conflict today, and that there is no particular logic that determines which modern faction identifies with which ancient one.