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Oman: Geography is Destiny

Updated on August 1, 2014


Oman is a mysterious country in today’s world, one little spoken of in the media and less written about in academia, while being more successful than many of its neighbors in the Persian Gulf. Despite the scant attention paid to it by the western world since the onslaught of the oil-centered foreign policy of our era, Oman remains an island of relative calm and prosperity. It is a rare example of a state in the Middle East that functions smoothly. But Oman has a tumultuous imperial history the likes of which few small Middle Eastern countries can claim, with an historic empire stretching far down the East African Coast and wealth, pluralism, and sophistication which awed European visitors of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This paper will explore the history of Oman from prehistoric times to the end of the Omani Empire, emphasizing the period of the reign of Seyyid Said (1806-1856), the greatest ruler of the Omani Empire and one of the men upon whom the conceptualization of the wise Eastern Despot was modeled. While Said was seen as a benevolent monarch by European observers, he was also one of the greatest slavers of all time, in charge of a vast economic system spanning from the heart of Africa to India and beyond. His story will be told in due time.

Before Said, Oman had passed through many historic obstacles and triumphs, from over a thousand years as an imamate, to the battle between Wahhabism and Ibadism, to wars against the Persians, Portuguese, and others. The tale of Omani history has many fascinating episodes.

But first, let us begin at the beginning, with the origins of Oman.


The oldest known human settlement found in Oman is located at Wattayah[1], near the modern capital of Muscat, with stone implements dating from 7615 BCE. The first written mention of the land comes from Sumerian tablets which referred to a country called Majan. This name is thought to be related to the ancient copper mines which have brought the Empires of the Middle East to Oman for millennia. The country is thought to have acquired its modern name from the Arab tribe, the Azd, who migrated to the country from the Uman region of Yemen. Some scholars believe the collapse of the ancient Marib damn, with its catastrophic consequences, ushered in these migrations which eventually populated Oman with its current ethnic makeup.

Beginning in the sixth century BCE Oman was under the control of mighty Persian Empires for a thousand years, leading up to the founding of Islam. First the Achaemenids[2] under Cyrus the Great, followed by the Parthians[3] around 250 BCE and finally the Sassanids[4] in the third century CE. The Sassanids held the region until the rise of Islam and the conversion of the Omani tribes to the new religion around 630 CE. During this time, Oman was ruled by the same series of Islamic Empires which controlled much of the Middle East, North Africa, and Southern Europe. These included the Umayyads[5] (661-750 CE), the Abbasids[6] (750-931, 932-933, and 934-967 CE), the Qarmatians[7] (931-932 and 933-934 CE), the Buyids[8] (967-1053 CE), and the Seljuks of Kirman[9] (1053-1154 CE).

There are many reasons why the rump of the Arabian Peninsula was such a hot commodity in the ancient and medieval world, and geography plays an integral part in those empire’s calculations of its importance. At the mouth of the Persian Gulf, Oman is a natural place to control the commerce that has traveled through the region between East Africa, the Middle East, and India since prehistoric times. With the Strait of Hormuz being the narrowest place between Arabia and Persia, separated by a distance of only 35 miles, it was possible to set up tariffs and control the passage of ships deeper into the Gulf. This was an obvious source of possible revenue that was often sought after, though the control of the Strait was also desired for pure political power. Those who controlled the Strait controlled trade, and controlling trade meant having the power to tax all goods that passed through the Strait.

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Now let us examine the geography of Oman, to better understand the hand it played in shaping the country’s destiny. Oman is two-thirds desert (see map in appendix), its hinterlands being part of the great Arabian Desert, the ‘Empty Quarter,’ a hyper-arid region of nomads which Arabs call Bedu[1], as well as gazelles, the endangered oryx, sand cats, and the spiny tailed lizard. This natural buffer zone embodied by the desert has allowed Oman to develop a unique culture partially dependent upon the broader cultural sphere of the Peninsula without being entirely assimilated into it: hence its unique brand of pluralistic, fundamentalist Islam, Ibadism[2]. We will cover more on this later.

The coastal regions of the country, where the commercial activities have historically been located and where the political power is centered, are separated from the interior by the Hajar Mountains, a range that begins in the northernmost corner of the country and stretches south-southeast for a third of the country’s length. These mountains, thought to be generally impassable, have divided the country into sophisticated multicultural coastal cities and primitive, semi-nomadic tribes of the interior deserts for centuries. The only time of year that the mountains can be crossed are when the mountain rivers become wadis, or dried stream beds, which are then used as roads through which livestock and goods can be transported to the coast. The main cities of Oman, Muscat, Sohar (the mythical home of Sinbad the sailor), Rustaq, Sur, and Salalah, all lie on the coastal side of the mountains, and grew into centers of trade for their prime location at the maritime crossroads of the southern hemisphere of the classical world. This trade provided wealth. Muscat was described by 19th century Europeans in the most florid terms, with goods stacked in the streets and lines stretching far outside the custom house.

There are two other regions of Oman worth mentioning before we leave the geography of the country. First is the Musandam Peninsula, a series of steep cliffs, fjords, and a few towns crowning the horn of the Arabian Peninsula. The peninsula has historical ties to Oman though culturally there are as many differences as similarities, with a lot of the cultural influence in the region also coming from Iran, across the Strait of Hormuz. Musandam is separated from Oman proper by the United Arab Emirates, and is important primarily for its location at the narrows of the Persian Gulf.

The second place of interest, the Dhofar region of the southwest, bordering Yemen, is important for two reasons: first, it is one of the only places in the world where frankincense[3] grows, making it a hotspot for the Egyptians and Romans two thousand or more years ago, who required the stuff for incense in their religious rituals. As Christianity spread, incense was not at first used in the new religion, and the region lost its economic significance. The second reason to note the area is the Dhofar rebellion[4], which from 1962-1975 threatened the stability of the country. Eventually crushed, the rebellion nonetheless required the Sultanate of Oman to go through serious reforms to cope with the popular unrest caused by the campaign.





The Establishment of the Imamate

Now that we’ve covered some of the geography and how it has affected the country’s historical development, it is important to return to the establishment of the imamate and define what makes Oman unique as a religious state.

The Ibadi movement, Ibadism, is a distinct form of Islam differing from the Sunni and Shia denominations. It is the dominant form of Islam in Oman and Zanzibar, and there are also small enclaves of Ibadis in Algeria, Tunisia, East Africa, and Libya. Believed to be one of the earliest schools of Islam and a branch of the first fundamentalist sect, it is said to have been founded less than 50 years after the death of the prophet Muhammad. Some historians think that the denomination developed out of the seventh-century Islamic sect known as the Khawarij or Kharijites. Probably founded by Abdullah ibn Ibadh at-Tamīmī, the sect has developed along lines unlike any others in Muslim history.

Whereas the Kharijites had labeled all Muslims who committed a grave sin without repentance mushrikun[1] – unbelievers whose guilt is tantamount to idolatry and merits capital punishment – Ibadis see such people as kuffar ni‘ma--monotheists who are ungrateful for the blessings God has given them. This distinction is of prime importance as the Ibadi’s do not use violence to enforce their version of Islam. While the Kharijites persecute those of other religions, the Ibadis do not. However, the thread which still unites the two religious sects is found in their shared belief that the Imam should be the holiest person available for the job, as Valerie Hoffman of the University of Illinois points out:

“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.” (Hoffman, Ibadi: An Introduction).

As one can see above, the Ibadi’s emphasis on learning and devotion to Islam as prerequisites for the Imam candidate differed from the hereditary lineages of Islam’s other major branches.

The Ibadhi School took its name from 'Abdullah ibn Ibadh Al-Murri Al-Tamimi, one of its early theologians. Historical documents which could shed light on the life of Abdullah ibn Ibadh are lacking in both Ibadhi and non-Ibadhi sources. However, some historians included Ibn Ibadh among the class of Al-Tabi'un[2], those who learned from the rightly guided ones in the generation after the prophet, who lived during the second half of the first century after Muhammad. It is not clear whether he participated in the military revolts which occurred during his lifetime – though it seems unlikely considering the nonviolent approach to Islam which the sect he was an integral part of espouses. However, it does seem likely that he was not satisfied by the rule of Mu'awiyah, the first caliph of the Umayyad Dynasty, and that he criticized the regime’s violation of the Quran’s basic tenets.

Ibn Ibadh was among the leaders of the Muhakkimah party[3]. To this party, the Muhakkimah were the only ones vying to resume the just Islamic Imamate as it was during the time of Abu Bakr, 'Umar, the first six years of 'Uthman's rule and the early years of 'Ali before he accepted the arbitration and was killed by the Kharijite’s slave Fizoon. But when the Kharijites withdrew from the Muslim community on the basis that the Caliphate was a land of war and they were all polytheists, Ibn Ibadh appeared as a leader who opposed this extreme view and openly negated it. Thus the breach between the first two fundamentalisms of Islam occurred because the Ibadis were more moderate in their disdain for other schools of Islam.

When Umayyad rule was established and made its aim to prevent any sort of opposition to the state Islam they instituted, the sympathizers of the Muhakkimah party, or "Al-Muslimun", as they were first called in the Ibadhi literature, were forced to either hide their faith and to carry out their activities in secret, or become martyrs to their cause. It is possible that the school took the name of Ibn Ibadh because he used to openly propagate its views and was known to non-Ibadhi groups for refuting their views, and for his firm attitude against the extreme Kharijites. The courage with which he spoke of his sect’s moderate beliefs may have inspired the leaders of the Ibadis to honor him by naming their sect after him. This courage eventually got him exiled.

Another possible reason which could have made the Ibadhi school bear his name were Ibn Ibadh's political activities and his contacts with the 'Umayyad Caligh 'Abd Al-Malik bin Marwan, with whom he exchanged letters. Dealing with the ruling dynasty of the time may have granted him enough prestige to claim leadership of the sect regardless of the theological realities.

The information given in Ibadhi sources shows that Ibn Ibadh played a secondary part in the foundation and the leadership of the Ibadhi movement compared with its first Imam and founder, Jabir bin Zaid Al-'Azdi – though the historical authenticity of such documents is questionable. The book Al-Ibadhiyah, written by Dr. Amr Khalifa Ennami, is an excellent example of the Ibadi version of history, as it is a text written by an Ibadi, for an Ibadi audience, and published and distributed by the Ibadi Omani government. Ennami’s book lays out Zaid’s life as follows.

Jabir bin Zaid was originally from the Nizwa area of Oman, though he immigrated to Basra and lived there for the rest of his life. He learned the traditions of the Prophet from all of the Companions whom he met, in Basra, Medina and Mecca. It is reported that he traveled between Basra and Mecca no less than 40 times on the Hajj – a truly fantastic number for even the most devout Muslims. Jabir, through his attention to religious devotion, became one of the recognized ‘learned men’ of Basra.

Jabir's leadership of the Muhakkimah party was established after the Battle of the Camel in 656 CE. Non-Ibadhi scholars have tried to prove that Jabir ibn Zaid had no relation with the Ibadhis, and various stories were reported to show that Jabir himself denied this sort of relationship. These stories contradict the Ibadhi version of events. The truth is probably somewhere in between, with Jabir playing an important role in the organization of the movement, though perhaps not quite so paramount a role as the modern Omani’s would have us believe – him being from Oman.

Generally Jabir's activities were intellectual in nature and theological in subject. His position as a recognized and respected Mufti in Basra lent him a useful cover with which to simultaneously propagate and safeguard his nascent sect. The relationship between Ibadhis and their mainstream Muslim rivals was established on the basis of the following principles, which speak volumes about the nature of the sect while also delineating an interesting historical line in the history of Islam. The principles go as follows:

    • Ibadhis should fight only those who fight against them.

    • The property of Muslims should not be taken as spoils and their women and children should not be killed or taken in captivity.

    • Fighting the unjust Imam is not an obligation (as the Khawarij believe), and Muslims can live under the rule of tyrants resorting to religious dissimulation or secrecy, taqiyah, when necessary.

    • Shira', sacrifice of one's life, is a voluntary duty for a group of forty or more persons, when they imposed it on themselves.

    • The Quran can and should be interpreted using reason as a guidepost.

    • Anthropomorphic descriptions of Allah in the Quran should not be taken literally.

The general concepts of the Ibadhis' feelings on their relations with the rest of the Muslim community were expressed by 'Abdullah ibn Ibadh in his well-known statement, "We do not regard our Muslim opponents as idolaters, for they believe in the unity of God, the Book, and the Messenger. But they are 'infidels-ingrates' (kuffar al-ni'am). We hold it lawful to inherit from them, marry from them, and live among them. The faith of Islam unites them (with us)." This statement, issuing from the probable founder of the Ibadi School, depicts the leniency which Ibadis showed towards others whose version of Islam they disdained. Rather than waging wars against them, as others like the Wahhabis later would, they chose to simply distance themselves from what they viewed as twisted visions of Islam, rather than from the people who held such views.

Kufr ni'mah, ingratitude for the blessings of God, was the term Ibadhis used for those Muslims who commit hypocritical sins, and for those who acknowledge the faith of Islam but do not practice it according to the rules laid down in the Quran. The terms nifaq (hypocrisy), kufr nifaq and kufr ni'mah are used in the same sense, for Ibadhis held that hypocrisy (nifaq) is only in deeds and not in the faith. Thus, the Ibadis tended to have a paternalistic attitude towards the developing mainstream Islamic community, as they saw the vicissitudes of socio-political strife, empire building, and wealth accumulation as diluting the original pure brilliance of Muhammad’s movement.

The alternative to the state history of the Ibadi School states that 'Abdullah ibn Ibadh Al-Murri Al-Tamimi was exiled from Basra by the Umayyad to Oman, where his religion was accepted more readily and became the state religion it is today. This is probably true, though without the discovery of a cache of relevant documents, uncovering the truth seems unlikely.

Omani political history is typical of Arab dynastic histories in that sons, uncles, and others often usurp power from fathers, brothers, or other relatives, often by violent means. In her excellent popular history of the slave trade under Seyyid Said, “The Sultan’s Shadow”, Christiane Bird opens the first chapter with the historical rise to power of Said. In the scene, Said and his bookish brother Salim are holding court with their cousin Bedr, a Wahhabist who came to the country at the head of a group of warriors intent on converting Oman to Wahhabism. In the scene, Said admires Bedr’s Jewelled Khanjar, a small curved dagger, just long enough to get his hands on it and plunge it into Bedr’s chest, killing him.

This was business as usual for Oman, and while it may seem barbaric, our own civilization has often seen such means to power executed in a similarly ruthless manner. That Bird opened her book with the scene shows the reader that such internecine and interfamily intrigue was the rule of the day in early Muslim kingdoms. The fates of the first caliphs attest well to this fact.



[3] Salim b. Dhakwan described the party as follows:

"Our attitude follows that of the Imams of the Muslims before they were persecuted; the day they killed 'Uthman; the day of the Camel; and the day they rejected human arbitration in their religion. Our opinion today agrees with their opinion then. Our interpretation of the Qur'an today agrees with their interpretation then. We have nothing to do with those who claim that today they have gained better knowledge of Qur'an and Sunnah and achieved supremacy over them."

The Nabhanite Dynasty, the Europeans, and the End of an Empire

Now to resume our historical narrative. Following the Seljuks, Banu Nabhan succeeded in creating a dynastic line of kings in 1154, which persisted for three hundred years, called the Nabhanite Dynasty. The next international player to enter the Omani political landscape was the Portuguese. Soon after Vasco De Gama ‘discovered’ the sea route to India, the Europeans occupied Muscat in 1515 under the military expedition of Alfonso de Albuqurque, claiming the capital and other strategic locations for a 140 years, from 1508-1648. Imam Nasir almost succeeded in pushing them out, but he grew ill before he could finish the job.

The Portuguese Empire was on their way out anyway, for they were replaced by the Ottoman Turks around the time of Nasir’s death. It wasn’t until 1741 and the coalition of tribes under Ahmad Ibn Said that the country succeeded in gaining self-government and the royal dynasty which still rules the country was founded. It is of Ahmad Ibn Said’s line that Seyyid Said, the most famous of Omani sultans, as well as the current leader Qaboos Said, are both from.

The Imam Saif was an integral piece in the first Said’s rise to power. Saif, under pressure from the Wahhabists of the north, sought out Said as he had been told the man had wisdom. After performing a number of duties for the Imam, Said was made Governor of Sohar. In the meantime, Saif let the Persians in to contain the international threats represented by the Wahhabists, the British, the Ottomans, and others, though once in Oman they were loath to leave. Saif was defeated and Sohar put under siege by the Persians. Said eventually ousted the Persians with his coalition, gaining immense popular support. This support saw him become the ruler of Oman.

Fault lines within the ruling family were prevalent by Ahmad ibn Said's death in 1783 and were later manifested with the division of the family into two chief lines, the Sultan ibn Ahmad Al Said (reigned 1792-1806) line managing the maritime state, with ostensible control over the entire country; and the Qais branch, with power over the Al Batinah and Ar Rustaq areas. After Sultan’s death, Seyyid Said came to power.

During this time, with the rise of the Napoleonic Wars, the Omani ruler found it necessary to balance Oman’s interests between the British and the French. At the same time, Said began to reform the economy of Oman by eventually (1840) moving his capital to Zanzibar, the commercial center of the Omani Empire, where he could oversee the processing of the slaves coming from East Africa as well as the rapidly growing profits from the burgeoning clove industry which the island’s climate made perfect for cultivation. These twin sources of income allowed Oman to reach the height of its wealth and power – a height it would never again achieve.

Seyyid Said also had a great help in the form of Vincenzo Maurizi, an Italian whose knowledge of modern warfare and governance helped Said modernize his state to the extent which he did. Maurizi also wrote the first western book on Oman, “History of Seyd Said, Sultan of Muscat”. Maurizi lived through the clashes of Oman with the Wahhabist movement, advising Said to enlist British support in defeating the pirates of what the Brits termed the ‘pirate coast.’ After a battle in 1819, the land between Oman and Musandam was renamed the ‘Trucial Sheikdoms’ eventually giving way to the modern United Arab Emirates.

What they did not realize was that, by admitting the British, Oman had paved the way for a century of British meddling in the region. Said died in 1856, and his third son Thuwaini bin Said became Sultan of Muscat while his sixth son Sayyid Majid bin Said became the first Sultan of Zanzibar. Sayyid Majid bin Said passed power to his brother Bargash, who modernized the infrastructure of Stone Town. In 1870, he also signed an agreement with the British ending the slave trade on the island.

In the end of his reign Barghash saw the disintegration of his empire. In 1884 the German adventurer Carl Peters made African chiefs on the Tanganyika mainland sign documents which declared their areas to be under German "protection". In February 1885 these acquisitions were ratified by the German Government through an imperial letter of protection. In April 1885 the German Dehnhardt brothers concluded a contract with the Sultan of Witu on the Kenya Coast, which was also put under official German protection. Bargash tried to send troops against the Witu ruler when the emergence of a German fleet forced him to accept the German presence. The once great Omani Empire and economic network had gasped its last breath of grandeur. Zanzibar, the factory of Omani affluence, became a British protectorate in 1890.

Thus the highpoint of the Omani Empire had passed. By the middle of the 20th century, Oman was a comparatively underdeveloped state in the Middle East, having lost much of its former clout and all of its foreign empire. Sultan Said bin Taimur, the tyrannical ruler, had forbidden most features of modern development and was propped up by British support just to maintain the basic services of the state. Things got so bad for the underclass in the Dhofar region that, sparked by the six day war, which “…radicalized opinion throughout the Arab world,”[1] they started the Rebellion which led to the coup that ousted Said bin Taimur and made the modernization of Oman possible.


The Last Century

The century since the end of the empire has seen the expansion of oil production, bringing the per capita income up to an impressive $25,109. With a population of approximately 2,800,000, 600,000 of which are immigrant workers, Oman is still a multicultural oasis in the Persian Gulf, and even more important, an Islamic state of pluralism and relative tolerance. The future of the country will be decided by the methods its current ruler, Qaboos Said (who took power after his father, Said bin Taimur, was deposed during the Dhofar Rebellion), uses to transition its economy towards more sustainable GDP generation. The future of the country, in the current energy economy, is uncertain.

But its alternative form of Islam could yet prove to be Oman’s most valuable contribution to civilization. If the Islamic Reformation some scholars describe our time as is going to be positive, it could learn a thing or two from Ibadism.


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    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I have a personal experience of the Ibadis and how different they are from the Muslims we met in Pakistan or Bangladesh. I was really surprised. Your hub made me understand it better.

    • profile image

      Josiah Johnston 2 years ago

      Yes, you are correct! I appreciate you pointing this out: I did not include everything in this article that I could find about Oman, as its scope was limited. Thank you!

    • profile image

      Aisha 2 years ago

      You have forgotten about al Ya'rubis. That's why there is a big gap in your story between al Nabhanis and Al Busaids.

    • Josiah R Johnston profile image

      Josiah R Johnston 3 years ago from Asheville, N.C.

      Thanks very much! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I hope your interest opens new paths of inquiry for you!

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      Howard Schneider 3 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      This was a wonderful and very informative Hub regarding this mysterious and little known country. You have done an excellent job, Josiah. I need to read this again and pick up other materials regarding Oman.