by Prof. Valerie J. Hoffman, Head of Department of Religion
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Published: in Bulletin of the Royal Institute of Inter-Faith Studies 7, 1 (Spring-Summer 2005): 91-118
THIS IS A LONG (21 PAGE) ARTICLE. HERE IS A PART WITH SECTION HEADINGS. IF YOU WISH TO RECEIVE THE WHOLE ARTICLE, PLEASE SEND A COMMENT BELOW WITH YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS.
The Origins and Distinctiveness of Ibāḍī Islam
Bū Sa‘īdī Rule in
The first sultan of Zanzibar, Sayyid Sa‘īd ibn Sulṭān, was the grandson of the last recognized Imam, Aḥmad ibn Sa‘īd al-Bū Sa‘īdī, whose reign from 1741-1783 (he was elected Imam in 1753-4) inaugurated the Bū Sa‘īdī dynasty, which remains in power in Oman to this day. Omanis had long settled in East Africa, and city-states ruled by Omani families emerged in
and Pate. Successive Omani rulers were only able to subject these city-states
to Omani rule temporarily. Periodically the ruler of Mombasa Oman
would be invited to repel the Portuguese from Mombasa,
but the Mazrū‘ī family that ruled Mombasa would
withdraw their fealty to
once the immediate threat had passed and the Omani ruler had gone. Perhaps this
is why Sayyid Sa‘īd (ruled 1806-1856) decided to settle in Oman East
Africa, a pleasant region with great potential for trade and
agriculture. He first visited ,
then a small town of little consequence, in 1828, and decided at that time to
make it his permanent residence. He transferred his council from Zanzibar Muscat to Zanzibar in 1832,
the capital of the Omani empire.
Hundreds of Omanis accompanied him in his move to Zanzibar . After his death in 1856, however,
the Bū Sa‘īdī empire was divided, with the rule of Oman passing to his son
Thuwaynī, and the rule of Zanzibar passing to another son, Mājid. The Bū
Sa‘īdīs remain in power in Zanzibar Oman
to this day, but were overthrown in
in January 1964. Zanzibar
rulers were Ibāḍī, the vast majority of their subjects were not. The
overwhelming majority of the indigenous population of Zanzibar and the East
African coast follow the Sunni school of al-Shāfi‘ī. Zanzibar was an extremely
complex society during the period of Omani rule, consisting not only of Omani
overlords and African subjects and slaves, but a sizable and mixed community of
people originating from other parts of the Indian Ocean: Ḥanafī soldiers from Baluchistan, Ismā‘īlī, Bohorā, and Hindu merchants
from India, Shāfi‘ī scholars and traders from the Ḥaḍramawt, and Twelver
Shī‘a of Arab, Iranian, and Indian background. The Ḥaḍramīs frequently
intermarried with the local population and became integrated into Swahili
society, who were also Shāfi‘ī Sunnis, but the Omanis did so less often, and
the Indians formed a very separate set of religious and social communities that
married only among themselves, and tried to preserve their native
Considering the Ibāḍī attitude that non-Ibāḍī Muslims are of doubtful Islamic status and ought to be avoided, what attitude did they take toward the different sects of
, especially the Shāfi‘ī majority? Whereas
in the Omani interior Ibāḍī scholars engaged the questions of walāya and barā’a
in relative isolation from contact with non-Ibāḍī
Muslims, in Zanzibar
the situation was entirely different. Ibāḍī
scholars had to rethink the meaning of barā’a in a context in which they
were required to work closely with Sunni Muslims. Furthermore, Sunni scholars
on the Swahili coast were critical of Ibāḍī
doctrine, and succeeded in attracting converts to Sunni Islam from among the Ibāḍī population of Zanzibar East Africa.
The ubiquity and challenge of Sunnism confronted Ibāḍī scholars of
with dilemmas that could be ignored in the Omani interior. Zanzibar
It appears that the
sultans were usually quite tolerant of Sunni Muslims, that indeed they honored Sunni
scholars in a manner similar to the way they honored Ibāḍī scholars. Sayyid Sa‘īd encouraged both Ibāḍī and Sunni scholars to come to his new capital.
Scholars migrated there from the coasts of Zanzibar Somalia
and Kenya, from the Comoro Islands,
itself. Qāḍīs were
appointed for the Sunnis as well as for the Ibāḍīs,
and there are cases in which Sunni and Ibāḍī qāḍīs
delivered joint adjudication.
The first sultan of Oman ,
Sa‘īd ibn Sulṭān, directed his governors in the provinces to have Sunni
subjects ruled by Sunni judges, specifically mentioning in one of his letters
“the shaykh and scholar Muḥyī ’l-Dīn al-Qaḥṭānī” as the authority to be consulted in matters of
dispute. He also told the Ibāḍīs of Pemba to greet non-Ibāḍī Muslims living on their island with courtesy, just
as the Ibāḍīs in Zanzibar
his account of the Shāfi‘ī scholars of East Africa, Abdallah Saleh Farsy (d.
1982) made a point of emphasizing the great honor various Sunni scholars
received from sultans, to the point that some of them served as trusted
counselors, and, if we are to believe him, virtual ministers of the realm.
Some of more prominent scholars so honored included Muḥyī ’l-Dīn al-Qaḥṭānī (d.
1869), ‘Abd al-‘Azīz ibn ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Amawī (1838-96), his son, Burhān ibn
‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Amawī (1861-1935), Sayyid Aḥmad ibn
Sumayṭ (1861-1925), and ‘Abdallāh Bā Kathīr
(1860-1925). Zanzibar became a center of Sunni religious
scholarship during the reign of the Bū Sa‘īdī sultans, and it appears that Sunnis
and Ibāḍīs, for the most part, coexisted amicably. Zanzibar
The greatest Sunni scholars of nineteenth-century
came from outside .
Of the four who are considered the greatest Shāfi‘ī scholars of Zanzibar, two
came from Somalia (an interesting fact considering that Farsy mentions very few
Somali scholars among those who worked in Zanzibar): Muḥyī ’l-Dīn al-Qaḥṭānī and
‘Abd al-‘Azīz ibn ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Amawī were both born and studied in Brava; the latter originally came to Zanzibar for
the purpose of studying with al-Qaḥṭānī, and
Sayyid Sa‘īd appointed him judge in Kilwa at the age of sixteen. Sayyid Aḥmad ibn Sumayṭ was born
of a Ḥaḍramī scholar residing
in the Comoro islands, and Abdallāh Bā Kathīr came from Lamu. Large numbers of
students and teachers in Zanzibar Zanzibar came from the . Sa‘īd
al-Mughayrī wrote that “the wars of the sultans of Ngazija led to the
emigration of many Comorians to Comoros .
In 1899, fifteen thousand Comorians migrated to Zanzibar , where they became part of the upper
class, holding fast to the commands of their Islamic religion and spreading
trend toward mobility among the scholars of Zanzibar Zanzibar
diminished in the twentieth century; by mid-century, scholars who studied or
taught in Zanzibar tended to come from Zanzibar, and those born in were less likely to travel for the
sake of study. Zanzibar
Sayyid Sa‘īd’s attitude toward Ibāḍism may be discerned from his checkered relationship with the family of the aforementioned Abū Nabhān, the most powerful religious scholar of his day in Oman. Al-Sālimī wrote, “Abū Nabhān was the most outstanding scholar of his time in knowledge, virtue, and nobility (sharaf), and the people had taken him as an example for guidance in all matters of their religion as well as their worldly affairs. The virtuous people obeyed him, because they knew his knowledge and piety.” Abū Nabhān publicly denounced Sayyid Sa‘īd and declared him unfit to lead the Muslims. His authority constituted a direct challenge to Sayyid Sa‘īd, but the latter dared not act against him, not only because of Abū Nabhān’s popularity, but even more because of his well-known skill in ‘ilm al-sirr—the knowledge of hidden things, such as divination, the writing of talismans, and other esoteric secrets. After Abū Nabhān’s death in 1822, his son, Nāṣir ibn Abī Nabhān, says that Sayyid Sa‘īd was deceptively kind to him in order to convince him to write a talisman that would protect him from all other talismans. He did so, only to find that Sayyid Sa‘īd commenced an all-out assault on their fortresses, which forced them after seven months to abandon their homes and property. Nāṣir’s family beseeched him to write a talisman to protect them against Sayyid Sa‘īd and his local governor. Nāṣir was able to concoct a talisman even more powerful than the one he had given to the sultan, although it took a year and a half to prepare it, because of the previous talisman he had written protecting Sayyid Sa‘īd. His work on this talisman was supported by the “pious people of Nizwā,” who kept him awake with coffee to enable him to recite his incantations through the night. The purpose of the talisman was to cause the kingdom of the sultan to be destroyed. “I did not want the sultan to die,” Nāṣir is quoted as saying, “out of fear that the tyrannical Muḥammad ibn Nāṣir al-Jabarī would come to power instead, and he is a Ḥanafī [a follower of the Ḥanafī school of Sunni Islam], and one could not be sure that if he came to power he would not force the people of Oman to convert to his rite.” Finally the talisman was completed, and the sultan began to experience defeats in his military engagements in
and overseas. Sayyid Sa‘īd’s
fear of Nāṣir grew to the point that he took him into his inner
circle and brought him on all his military expeditions, and finally to Oman . Upholding
Ibāḍī ideals was clearly not Sayyid Sa‘īd’s priority, but
neither could he afford to ignore the many dimensions of the potency of
Sayyid Sa‘īd’s chief Ibāḍī judge belonged to a family with deep roots in
the Mundhirīs (al-Manādhira). The Mundhirīs were a wealthy family
originally from the Omani interior, who had become major plantation owners in Mombasa, Pemba and .
Muḥammad ibn ‘Alī ibn Muḥammad
al-Mundhirī (d. 1869) was a man of towering intellect. His known works include
a book on theology entitled Al-Khulāṣa ’l-dāmigha,
another book dealing specifically with the theological problem of the vision of
God, which the Ibāḍīs deny but the Sunnis affirm, a
book on etiquette, a
teacher’s text on grammar, and a Sufi-style prayer of petition bearing special
instructions for its recitation and promises of its efficacy in revealing
divine secrets. Shaykh
Muḥammad served under Sayyids Sa‘īd ibn Sulṭān (1828-56) and Sa‘īd’s son Mājid (1856-70), until
the shaykh died in 1869. His position was inherited by his younger brother,
‘Abdallāh. Shaykh Muḥammad’s cousin, Muḥammad ibn
Sulaymān ibn Muḥammad al-Mundhirī, was chief Ibāḍī judge during the reign of Sayyid Barghash ibn Sa‘īd
ibn Sulṭān (1870-88) and was among those who accompanied
Sayyid Barghash during his visit to Europe in 1875.
Shaykh Muḥammad ibn ‘Alī’s son, ‘Alī ibn Muḥammad ibn ‘Alī al-Mundhirī (born in 1866, only three
years before his father’s death), later became the chief Ibāḍī judge during the reigns of Sayyids ‘Alī ibn Ḥammūd (1902-11) and Khalīfa ibn Ḥārib (1911-60), until he died in 1924-5. Zanzibar
 Sayyid was the common title of the rulers of
until the British began referring to them as sultans. It does not refer to
descent from the Prophet, whereas the use of the title Sayyid preceding
the name of Aḥmad ibn Sumayṭ and other Sunni scholars does indicate descent
from the Prophet.
 E.g. Sunni judges Aḥmad ibn Sumayṭ (1861-1925) and Burhān ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Amawī (1831-1935) heard cases jointly with Ibāḍī judges. Shaykh ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Amawī explained in a conversation with an adviser to Sultan Ḥamad ibn Thuwaynī (1893-96), “The sultan of
rules according to all the sects and customs and laws, because he is
entrusted with the guardianship of all the Muslims, and they follow many
sects—Shāfi‘īs, Mālikīs, Ḥanafīs, Ḥanbalīs, and Shī‘a. Each must be judged according to the
requirements of his sect. His judgment
also extends to the Hindus, Banyans [Indian traders], and Zunūj
(non-Muslim Africans), and they are people who have customs and laws; he should
not compel any one to follow what he does not approve.” This conversation was recorded by Amawī and I
found it in some miscellaneous papers owned by the Amawī family and found in Dar Es Salaam by Mwalimu Muḥammad Idrīs Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ of Zanzibar.
 Mughayrī, Juhaynat al-akhbār, 271.
 Abdallah Saleh Farsy, The Shāfi‘ī ‘ulamā’ of East Africa, ca. 1830-1970, trans. and ed. Randall L. Pouwels (Madison: University of Wisconsin African Studies Program, 1989).
 Mughayrī, Juhaynat al-akhbār, 524-5.
 Sālimī, Tuḥfat al-a‘yān, 2: 192.
 Sa‘īd ibn Sulṭān’s predecessor, Imam Sa‘īd ibn Aḥmad, offered a handsome bribe to anyone who would kill Shaykh Abū Nabhān. The shaykh wrote a talisman that his son Nabhān hung over the water of the canal by the mosque where Abū Nabhān was staying. He ordered his son not to let the talisman touch the water, because if it touched the water the Imam would die, and the shaykh did not want that; he merely wanted to weaken him. Then, Sālimī tells us on the authority of Nāṣir ibn Abī Nabhān, “the ambition of the sultan failed and his strength weakened and his kingdom left him. His brother, Sulṭān son of Aḥmad ibn Sa‘īd, rebelled against him and took every place in his kingdom except Rustāq. He [Imam Sa‘īd] lost the respect of the people to the point that fish would be taken from a dish in his hand as he carried it from the market, and he could not stop them. He became a warning to onlookers and a sign to passersby. All the people knew this came from the shaykh’s work against him, and they all humbled themselves before the shaykh, and he became the most highly respected person. The shaykh then ordered his son to stop the work of the charm and to destroy it, lest it kill him.” After that the Imam left him in peace. Sālimī, Tuḥfat al-a‘yān, 2: 202-203.
 Ibid., 2:196-205.
 Mentioned by Abdallah Saleh Farsy in the context of a Sunni book written in response to it, to be discussed below. I have not found any copies of this book, either in
Zanzibar or in Oman.
 Muḥammad ibn ‘Alī al-Mundhirī, Jawāb al-sā’il al-ḥayrān al-mushtabah ‘alayhi fahm āyāt al-Qur’ān fī jawāz ru’yat al-bārī ta‘ālā, ‘Alī ibn ‘Abd Allāh al-Mazrū‘ī [Answering the bewildered questioner, ‘Alī ibn ‘Abd Allāh al-Mazrū‘ī, who is unable to understand the Qur’anic verses concerning the permissibility of seeing the exalted Creator] (Muscat: Ma‘had al-Qaḍā’ al-Shar‘ī wa-al-Wa‘ẓ wa-al-Irshād, 1997), 160 pp. This book was written in response to a question put to him by ‘Alī al-Mazrū‘ī, the same Omani convert to Sunnism who wrote a response to Al-Khulāṣa ’l-dāmigha (see below).
 Manuscript ZA 9/1 in the Zanzibar National Archives, a response to questions regarding: teaching and disciplining students (among other things, the shaykh recommends contests between students, in which the winner is allowed to beat his opponent!); the legality of buying what is hidden in the ground, like onions, carrots and garlic; whether it is permissible for a woman to adorn her body with things like henna; the necessity of waiting for permission before entering someone’s house; and the necessity of giving a proper greeting. The Arabic Literature of Africa, ed. John O. Hunwick and R.S. O’Fahey (Leiden: E.J. Brill), vol. 3: The Writings of the Muslim Peoples of Northeastern Africa, compiled by R.S. O’Fahey and currently under preparation, calls this collection Risālat al-irshād.
 Kitāb tashīl al-muta‘allim, the third manuscript in a collection listed as ZA 8/40 in the Zanzibar National Archives.
 Ms. ZA 2/4 in the Zanzibar National Archives is a hodgepodge of mixed papers of magic and medicine belonging to and written by Muḥammad’s brother, Sulaymān, and dated 27 Rabī‘ al-Ākhar 1274 (14 December 1857). For some reason, someone has marked an X over the text on pp. 4-10 that has the du‘ā’ of Muḥammad ibn ‘Alī ibn Muḥammad al-Mundhirī. The X stops precisely at the point where the prayer stops. This is followed by instructions for the care of the du‘ā’: it should be written on a piece of silver or white silk on a night of full moon at a particular sign of the Zodiac, fumigated with musk and amber, carried on the head, kept clean of all contamination, and recited seven times a night with incense, but 21 times on Friday nights. “Whoever does this will have divine proofs revealed to him.”
 Mughayrī, Juhaynat al-akhbār, p. 361.
Ibāḍī Conversions to Sunni Islam
‘Alī al-Mundhirī’s Defense of Ibā∙ism
Ibāḍī theological doctrines emerged from the heat of the political disputes of early Islam and were nurtured in relative isolation from people of other Islamic sects, in the mountainous interior of
Oman and remote areas of North
Africa. The cosmopolitan character of East
Africa brought Ibāḍīs into close contact
with Sunnis, Shi‘a, Hindus, and followers of other faiths. The Ibāḍī sultans of
ruled over a highly diverse population, who were mostly Sunni Muslims. Bū
Sa‘īdī rule in Zanzibar Zanzibar inaugurated the
development of a scholarly Islamic culture in Zanzibar,
where scholarship was fostered and attracted both teachers and students from
other parts of East Africa. Ibāḍī doctrine excludes Sunni Muslims from the category of
“Muslim,” so theoretically Ibāḍīs should abstain
from religious friendship with them, although they are included in the ahl
al-qibla, and are accorded all the rights of a Muslim. In practice, Ibāḍī–Sunni relationships were very friendly, and the Bū
Sa‘īdī sultans sponsored Sunni as well as Ibāḍī
scholars and appointed them as judges, and some Sunni scholars have been among
the sultans’ closest confidants. During the reign of Sayyid Barghash (1870-88),
there were some prominent conversions of Ibāḍī
scholars to Sunni Islam, provoking a severe reaction from the monarch, who
established the first printing press devoted to the publication of Ibāḍī works. The brief treatises by Shaykh ‘Alī ibn Muḥammad
al-Mundhirī indicate the real sense of threat late-nineteenth-century Ibāḍī scholars in Zanzibar felt from the attraction Sunni
Islam held for many Ibāḍīs. Nonetheless, Ibāḍī
scholars had cordial and collegiate relationships with their Sunni counterparts,
and in the second half of the nineteenth century some scholars crossed
sectarian lines for the purposes of study and adjudication. Religious conflict
was remarkably absent from the domains of the sultans of . Zanzibar