Scholars and Power in Oman: 1749-1913

21 September, 2022

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published Scholars and Power in Oman: 1749-1913 (335 pp.) by Nasser bin Saif Al-Saadi. The book searches for a theoretical basis for the Omani tendency to concentrate power in the hands of religious scholars and jurists and traces the political relationship between scholars and power in Omani history from the middle of the 18th century until the early 20th century. To understand this relationship, he examined the principles of the Ibadi doctrine, which has provided the theoretical foundation for political practice in Oman since the 8th century. Thus, the author begins by investigating the rules of political authority and the foundations of its legitimacy, aiming to understand the nature of the relationship between theory and historical reality.

Oman suffered a long history of discord regarding the transfer of power from one ruler to another until 1624, when a relative consensus followed the establishment of the Yarubid dynasty. But disputes over succession resurfaced after the death of Imam Sultan bin Saif II in 1719 until 1749 when a group of scholars and jurists pledged allegiance to Ahmad bin Said as an imam. However, upon his death, the scholars’ role in choosing a successor declined, with their allegiance no longer serving as a prerequisite for legitimacy, leading to the outbreak of disputes, and attempts from multiple sides to delegitimize each claimant to rule. Several British reports appeared, attempting to research the roots of power transference in Oman, and monitoring the various disputes. These reports reflect both the political problem rooted in the transfer of government and the existence of a political vision among scholars and jurists, embodied by the Imamate system, which they champion as the key stability and political consensus.

To understand the political views of scholars, the author undertakes a discussion of those who are most involved in politics, based on the following two considerations; First: extent of influence and political and intellectual status, and second: the political role, especially the role of those who had prominent political positions towards the political situation in general. Four scholars stand out: Sheikh Jaad bin Khamis Al Kharusi, Sheikh Saeed bin Khalfan Al Khalili, Sheikh Saleh bin Ali Al Harthy, and Sheikh Abdullah bin Humaid Al Salmi, known as Nour Al Din Al Salmi. Despite the decline in the scholars’ influence in appointing a successor following Ahmad bin Said’s death, they remained influential in shaping political events, retaining their significant political and social status. Therefore, the successive sultans worked to win the favour of scholars and made various attempts at rapprochement. While the relationship between the scholars and the sultans was often marked by harmony, it descended into conflict at times. This fluctuation goes back to the Ibadi jurisprudential principle that treats the relationship of jurists and scholars with the Sultan with suspicion, present in the texts of scholars and jurists who lived from the end of the eighteenth century to the first half of the nineteenth century. Sheikh Saeed bin Ahmed Al-Kindi warns against getting close to the Sultan, saying: “He who grows closer to the Sultan grows more distant from God.” Al-Kindi was not alone in issuing such warnings. The author explores this complex relationship with a thorough examination of these writings and the relevant historical records.

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