From Theocracy to Monarchy: Authority and Legitimacy in Inner Oman, 1935 – 1957
Inner Oman, a country in the Middle East, was one of the last countries to be ruled by a theocracy. A theocracy can be defined as an “a political unit governed by a deity (or by officials thought to be divinely guided)”, the Ibadi imamate of “inner” Oman (1913 – 1955) became one of the world’s last absolute monarchies.
When the shift from theocracy to monarchy occurred in 1955 it was largely supported, or at least with the consent, of the tribesmen of the area. The support of the shift is somewhat surprising at first as the “fundamentalist Islamic religious and political principles for which the imamate stood continued to be properly supported. One of these principles for Ibadis was that the imiam, the spiritual and temporal leader of the Islamic community, should be the most qualified of available candidates and chosen by a consensus of the community’s religious men of learning and notables, a notion markedly at contrast with the ascriptive one of dynastic rule. Conflict between these two forms of rule is basic to much of Islamic political history and to that of pre-1970 Oman in particular”.
Inner Oman was mainly comprised (and still is today) of Ibadi , the smallest of the three major Islamic divisions. It originated in the 7th century CE over the dispute of succession to leadership of the Islamic community. “Almost the sole significant doctrinal difference with most Sunni is that the Ibadi recognize only the Prophet Muhammad’s first two caliphs, or successors in all claims to authority except prophecy, Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. They also reject the notion that the caliphate or the imamate (spiritual leadership of the community) should be vested in any one descent group, even that of the prophet. The Ibadi are often called “the people of consultation” (ahl al-shura) because they select the most qualified member of their community as imam without regard to descent or tribal considerations. If no satisfactory incumbent can be found, the post in principle goes unfilled”.
The tribes of this region included the Bani Hina, the Hirth, the Bani Riyam, and the ‘Abriyin who allied themselves in a confederacy. Until the discovery of oil, their main source of livelihood was based on irrigation and herds of goats and sheep. Their size were similar to that of the Hinawi and Ghafiri confederations.
Before the shift to monarchy, the Ibadi state was ruled by oligarchic tribal elite who managed to hold onto their power despite any political chaos occurring in Oman throughout history. Despite this, however, they always depended on trading relations with the Sultan and the imam.
From the start of his reign, Sultan Sacid began a correspondence with Imam Muhammad which began with pleasant greetings on Muslim feast days that would end up in a much deeper political relationship. During the mid 1930s, the Sultan encouraged intellectuals from Inner Oman to serve as judges in his administration. Shaykh Ibrahim al-‘Abri, who was a tribal leader from Inner Oman, in 1939 became one of the most influential men who made the shift.
In the 1940s, the Sultan contacted the shaykhs of the powerful Hinawi and Ghafiri confederations, who ruled a region similar to the Ibadi of Inner Oman, and was able to neogitate with them. They agreed not to appoint a new imam and also agreed to rule the area jointly with the Sultan.
In the 1950s, the Sultan went further and renewed his inactive claims to Buraymi and the region called Dhahira (Zahira), which included the oasis of ‘Ibri. In 1952, there was a Saudi occupation where the Saudis tried to get the tribal leaders to recognise their legitimacy. The Sultan’s response was to raise the tribal levies to oust the Saudis; this became a popular action in his rule. He sent 8,000 tribesman to the region but was disbanded in the October due to British assurances that they could find a peaceful solution.
When Imam al-Khalili died, there was a faction of the tribesmen who urged a reunification with the Sultan. In October 1955, the Trucial Oman Scouts expelled the Saudis out of the region, paving the way for reunification. On the 17th December, the Sultan’s Batina Force forced out anyone who opposed this and captured the city.
On the 23rd December, the Sultan travelled to an area not far from Nizwa and promised to give amnesty to all those who accepted his rule. The change from theocracy to monarchy, he promised, would not create a significant shift in the current social order.
The shift from theocracy to monarchy in Inner Oman was a significant event in the country’s history and would come to play an important role in events yet to come.
Eickelman, Dale F. (1985) From Theocracy to Monarchy: Authority and Legitimacy in Inner Oman, 1935-1957, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Cambridge University Press.