By Benjamin Lutz
Oman is one of those countries that frequently remains under the radar in terms of international news, a position Oman is happy to be in. However, once you begin to actively research this stable and flourishing Gulf monarchy, you will uncover this best-kept secret of the Middle East. One of the most remarkable aspects of the country is how the state religion, Islam, is practiced. A majority of Omanis practice Ibadism, a tradition within of Islam that predates both the Sunni and Shia traditions. Apart from a community in Zanzibar (an area of modern Tanzania that used to be part of Oman) and a few small parts of North Africa, Ibadism is a majority tradition only in Oman. Partly due to its small following, Ibadism is very tolerant of other faith traditions.
This tolerance is incredibly apparent in Oman, as approximately 1.5 million of Oman’s 3.5 million population are expats. Expats practice a variety of religions including Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. In Muscat alone, there are two Christian compounds (each with a Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic Church) and two large Hindu temples. The Sultan and government of Oman protect these religious spaces and are open to building more if the religious communities grow. In addition, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the main mosque in Oman, is open to non-Muslims to visit. Few mosques allow non-Muslims to walk inside the prayer halls, but Oman encourages it. In addition, the architecture of the mosque includes Ibadi, Sunni, and Shia styles, further highlighting Oman’s commitment to religious plurality within Islam as well as throughout other faith traditions. Additionally, Omani law forbids public proselytization and attempts to convert members of one sect or religion to another, demonstrating the country’s commitment to religious plurality and coexistence. This law strives to prevent radicalization and intolerance between religions. Throughout Oman there is total freedom of thought and belief; the Ministry of Awqaf (Endowments) and Religious Affairs protects the rights of all religious communities. Carefully monitoring religious sermons and other messages is another way the Omani government can ensure extremism is not taught though religious ideologies.
Oman’s active role in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Arab League as well as many international trade, human rights, and labor organizations, demonstrates its commitment to fair religious practice. Many migrants practice Hinduism, which uses icons as a part of its worshiping ritual, a serious sin in Islam. However, they live side by side Muslim communities in peace due to Sultan Qaboos’s insistence on protection for their faith traditions and place of worship. In many other parts of the world, Muslims and Hindus do not live side by side peacefully due to the differences in their religious beliefs. Instead, the two communities flourish in Oman, encapsulating this ideal of coexistence.
All of these religious communities living next to each other in a majority Ibadi society proves that peace is possible wherever interfaith communities may be. Continuing the peace process is just as important and one of the best examples of an organization that does this is the Al Amana Centre. Starting in 1893 as a medical and educational venture from the Reformed Church of America, the Centre morphed in the 1970s into an organization that began teaching how interfaith communities within Oman coexist. Now they facilitate study abroad programs in Muslim-Christian Relations, advises the UN from its sister organization in New York, hosts scriptural readings from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim texts, coordinates with the Omani government on projects, and contributes academic articles about interfaith, religion, and globalization.
‘Deal with people how they are, not how we perceive them to be: this is the basis of a shared humanity.’ This phrase very well reflects Oman’s attitude towards the many religious communities that live together harmoniously in the world’s only Ibadi-majority country.