Some twenty years ago, I wrote up the following notes for myself after reading John C. Wilkinson’s The Imamate Tradition of Oman (Cambridge University Press, 1987):
While Omanis are virtually all Muslim, many (roughly half) belong neither to the Sunni nor the Shi’a sects, but to a smaller third sect called Ibadi. Temporal and spiritual authority in Oman was traditionally exercised by an Ibadi Imam. The Ibadi Imam was, at least in theory, elected by the faithful on the basis of his personal qualifications. Many elections to the Imamate in the past, though, had not been regarded as legitimate, and this lack of legitimacy had been the cause of civil wars among the Ibadis. Ibadi political theory allowed for an Imam to be deposed by the faithful if he became incapacitated or acted against the precepts of Islam, and some had indeed been deposed. Ibadi political theory “rigorously excluded…any notion of a hereditary Imamate,” though it tended to be dominated by different families in different periods (pp. 169-76).
According to Wilkinson, the Imamate has experienced repeated historical cycles in which it has “always declined into dynastic power, but equally inevitably re-emerged as the national ideology reuniting the state” (p. 4). At times, Wilkinson records, the Imamate has disappeared altogether due to defeat by foreign or non-Imamate Omani forces, but its memory has always remained among the Omanis who have restored it whenever the opportunity arose.
From the 1850s until the 1950s, there existed two power centers in Oman: the Imamate in the interior of the country and the Sultanate on the coast which was backed by the British. There were several clashes between the two in which the Sultanate would have been defeated completely had it not been for the intervention of British forces. In the mid-twentieth century, however, oil was discovered in interior Oman. The Sultan’s British-backed forces overran the Imamate completely in 1955. The Imamate leadership launched a rebellion in 1957 which it took the British two years to crush, and the Imamate then came to an end (pp. 299-328).
I cannot not help but wonder, though, whether it really did. If the memory of the Imamate and the desire to restore it remained with the Omanis in other periods when it disappeared, is it possible that this is also true now?
This question has become more relevant than when I first wrote the above due to the increasing uncertainty about the state of Sultan Qaboos’s health, about who will succeed him (no heir has been named and the process he set up for choosing his successor is untested), and about whether there will be a smooth transition or a power struggle.