The Grand Mufti: Teacher, scholar, and religious icon

RAY PETERSEN –

The Office of the Grand Mufti of the Sultanate of Oman is well known to Omanis, but possibly not so well known to the expatriate community. Maybe we do understand that the office is that of the highest Islamic religious authority in Oman, capable of issuing legal opinions and religious edicts, and assisting the judiciary in matters requiring Islamic jurisprudence. Maybe we know the face of the Grand Mufti as he is prominent in the media. However, almost certainly, we don’t know much of the man himself, Ahmad bin Hamad bin Sulieman Al Khalili.

At the time of Ahmed Al Khalili’s birth, in 1942, Zanzibar was still under Omani rule, though very much in the minority on the East African island. His family was of Omani descent, with his grandfather having been a judge in the Wilayat of Bahla. As a nine year old, young Al Khalili, could not have known what life had in store for him. However, he did know the Holy Quran, had memorized it completely, and already sought a deeper understanding of its message. Al Khalili was a committed scholar, and he sought the teaching of prominent Muslims — Issa bin Saeed Al Ismaili, Hamoud bin Saeed Al Kharusi, and Sheikh Ahmed bin Zahran Al Riyami — while a visiting scholar of note, Abu Ishaq Ibrahim Tfayyesh provided further insights on the Islamic faith.
In 1964 a local, communist inspired uprising in Zanzibar, saw the young scholar’s family return to their ancestral home in Bahla, in the interior of Oman. Al Khalili himself wrote, “The new Marxist revolutionary leadership, with its inhuman ideology, forced most Arabs to flee the island.” The Islamic scholar in the now twenty two year old Al Khalili obviously created a good impression among the local population, and he was asked to teach at the Bahla Mosque, which was his calling for almost a full year. He then spent the next five years teaching at the Al Khor mosque, in the capital city of Muscat.
In 1971, still only twenty nine years of age, Al Khalili was appointed a judge of the Court of Appeal. Subsequently appointed Director of the Ministry of Justice, Al Khalili held important Islamic Affairs offices within the government, and in 1975, upon the death of the incumbent Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ibrahim bin Said Al Abri, at the tender age of thirty three years, was appointed by the Royal Decree of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, to the office of the highest Islamic authority in the country, as Grand Mufti of the Sultanate of Oman.
As one of the global Ulama, or ‘learned ones,’ and high in the religious hierarchy, the Grand Mufti is often called upon to act as a guardian of the moral, legal and religious standards and values of the Islamic faith. This very intellectual, and almost aristocratic position, is often recognized in the contemporary Islamic faith, as both, an extension of governance, and an independent, faith based, balance for government policies, particularly in the area of social development, ensuring that Islam is appropriately considered in all legislation (Bowering and Crone, 2013).
In his role as the current Grand Mufti, Al Khalili is also called upon on the international stage, and was Oman’s signatory to the important Amman Message in 2004. He was one of 200 global Islamic scholars, from 50 countries, to issue a fatwa endorsing the statement which was announced by Chief Justice Sheikh Iz Al Din Al Tamimi, as re-emphasizing “Islam’s core values of compassion, mutual respect, tolerance, acceptance, and freedom of religion.” King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein of Jordan also declared his unequivocal support at the time, saying, “We felt that the Islamic message of tolerance was being subjected to a fierce and unjust attack from some in the West who do not understand Islam’s essence, and others who claim to be associated with Islam and hide behind Islam to commit irresponsible deeds.”
As a scholar himself, and a teacher, the Office of the Grand Mufti takes a great interest in the Sultanate’s education system, and Al Khalili is a member of the Board of Trustees of the University of Nizwa, based in the Dakhilyah region. He is a frequent contributor to the media, with a solid television profile through programs such as, ‘Questions to people of knowledge,’ lessons on the radio, and a print media profile through newspaper columns.
The Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affair’s, Office of the Ifta’a, also responds to internet submitted questions on his behalf, averaging one thousand responses each month. He is a prolific writer, but more so in the determination of religious policies, than in book form, though his dars, weekly religious lessons from the Sultan Qaboos Mosque in Ruwi, and the Sultan Qaboos University Mosque, are widely circulated in book form and many of his quotes form the basis of Islamic and Arabic literature taught in Oman today.
The Grand Mufti has determined too, that a strong judiciary is essential to a developing nation, and society, stating at the opening of the new Supreme Court building, in May of this year, that, “Justice is an urgent and essential need, and the judicial institution should be characterized by fairness, justice, integrity and high morals, because it is accountable before Allah and the public.”
The relationship between HH Sultan Qaboos, and the Grand Mufti has appeared positive and progressive since their first meeting, soon after the Sultan’s accession, as, of a similar age, and outlook, they form a united, and within Ibadism, a united Islamic front to the world, with an emphasis on peaceful, global, coexistence.
The Grand Mufti of the Sultanate of Oman, is of diminutive physical stature, but has a significant social and political profile within the country. He has been a ceaseless scholar, providing individual support to many, and the sum of his collective wisdom to many more. We should admire his tenacity and precociousness as a young scholar, his bravery as a young man, and laud his resilience in the face of 41 years in office, spanning generations of social, political and technological change that challenge us all.
The Grand Mufti, and his title, are both known to us, however as expatriates, what do we know of the man and his office, and why is Ahmad bin Hamad bin Sulieman Al Khalili different from any other Omani? Maybe now his role in Oman is a little clearer, as has been the journey of this fine man, and as for what makes him different? When he speaks, he speaks for a people, a nation, a leader, and a faith.