A Comparison of Modern Religious Education in Arabia: Oman and Yemen
Abdulrahman al-Salimi, IjthadReason, 11/18/2010
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Abdulrahman al-Salimi, IjthadReason, 11/18/2010
Read the Article >>
When it was announced that most of the September 11th attackers came from the Arabian Peninsula–particularly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen–it raised the question of why most of those involved were from the same region. Many initially alleged that poverty and economic backwardness were to blame. Subsequent analyses did not bear out this claim. A more persistent argument has been that terrorism in the Muslim world is being fostered by the pedagogy of Islamic institutions in Arabia, sometimes with the support of states. The present paper explores this thesis by comparing the religious education systems in Oman and Yemen, paying particular attention to their relationship with the state. The paper argues that, in the case of these two nations, problems of extremism are more likely to emerge when the state lacks the ability to regulate religious education.
I. Historical Background
Up until to the mid-20th century, both Oman and Yemen were constituted as imamates. The roots of the Yemeni Imamate go back more than eleven centuries to the arrival of the Zaydi Imam al-Hadi ila al-Haq Yahya bin al-Hussayn al-Rasi (d. 911) in that country in late 9th century. Imam Yahya succeeded in acquiring political and religious authority in the city of Sa'da, and from there was able to promote the Zaydi sect of Islam in the north of the country, culminating in the establishment of a Zaydi Imamate in the year 897 A.D. The Imamate survived and dominated present-day Yemen for centuries although al-Shafi'i and Sufi ideologies gained ground in the southern and coastal provinces in later years. 
In Oman, the Ibadi sect of Islam took root and flourished in the 8th century, resulting in the establishment of an Ibadi Imamate. The long-term success of the Imamate ensured that Ibadism remained the religious reference point of the country despite the influence of the al-Shafi'i school in the south and Hanafi and Hanbali schools in some coastal areas. The continuity of the Imamate also translated into the emergence of Oman as a permanent autonomous nation in the region, and was instrumental in articulating the national identity of the country.
Within both the Yemeni and Omani Imamates, religious education conformed to the traditional model: One acquired religious knowledge in several stages, beginning with classes in the mosques and then proceeding to private study with scholars. The main financial support for this system came from endowments and the schools were therefore relatively independent.
During the past two centuries, however, two developments in particular have wrought changes in religious education in Oman and Yemen. First, since the beginning of the 18th century, the traditional religious schools have experienced an ideological upheaval associated with efforts to reform the Ibadi and Zaydi doctrines. In Yemen, what essentially occurred is that a group of reforming masters including Muhammad b. Ali al-Shawkani (d. 1834), Muhammad bin Isma'il al-Sana'ani (d. 1768) and Ibrahim al-Wazir ( emerged and attempted to challenge Zaydi doctrine. This initiative worked to undermine the traditional Zaydi schools' monopoly over religious authenticity and authority, and resulted in a move towards Sunni doctrines. In Oman, the reformers, such as Diya al-Din 'Abd al-Aziz al-Thamini (d. al-Qutub Muhammad b. Yusuf Atfayish (d.1914) and Nur al-Din Abd Allah b. Humayd al-Salimi(d.1914), took a different approach and worked to refine the Ibadi doctrine. In essence, they sought to relate Ibadi conceptions to the modern world while preserving the doctrine's roots.
The second important development has to do with political change. In 1956 and 1962, respectively, Oman and Yemen ended their imamates, with both nations' imams seeking political asylum in Saudi Arabia. In Oman, the government was reorganized as a sultanate and supported by the British authorities. In Yemen, the rule of the imam gave way to a republican governmental system supported by Nassari Arab nationalism. These political changes entailed a fundamental reorganization of society that, in turn, greatly affected the nature of religious education in each country.
Because it is so important to our story, it is useful to describe in detail how political modernization has changed Omani and Yemeni society. Let us begin with a description of traditional Arab society:
This diagram depicts the relational structure of traditional Arab society, which would have characterized both Yemen and Oman prior to the mid-20th century. As the reader can see, the traditional society has its core a tribal structure, with tribal and religious leaders representing a conduit between the political authority and the general populace. The diagram also high lights a critical element of the social structure that I sometimes overlooked from the outside: There is a de facto relationship between the leaders of tribes and religious leaders. The tribal leaders have a built-in loyalty based on the ethnic connections of their tribes, and this provides a powerful base from which to influence political authority. Religious leaders, on the other hand, must court support from the general populace, which has as its base a tribal structure. This means that when a religious leader wants to play a role in society, no matter how large his following, he must secure the approval and support of the sheikhs of the tribes. On the other hand, the tribal sheikhs need positive relationships with the religious leaders because the religious leaders exert influence in the lives of their tribal members. An interesting situation occurs if the leader of a dominant tribe is also a religious leader: He still needs the cooperation of the other tribal and religious leaders but, in certain cases, he may have the powerbase from which to become the leader of the state. It is in the context of these relationships in Arab society that the government works to provide stability and promote political development.
After modernization, political authority remained decentralized in Yemen, with sheikhs and religious leaders serving as intermediaries between rules and the population, while Oman moved to a centralized system. We can illustrate the development in each country as follows:
In Yemen, the government developed a political system in which power is channeled through factions and parties. These factions must seek their support from the tribal sheikhs and religious leaders. When such support is given, a faction works directly with the sheikhs or religious leaders to carry out the political process. It does not interface with the general populace or compete for votes in elections. Thus, in Yemen, political modernization has been characterized by the interposition of factions and parties between rulers and sheikhs. The general population has not been directly affected by modernization. Those who are disenfranchised in the new faction-based process including tribes, religious schools, and minorities must form their own party religious or secular in order to gain access to the political process.
The faction-based system explains how a political process with free elections in the Middle East can be used by a dominant and well-allied party to garner the votes needed to win elections, as witnessed in the past in Iraq and in Algeria in 1992.
In Oman, all tribal sheikhs have been appended to the Ministry of the Interior, and the religious establishments have also been appended to the government. Meanwhile, the state has created the means to work directly with the general populace. Therefore, in Oman, we find a centralized system in which much of the contact between the state and the sheikhs, religious leaders, and population is direct. A key goal of this structure has been to retain tribal sheikhs as a dynamic in society, while avoiding clashes and factional political among the sheikhs and religious leaders.
In the end, we see that Oman inhibited potential competition between religious and tribal authority by creating a centralized system, while in Yemen the power of tribes is separated from governmental command. What this means, of course, is that the Omani state has greater control over religious education than does the Yemeni state.
It is important to note that greater regional conflicts also played a part in shaping religious education. During mid-20th century, there were border disputes between Saudi Arabia and Yemen in the regions of Jizan and Aseer and between Saudi Arabia and Oman over Buraymi. Yemen was willing to negotiate, even at the level of religious influence, to avoid conflict and gain financial support from Saudi Arabia. Oman would not entertain such influence and closed itself to the world. Meanwhile, Sultan Said b. Taymur encouraged religious scholars to create their own iftaa and instruction organizations, and removed all opponents from the country. These actions paved the way for Oman's centralization of its religious establishments.
II. Religious Education in Yemen
Let us now take a closer looks at religious education in modern Yemen. In 1948, the revolutionaries of Yemen who opposed the Imamate forged an alliance with Islamists including Fudhayl Wartilani, an Algerian representative of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and attempted to overturn the regime of the controversial Imam Yahya Humayd Al-Din. The action resulted in a fifteen-year civil war, which was eventually concluded by an agreement between the former Imam's top military personnel, the former combatants, including Muhammad Mahmud al-Zubayri, who was close to the Muslim Brotherhood movement, and the government. The accord resulted in the establishment of the new republican system.
This situation resulted in minimal governmental control of religious education for several reasons. First, as mentioned above, the prominence of factions in the new political process limited the power of the political rulers generally. Second, the opposition to Zaydism i.e., the attacks on Zaydi doctrine, the Imamate, the Hashed tribe of Zaydi origin (the al-Ahmar family) put the government at odds with the traditional religious schools, which might have otherwise been incorporated into a state religious education system. Third, the government simply lacked the funds needed to establish and control religious schools.
In this vacuum, fundamentalist groups made a push to gain control of religious schools. The initiators behind these activities were wealthy families in Saudi Arabia, such as Ibn Mahfudh and Ibn Laden, that had originally came from Yemen and were funding Wahabism under the pretense of supporting "true Islam" and reconnecting with tribal roots. This phenomenon of using private wealth to fund extremism arose throughout the Gulf region generally in the mid-1970s, and reached its peak during the Afghan War. Subsequently, it contributed to religious conflicts in Egypt, Pakistan, Sudan, Jordan, and Algeria, to name a few. The increase in the use of private wealth for these purposes received a boost due to the rise in oil prices and financial inflation in the region. The corresponding phenomenon was a decline in governmental support for fundamentalist activities, which had occurred in the case of Iranian financial assistance to the Shi'ite in South Lebanon, the Saudi support for the Afghan War, and other examples found in the Gulf and Iraq. As financial support for fundamentalism shifted from governmental to private sources, funds were increasingly channeled through charities and commercial banks, which in turn meant that governments were less able to monitor the funding of extremism.
In addition to the support it derived from foreign funding, fundamentalism in Yemen was also strengthened by immigration: Many Yemenis studied in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, or worked as laborers in Saudi Arabia, and some were exposed to radical ideas in the process. The 1967 Arab-Israel War also sparked an assertion of modern Wahabism and the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen.
Within this context, the of revolutionaries and Muslim Brotherhood in Northern Yemen, bolstered by financial and communication links with Saudi Arabia, were able to chip away successfully at the traditional Zaydi religious establishments. Although the Zaydi religious heritage did not collapse completely, it declined significantly in the 1970's because the Zaydi schools did not have the financial resources to marshal much resistance. A similar process occurred in the South, but because there the traditional and al-Shaafi school religious establishments were stronger, it took until the 1990's for the Islamists to flourish.
When President Ali Abdulla Salih came to power in 1978, he attempted to cooperate with all of his opponents, including Islamic fundamentalists, Zaydi supporters of the former Imamate regime, Nassiri Arab nationalist supporters, socialists in the South, as well as other tribes from interior areas. This led to cooperation between the President and the modern Wahabi scholar Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zandani, a famous leader of the al-Islah party, which is part of the Muslim Brotherhood. Another leader from al-Islah, Shaykh Abdullah al-Ahmar, who is well-respected by many Yemeni tribes, has been selected as Parliament Chairman each parliamentary period by the majority vote of the ruling party. In return, he provides full support of the Hashed tribe, which is one of the largest in Yemen and opposes the ruling government.
After securing foreign financial support, undermining the Zaydi religious establishments, and gaining entry into the government, the al-Islah party succeeded in obtaining the authority and control of general education in the period between 1980 and 1998. Being a religious party under the command of the Yemen branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Zaydis responded to this development as an injustice, especially since Wahabis regarded them as unbelievers. Revolts followed on numerous occasions, with the last one occurring in 2004 in north Yemen by the leaders of the al-Huthi family. The al-Shafi'i influence, meanwhile, nearly perished under the oppression of Wahabism, particularly in northern Yemen.
By the late 1980's a majority of schools had affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, with connections to Abd al-Majid al-Zandani of the al-Islah party, or had fallen under the influence of traditional Wahabism. The Yemeni government had little direct control religious education.
The situation changed somewhat following the 1988 treaty between North and South Yemen (formalized in 1990). The government succeeded in gaining direct control of the official primary, secondary, and preparatory education systems which include Islamic studies curricula and therefore became capable of competing for the students under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood. There are also eight official universities in Yemen, and all have Islamic studies departments, but the curricula in these universities are primarily controlled by scholars from the Muslim Brotherhood, with some classical emphasis from al-Azhar University in Egypt.
Although the government has made some headway in gaining control of religious schools, religious education in Yemen remains largely decentralized and heavily financed by foreign sources. This "self-management" system allows for a diversity of religious ideologies and institutions, but also continues to leave the door open to fundamentalists.
Today, for example, there a number of private universities in Yemen, and one among them is al-Iman (the Belief) University run by Abd al-Majid al-Zadani, who is accused of terrorist activities and wanted by authorities in the U.S. and Great Britain. Some students have accused the University of being involved in the deaths of American doctors and preachers on December 31, 2002 and of the death of Jar Allah Omar, one of the top leaders of the Socialist Party in Yemen, on December 28, 2002.
The Zaydi have the Institute of Unity & Justice (al-Adl wa al-Tawhid), which is managed by al-Huthi studies and promotes the Mu'tzalite and Zaydi traditional theological approach. Among the Zaydi traditional colleges there is the famous al-Nahriyn Mosque of Shaykh Hamud b. Attas, a supporter of the ruling government in Sanaa, and there is the al-Murtadhaa b. al-Mahdhur Center and the Abdullah Ibn Masud School in Sa'ada that teach a Zaydi curriculum.
Also in Sa'ada there is a Wahhabi institute, al-Dammaj Institute, of Shaykh Maqbal b. Hadi al-Wad'i, that has many students from Yemen and abroad. In Maarab there is the Maarab Institute managed by Abu al-Hassan Al Maarabi, who is an Egyptian Wahhabi. These two Centers represent traditional Wahabi fundamentalist institutes in Yemen.
Beside these centers and institutes, there are al-Shafi'i schools under the supervision of Abu Bakar al-Mashhur, which are known as Rabat Eden and have many branches, especially in the south. The Sufi also have schools in Yemen, with the famous one in the south, Dar al-Mustapha, under the management of al-Habib al-Jaffry and 'Umar bin Hafiz. There are more than two thousand students studying in this school. In Ta'iz in the north, there is also a school of this type known as Ribat al-Junayid. All of these schools are of the traditional Islamic type and are not under the management of the Yemeni government and or boards of directors.
In summary, the decentralized nature of Yemeni religious education means that schools fall under three umbrellas:
According to a statement issued by the Minister of Education in Yemen on August 27, 2005, the country now has 4615 unregistered religious schools, with most of them encouraging extremism, and, he added, a decision should be made to close them. The Minister also said that these schools and centers have about 320,232 male and female students not currently under the government's supervision. The breakdown is as follows:
According to the Minister's report, the number of teachers who receive wages from the government has reached 19,000, among them 362 foreigners. The total number of non-Yemenis in these schools is 3,688.
III. Religious Education in Oman
After the end of its imamate, Oman pursued a policy of religious centralization.
The office of the Grand Mufti was established in 1974 by a royal decree, and all religious scholars who had historically been independent were brought under the Mufti's authority.
Religious education was also brought under the supervision of government institutions. The Ministry of Education, for example, was made responsible for the religious studies component in public schools, and in 1994 all religious centers were incorporated into the general education system. The Ministry of the Royal Court was charged with overseeing the Royal Court mosques and the Sultan Qaboos Center for Islamic Studies, which admits approximately forty students per year for a three-year secondary school program.
In 1997 the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs was renamed the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs. Following this change the Ministry became responsible for supervising all non-Muslim religions in the country as well. The Ministry also supervises the Institute of Shariah Science, which offers a university level education and has courses on memorizing the Holy Quran.
Meanwhile, Oman has worked to prevent the private funding of any fundamentalist or extremist movements. In the early 1990s, a group of Shiite fundamentalists were arrested and charged with receiving foreign financial support. In 1994, a group of Wahabis-Muslim Brotherhood was arrested on a similar charge. Since then, Oman has established a charitable foundation through which all charities operate so that humanitarian support is not misdirected toward terrorist activities.
In short, in Oman, religious education is generally carried under the supervision of the state in a centralized system, and this has made it difficult for fundamentalists to thrive.
It is interesting to note that the different styles of religious education found in Oman and Yemen have resulted in radically disparate numbers of religious studies students and schools in the two nations, as the following charts by ALESCO show:
As the charts show, Oman had a small number of students enrolled in religious schools in the mid-1990's. The number dropped to zero in the late 1990's when all religious education was folded into the general education system. In Yemen a decreasing but still large number of students are still enrolled in religious schools. There is no doubt that this huge number of students in religious education schools in Yemen creates difficulties in the fields of human resources and social development, and adds to the unemployment crisis.
The preceding comparison between Yemen and Oman has highlighted some of the differences centralized versus decentralized approaches can have on religious and socio-political development in the Middle East. In Yemen the government has been able to afford pluralism in society and in political parties while also holding free elections. Certainly this is an important and distinguishing characteristic for Yemeni policy in contrast to the countries around it. That being said, this policy has been accompanied by difficult political struggles, problems of extremism and militancy, and clashes with and among religious schools and institutions.
With the centralized government in Oman, the democratic experience is still in progress. Currently, there are neither political parties nor religious or social alliances. However, there are free elections for the Majlis al-Shura, the pursuit of gender equality, and an educational milieu that promotes the development of civil society.
It is difficult and perhaps impossible clearly demarcate the path that Middle Eastern nations should take in the process of development. The issue is complex and modernization must take into account the unique history and circumstances of each nation.
That said, some conclusions about modernization and religious education in particular can be drawn. Religious education in Yemen used to be taught in Zaydi traditional schools in the North and in Sunni al-Shafi'i schools in the South and coastal areas. When a republic governmental system arose in North Yemen and a socialist government ruled the South, traditional religious education entered an era of oppression, and the schools in the South were closed under the rationale that they rivaled governmental authority because they reflected Zaydi Imamate thought. When political conflict arose between the North and South at the end of the 1960s, the Northern government sought help from Saudi Arabia. The result was Sunni fundamentalist control of religious and general education in the North and an increased pressure on Zaydi orientations in general. This situation remained until the end of the 1990s. Since the formal unity of the North and South in 1990 (treaty signed in 1988), Wahhabi fundamentalism has spread to the South and on several occasions its supporters have come into conflict with security forces. These fundamentalist groups, which then controlled religious education in the North and South, were cooperating with Al Qaeda Organizations.
Although the federal government has controlled the educational system in the country since 1998, there are still many religious schools that reflect a Wahhabi extremist ideology, as reflected in our discussion of Sheikh al-Zandani. However, the number of these schools is beginning to decrease due to the lack of sufficient financial support from Saudi Arabia, and fortunately, this is occurring at a time when the government is serious about ridding the country of them. Unfortunately, the reforming trend is not strong enough in Yemeni religious thought to effect change, and both Zaydi and Shaf'i traditions have been nearly decimated under political and Wahhabi fundamentalism, an example of which is the recent conflict of al-Huthi and his tribe and the Sufis and Wahhabis in the South. To bring about lasting change, it is necessary to revive Shaf'i, Zaydi, and moderate Sufi traditions in addition to curriculum development. These elements combined represent a moderating and tolerant influence for the future. Though some degree of political intervention may be necessary to protect the country from fanatical and extremist positions, a peaceful future is predicated upon the upcoming generations having religious freedom that is directed towards dialogue and discussions that encourage positive reform. This will allow a renewal of the traditional religious system.
In Oman, on the other hand, religious education, whether Ibadi or Shafi'i, has not experienced oppression by political authorities, even when the termination of the Imamate took place in the 1950s. Moreover, the governing authorities have worked to prevent any foreign intervention such as occurred in Yemen. A traditional religious education, particularly for Ibadis, continues to be a part of the system, enjoying a sort of independence. Further, the establishment of the office of the Grand Mufti was well received, and the current Mufti, Shaykh Ahmad b. Hamad al-Khalili, is well-respected by the political authorities, religious elites, and the public. Because of the religious policies followed by the government, and the stability and steady development achieved, fundamentalism has not been a problem among the youth, with the exception of a small group of Shi'i incited by the Iranian revolution and a few Sunnis in the 1990s influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahabism. In early 2005 there was a problem with a few fundamentalist-rivilist Ibadis, but this represented an alternative Islamic ideology which conflicted with current governmental structure rather than a terrorist movement. These movements were confined to small numbers and appeared infrequently due to the successful political system and strength of political authority. In order to continue this stability, it is now necessary to continue to seek reform in religious thought as well as in religious authority so that the religious enthusiasm of the youth can form an identity as a modern Omani, with iftaa and religious instruction supporting this development.
Bruce Riedel, The Search for al-Qaeda: Its leadership, Ideology and Future, Brookings Institutes Press, 2nd edition, 2010.
 Jaafar Aksikas, Arab Modernities: Islamism, Nationalism and Liberalism in the Post colonial Arab World, Peter Lang, 1st edition, 2009.
 Wilferd Madelung, Der Imam al-Qasim Ibn Ibrahim, p.150-168, Berlin: Walter De Gruyter and Co, 1965.
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 Abdulrahman al-Salimi, Modern Religious Learning in Oman, in Modern Oman: studies on Political. Economy, Environment and Culture of the Sultanate, (ed) Andrzje Kapawiski & others, p 177-184, Krakow: Kasiegarnia Akademicka, 2006.
 Dale Eickelman, Religious Knowledge in inner Oman, in Journal of Oman Studies, V.6 (1983); Gabriele Von Bruck, Islam, Memory and Morality in Yemen: Ruling Families in Transition, London: Macmillan, 2005.
 Husayn b. Abdullah al-Amri, The Yemen in the 18th and 19th centuries: A Political and Intellectual History, Durham Middle East Monograph, no.1, p. 152-164, London: University of Durham by Ithaca Press, 1985.
 Bernard Haykel, Revival and Reform in Islam: The legacy of Muhammad al-Shawkani, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
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 Michael Cook, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought, p. 228-51, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
 P. Dresch, A History of Modern Yemen, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
 About the tribal systems in Oman see: John C. Wilkinson, Water and Tribal Settlement in South-East Arabia: Study of the Aflaj of Oman, Oxford University Press: Claerdon, 1977; John. R.L. Carter, Tribes in Oman, London: Immel Publishing, 1982; Uzi Rabi, The Emergency of States in Tribal Society: Oman Under Sa'id bin Taymur 1932-1970, Sussex Academic Press, 2006. For Yemen tribal system see: Shelagh Weir, A Tribal Order: Politics and law in the Mountains of Yemen, University of Texas Press, 2007; Sarah Philips, Yemen's Democracy Experiment in Regional Perspective: Patronage and Pluralized Authoritarianism, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
 Calvin H. Allen and W. Lynn Rigsbee II, Oman under Qaboos: From Coup to Constitution, 1970-1996. Routledge, 2002.
 John C. Wilkinson, Arabia Frontiers: The Story of Britain's Boundary Drawing in Arabia, p. 141-158, London: I. B. Tauris, 1991.
 Jilian Schwedler, Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
 Lawrence Davidson, Islamic Fundamentalism, Greenwood, 2003; Beverley Milton-Edwards, Islamic Fundamentalism since 1945, London: Taylor & Francis, 2007.
 Jason Burke, al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, London: I.B. Tauris. 2004
 Bruce Riedel, The Search for al-Qaeda: its Leadership, Ideology and Future, Brooking Institution Press, 2nd, 2010.
 G. Von Bruck, Islam, Memory and Morality in Yemen: Ruling Families in Transition, Macmillan, London, 2005.
 Dale Eickelman, "Ibadism and Sectarian Perspective", in Oman: Economic, Social and Strategic Developments, (ed). Braim R. Pridham, (London: Croom Helm), 1987.
 A. al-Salimi, Modern Religious Learning in Oman, in Modern Oman, A. Kapwiski, A. al-Salmi & A. Piluski (ed), p. 177- 184 .
 Calvin Jr. Allen & Lynn W. Rigsbee, Oman Under Qaboos: From Coup to Constitution, 1970-1996, (London: Frank Cass), 1999; F. Owtram, A Modern History of Oman: Formation of the State Since 1920, (London: I. B. Tuaris), 2004; Dale Eickelman, King and People: Oman's State Consultative Council, in Middle East Journal, 38, ( 1984, No. 1.
 Edmund J. Hull, High-Value Target: Countering al Qaeda in Yemen, Potomac Books, 2011.
 See more details in Dale Eickelman, 'Religious Knowledge in Inner Oman' in Journal of Oman Studies, v. 6 (1983); D. Eickelman, "Ibadism and Sectarian Perspective", in Oman: Economic, Social and Strategic Developments, (ed). Braim R. Pridham, (London: Croom Helm), 1987.