Associate 2002-03

Valerie J Hoffman



Professor Hoffman, a scholar in Islamic thought, is researching two related fields that have been largely neglected by scholars of Islam: the distinctive Ibadi sect (neither Sunni nor Shi’i) that predominates in Oman, and the establishment of Zanzibar as a center of Ibadi and Sunni scholarship during the period of Omani rule in East Africa.

A revival of intellectual, mystical, and political activity among Ibadi Muslim scholars of Oman in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries coincided with the establishment of an Omani sultanate in the East African island of Zanzibar, which rapidly drew not only Ibadi scholars from Oman but also Sunni Muslim scholars from many parts of the Swahili coast. Religious scholars in Oman during this period led two important political rebellions against ruling sultans. In Zanzibar, religious scholars served not only as judges and jurisconsults but as close associates of the sultans, often functioning as diplomats, prime ministers, and even explorers on the African mainland. There Omani scholars were forced into close cooperation with Sunni scholars from the Swahili coast, and Muslims in Zanzibar were exposed to British civilization and the new pan-Islamic currents of the Mediterranean in a way that appeared quite alien and threatening to the more insular Ibadi scholars who remained in Oman.

Nearly all published works on East Africa have been based on European colonial records or the memoirs and letters of Western travelers; Arabic sources have been largely ignored. This research, based on a study of largely unknown Arabic manuscripts from Oman and Zanzibar, is an unprecedented analysis of Ibadi thought and Muslim scholars in a time of cultural transition.