THE GULF IN THE MIDDLE AGES
Ar Rustaq fort, Oman, restored by Omani Ministry of
National Heritage and Culture
Courtesy Embassy of the Sultanate of Oman, Washington
Building a dhow in Sur, Oman's ancient port; ship
construction is a major enterprise of Persian Gulf states.
Courtesy Embassy of the Sultanate of Oman, Washington
In the Islamic period, the prosperity of the gulf
to be linked to markets in Mesopotamia. Accordingly, after
the gulf prospered because Baghdad became the seat of the
and the main center of Islamic civilization. Islam brought
prosperity to Iraq during this period, thus increasing the
for foreign goods. As a result, gulf merchants roamed
farther afield. By the year 1000, they were traveling
to China and beyond, and their trading efforts were
in spreading Islam, first to India and then to Indonesia
The Islam they spread, however, was often sectarian.
Arabia was a center for both Kharijites and Shia; in the
Ages, the Ismaili Shia faith constituted a particularly
force in the gulf. Ismailis originated in Iraq, but many
the gulf in the ninth century to escape the Sunni
Whereas the imam was central to the Ismaili tradition, the
also recognized what they referred to as "missionaries"
(dua; sing., dai), figures who spoke for the
and played major political roles. One of these
Hamdan Qarmat, who sent a group from Iraq to Bahrain in
century to establish an Ismaili community. From their base
Bahrain, Qarmat's followers, who became known as
emissaries throughout the Muslim world.
The Qarmatians are known for their attacks on their
opponents, including raids on Baghdad and the sack of
Medina in 930. For much of the tenth century, the Ismailis
Bahrain were the most powerful force in the Persian Gulf
Middle East. They controlled the coast of Oman and
tribute from the caliph in Baghdad as well as from a rival
Ismaili imam in Cairo, whom they did not recognize.
By the eleventh century, Ismaili power had waned. The
Qarmatians succumbed to the same forces that had earlier
threatened centers on the gulf coast--the ambitions of
leaders in Mesopotamia or Persia and the incursion of
the interior. In 985 armies of the Buyids, a Persian
drove the Ismailis out of Iraq, and in 988 Arab tribes
Ismailis out of Al Ahsa, an oasis they controlled in
Arabia. Thereafter, Ismaili presence in the gulf faded,
the twentieth century the sect virtually disappeared.
Ibadis figured less prominently than the Shia in the
of Islam. A stable community, the Ibadi sect's large
Oman has helped to distinguish Oman from its gulf
Ibadis originated in Iraq, but in the early eighth
the caliph's representative began to suppress the Ibadis,
left the area. Their leader at the time, Jabir ibn Zayd,
to Iraq from Oman, so he returned there. Jabir ibn Zayd's
presence in Oman strengthened the existing Ibadi
less than a century, the sect took over the country from
Sunni garrison that ruled it in the caliph's name. Their
Al Julanda ibn Masud, became the Ibadi imam of Oman.
In the Ibadi tradition, imams are elected by a council
religious scholars, who select the leader that can best
the community militarily and rule it according to
principles. Whereas Sunnis and Shia traditionally have
a single leader, referred to as caliph or imam, Ibadis
regions to have their own imams. For instance, there have
concurrent Ibadi imams in Iraq, Oman, and North Africa.
Because of the strong sense of community among Ibadis,
resembles tribal feelings of community, they have
the interior of Oman and to a lesser degree along the
752, for example, a new line of Sunni caliphs in Baghdad
conquered Oman and killed the Ibadi imam, Al Julanda.
imams arose and reestablished the tradition in the
extending their rule to the coastal trading cities met
opposition. The inland empires of Persia and Iraq depended
customs duties from East-West trade, much of which passed
Oman. Accordingly, the caliph and his successors could not
the regional coastal cities out of their control.
As a result, Oman acquired a dual nature. Ibadi leaders
usually controlled the mountainous interior while, for the
part, foreign powers controlled the coast. People in the
cities have often been foreigners or have had considerable
contact with foreigners because of trade. Coastal Omanis
profited from their involvement with outsiders, whereas
the interior have tended to reject the foreign presence as
intrusion into the small, tightly knit Ibadi community.
Islam has thus preserved some of the hostility toward
that was a hallmark of the early Kharijites.
While the imam concerned himself with the interior, the
coast remained under the control of Persian rulers. The
the late tenth century eventually extended their influence
the gulf as far as Oman. In the 1220s and 1230s, another
the Zangids--based in Mosul, Iraq--sent troops to the
coast; around 1500 the Safavids, an Iranian dynasty,
the gulf as well. The Safavids followed the Twelver Shia
tradition and imposed Shia beliefs on those under their
Thus, Twelver communities were established in Bahrain and
lesser extent in Kuwait.
Oman's geographic location gave it access not only to
Sea trade but also to ships skirting the coast of Africa.
end of the fifteenth century, however, a Persian ruler,
shaykh of Hormuz, profited most from this trade. The
controlled the Persian port that lay directly across the
from Oman, and he collected customs duties in the busy
ports of Qalhat and Muscat. Ibadi imams continued to rule
interior, but until Europeans entered the region in the
century, Ibadi rulers were unable to reclaim the coastal
from the Iranians.
Data as of January 1993