Although Sulaiman Al Baruni (1870-1940) had impeccable religious credentials, he nevertheless believed that politics ought to be as "secular" as possible, driving his contemporaries mad with envy. A resistance commander who fought the Italian occupation of Tripolitania, Al Baruni justified his religious practices and military activities as necessary parts of what emerged as the pan-Islamic ideologies of the early 20th century even though he failed to introduce permanent changes to his native Libya. Although the Second World War gradually introduced military governments, whose leaders articulated secular nationalism rather than pan-Islamism, Al Baruni and those who stood with him preferred popular nationalism that combined elements from both.
Like his fellow countryman, Umar Al Mukhtar (1856-1931), who understood why it was critical to oppose Italian colonial rule, or the Algerian Amir Abdul Qader Al Jazeri (1808-1883) who masterfully challenged French colonialism, Al Baruni appealed to Muslims to mobilise masses even if pan-Arabism overtook all resistance efforts, in part because no rising Arab leaders wished to be identified with the pan-Islamism then associated with the Ottoman Empire. That is why he fell back on his faith, hoping to instil Ibadhi values in his Berber "countrymen" in Libya and fellow Ibadhis in Oman.
Pan-Islamism versus pan-Arabism
In his classic 1963 study, Modern Libya: A Study of Political Development, Majid Khadduri underscored this distinction better than most when he wrote: "Religion was indeed one of the most potent factors in the rise and development of nationalism in North Africa, and the sacred authority of the sultan-caliph was often invoked to bolster up the national cause." Al Baruni was one of those thinkers who influenced, and were affected by, such an intellectual framework, and while he was on relatively good terms with Ottoman officials, he understood that the empire was waning. That, in turn, meant the real threat to Arabs came from European colonialism, not the collapsing empire, even if the vast majority of Arabs frowned on all intruders.
Moved by political rather that theological investigations, many mainstream ulamahs formed an erroneous image of Ibadhism, and only in the 20th century did it become one of the Islamic schools represented in the new Encyclopaedias of Islamic Law published by Al Azhar University in Egypt. This fortuitous development occurred after 1970 when Omani leaders expressed an interest in making their creed better understood especially within neighbouring Muslim states. Earlier, Al Baruni had relied on his Ibadhi creed to oppose the Italian occupation of his north African country — he mobilised the Ibadhis of Jabal Al Nafusah as loyal subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Though Al Baruni intended to forge better understanding among Muslims and was an early voice to eliminate intolerance by relying on the Quran and the Sunnah, his efforts were also motivated by a strong anti-colonial struggle. While the Ibadhi contribution to Islamic unity — a catchy slogan at the time — was appreciated, Al Baruni's efforts did not meet with success. His publications in Cairo, including the newspaper Al Asad Al Islami, in which he attempted to dispel negative impressions of Ibadhism, folded within a few years.
The product of a traditional Ibadhi environment, Al Baruni received a solid introduction to Ibadhi teachings in his youth, though he lived most of his life among Sunnis in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Nevertheless, it may be accurate to state that in addition to his Berber origins, it was Al Baruni's Ibadhi faith that dictated his life's course.
When he arrived in Egypt to pursue his religious education, the young Al Baruni was introduced to the rigors of Al Azhar, which had a tough curriculum. It was also in Cairo that Al Baruni could develop a vision for Berber autonomy without drawing the attention of suspicious Ottoman authorities who generally frowned on nationalist movements within the vast empire. Remarkably, the sojourn was inspirational, before Al Baruni moved to Constantinople, where he served as a deputy between 1908 and 1911 representing the Jabal Al Nafusah region of Libya.
In Constantinople, Al Baruni met leading figures such as Sayyid Taleb Pasha and Faisal Bin Hussain Al Hashemi (Hashemite). He returned to Libya in 1911 to participate in the uprising against Rome and was emboldened into action in 1912 after Ottoman authorities reached an entente with Italy, which led to their withdrawal from North Africa starting that same year. Al Baruni was energetic but neither he nor his outnumbered and ill-equipped men could put up a serious fight against Rome's "legions". They were routed, and Al Baruni and his surviving fighters fled to Tunis in 1913.
In 1913, Al Baruni returned to Constantinople, was made a senator by the sultan and received the title of Pasha. With the outbreak of the First World War, Al Baruni was asked to return to Tripoli to organise an Ottoman-authorised resistance movement against Italian occupation, which meant additional titles. Still, there was no victory on the battlefield by 1917, and Al Baruni was demoted as military commander by the sultan, who appointed Nuri Pasha, the brother of the infamous Minister of War Enver Pasha, in his place.
Interestingly, he participated in the establishment of the Jumhuriyyah Al Trabulsiyyah (Tripolitanian Republic) in November 1918, which received Italian backing even though Rome suspected that Al Baruni wished to use the new institution as a vehicle to promote Berber autonomy. For almost a year, the semi-autonomous Jumhuriyyah functioned on an ad hoc basis, without causing undue stress to the occupiers. By 1919, however, Italian authorities got wind of rumours that Al Baruni planned to declare the establishment of an Ibadhi Imamate in north Africa and promptly expelled him from the territory.
Sadly, he spent the next three years travelling through Europe, with extended visits to Paris and southern France, and two brief stops in Constantinople. Ill at ease in Europe and disgruntled in what used to be the heart of the Ottoman Empire, Al Baruni managed to hook up with Sharif Hussain Al Hashemi in Constantinople, who sponsored his visit to Makkah. The 1924 pilgrimage saw him entrusted with fresh responsibilities as the Hashemites organised their Second Congress of the Haj, which created an even more interesting opportunity, namely the imprimatur to correspond with Sultan Taimur Bin Faisal Al Bu Said, the ruler of Muscat and Oman.
Visit to Oman
Al Baruni arrived in Muscat in August 1924, where he contracted malaria and allegedly refused British permission to travel to Karachi for treatment. The invitation he accepted, however, was that issued by the Imamate of Oman. Imam Mohammad Bin Abdullah Al Khalili asked him to come to Samail, which required that he make the treacherous journey to the interior. It is in that famed city (there are approximately 35 villages in the Samail Governorate today and according to a legend, the first mosque in the sultanate was built there) that Al Baruni married and joined the Imam's entourage. A few years later, his religious erudition earned him the ra'is hay'at al kibar al Ulamah wal-ru'asah (head of the Council of the Assembly of Senior Ulamah), which put him in charge of the assembly's treasury.
Unfortunately, his poor management skills meant that the Imamate's financially precarious condition became worse as disputes arose, and he was let go. In 1927, Al Baruni returned to Muscat inflicted, once again, with malaria. Perhaps wiser, and seriously ill, he accepted an offer from King Faisal of Iraq to travel to Baghdad for treatment, which opened another chapter in his life in exile. Fortuitously, he remained a guest of the monarch in Iraq until 1938 before returning to Muscat, where Said Bin Taimur became sultan and appointed the Libyan his "adviser on internal affairs". Sultan Said valued his alim's insights, his fellow Ibadhi's legitimising presence in terms of his expertise on Imamate affairs and, more importantly, his experience with foreign leaders. On all three counts, the ruler was well served by Al Baruni, whose Ibadhi credentials spoke for themselves.
From his distant location — far more distant than many imagined, on account of Oman's self-imposed seclusion — Al Baruni advised the Hashemites in their disputes with the Al Saud and tried to mediate between them. Likewise, he followed developments in Libya closely, objecting to the 1927 abolition of the Statute of Tripolitania by the Italian Duce, Benito Mussolini. Many Libyan mujahideen sought and received his assistance, mostly in the form of encouragement, as Al Baruni wrote extensively in several newspapers: Al Ahram, Al Akhbar, Al Fath and the Al Rabitat Al Arabiyyah (all in Cairo); the Fatta' Al Arab (Damascus); Al Bilad (Baghdad); and even the Tribune d'Orient (Geneva), whose Arabic section was a much sought-after page for aspiring Arab nationalists.
This nationalist zeal drew the ire of British authorities in the Gulf, who viewed him with suspicion and as a potential instigator of anti-British feelings. London's qualms were not unfounded, as Al Baruni harboured a visceral dislike for colonialism. Almost always interested in Libya, he worked tirelessly to foment opposition against Italy and as the Second World War approached, correctly assumed that Rome would side with Berlin. This, he concluded, was a singular opportunity for mobilisation and, towards that end, he offered his assistance to France.
By 1939, he was determined to return to Tripoli, especially as Sultan Saeed Bin Taimur's interest in what was happening in the interior of Oman had waned. From his Muscat residence, Al Baruni wrote to French authorities and claimed that he could exert a good deal of influence in Tripoli should Paris wish him to return and assume fresh leadership responsibilities. In what must be one of the most ironic episodes in contemporary Arab affairs, a call came from France, but it was too late, for in the spring of 1940, Al Baruni accompanied Sultan Saeed on a trip to Mumbai, where he suffered a fatal heart attack on April 30, 1940. A telegram from Paris requesting his immediate presence in Algiers to assist in operations in Libya reached Muscat six weeks after his death.
Despite being a perfectionist Arab nationalist, Al Baruni's Libyan connections diminished his overall value in the eyes of Levantines, who, ironically, denied all those hailing from the "peripheries" their just pan-Arab credentials. Still, while Al Baruni is remembered for his Ibadhi theology, culture and poetry, he was an idealist statesman who took up the most powerful weapon there is—the pen—even though he also relied on the sword for a short period of time. His major error, perhaps, lay in the belief that Arab nationalism could co-exist or be safely nestled within the larger framework of Ottoman unity. Levantine Arabs rejected such a compromise, as they wished to rid their societies of the Ottoman noose around their necks.
Like Rashid Rida (1865-1935) whose envisaged independent Muslim Republic of Egypt failed to emerge, Al Baruni took solace in his scholarly work rather than see the creation of an independent Berber Ibadhi state. Yet, unlike Rida, who despised the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II and was wary of duplicitous Committee of Union and Progress (Young Turks) officials, Al Baruni thought that the empire could still be useful even when its political decay was omnipresent. Moreover, while Rida looked to the Al Saud of Arabia as the ruler that came closest to wishing for a true Muslim state, Al Baruni's Ibadhi faith may well have played its part in restricting his nationalist endeavours in Tripolitania and directing his attention in later years to Oman. In the end, while Al Baruni participated in the Imamate's political life, he realised that practical considerations hindered ideals he wished to impart, whose application in everyday life eluded him.