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Falaj Communities in Oman: A Case for Local Governance?

Ibāḍī Legal Rulings and Spatial and Ethnohistorical Observations

In: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World
Authors:
Soumyen Bandyopadhyay Sir James Stirling Chair in Architecture, University of Liverpool Liverpool United Kingdom

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Birgit Mershen Research associate, Ruhr-University Bochum Bochum Germany

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Abstract

This contribution studies the complex arrangement of legal, socio-economic, and technical aspects of the aflāj (s. falaj) water distribution and irrigation system, and how they have shaped communities and built environments in Oman, where the falaj has provided the virtual lifeline of oasis life since the first millennium BCE. Three case studies of falaj communities are presented, Birkat al-Mawz, al-Ḥamrāʾ, and Misfāt al-ʿAbrīyin, which developed during the prosperous early-Yaʿrubi period in the mid-eleventh/seventeenth century. It investigates the extent to which the Ibāḍī-Islamic legal framework allowed flexibility for the local governance, management, and organisation of this ancient system, and its adaptation to diverse demographic, environmental, and emergent socio-political conditions.

Abstract

This contribution studies the complex arrangement of legal, socio-economic, and technical aspects of the aflāj (s. falaj) water distribution and irrigation system, and how they have shaped communities and built environments in Oman, where the falaj has provided the virtual lifeline of oasis life since the first millennium BCE. Three case studies of falaj communities are presented, Birkat al-Mawz, al-Ḥamrāʾ, and Misfāt al-ʿAbrīyin, which developed during the prosperous early-Yaʿrubi period in the mid-eleventh/seventeenth century. It investigates the extent to which the Ibāḍī-Islamic legal framework allowed flexibility for the local governance, management, and organisation of this ancient system, and its adaptation to diverse demographic, environmental, and emergent socio-political conditions.

1 Introduction: Water, Tribes, and Geography1

Human settlements in the hyper-arid Arabian Peninsula have relied heavily on intensive irrigation systems to support oasis agriculture from time immemorial. Initially, settlements harnessed surface run-offs from the wādī drainage system – the dry water courses activated with rainfall. As Robertson Smith suggested in his seminal contribution to the origin of the Semitic religions, surface water sources, as well as natural springs, were utilised by the early inhabitants of this region (Robertson Smith, 1927). These sources also were supported by well irrigation.

In addition to these, in Oman, the aflāj (s. falaj) irrigation system provided the virtual lifeline for oasis life, where harsh climatic conditions and insufficient and irregular precipitation impeded crop cultivation without access to artificial irrigation. Although its origins have been disputed, archaeological excavations have provided evidence for the existence of the aflāj in Oman since at least the first millennium BCE, predating the Achaemenids, who are generally credited for the development of similar irrigation technology in Iran. Recent research from Oman and the United Arab Emirates has even suggested that the development and spread of the qanāt falaj originated in al-Ḥajar Mountains (Al-Tikriti, 2011), thereby supporting agricultural settlements (Nash, 2009, p. 59).

Aside from its sophisticated engineering, the falaj constitutes a complex socio-technical system playing an important role in Oman’s socio-economic life (Al-Sulaimani et al., 2007). This is already embodied in the Arabic term falaj – the root word means “to split” – referring to the system of splitting and distributing water flow. Regulating and managing fair distribution and sharing water flow, regular falaj maintenance and repair works, and allowing flexibility to react and adapt to the growth of the community or changing environmental circumstances, have enabled the falaj systems to thrive in communities for centuries.

Focusing on three oasis settlements, Birkat al-Mawz,2 al-Ḥamrāʾ,3 and Misfāt al-ʿAbrīyīn,4 where data was collected through extensive architectural, ethnographical, and urban documentation, we explore the interplay between Ibāḍī Islamic legal rulings (fiqh) regarding falaj management drawn from original sources and tribal political developments, and how these, in turn, shaped the falaj systems, communities, and built environments. We address the question of how did the Ibāḍī legal framework allow flexibility for the local governance, management, and organisation of this ancient water system, its adaptation to diverse environments, and emergent socio-political and demographic conditions.

This flexibility, we argue, allowed for large-scale land reorganisation in Birkat al-Mawz and al-Ḥamrāʾ during the eleventh/seventeenth century, resulting from collaborations between the central Yaʿāriba imamate and ambitious local tribal groupings that varied in character and cohesion. The falaj communities introduced diverse spatial and architectonic measures to ensure the protection of falaj channels from environmental changes and illegal infringements arising from socio-political changes. The restoration of the falaj remained a communal affair, as did the determination of the length of the water cycle – subject to seasonal changes – within which the privately-owned individual water shares operated. Using the example of Misfāt al-ʿAbrīyīn we demonstrate how the demands of an expanding nineteenth-century falaj community led to a modified water management and use system.

The three settlements, sharing a common history and demography, remain active falaj communities. From the mid-eleventh/seventeenth century onwards, during the Yaʿāriba imamate (1033–1155/1624–1742), significant wealth was accumulated through overseas trade, the enforcement of maritime trading passes, customs duties collected at Omani ports, the occasional raiding of Portuguese overseas territories, and investments in land and irrigation systems within Oman and eastern Africa (cf. Alpers, 2014, pp. 96–7). The all-important reorganisation of land holdings resulted from changes in fiqh rulings, leading to extensive land development that supported the imamate treasury (bayt al-māl), as well as direct acquisitions by the imam and indirect holdings maintained by him or his agents (dallāl). New settlements, e.g., al-Ḥamrāʾ and Birkat al-Mawz,5 were developed in collaboration with tribes and confederations aspiring for political prominence, including the ʿAbrīyīn and Banī Riyām, while smaller settlements, such as the single-tribe Misfāt al-ʿAbrīyin, underwent reorganisation and expansion.

Much like other important aspects of traditional Omani life, the falaj system reflected the integration of the Arab-Omani tribal structure with the Ibāḍī school of thought, the dominant form of Islam in Oman, and the quest for both strategic and pragmatic resolutions to any arising issues. Ibāḍī lawmakers (fuqahā; s. faqīh) had to develop a legal structure for all important matters in oasis towns and a jurisprudential framework that not only conformed with Islam but applied the Ibāḍī-Omani ethos of conflict avoidance, cooperation, equity, fairness, and tolerance (Wilkinson, 2010, pp. 304–8).6

While the “productive assets,” or the previously established agricultural and hydraulic system predating the arrival of Islam, were absorbed under Ibāḍī Islam, it had to be matched with a very different social system, one that was tribally based and egalitarian with a horizontal social structure (Dybro, 1995).7 The above process, as pointed out by Wilkinson, led to the establishment of “the basic systems of institutional organisation in tribal, political, and village life” as early as the third-fourth/ninth-tenth centuries (Wilkinson, 1980, p. 122) and the traditional structure of oasis communities essentially in its current form. Without intending to repeat the authoritative and comprehensive discourse on Ibāḍī jurisprudence and its development in Oman offered by scholars, namely John C. Wilkinson (e.g., 1977, 1987, 2010), among others,8 this contribution aims to highlight the importance attributed to matters of the falaj system from the second-third/eighth-ninth centuries by Omani jurisprudents.

The main geographical characteristic of northern Oman is the Oman Mountains, stretching in an arc from the Strait of Hormuz in the north to Ra’s al-Ḥadd in the southeast and following the Gulf of Oman coast (Figs. 1–2). Rising to over 3,000 m, this great central chain divides the north of the country into six distinct geographical regions: i) the northern al-Bāṭinah coastal plain; ii) the outer (northern) foothill and wādī region; iii) the mountainous massif (al-Jabal al-Akhḍar); iv) the inner (southern) foothill and wādī region; v) the wādī alluvial fan (bajada) region; and finally, vi) the combined sand masses and barren terrain of Ar Rubʿ al-Khālī (the Empty Quarter), the Rimāl ash-Sharqīya (Ash-Sharqīya Sands) and al-Wusṭa region. The nucleated oasis settlement pattern of the interior (the inland) stands in contrast to the continuous settlement strip of al-Bāṭinah coast. Pushed right within the folds of Jabal al-Akhḍar are a set of important settlements, e.g., al-Ḥamrāʾ, Tanūf, and Birkat al-Mawz, which were developed, or at least significantly redeveloped, during the Yaʿāriba imamate in collaboration with influential and emergent regional tribal groups, such as the ʿAbrīyīn and the Banī Riyām (Fig. 3). Therefore, these Omani “new towns” maintain strong tribal links with several smaller villages perched on the heights of Jabal al-Akhḍar, e.g., Misfāt al-ʿAbrīyīn, Qiyūt, Sayq, and al-ʿAyn but also downstream as far as Manaḥ. Their strategically chosen locations, as we will see below, established imamate control over the wādī-falaj headwaters in collaboration with these tribes. The major urban centres of the region, including Bahlā, Nizwá, and Izkī, lie in a band at the foothills downstream. Further south lies the third ring of settlements from Jabrīn, Salūt, Bisyā, al-Ḥabbī, and Maʾmūrah in the west, to Karshā and Manaḥ in the centre, and to Samad ash-Shaʾn, Muḍaybī, Sināw in Ash-Sharqīya region in the east.

Figure 1
Figure 1

The six major geographical regions of Oman (after Scholz, 1978: 6)

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 3, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340028

Figure 2
Figure 2

A schematic cross-section through the Oman Mountains (after Scholz, 1978: 8)

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 3, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340028

Figure 3
Figure 3

The nucleated oasis settlement pattern of the Omani interior shows the main settlements discussed (after Wilkinson, 1987: 388, map 3)

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 3, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340028

2 The Falaj Irrigation System: A Techno-Socioeconomic Complex

While similar irrigation channel systems do exist under different designations, such as Kariz, Foggara, Qanāt, Qanāt Romani or Galerias (Al-Ghafiri, 2004, p. 27) across a wide geographical area (Al-Ghafiri, 2004, p. 28), from South America to South Europe, Yemen, North Africa, and Japan, the term falaj is used on the Oman peninsula for the man-made gravity-fed irrigation system to channel water from aquifers, wādīs or spring sources to cultivation grounds and villages. Depending on the water source, a falaj can be a qanāt falaj tapping an underground aquifer, a falaj ghaylī diverting water from the flow in the wādī bed, or a falaj ʿaynī channelling water from a naturally surfacing spring (Figs. 4–5).

Figure 4
Figure 4

A schematic section of the qanāt falaj irrigation and distribution system, which taps water from underground aquifers

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 3, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340028

Figure 5
Figure 5

The source of an ʿaynī falaj in Bawshar near Muscat

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 3, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340028

The qanāt falaj, also called falaj daʾūdī (referring to the prophet Sulaimān bin Daʾūd, see below), taps groundwater from a mother well (umm al-falaj) dug into an aquifer at the foot of the mountains and channels it through a subterranean gallery (sall) with regularly placed ventilation and maintenance access shafts (thuqub, s. thuqba). The water is transported over a distance ranging from a few hundred meters to several kilometres. The channel must be constructed with a slight incline, less than the natural gradient of the aquifer, to ensure a controlled flow and avoid damage to the channel. In many cases, the water flow in the sall is increased through the excavation of additional “assisting” tunnels (sawāʾid, s. sāʾid), each with its own mother well connecting to the main subterranean channel. The subterranean channel surfaces in the village, often passing through a transitional area using a “cut-and-cover” method of construction (cf. al-Tikriti, 2011). The water is the purest where the channel surfaces, and here it’s designated as an access point for drinking water collection (sharīʿa). The sharīʿa and the open channel were traditionally lined and finished in ṣarūj to reduce loss from leakage,9 but now it has been replaced with cement. The main channel (al-ʿāmid) splits into two or more distributaries (sawāqi; s. sāqiya) further downstream. They are equipped with water-gates controlled by means of stone panels, textile or plant fibre bundles, and wooden boards, regulating water flow to individuals at a given time. Both the actual gate and the closing devices are called suwār or jālāt (s. sūr, jāla). Upon reaching the cultivation grounds, the sawāqi are further subdivided into small irrigation outlets for watering individual plots (jalba, jīl, ʿuqīf).

The flow in this hydraulic system is prone to the negative impact of extreme climatic events, including prolonged periods of drought, decreasing water flow, and flash floods causing damage or collapse of the walls and roofing of the underground channels, the washing away or blocking of channels, and damage to the agricultural terraces and walls.10 Conversely, falaj water flow increases during periods of rainfall, leading to reflows in areas that had run dry for long periods or were even considered “dead.”11

The distribution of water to the falaj community (ahl al-falaj, arbāb al-falaj) is undertaken in a water cycle (dawrān) with a fixed number of days. The length of the dawrān varies considerably from one falaj to another, between 5–21 days. A complete day of the dawrān may be called khabūra (the term most frequently used in Omani legal works), radda (e.g., in Ad-Dākhilīya) or ād (e.g., in Al-Bāṭinah; Al-Ghafiri, 2004, p. 47). A radda is subdivided into two bādda corresponding to roughly 12 hours, which in turn are subdivided into 24 athar, each equalling about 30 minutes.12 The smallest unit of practical relevance in Misfāt al-ʿAbrīyin is the kīs (kiyās) of 1.25 minutes (Bandyopadhyay et al., 2016, p. 39). Al-Ghafiri (2004, p. 47) mentions the mithqal and ḥabba units of 9.36 and 0.26 seconds, respectively, for the falaj of al-ʿAwābī; smaller share units with fractions of seconds are relevant only to inheritance laws (Wilkinson, 1977, p. 108). Again, the actual duration connoted by the share units may vary from one area to another, and locally, a bādda may signify not 12 but 24 hours (Wilkinson, 1977, p. 107), as is the case in aflāj of Adam (Al-Mahrooqi, 2020) or in Ash-Sharqīya (Al-Ghafiri, 2004, p. 48, and supporting literature therein).

Before the widespread use of watches, various methods of time measurement were employed for water shareowners to know exactly when their turn (i.e., his right to irrigate) would start and end. During the day, sundials were used for most aflāj: a public facility set up at an exposed location where the shadow of an iron rod, called lamad would point to stone markers set in rows on the ground indicating the individual shares.13 At night, water share timings were managed by stargazing, where the position of particular stars or constellations would indicate the timing (Nash, 2009). This latter method, rather complex, is rapidly falling into oblivion as only a few knowledgeable and experienced stargazers remain. A further method used during day and night is a type of water-clock employed in the villages on Jabal al-Akhḍar (Al-Ghafiri et al., 2003). This ṭāsat or ṣaḥlat al-falaj method consists of two copper bowls; the smaller one with a hole piercing the bottom is set into a larger bowl filled with water. The time it takes to fill the smaller bowl with water equals one specific water share, ṭāṣā.

Water shares are owned by individuals, with a certain number of shares retained for the falaj. Termed qaʿādat al-falaj (see Wilkinson, 1977, pp. 112–4 and the Omani sources mentioned therein; Al-Ghafiri, 2004, p. 49), these shares are usually leased in an auction (munāda) for shorter or longer periods to ensure the maintenance of the falaj, including the remuneration of its personnel and associated communal services. These falaj shares either constitute religious endowment holdings (waqf) and thus cannot be resold (Wilkinson, 1977, p. 113) or are government property (bayt al-māl; Al-Ghafiri, 2004, p. 16).

The length of a falaj dawrān mostly results from the strength of water flow – a strong flow allowing the extension of dawrān length, as well as the nature of the soil – a heavy loamy soil keeping the water for a longer duration, would need less frequent irrigation than a sandy or gravelly soil. However, the irrigation cycle of most aflāj ranges between 7–14 days (Al-Ghafiri et al., 2003a). The initial decision on the quantity of dawrān days may depend on the number of people with rights to the falaj (Wilkinson, 1977, p. 101). Once fixed, the length of the dawrān may be extended later only under certain exceptional circumstances, such as in periods of increased water flow or to generate additional funds. This might be for falaj restoration, or extension works requiring the excavation of additional feeder channels for the sall al-falaj through the sale or rent of water rights of the additional bādda or radda. Over the course of a falaj’s history, water shares change hands regularly through endowment, inheritance, and sale (for falaj water trade, see Al-Shaqsi & Nash, 2011, p. 104). Water rights mostly are not connected to land titles, nor are they confined to falaj community residents. Falaj shares can be owned by individuals who are not part of a community’s tribal makeup: shareholders may be from other villages or reside abroad temporarily and even on a permanent basis.

Following the complex interplay of environmental, historical, socio-economic, and technical factors outlined above, each falaj constitutes a unique and highly localized system adapted to multiple variants. These have been shaped across generations of users, always with the overarching aim of ensuring the livelihood of the falaj community in the harsh and resource-scarce Omani environment. This development also entails functioning management of falaj matters as a shared responsibility of all falaj owners, in addition to the designated personnel. At the helm, figures the wakīl, directing the affairs of the falaj and overseeing expenditure for repairs, who is chosen by the shareholders, has considerable decision-making authority regarding its daily affairs and can contact the main shareholders (jubah or jabaha al-falaj) for important decisions (Wilkinson, 1977, p. 120; Al-Qadahat & Al-Rahbi, 2020).

Depending on the size of a falaj system, management officials may hold several specialised positions, each with a defined role and responsibility, and financially compensated accordingly, usually from the proceeds of auctioning falaj shares (Wilkinson, 1977, p. 120; Al-Ghafiri et al., 2003, fig. 1.2). The wakīl would be assisted by the bookkeeper (amīn as-sijil or amīn ad-daftar), who keeps a record of any changes in falaj share ownership through inheritance or temporary sale or lease, by the more technical position of ʿarīf, overseeing the service of the falaj, and sometimes by additional ʿarīf, one responsible for the tunnels while another cares for the above-ground channels (Al-Ghafiri et al., 2003). A further role would be the auctioneer (dallāl), and for some communities, also an official stargazer (Nash, 2007). Farming activities are completed by both male and female members of the farmer’s family or by farm workers (bayādīr, s. bīdār), also responsible for irrigation activities, who are usually paid in kind (Al-Ghafri 2004, p. 193).14

3 Birkat al-Mawz and al-Ḥamrāʾ: Differing Tribal Cohesion and Physical Form

Aside from topography, the differing tribal composition of falaj communities had an important impact on the physical form and cohesion of oasis settlements. Birkat al-Mawz is a sub-district (nīyāba) under the administrative district (wilāya, pl. wilāyāt) of Nizwá, in Ad-Dākhilīya governorate, located 140 km southwest of Muscat and 23 km east of Nizwá. It is adjoined by the sub-districts of Izkī, Nizwá, and Manaḥ in the east, west, and south, respectively, and the Jabal al-Akhḍar Mountains in the north. Located where Wādī al-Muʾaydin emerges from Jabal al-Akhḍar, the oasis extends between the foothills and the isolated lower hills farther south, guarding natural access to the upper reaches of the mountain. It is likely that a settlement had existed before Falaj al-Khatmeen was established during the imamate of Sulṭān bin Sayf I (1059–91/1649–80). He had ordered the continued cultivation of bananas alongside date palms and named the area Birkat al-Mawz.15 The original mother well for this daʾūdī falaj is situated c.2.45 km north of the oasis within the wādī gorge with an additional water source located nearby; a third assisting tunnel, (sāʿid) Sāʿid ar-Ruḍayda, was added close to the sharīʿa (MRMWR, 1999a), north of Bayt ar-Ruḍayda, a palatial fortified dwelling constructed by Imam Sulṭān (Figs. 6a–b). South of Bayt ar-Ruḍayda is the mosque, Masjid al-Yaʿrubī (or Masjid ash-Sharīʿa), also constructed by Imam Sulṭān (Fig. 7). The main channel divides into three at the split (ghiyāz) downstream from the mosque. The upper two channels, snaking along the foothills through settlement quarters and watering the entire eastern part of the oasis, transport three divisions of water between them (uppermost: two; lower: one), while the lower channel waters the gardens south of the split brought two divisions (as-Ṣaqrī, 2011, interview).16 The system operates on a nine-day water cycle (dawrān).17

Figures 6a–b
Figures 6a–b

Birkat al-Mawz oasis: Bayt ar-Ruḍayda, the palatial fortified dwelling constructed during the imamate of Sulṭān bin Sayf I (1059–91/1649–80), showing state a) before restoration (photo, January 1972, courtesy John Warr), and b) after rebuilding in the early-1990s by the Ministry of Heritage and Tourism, Oman

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 3, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340028

Figure 7
Figure 7

Birkat al-Mawz oasis: Masjid al-Yaʿrubī (or Masjid ash-Sharīʿa)

Citation: Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World 3, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/26666286-12340028