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February 3, 2013

Prospects and Dimensions of Conflict Resolution Programs in the Islamic Context

Prospects and Dimensions of Conflict Resolution Programs in the Islamic Context

Amr Abdalla, Ph.D., Professor and Vice Rector, University for Peace

[This is a summary of a talk given by Amr Abdullah at the International Institute of Islamic Thought on February 1, 2013. These notes have only been lightly edited and represent my perception of the presentation and discussion. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone.--Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad]

Issues of interest to conflict resolution include social, political and family matters. We do not want to be limited to academic discussion, but to provide tools that are effective in the field.

Our departure point from Western secularism is to ask what is the role of Islam? Consider the 1975 Egyptian movie Urîdu hallan (“I Need a Solution”) relating to women seeking divorce in the Egyptian courts. A traditional looking-lawyer’s advice to a modern-looking woman requires her to go through hoops she doesn’t want to jump through. But it is he who is arguing secular law and she who is arguing her rights under Islamic law. People at all levels of Egyptian society to look to Islam for the protection of their rights.

We are finally at the civilizational and historical moment in which we can put dictators and minority status behind us, to develop methods for applying Islamic law in modern times. We must always remember fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) is a human effort to understand the divine law. Over history we find fiqh has adopted a very legalistic approach. As great as our fiqh has been, the view of our sources has been highly legalistic and needs reform. A second problem is the cultural influence that has come from different cultures as Islam has spread. During our first Ramadan, I, an Arab, was waiting for the soup, and my wife, from Bangladesh, gave me piaju (or pakûra), a fried, very spicy dish instead.

There are more complex matters than this, especially when it comes to gender issues highly influenced by patriarchal practices. Consider the story of Joseph in the Qur’an in which the prime minister says to his wife “Behold! It is a snare of you women! truly, mighty is your snare!” (kaidahunna, i.e., his wife and her friends) but people have misunderstood this as “a snare of all women ….” This is clear evidence of cultural deviance.

Time is forcing us to deal with the necessity of generalizing rules so they can apply to all times and all places. I find four elements that are usually present in every discussion of conflict resolution in the Quran. The first is condition. Consider 2:189, “Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you.” The ruling to fight is predicated on the condition of being fight against. It also proposes limitations on fighting, that it must be “fî sabîl Allâh, wa la ta`tadu” which also implies the manner of conduct, and it concludes with accountability, “Allâh lâ yuhibbul mu`tadîn.” The fuqaha have done a pretty good job explaining this verse (“Don’t harm women children, trees, etc.”), but in other cases they have limited themselves to situations and conditions but ignored manners and accountability. The element of manners was relegated to being between the individual and God.

A problematic example is 2:226-242. All these verses except two in the middle refer to family disputes. The exceptions say remember to keep your mid-day prayer. This exception   should be understood to emphasize the importance of interrupting the busiest part of the day to restore one’s connection to God and by extension, to defuse the emotional turmoil of divorce proceedings with prayer as well. Consider 2:229 that if you divorce a third time either divorce or keep your wife. The fuqaha have produced enough books to fill this room as to how do you count “three” times. (How much time between each pronouncement, etc.) But the words ma`rûf and ihsân have been relatively ignored. But ihsân means the highest level of kindness and decency! And what does ma`rûf, an unusually complex term, mean? It is about shared knowledge so commonly practiced that it is custom, but not just any custom, only one reflecting shared KINDNESS.  This word is repeated 13 times and when another word is substituted for it, that word is ihsân. We have lost sight that the Qur’an is even more about manners than about legality. It is to these that the passage goes on to state, “Do not transgress the hadûd-Allâh.”

This conceptual framework applies well to all Qur’anic discussions of conflict of all sorts from war to family matters. Manners means we must never let our anger take us over, and this is the key to applying ma`rûf to resolve all kinds of conflicts. We have given courses and seen how this transforms people. Without understanding ma`rûf we do not have a complete view of our own religion.

I distinguish four “wheels” of conflict (distinct but overlapping). The first is over value parameters (e.g., adultery, drinking, gambling, racism). In this we have red lines and we need to stand up for them without being intimidated.

The second is juristic matters (inheritance, divorce settlements, custody). About these we have a rich history [which are in need of rediscovering in a contextualized manner, through which we may understand the higher objectives of the law that enables us to apply it in a modern context.]

Cultural issues are cases in which cultural practices are confused for religious practices. Examples include female genital mutilation and arranged (in the sense of forced) marriage.

The biggest area of conflict is the area of needs and interests (property disputes, workplace disputes, political and economic policies). There is not necessarily a legal formula to address this area. It is in this area that the rich literature of the West can be most helpful and we need to be open to it.

I think that individualism and secularism are so powerful in the West that they are reflected in their approaches to conflict resolution. We should understand and learn from these, but in our culture we have tools that should not be neglected. For example, in the West there is a tendency to separate the subjects of a conflict resolution from their affinity groups, but those affinity groups can be helpful in resolving disputes, If we know how to do it.

Q. What about maqâsid-ash-ahari`a (the higher objectives of the law)?

A. It is part of contextual approaches to scholarship. We need to strike the balance between the historical context of verses and the Prophet’s practice on one hand and shaping things for different conditions. Consider the Qur’anic verse: “Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war…” (8:60). If we apply this today, we are forced to resort to maqâsid, lest it be interpreted we must prefer horses to F-16s.

Q. What about people who do not wish to follow our values?

A. Allah says we will differ on some things and He will resolve those differences on the day of judgment, but he says of any that do not fight us, not only should we be just, but we should engage in birr, which is a kindness even beyond ihsân.

Q. In American society values depend on material things. We are all equal under the first amendment. Values are changed by material conditions.

A. This field is multidisciplinary and that is why I caution against legalism. Psychology is a complex part of it and I can’t count on a lawyer to deal with it.

Q. In Christian ethics we are told to speak the truth with love and to seek peace with justice. As individuals are the real locus of conflict, it seems to me spoilers can often frustrate the approach to reconciliation worked out by the interested parties and even their allies.

A. The story of Jafar Abu-Talib and how he responded to the Quraish attempts to sow discord between the Christians and Muslims is an example of how to deal with spoilers. He quoted from the Qur’an of the high status of Mary and Jesus to the Christian king of Abyssinia to deflect the Quraishi attempt to incite him against giving asylum to the Muslim refugees.

Q. How can one resolve some of the undesirable consequences of the Arab spring, Mali or Afghanistan?

A. As to Tahrir Square, Mali and Afghanistan, we must think beyond conflict resolution to conflict transformation. It requires an educational framework as in the case of the ending of racial segregation here in America.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

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