Crescent and Dove: Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam

1. How does this volume contribute to the field of religion and peacebuilding?

The subject of peacemaking and conflict resolution in Muslim communities is timely.  There are two active wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while radical Islamist groups threaten the stability of Pakistan, Egypt, Lebanon and other states.  The futility of counteracting extremism with military force is contributing to radicalization in Muslim communities; in the past ten years, the narrative of extremism has not diminished, flourishing instead among the disillusioned youth and middle class.  Given these challenges, it is vitally important to reexamine the contemporary principles, methods, and approaches of peacemaking and conflict resolution employed by leading Muslim intellectuals and peacemaking practitioners in the Islamic world.  

This book, a product of USIP’s Religion and Peacemaking Program, identifies best practices, develops new peacebuilding tools for religious leaders and organizations and helps define and shape the field of Islamic peacebuilding and the field of religious peacemaking. Across the chapters, the authors have analyzed Islamic peacebuilding through various theoretical lenses of conflict transformation, ranging from theology and history to economics and gender concerns.

2. What are the main concepts discussed in the volume?

The book is divided into two parts. Part I covers concepts of peace, Islamic conflict resolution and peacebuilding.  Part II covers peace education, nonviolent action, human rights and the merits and challenges of peacemaking training.

3. How can we build effective peacebuilding strategies in Muslim communities?

Effective and lasting peacebuilding strategies and conflict resolution practices in Muslim communities should be constructed within an Islamic framework. Strategies must acknowledge Qur’anic evidence; other texts and narratives; the fields of jurisprudence, philosophy, and theology; and the essential foundational doctrines, creeds, beliefs and practices of Islam. In addition, specific cultural and socio-historical contexts must be factored in to peacebuilding strategies.

4. What are the principles of Islamic peacebuilding?

Islamic peacebuilding efforts at all levels reaffirm five basic principles.

1. All of humanity has a common origin, and human dignity must be recognized and respected, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or tribe. 

2. The diversity among people encapsulates the richness of traditions.
3. Muslims striving to improve the world must cooperate, collaborate and engage in dialogue with others and among themselves to foster peace.
4. To be actively involved with one’s tradition means not to lead exclusivistic, hermetic lives, but to be engaged with others in a respectful manner.
5. Practicing good deeds and striving toward justice must be present in everyday dealing with all human beings.

These essential principles do not contradict Western conflict resolution approaches; rather, the astounding similarities and overlapping themes among Islamic and Western peacebuilding efforts create opportunities for more common ground in working toward ending conflict.

5. How can peace be understood in an Islamic context?

The concept of peace in the Islamic tradition should be considered in four interrelated contexts.

1. The first is in the metaphysical-spiritual context, in which peace as one of the names of God is seen as an essential part of God’s creation and assigned substantive value.
2. The second is the philosophical-theological context, within which the question of evil is addressed as a cosmic, ethical, and social problem.
3. The third is the political-legal context, the proper locus of classical legal and juristic discussions of war, rebellion, oppression, and political order and disorder.
4. The fourth is the socio-cultural context, which reveals the parameters of the Muslim experience of religious and cultural diversity in communities of other faiths and cultural traditions.

Examining these four interdependent concepts moves beyond the minimal definition of peace as absence of conflict, and emphasizes the need for a comprehensive examination of Islamic peacebuilding and the cultivation of a culture of peace.

6. Religious texts can be understood in many different ways.  How does the Muslim community deal with the various interpretations of the Qur’an and the concept of jihad?

The different legal and ethical articulations of war and peace that have emerged in Islamic thought testify to the different—and conflicting—ways of reading and interpreting some of the key Qur’anic verses dealing with this topic. The struggle to achieve a just social order has acquired greater urgency among Muslims today in the post-September 11th era. The lament frequently (and rightly) heard today is that the term jihad has been “hijacked” by Muslim extremists, and its broad spectrum of ethical and spiritual meaning basically jettisoned to focus on its combative aspects only.

Outlining some of the variant ways of understanding the sacred text, this book discusses the arguments within Muslim scholarship over the language of peace and reconciliation, examining how these arguments have addressed specifically the ways in which terrorists such as Osama bin Laden exploit Qur’anic language to serve their causes. The debates on language reflect critical efforts by grand muftis, qadis and many others who are profoundly disgusted at the distortion of sacred texts to push back against those who justify terrorism. For example, the al-Qaeda leadership has consistently defined themselves as mujahidun—or participants in jihad—since before the horrendous attacks of 9/11.  This misuse of the term, legally, theologically and politically, has been the cause of much debate among Muslim religious leaders.  

7.Some Muslim scholars argue that the historical framework from which traditional Muslim thought arose is applicable to our modern lives without serious qualification. How does this view of shari’ah impact Islamic reform and human rights? Can the concept of shari’ah be reconciled with modern law?

Applying the historical shari’ah as a unified body of law without considering a society’s contemporary needs, creates severe problems and hardships and leads to ambiguity in both public life and the legal system. The conflict between sharia’ah and modern human rights standards is particularly serious in the area of international law regarding discrimination against women and religious minorities. Shari’ah took shape as a comprehensive legal and ethical system by the mid-third century of Islamic history, but jurists engaged in these discourses never claimed the laws to be divine.

 In other words, shari’ah is not the whole of Islam, but an analysis of its fundamental sources as understood in a particular historical, legal, and theological context.  Thus it should be possible for contemporary Muslim jurists to undertake a similar process of interpretation and application of the sources in the present historical context, and to develop an alternative Islamic legal discourse, such as a human rights law, which is very much appropriate for today.  Only then would Islamic law offer adequate solutions to resolve the problems and hardships facing Muslim societies in the modern era.

8. Why are many Muslim religious leaders are skeptical about peacebuilding efforts?

Their skepticism is tied to five common trends in thought among Muslim religious leaders regarding participating in and implementing peacemaking activities.

1. Defining peace and measuring the success of peacebuilding work is a constant  
2. Religious leaders often voice their sense that their societies are not truly  
    governed by their people, or even by their own ruling elites; rather, Western
    powers dominate Muslim societies by controlling the elites’ decisions. They
    identify Western powers as having created unstable societies, oppressive
    regimes and chaos.
3. Many religious leaders view conflict as an inevitable component of life,
    beginning with their use of the creation story as an example of conflict
    between the divine and the angels.
4. Any peacemaking that does not bring justice to both victims and oppressors is
    a worthless effort. In Islamic thought, the concept and practice of justice is
    synonymous with peacemaking. To ignore this crucial connection is to alienate
    a Muslim audience.
5. Since the peacemaking and conflict resolution field is relatively new to Muslim
    religious leaders, there are common beliefs that these Western approaches are
    foreign to Muslim cultures and may be contrary to their values. Embedded in  
    the criticism are two important perceptions: first, that the approaches are
    secular in nature and do not account for religious components; and second,
    that the religious peacemaking models presented are based on Christian beliefs
    and practices.

9. How can effective peacebuilding skills be developed in Islamic peacemaking?

To develop effective peacebuilding skills for Muslim religious leaders, it is necessary to expand more practical models to implement peacebuilding work. Religious leaders in conflict zones require skills that enable them to evaluate, negotiate and mediate conflict, and ultimately institute structural change. Seven major areas for skills transmission are needed for Muslim religious leaders engaging in peacebuilding:

    1. organization management;
    2. understanding the source of the conflict;
    3. mediation and negotiation;
    4. strategic planning for intervention and transformation;
    5. acquiring knowledge of all parties involved;
    6. understanding the art of engagement; and,
    7. training in the complexities of building sustainable peace.

Muslim religious leaders need to expand their skills and capacity building in these areas while ensuring they are not co-opted by the political agendas of national and international organizations. A skills-enhancement approach will enrich their knowledge of peacebuilding and position them in the wider field of peacebuilding efforts.  Their roles do not have to be restricted to a specific religious institution or limited to one community.

10. Can the challenges facing religious leaders be overcome?

The authors of this volume acknowledge that there is profound cause for concern about the weak linkages of Islamic peacemaking to the general enterprise of peacebuilding in the Muslim world. There are problems of historical legacies of debates over just-war theories and unsavory consequences for contemporary religious leaders, scholars, and practitioners.  There are serious challenges in advocating for Islamic principles of nonviolence and peacebuilding, as well as traditional methods of conflict resolution, in the midst of rising extremist movements seeking radical social change. There are contradictions in reformist movements that strive toward a more inclusive liberal democratic society yet fall short of achieving their goals because of their fixations on making religious traditions the source of their reforms or neglecting religion altogether. Simultaneously, however, programs in many Muslim communities, such as Indonesia, Afghanistan, Thailand, and Kenya, have promoted innovative low-cost, community-based development projects under conditions of protracted violence.

11. What are the authors’ recommendations to prevent violence and promote sustainable peace in the Muslim world?

Given that Arab and Muslim societies vary with distinct needs and features, the authors list and explain several broad and strategic recommendations, or categories that must be addressed in order to develop the institutional capacity to prevent conflict and encourage peace. The categories include:

    1. Economic Development
    2. Human Development
    3. Mitigating Violence and Fostering a Culture of Peace
    4. Synchronized Multi-dimensional Peacebuilding
    5. Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding Training for Religious Leaders
    6. Civil Society and NGO Support
    7. Self-Critical Problem-Solving Skills
    8. Reducing Ideological Support for Radicalism
    9. Peace Education and Curriculum Reform
    10. Truth Commissions and Transitional Justice


The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s).