By: Leah Farish
We have all read worried stories in the press about “sharia courts in America” and imposition of foreign customs in U.S. family courts. As a religious civil liberties attorney and mediator myself, I have wondered how U.S. Muslim leaders actually handle dispute resolution in their congregations. So I sat down one-on-one with various imams and shura (mosque board) members—twelve in all—in interviews over a period of several months, and asked.
Three emphases emerged from our conversations: the importance of the authority of the Qur’an and the authority of the mediator in the process; the prevailing presence of the overall community in both the process and outcome of dispute resolution; and the potential for change in this field, as Muslims translate and apply their own texts and as they learn from Western and other sources of wisdom in peacemaking.
In the West, conflict has historically been seen as potentially positive, leading to a new way of living together, expecting not to return to the pre-conflict status quo, but rather to a “new normal.”
By contrast, a frequent objective of Muslim conflict resolution is restoring those in conflict to their previous roles in the community—the status quo ante. For example, two leaders described a goal of seeking “gender respect,” that is, encouraging a respect for the historic roles of males and females as dictated by the Qur’an, rather than striving for a new paradigm of gender relations.
Virtually all interviewees began with the importance of the text of the Qur’an in their conflict resolution efforts. However, prayer and supernatural activity in finding solutions were only mentioned by two of the Muslims interviewed. When discussing their own authority in the conflict resolution process, the interviewees had differing opinions. Imam 1 begins meetings by telling parties, “I am not your judge, your chief, the police—I am a brother advising you, a well-wisher.” On the other hand, Imam 2 induces the parties to agree to abide by his decision or he will not listen; his is a “Baya community,” that is, a mosque where members must take an oath to follow him.
Although they disagreed about their own authority, all interviewees indicated that the authority structures they found in the Qur’an were to be enforced, particularly with reference to gender roles.
Presence of Community
A unique view of the qualifications of mediators emerged from my interviews. Historically, American mediators have been expected to be unbiased, to fully disclose any conflicts of interest, and to place power in the hands of participants. Any prior connections are suspect as an indication of bias within the mediator. Additionally, Western alternative dispute resolution (ADR) tends to exclude all but the immediate parties, placing a very high premium on confidentiality.
Arabic culture, by contrast, is collectivist and “high-context,” meaning that the needs of the community are seen as more important than individuality (see pages 30-31). In ADR, Muslims often prefer indirect communication and maintain very extensive information networks among family, friends, and colleagues. As a result, a mediator who has strong prior connections to one party or an interest in the outcome, far from being seen as having a conflict of interest, is appreciated as an official mediator.
My interviews created a picture of a process where the facts are heard, and then advice is given or imposed. The interviews indicated that bringing in extra persons was less common among American Muslims than it appeared to be among Muslims in other countries, although still more common than among more typical Western communities.
In general, Muslim conflict resolution places less of an emphasis on confidentiality, because conflict resolution involves the larger community. Families in particular have a high stake in maintaining family unity, and so family members are often included in conflict resolution. However, this does not mean that Muslim leaders have no understanding of confidentiality. Imam 1 states that speaking of another what one would not want spoken of oneself is “a big sin”—like cannibalism.
Potential for Change
Although the interviewees universally held that the Qur'an was the unquestioned authority for wisdom, some expressed a sense that Islam has not fully developed a process for conflict resolution in some areas. One interviewee said that except for the well-established protocol in husband-wife disputes, there are still “gaps” in Islamic expertise in conflict resolution, and that much of Islamic thought is “evolving.” He also stated that imams have borrowed a lot from Christian techniques but may not be trained in any kind of counseling, or that some students will take counseling courses and then “Islamicize them.”
Citing the widely varied cultures of immigrant members of their congregations, most of the leaders I talked with see two unifying criteria for updated techniques of Muslim ADR: their religious foundational texts, and American civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Within those parameters, they see much room for growth.
None of the people I talked with urged courts or ADR processes that violate the U.S. Constitution. They did express the importance of having Muslim expert witnesses in secular court proceedings, and the need for more psychologists and psychiatrists with Muslim backgrounds. They all seemed optimistic about being able to further integrate their faith into the conflict resolution needs of their American congregations, and several even noted the desirability of having American civil rights principles to appeal to in congregations where many diverse cultural backgrounds would call for divergent outcomes.
Most imams interviewed acknowledged that Muslim conflict resolution in an open society like ours is still developing, and believed that they could adapt many lessons from Western thought into an Islamic context. These will be important factors in the development of ADR for American Muslims, who generally seek to uphold traditional notions of right and wrong, yet also affirm that they are willing to learn more about peacemaking in the twenty-first century.
Leah Farish is a civil rights attorney who has practiced and published in the area of religious civil liberties for thirty years.
This piece was originally authored on June 24, 2016 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.