Islamic Conflict Resolution Approach (Proposal)

A Community-Based Development of

an Islamic Approach to Conflict Resolution

C.O. Mendez
















A Community-Based Development of

an Islamic Approach to Conflict Resolution


Purpose of the Research

The goal of this research is to initiate the development of an approach to conflict resolution that is based on Islamic principles. This system, the Islamic Conflict Resolution Approach (ICRA) is intended to help Muslims in western countries to find an effective manner to resolve conflict by utilizing the Western techniques that are available to them. ICRA will focus on the needs of the community and the input of the imams (religious leaders). Imams are vital in the development and practice processes of ICRA because “individuals operating on a religious or spiritual basis are often better equipped to reach people at the level of the individual” (Abu-Nimer, 2001, p. 686). This is a vital need that must be met, especially in the negotiation, facilitation, or mediation processes. This research will attempt to embody the “spirit of conflict resolution as a movement for social change and an interdisciplinary field of research” (Abdalla, 2000-2001, p. 151).

The definition of Islam is “submission to the will of Allah (Arabic for God).” The word Islam shares the same root as salaam (peace) and taslim (surrender). This is descriptive of what Islam stands for; peace achieved only through the submission to the will of God. Islam is based on revelation given to the Prophet Muhammad that was then implemented into the Prophet’s sayings and actions. In his life’s story, you can find various examples of conflict resolution and peacemaking, such as (a) the Constitution of Medina; hailed to be the “first written constitution for a pluralist society” (p. 2); (b) the Treaty of Hudaybiyya; and (c) the numerous other minor disputes, between individuals, that are mentioned in the hadith (verified sayings of the Prophet Muhammad; Matthews, 2005). 

Islamic thought and action is derived from two primary sources: (a) the Quran and (b) the examples and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that are referred to as the Sunnah. In addition, legal elaborations can be derived from the first two sources. However, any source of information can be used to elaborate on strategies to resolve conflict. The Bible, Torah, and any secular knowledge can be accepted as long as the information derived is not in contradiction with the Quran or Sunnah. Islam sources establish that it is important to follow both the Quran and Sunnah and evidence of this is found in numerous Quranic verses (e.g., 3:32, 3:132, & 4:59).

The Quran as understood by its adherents (i.e., Muslims) has all principles for worship and daily life (El Azayem & Diba, 1994). There is also a high level of interconnectedness and sense of community. Furthermore, Zubaida (2001) explained that Islam is essentially about the ummah (community). Henceforth, with the current expansion and growth of Muslim communities worldwide, it would seem plausible that conflict resolution is a needed tool to tackle the contemporary issues of the Muslims. These issues are numerous. However, one of the biggest is the struggle to properly adopt Western thought and practice without disregarding Islamic principles. Far too often, the approach taken towards this issue is either the denial of Western thought or the denial of Islamic thought; a balance must be reached in order to maintain the practice of Islamic principles within the current social context.

Islamic religion, as interpreted by its sources (the Quran and Sunnah) is considered to be a “complete” way of life, which also includes conflict resolution. Matthews (2005) stated that “Islamic intervention in conflict is guided by the goals of restoring Islam’s original messages of justice, equality, and freedom, especially those who have been disempowered” (p. 1). Furthermore, Islam seeks a “proactive establishment of peace through a just social order” (Said & Funk, 2001, p. 6). This “just social order” is accomplished through the adherence of the laws found within Islam. Feldman (2008) reported that “for most of history, Islamic law offered the most liberal and human legal principles available anywhere in the world” (para. 4). This is relevant considering that the current judicial system utilizes alternative conflict resolution services in an attempt to uphold justice and address the claims of crime victims.

Many in the field of conflict resolution consider the role of religion as nonexistent and unnecessary. However, Said and Funk (2001) found that belief and faith play powerful roles in individual concepts of peace, theoretical development and meaningful social interactions. They also stated that religion is used to “fashion a path of correctness (based on idealized courses of action) that promises to restore harmony and order” (p. 3). Abu-Nimer (2001) also made note that religion in the field of conflict resolution is “a theme that has been neglected in research as well as practice” (p. 685). However, in one study (Humphrey, 1987) it was found that “Islamic ideology has been able to transcend the traditional family, community, and factional divisions” (p. 244). The success of Islamic ideology in overcoming divisions can be attributed to the process of identification. Muslims have been able to take ownership of heritage (social identity) and its “wide range of attitude and behavior models applicable in different situations” (Abdalla, 2000-2001, p. 167). Therefore, it is necessary to further investigate how the pragmatic ideology of Islam can be infused into a conflict resolution approach (e.g., ICRA).



Need for an Islamic Approach

The need for the development of ICRA is based on many factors. The most important is the commands from Allah and the Prophet Muhammad to the Muslims to resolve conflict amongst themselves. For example, it is reported that “the Prophet ordered two disputing parties must sit before a judge” (“Life as a,” n.d.); while some verses from the Quran exemplify the same principle (e.g., Quran 49:9-10).

The current demographics of the Muslim community—mainly in the U.S.—are surprisingly diverse. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (2008) reported, “Muslims are the most racially diverse group in the U.S. Approximately one-in-three (37%) are White, roughly one-in-four (24%) are Black, one-in-five (20%) are Asian and 19% are other races” (p. 44). This high level of diversity has proven to be a source of tension and conflict in much of the Western world, as is exemplified with the Civil Rights Movement of the U.S.

Another factor is the number of Muslims worldwide. The Vatican has reported that Islam has surpassed Roman Catholicism as the largest religion at 19.2% of total world population (Associated Press, 2008). Because the Muslim population has grown significantly so have the numbers of conflicts involving Muslims. This is evident in the documentary series A World of Conflict by Kevin Sites. Another factor for conflict is that the divisions and conflict are considered to be inevitable according to Western perspectives and is also implied in various hadiths. These issues of conflict become pivotal when taking into account the number of Muslims worldwide. This claim can be supported with the fact that there is an entire chapter in Sahih Bukhari (a hadith collection) based solely on peacemaking. In addition there may be a need to develop ICRA so there is a method that can deal with intergroup conflicts within Muslim communities seated within Western societies. Specifically, ICRA would be based on the Western’s engineering approach to conflict resolution focuses on issues, variables, and mechanics (Said & Funk, 2001) while counterbalancing this with Islam’s heavy focus on the responsibilities and rights that all people have upon one another, based on their role (i.e., mother, father, sister, brother, husband, wife, son, daughter, neighbor, etc…).

These roles are heavily affected by the identification system used in Islam. There are three groups identified in Islam: (a) Muslims who are believers and practioners of Islam, (b) Non-Muslims who do not practice or identify themselves as Muslims, and (c) Munafiqeen which are the Muslims whose behaviors are contrary to Islam (i.e., hypocrites). Though these divisions are disliked by some, they are respected by Islam because different persons have different rights and responsibilities based on their group membership and are further defined by their role. There is no vertical comparison in Islam, in regards to these rights and responsibilities, because each role is different in its creation and purpose. This in turn, creates a “level playing field” for the analysis and resolution of different conflicts. This is at all levels of conflict; whether it is interpersonal, intergroup, or international. The Islamic approach stresses values, as established by Quran and Sunnah, as the guidelines for proper social interactions (e.g., justice, compassion, forgiveness, equality, etc…). The level of conflict, however, is of minimal importance due to the focus of ICRA on rights and responsibilities.

In addition to identity, it is the important to consider the roles people play in their daily lives. Abdalla (2000-2001) has found that Islamic social networks are highly interdependent (i.e., Muslims rely heavily and value the support of one another within their families and community). The Muslims’ roles of interconnectedness are contrary to the focus of individuality and autonomy found in the West. An Islamic approach to conflict resolution must consider that “individual adaptations vary. Not all Muslims adhere to the same extent to Islamic values and norms” (Abdalla, p. 171). Specifically, some Muslim immigrants may hold the biases toward conflict resolution considering it a Western idea that is not suitable and insensitive to their problems and needs (Irani, 1999).

The concept of community and relatedness lead to the need for the issue of social capital to be addressed. Social capital can be best defined as the worth of a network of individuals or communities. This type of capital is essential in all community action. That is why “a successful conflict intervention will also benefit from the many strengths associated with the ‘culture of relatedness’ by drawing upon the community to get involved in the process of conflict intervention and resolution” (Abdalla, p. 152). El Azayem and Diba (1994) linked the two concepts of community and balance. They found that a Muslim’s spiritual success could be gauged by their effectiveness at aligning their personal drives with those of Islam and their community.

Research Questions

     The study will be guided by the following research questions:

1. Within Western society, is there a practical need for the development of an Islamic approach to conflict resolution?

2. What overlap, if any, is found with Western conflict resolution theories and Islamic principles?




Literature Review


The literature review will be composed of two major elements: the contemporary social theories and Islamic principles. It is intended that such a method of research will be useful in the development of an approach to conflict resolution that is congruent with Islam and thus adaptable for Muslims. The contemporary social theory portion of the research will focus on literature related to the areas of cross-cultural and ethnic conflicts, religious dispute resolution, social capital, third-party intervention, and social identity theory. In regards to the Islamic principles and thoughts, the literature will rely heavily on the two primary sources of Islamic information: Quran and Sunnah/Hadith (the recorded sayings and examples of the Prophet Muhammad).

ICRA will adopt precautionary steps to avoid the traps of over emphasis on either the Western or Islamic literature (Abdalla, 2000-2001). These traps are avoided by developing theory and practice in the current social context; with a balanced focus to both the contemporary social theory and the Islamic sources. The goal is to “extract principles, models, and techniques which could properly inform an Islamic model” (Abdalla, p. 152) from contemporary social theory by exploring, researching and articulating them “in a language that would prepare them for contemporary practice” (Abdalla, p. 152). This approach can also be explained in terms of emic and etic methods of explanation (Morris, Leung, Ames, & Lickel, 1999). The etic (external) method would be the incorporation of Western social theory into the conflict resolution of Muslim conflicts. The emic (internal) method would be the extraction of Islamic principles that command and guide conflict resolution.

It is clear that both the Quran and the Sunnah have established conflict resolution, both as negotiations and as third-party interventions as a responsibility upon every Muslim. Abdalla (2000-2001) identified the role of the third party as an individual who will: (a) follow society’s rules of fairness, (b) assist in defining issues, (c) assist in generating options, and stated that (d) “an intervener needs to assist parties in clarifying and correcting beliefs and attitudes which are influenced by these negative practices and misperceptions” (p. 171). This intervention can be accomplished in a variety of ways, but an Islamic approach must address different the different rights, responsibilities, and needs of the conflict parties.

Human needs are thoroughly addressed at different levels in Islam, but in an implicit manner. An example of how Islam addresses Muslims to deal with these needs is through the commanding of charity, brotherhood, and good manners. Matthews (2005) believes that not having these needs filled, in conjunction with feelings of victimization, can lead to conflict. However, Islam dictates that all hardships are tests from God and that patience and perseverance must be exemplified (e.g., the story of Job). So the role of victimization is downplayed and oppressive conditions are reframed as opportunities for spiritual growth. Research has shown that, in Islam, remembrance of God provides psychological feelings of security; which in turn fosters community binding and peaceful coexistence (El Azayem & Diba, 1994). This is an excellent example of the effectiveness of how Islam meets the basic human needs (e.g., safety as well love & belongingness) of its followers.

Knowledge is also fundamental to an Islamic approach to conflict resolution. An Islamic approach should not guide itself on strategies that are only found in the Quran and Sunnah. The approach will, however, attempt to utilize knowledge from every theory and practice available and use the Quran and Sunnah as the ruler with which to measure the acceptability of the strategies. This method indicates that knowledge can be implemented as long as it does not contradict Islamic principles. It is narrated that the Prophet Muhammad said: “Seeking ilm (knowledge) is incumbent on every Muslim.”  It must be noted that there is one special condition set on the acquisition of knowledge; that being that the knowledge must be beneficial. Jabir ibn ‘Abd Allah narrated, I heard the Messenger of God (the Prophet Muhammad) saying: “My Lord I ask you for the beneficial knowledge, and I seek refuge with you from non-beneficial knowledge.”

Evidence indicates that it is important for an Islamic approach to embody the concept of mercy. Mercy is important because it is mandatory upon a Muslim to do so as is indicated by the Quran and Sunnah. An example of such evidence is that Jabir bin ‘Abdullah narrated: The Prophet Muhammad said, “He who is not merciful to others, will not be treated mercifully [by God].”

The Quran also established that Muslims should practice hikmat (wisdom). This should be interpreted as religious wisdom which is based on a hadith. It states that one should only envy two people and that one of those is the man whom Allah has given religious wisdom. Another facet of wisdom is to consistently go back to the sources of Islamic thought in order to develop new concepts. This is idealized in the hadith that Aisha (a wife of the Prophet Muhammad) narrated that Muhammad said, “If somebody innovates something which is not in harmony with the principles of our religion, that thing is rejected.”  

Patience is also of most importance in an Islamic approach. This is especially useful about which to remind disputants about. To remind disputants that patience is valued and commanded upon them by God and his Messenger will likely increase internal identification as a Muslim. A well suited verse states: “O you who have attained to faith! Be patient in adversity, and vie in patience with one another, and be ever ready [to do what is right], and remain conscious of God, so that you might attain to a happy state” (3:200). This example lays out the importance of patience and its promised reward.

In conjunction with value of wisdom, articulation is also highly prized. The Quran is known as the best of words, so thus it might prove to be effective to use such a resource as a reference tool within ICRA. The Prophet also laid great emphasis on speech. This is evidenced in the fact that there is an entire chapter in Sahih Muslim about the correct word choice. The presence of this chapter could be interpreted as evidence that one should be careful to choose words in order to communicate effectively. This is to ensure that all parties involved are not insulted, shamed, or the like.

An Islamic approach must also set forth the guideline that restraint should also be practiced, especially if violence is involved. The Quran states that one should show restraint because an enemy might become a friend in the future (e.g., Quran 60:7). It also establishes the practice of restraint against those that restrain themselves from being violent against you (e.g., Quran 60:8). The Quran also delineates that a response to an attack should not increase in intensity, covenants should be respected, and that speech should be withheld to only that which is beneficial. There are also hadith that establish that oppression is unlawful, that true strength is controlling one’s anger, and that harm to a dhimmi (non-Muslim in a Muslim land) is equal to harming the Prophet. The concept of restraint is also clearly exemplified in the conquest of Mecca, where the Prophet did not seek revenge on any of his enemies (Matthews, 2005). The concept of restraining from punishment is further validated by research in game theory (Dreber, Rand, Fudenberg, & Nowak, 2008). Tit-for-tat is the strategy whereby the one party matches the tactic carried out by the opposing conflict party in the previous move. This strategy is regarded by all supporter of game theory as the most effective strategy. On the other hand costly punishment is the tactic of punishing an opposing party when they defect in their previous move (Dreber et al.). The tit-for-tat strategy can be interpreted as restraining from transgressing and forgiving when apology is given, while costly punishment can be seen as transgressing and be unjust and oppressive.

Forgiveness has long been underestimated as an effective tool in conflict resolution. However, in Islam it is highly regarded and rewarded. Said and Funk (2001) stated that in Islam what is “sought is a reformation or moral good accomplished by sincere forgiveness” (p. 6). There are also numerous Quranic verses such as the following:

And who shun the more heinous sins and abominations; and who, whenever they are moved to anger, readily forgive;…But [remember that an attempt at] requiting evil may, too, become an evil: hence, whoever par­dons [his foe] and makes peace, his reward rests with God – for, verily, He does not love evildoers….But withal, if one is patient in adversity and forgives – this, behold, is indeed something to set one’s heart upon. (42:37-43)

There is also hadiths that elaborate on this effective conflict resolution practice; in that manner that accepting an apology is mandatory and rejecting one is sinful. The hadith states that Jabir said that the Prophet said “If one makes excuses to his brother, but he does not excuse him, or accept his apology, he is as sinful as one who takes an unjust tax.” This has great implications in explaining the dynamics of how apologies and forgiveness should operate in Islam.

Beyond the mentioned values that should be used as some guidelines to develop theory and practice, Islam also establishes preventative measures to avoid future conflicts. An example is that the Prophet Muhammad, in his last sermon, established the sanctity of person and property to all persons, all times, and all places (Matthews, 2005). Some further Quranic examples are the verification of hearsay information (e.g., Quran 49:6), establishment of moderation and truth (e.g., Quran 2:143), and the granting of protection to all who ask of it (e.g., Quran 9:6). Some examples found in hadith are the forbiddance of suspicion and a hadith that Abu Hurayrah narrated the Prophet said “The most perfect believer in respect of faith is he who is best of them in manners.” These manners are that which make social interactions smooth and allow individuals to save face.

Islam has in place several other mechanisms, which allow social interactions to take place with the least amount of hardship. The most significant of these mechanisms is how “the belief in reward and punishment constitutes the safety valve for the taming of individual drives in the service of the community welfare” (El Azayem & Diba, 1994, p. 44). The need for this mechanism is exacerbated when Muslim individuals and communities adopt the individualistic and autonomy-focused traits of typically Western societies.


The implications of well elaborated Islamic approach to conflict resolution are great due to the multicultural trait of Islam. One reason being that only 20% of Muslims live in Arab countries, the most populous Muslim nation is Indonesia, and that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the western world. In addition Islam establishes that “All mankind were once one single nation” (Quran 2:213) and that “Had God willed, He would have made you one nation; but He (intended) to test you in what He has given you…” (5:48) it also goes on to state, “O people, indeed We created a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another…” (49:13). In the last example Islam gives us the reason behind different groups and social identity processes. If this is established along with the fact that we are enjoined to do good and forbid evil any conflict that does arise can easily be resolved using any theoretical approach that does not contradict Islam. Another limitation for this approach is the current social-political climate that proves itself to be hostile to Islam, especially the level of practice that is promoted by the Quran and Sunnah. However, the Quran states “but with God rests the final outcome of all events” (22:41).

The study will maintain that an Islamic approach must include the components of “explaining structural and institutional injustices and abuses, and educating parties on religion and its potential” (Abdalla, 2000-2001, p. 162). The study will consist of the development of the principles that will be used in an alternative conflict resolution program that utilizes an Islamic approach. The underlying purpose to this program is to see if contemporary social theory is able to be synthesized with Islamic thought in order to develop an approach to conflict resolution. Some basic theoretical development has been conducted by numerous researchers (Matthews, 2005; Said & Funk, 2001). They highlight the agreement in three basic principles: (a) justice, (b) equality, and (c) freedom. The theories used as the catalysts for thought will be symbolic interactionism, transformative mediation, and social identity. These theories will be used because of their shared focus on the three principles above, which the research will further investigate. Said and Funk (2001) found that belief and faith play powerful roles in individual concepts of peace, theoretical development and meaningful social interactions. For this reason it would be necessary to further investigate the role of Islam as a general approach to conflict resolution.


The research will utilize a mixed method approach, divided into two stages of inquiry. The first stage will consist of a survey questionnaire; the quantitative methods (Babbie) of the research. The second stage will consist of the qualitative methods of focus groups and individual qualitative interviews (Babbie, 2007). The data obtained from the first stage will be used to provide supplementary information to guide the focus groups portion of the second stage of research. Both methods of inquiry will utilize a nonprobability sampling known as purposive (judgmental) sampling. These participants are being chosen because of their knowledge and expertise or religious affiliation.

     The survey questionnaire (see Appendix A) will consist of questions on demographics, level of religious practice, an elaboration of different conflicts that would have been best resolved using a trained individual, questions gauging the perception of a religious leader serving as a practitioner of conflict resolution, and questions gauging the participants general attitudes about the need for conflict resolution programs within their community. The survey questionnaire will be made available to all persons attending the Islamic Friday Prayer, known as jumuah, at 10 mosques in the South Florida area. The survey will be accompanied with a consent form (see Appendix B) detailing the purpose of the study and confidentiality issues. Once the data is collected it will be analyzed using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS). SPSS will be utilized to conduct descriptive and inferential statistics. These data will then be summarized in a report to be distributed at the focus groups. The purpose of this report is to guide the focus group conversation. This is to ensure that the needs of the community are being addressed, in regards to an Islamic approach to conflict resolution.

     The study will employ the use of individual interviews of respective experts. Participants will be 2 volunteer scholars, academics, and practioners that specialize in conflict resolutions and are located in the South Florida region (from local universities and professional associations); and 2 volunteer imams, sheiks, scholars, and lecturers of the Islamic faith (they will be known leaders of local Muslim community).

     The focus groups will consist of two teams. The first team will be 7 volunteer scholars, academics, and practioners that specialize in conflict resolutions and are located in the South Florida region; from local universities and professional association. The second team will consist of 7 volunteer imams, sheiks, scholars, and lecturers of the Islamic faith; they will be known leaders of local Muslim community. The focus group sessions and the interviews will be conducted in a semiformal manner (i.e., the participants will be allowed to discuss issues that are not provided by the facilitator) and will be guided by a list of questions (see Appendix C). The participants will also be provided with a worksheet detailing general information about conflict analysis and resolution. The focus group sessions and the interviews will be recorded and transcribed for further elaboration of concepts vital to the development of an Islamic based system of alternative conflict resolution. Focus group and interview participants will be recruited to participate via a letter (see Appendix D) which will be accompanied with a consent form (see Appendix E) to be completed. They will be notified of the purpose of the focus group and given the option to participate in an individual interview to further elaborate on any concepts covered in the focus group (see Appendix F). The focus group sessions should take approximately 6 hours in addition to a 1 hour lunch; it will be divided into two sessions of 3 hours each. A complimentary lunch will be provided to participants.    

Significance and Implications

     The significance of this study lies in the same factors that are the base for its need; specifically the facts that Islam is the biggest religion worldwide and the ever increasing amount of conflicts around the world involving Muslims. The results of this research will show how Islam’s method of “dispute resolution, thus, attempts to operate within the larger Islamic world view, not just within its traditional legal system” (Abdalla, p. 158). The results from this study are significant if they are able to be utilized to formally develop an alternative conflict resolution system that is based on Islamic principles. This form of theory and practice development is a tool of community development and empowerment. This form of empowerment is needed because “once local people had tasted victory through organized activism in pursuit of principles closely related to their interests, they acquired a taste for activism itself, the experience of self-organization and confidence in their collective ability to produce change” (Zubaida, 2001, p. 26); and thus the needs of the community can be met through their own collective effort. The ethical concern for this study is confidentiality (Babbie, 2007). This issue will be addressed with the use of anonymous transcriptions and surveys. Further research should continue “a ‘dialogue’ between the supporting Islamic sources and the relevant western literature” (Abdalla, 2000-2001, p. 166).


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