Nonviolence and Peace Building in Islam: Theory and Practice
By Mohammed Abu-Nimer
Summary written by Hisham Soliman, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies
Citation: Abu-Nimer, Mohammed. Nonviolence and Peace Building in Islam: Theory and Practice. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2003.
Mohammed Abu-Nimer is an associate professor at the International Peace and Conflict Resolution Program at the American University in Washington, D.C. Since 1982, he has conducted numerous workshops in conflict resolution and diversity training in the United States, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Ireland, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
This book came after the events of 9/11, where Islam and Muslims were largely portrayed in much of the West as synonymous with terrorism. The book tried to present, in the West, a different insight about Islam and its followers. With this in mind, Abu-Nimer adopts a scientific scholarly approach away from the apologetic theme that marked most of the similar written pieces. He sees the Muslims' lack of knowledge of the genuine peaceful values of Islam as a major aspect of the problem.
In portraying this peaceful picture of Islam, Abu-Nimer combines both the theoretical and practical aspects of peacebuilding in Islam. He divides his book along this line into two major parts:
First he tackles the theoretical principles upon which Islamic peacebuilding mechanism resides. He approaches these principles by highlighting many of the relevant teachings in the Islamic main scriptures, i.e. the Qur'an and the Sunna, and develops a framework relating all these aspects together.
In the second part, Abu-Nimer presents case studies, both from the pre-Islamic Arab period and modern, indicating the applicability of such a theoretical framework. In addition, he gives directions on how to develop a manual for training on such principles.
He starts his book noting the emergence of the field of peace studies over the last few decades. However, this growth has left the Muslim communities largely untouched due to the stereotypical image that Islam and nonviolence cannot coexist. In response, he offers his insights on their compatibility by pinpointing the pacifist aspects of Islam.
Islam and the Theory of Peacebuilding
In the first major section of his book, Abu-Nimer elaborates on the theoretical basis of peacebuilding in Islam. By adopting an anthropological approach, he analyzes the original cultural notions in Islam and their foundations. Given that Muslim communities are not the same; Abu-Nimer sought general principles that can fit in multiple cultural contexts. This suggests that Islam might is not the sole factor influencing the culture of its followers across the globe.
In the first chapter of his book, Abu-Nimer debates several concepts that are controversial in the field of peace studies. Peculiar among these is the concept of nonviolence: some see it as purely pacifist, others argue it entails some coercive aspects. Abu Nimer points out that the notion of nonviolence has roots in religion in general and in Islam in particular. He also tackles the development of the doctrine of "just war" in the West as a violent means to bring peace to the world, arguing that it is not necessarily parallel to the concept of "Jihad" in Islam.
He also highlights the fact that challenging the mainstream understanding of Islam, both within the Muslim communities and outside, is not an easy task. Nevertheless, he decides to undertake this task, in an effort to expand the debate on the compatibility of Islam and modern life. In doing so, he also draws on some of the principles prevalent in the pre-Islamic Arab societies.
Abu-Nimer, then, turns to analyze the literature of peace studies in Islam, which he classifies in three major categories: studies of Jihad, studies of just war and studies of nonviolence. In studies of Jihad, scholars see Islam as a violent religion; no mention of peacebuilding in Islam can be found here. In the just war studies, scholars see Islam from a strategic standpoint as a mixture of both violent and pacifist aspects, with each to be used under certain conditions (such as self-defense). Unfortunately, scholars within this category, while admitting the nonviolent aspects of Islam, tend to focus more on the study of the conditions under which the violent, rather than the nonviolent, means are permitted. Thus Abu-Nimer, sees that the stereotyping of Islam as a violent religion results largely from these Jihadist and just war studies which ignore or downplaying the nonviolent aspects of Islam.
In the third category, nonviolence studies, he classifies the scholars working primarily on the study of nonviolent principles and core values in Islam. These scholars see the lean towards using violent means as a deviation from the main Islamic rule of nonviolence. Unfortunately, these scholars have been silenced as a result of their challenge to the mainstream discourse, both inside and outside Muslim communities. Nevertheless, Abu-Nimer highlights the fact that all three groups base their arguments on interpretations of the main texts of Islam and the development of practices in Muslim communities throughout history.
In the second chapter, he turns to develop his framework linking Islam and nonviolence. He bases his framework on the centrality of the principle of the pursuit of justice in the building of Islam. As divinely ordained in the Qur'an, (the holy book for Muslims), all Muslims have a duty to fight to remove injustice and bring justice in the different aspects of their life. Abu-Nimer sees in this principle a call for nonviolent activism in Islam.
Another principle Abu-Nimer sees as crucial to his framework is social empowerment by doing good, both to oneself and to one's fellow humans. This second principle acts as an umbrella concept to many other ones, such as the dignity of all human beings and the sacredness of their lives, equality, compassion, forgiveness, patience and solidarity. All these concepts, he argues, provide a solid ground for peacebuilding in Islam.
The third principle has to do with the notion of the Islamic Ummah-the unity of all Muslims in the Islamic world. . The idea calls for the inclusion of all Muslims with their diverse backgrounds in handling the affairs of their community at large. According to Abu-Nimer, this cannot be done unless it is conducted in a nonviolent and peaceful way, based on the acceptance and tolerance of all by all.
Using these three, and many other principles, Abu-Nimer confirms the conduciveness of nonviolence and peacebuilding to Islam. He urges analysts to move away from the violent stereotypes of Islam to become more actively involved in recognizing the peacebuilding capacities of Islam in an objective manner. He also admits, however, that many of these principles are absent from the lives of many Muslim communities. That is why, in the second half of his book, he explores new ways through which these principles can find their way into the daily lives of today's Muslim communities.
Peacebuilding in Practice in Islam
In the third chapter of his book, Abu-Nimer gives the first example of an existing nonviolent mechanism for peacebuilding, which he describes as the traditional Arab-Muslim mechanism for conflict resolution. This mechanism is largely applicable in both traditional and modern Muslim communities. It is based on the interventions done by designated persons, usually third parties, in the light of the accepted traditional cultural norms guided by the Islamic principles to resolve conflicts. Under this mechanism, the contesting parties have a moral obligation to affect the final decision concluded by the third party after investigating the whole story of both parties. In most cases the agreements are publicized to hold the disputants accountable in the eyes of their community. Usually, those mediators encourage both parties to reconcile their differences on their own first. The overall aim is to overcome the damage that happened to the interpersonal relations and restore its normalcy. He then gives examples of many Arab countries, such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine, where this mechanism is still functional.
Training for Peacebuilding in the Muslim World
Given this background in peacebuilding practices, Abu-Nimer then, in the fourth chapter, tries to boost the potential for effective nonviolent conflict resolution through training workshops in Muslim communities. The importance of these workshops, from his point of view, lies in them being vehicles for bringing about social change and countering the prevailing social diseases in many Muslim communities, e.g. corrupt political systems, cooptation of the religious leadership by these regimes, authoritarianism and despotism. Yet, in order for these workshops to become fruitful, they have to be designed deal with some general problems, such as:
- the relative absence of objective peace studies,
- the sensitivity of discussing issues of conflict and change under non-democracies,
- the rejection of these studies as being hegemonic extensions of the imperialist powers and
- countering the sense of helplessness prevalent in many of the Muslim communities as a result of backwardness and lack of development.
Abu Nimer sees these problems as solvable if trainers work with local professionals who can best suit the design of such programs to the needs of their respective communities.
In the last chapter of his book, which he co-authors with Joe Groves, Abu-Nimer presents another more recent example of nonviolent practices in the Muslim communities drawing from the experience of the first Palestinian Intifada in 1989. He sees the first Intifada, when the Palestinians used only stones to fight the Israeli military machinery as a compelling example of Islamic use of nonviolence--in contrast to its stereotype in the media. At that time, the Palestinians controlled their anger and grievances, so they did not retaliate militarily against the Israelis. Their only retaliation involved throwing stones--hardly a violent weapon when compared to the Israeli army. The experience of nonviolence came after deep training on such principles and the coordination of different segments of the Palestinian society. Moreover, the Intifada helped produce mass organizations that kept these nonviolent principles alive. They always questioned the excessive use of violence by the Israeli army in the occupied territories, but they relied on civil disobedience, not massive violence to protest Israeli occupation and force.
In his analysis of the Intifada, Abu-Nimer considers the throwing of stones as a metaphor for hatred and the desire to kill "the other," the Israelis. Still, it was the Palestinians' way of expressing their anger without necessarily inflicting much damage the other. He sees it as a middle way between violence and nonviolence. In addition, he sees the infrequency of purely violent incidents as another indication of the nonviolent nature of the whole event. Moreover, other means of protest were also employed, i.e. economic, political and social non-cooperation, demonstrations and protests and developing alternative institutions--more traditional forms of nonviolent resistance.
In general, Abu-Nimer sees the first Intifada as a continuation of a longer unrecognized tradition of nonviolence in the occupied territories, something that was reflected in the symbols displayed during the Intifada. Most of these symbols were of nonviolent nature, e.g. the olive tree. By emphasizing the role of Islam in uprising to fight the injustice, he highlights the active role that Muslim imams played in pushing the nonviolent sentiments in the people instead of helping to agitate violence. Thus, there was an employment of the Arab cultural Islamic ideals supporting nonviolence in the Intifada, e.g. the quest for justice, the sense of solidarity and unity along with disciplined commitment. Yet, Abu-Nimer does not see the Intifada to be a solely religious movement, but one where Islamic beliefs played a major role.
In conclusion, Mohammed Abu-Nimer confirms the huge potentials for nonviolence in Islam in many of its aspects and if employed wisely, will lead to the improvement of the lives of many Muslims around the world. This was evident in many cases, for example, the Pashtun movement, the first Intifada, and in Kosovo; yet it was downplayed by the media and politicians. As is the case with every other religion, Abu Nimer sees the possibilities of violence and nonviolence in Islam, with the latter being overwhelmed by the former in much of the popular and scholarly literature, as well as action. That is why at the end of his book he calls for the revaval of these nonviolent aspects of Islam through systematic studies and training.