Some peacebuilding approaches omit the spiritual aspects and therefore miss some opportunities to build wider bridges between conflicted parties.
Conflict tends to demand a physical response from individuals. Understanding the nature and significance of one’s existence however, is an empowering knowledge that forces one to rethink engaging in offensive violence as a response to conflict. When one is incapable of peacefully bringing about justice, instead of resorting to violence (which may itself result in another injustice), one might decide to instead observe patience. In observing patience, one might pray for the other party’s return to peace or seek God’s intervention to serve justice in the hereafter.
Needless to say, it is not easy to observe this level of patience when faced with conflict – turning inward positively rather than exerting negatively onto the other party. To observe patience, nonetheless, would be a key instance of peacebuilding for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The following verses from the Qur’an refer to patience as an act of the humble and courageous:[2:45] And seek assistance through patience and prayer, and most surely it is a hard thing except for the humble ones. [42:43] But indeed if any show patience and forgive, that would truly be an exercise of courageous will and resolution in the conduct of affairs.
Actively seeking internal peace inherently leads one to an active approach for external peace. In seeking internal peace, one undergoes an internal transformative process that allows one to view the world through a different lens, thus raising one’s consciousness about one’s self, one’s attitudes, and the lives of other people one interact with. Consequently, one interacts with the world more peacefully. This is called the Jihad al-Akbar (Greater Struggle) in Islam. This does not mean that one should be indifferent to injustice and struggle, but that one should be actively patient and try to gain more understanding so as to resolve conflict through a more peaceful and just, and therefore a more Islamic, approach.
It is important to outline that the right to defend oneself against an imminent offensive attack is considered a holy right and is actually obligatory in Islam. This is referred to as the Jihad al-Asghar (Lesser Struggle). However, defensive violence is very strictly reserved for when one’s life or livelihood is in imminent danger (i.e. rape attack, attack at gunpoint, invasion, etc.), and it is not for use by those looking for a reason to murder innocent people.
In the Jihad al-Akbar, one is focused on the inner self and is seeking self-improvement and closeness to God – in other words, seeking peace. In Islam, seeking self-improvement and closeness to God are not mutually exclusive but actually the same journey. The Qur’an says: “And certainly We created man, and We know what his mind suggests to him, and We are nearer to him than his life-vein.” (50:16)
Sayyid M. A. Ali, a well-known commentator of the Qur’an, has said about this verse, “In view of His nearness to the soul of man, announced in this verse, if a man makes efforts to bring his intellect, spiritual functions of the soul, and strength of character in harmony with the will of the Lord, he can absorb the divine attributes and rise above other human beings in order to let his will dominate over matter. The man of God is such an individual whose will manifests wonders to astonish the world.” Also, both the Holy Prophet and Imam Ali (peace be upon them) have said “He who knows himself knows God.” The significance of the journey towards internal peace could not have been stressed more in Islam.
Indeed, in difficult times, one is better situated to help others, provided that the individual is able to help him/herself first. The same is true for helping others achieve peace. It is important for the peacebuilder to actively engage in trying to achieve peace within him-/herself first before trying to bring it about for others. The most successful peacebuilders are those who have achieved internal peace and a raised consciousness.
Some peacebuilding approaches omit the spiritual aspects and therefore miss some opportunities to build wider bridges between conflicted parties. This has nothing to do with conveying religious messages to the conflicted parties – it is much deeper than that. A conscious mediator brings weight and human dignity to a dialogue, giving space for the parties to realize their own potential for peacemaking. So contrary to some other peacebuilding frameworks, the role of the mediator in the Islamic framework is not to be in control of the process, but to have a raised consciousness so that (s)he can raise the conflicted party’s consciousness. This approach has the greatest potential to pave a solid road to a durable peace.
The important question then becomes: how do I achieve peace in myself? According to Islam, the first step would be to raise one’s own consciousness and to appreciate the dignity of one’s self. Islam does this by providing reminders to create a habit of consciousness of one’s self and of one’s surroundings, and by promoting a high standard of humanity and dignity to the individual.
Islam prescribes rituals like daily prayers and fasting as reminders of the significance of one’s nature and existence and thereby raising one’s consciousness. Moreover, in the Holy Book of Islam, the Qur’an, which Muslims believe was sent upon humanity from God the Almighty, it says that the human was created with the spirit of God breathed onto it, which is the spirit of peace and perfection. “Then He made him complete and breathed into him of His spirit, and made for you the ears and the eyes and the hearts; little is it that you give thanks.” (39:2)
Ayatollah Pooya Yazdi, a prominent Islamic scholar, has said about this verse: “The human spirit (Ruh) is the reflection emanated directly from the absolute” and that “Man with his five senses would have remained an animal if Allah had not breathed His spirit into him.” Hence, the ability to reach peace and perfection is embedded in the soul of each human creation, and when pondering deeply, one becomes aware and knowledgeable of that which exists within themselves. Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini states in his book Self-Building: An Islamic Guide for Spiritual Migration that Imam Ali, the son-in-law and vicegerent of the Holy Prophet of Islam, has said: “Take over the possession of your self through continuous struggle.” And by struggle, he means the great inner-struggle – Jihad. Through Jihad, one can regain control of one’s self and effectively fend off negative energy, which in conflict tends to instigate violent action.
Islam encourages each individual to cultivate a real understanding of the worth and dignity of the human creation and all of creation. As a result of understanding the dignity of the human, one would then feel inclined to treat themselves – their bodies, hearts and minds – with respect and feed it good things, which would bring it a raised consciousness and peace. Just as rotten food takes peace away from the stomach, rotten feelings and thoughts takes peace away from the hearts and minds. In full physical and mental peace and consciousness, one would then also be inclined to treat the rest of the world with respect and the dignity that God intended. All of this action would be in love and appreciation of not the self, but rather the Creator of the self.
Sayedeh Kasmai-Nazeran studied her Masters of Science degree at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. Her focus is on dialogue mediation, peacebuilding, and human rights in Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence. She has also moderated and participated in many interfaith dialogues. Her most recent paper is entitled “Islamic Feminism: Women’s Rights in the Shi’a School of Thought”. You can read more about Sayedeh at her website www.sayedeh.com.