Islam and Global Conflict

Let me illustrate. Many think that “Arabs” and “Jews” have always been in conflict. In fact, this is utterly false, so is the dichotomy. For the longest part of human history, Arabs (Muslim and Jewish) lived in harmony. An early shining moment in our history occurred over 1400 years ago when the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) established the first Islamic state in the city of Madinah. As the head of that state, he executed a charter with both Muslims and Jews of Madinah, establishing a federalist structure and proclaiming a partial bill of rights (supplementing other rights stated in the Qur’an).

The Charter declared all Muslim and Jewish tribes of Madinah (there were no Christian ones there) to be one community. At the same time, each tribe retained its identity, customs and internal relations. Among the rights protected was the right to freedom of religion and the right not to be found guilty because of the deeds of an ally. In a global era when religious intolerance was the rule, the Charter of Madinah stated that the Jews of the community who were party to the Charter were “one people” with the Muslims. Jews were entitled to both succor from and equality with the Muslims. They were also entitled to Muslim loyalty. If wronged, they must be helped. Both Muslim and Jewish signatories had a right to mutual assistance and consultation. (1)

It is this model that informed the actions of khalifas in Andalusi Spain when they defined their relations to Jews there. Consequently, Jews were able to rise to the level of ministers in an Islamic government, and engage freely in business and scholarship. These were the days of Maimonides, the Arab scholar, the Jewish rebbe.

These are important facts in our human history, but we do not know them. We focus on examples of conflict instead. When we think of Muslim-Christian relations, our conflict ridden model is that of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella, of the Inquisition. How many of us, however, have heard of another model in another corner of the Mediterranean, namely the Sicilian one? The latter model is one of harmony, despite initial conflict. It is a model that I did not discover until a few weeks ago when I read a recent law review article. The article notes that Sicily was ruled by Muslims for over two centuries, only to be replaced by the Normans. But the Normans did not attempt to destroy the existing culture, or obliterate the identity of the Muslims there. Muslims were able to practice their religion and retain their local customs. The Normans, in fact, adapted to the culture, and benefited from it. The result is that Islamic law may have not only benefited the Normans, but the whole common law tradition on which our American law is based. (2)

What we need today is more positive models and less conflict-ridden ones. We need healing, justice and forgiveness, both globally and at home. We need to put forth restorative concepts of justice. Restorative justice aims at healing the victim, the family of the victim and the community at large. It requires, for example, reparation and participation. It does not focus only on the offender or on retribution. It is this kind of justice that our faiths advocate. (3) Unfortunately, we have fallen short of this kind of justice and consequently ended up with a world full of conflict. So, we need to change.

For more on this, see Azizah Y. al-Hibri, Islamic and American Constitutional Law: Borrowing Possibilities or a History of Borrowing? 1 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law 492 (1999)

See John A. Makdisi, “The Islamic Origins of the Common Law,” 77 North Carolina Law Review 1635-1739, esp. 1720-26 (1999)

For an example of restorative justice in Islam, see Azizah al-Hibri, The Muslim Perspective on the Clergy-Penitent Privilege, 29 Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review 1723 (1996).

This is a speech delivered by Azizah Yahia al-Hibri on October 15, 1999 at the Washington National Cathedral.  This event was organized by The International Women’s Forum.

Azizah al Hibri is Executive Director of Karamah, Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights.  Please visit their website at

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