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Islam and Peace: The Ulama’s Exercise of Power in Local Conflict Resolution and Management

Algazelus’s professional experience revolves around the research on social sciences focusing on Islamic Studies; activism on human rights

The conceptual framework aims to illustrate the ways Ulamas can influence decision-making.

The conceptual framework aims to illustrate the ways Ulamas can influence decision-making.

I am going to share about how Ulamas exercise power and participate in community-level conflict management. I find it interesting to understand the role of Muslim individuals’ relationship with their religious leaders in their respective communities and I intend to contribute to discussions on acknowledging the roles, capacities, and limitations of Ulamas in terms of conflict resolution and management.

The Ulama plays a role in building peace and solidarity among religious leaders towards addressing local conflicts as well as in developing alternative solutions towards mitigating the possibility of individuals joining non-state armed groups. They hold a certain power or authority in building social cohesion. Muslims have certain perceptions of the Ulama’s roles in the community shaped by the secular nature of the Philippines. The Ulama’s role, as well as Islamic teachings and values also play a part in the thought process of Muslims in decision-making on conflict issues.

So, with this discussion I wish to tackle how we understand the powers of Ulama; how they exercise their power over communities, Madrasah, and government entities in terms of managing and resolving conflict at the local level; and how they exercise their power in the building and strengthening the social cohesion of their respective communities.

Understanding ‘social solidarity' in the Mindanao context is a path towards creating a peaceful community leading to a sustainable society. This can be a common duty of all key players of peace in the respective communities.

In the aftermath of every armed conflict in the country, affected Muslim communities seek support and depend on religious leaders in condemning extremist beliefs expressed by individuals or groups that incite violence. Many of the Ulamas of today’s generations are debating over certain rulings and some debate over the Prophetic Narrations –Hadith. Some Ulamas look down on other Ulamas, especially those who finished Islamic education locally and had never been abroad to study. There are also some Ulamas today who have forgotten their relations, especially when one of them has a different interpretation and took up Islamic education in a university that is not mainstream. For example, a certain Ulama who earned a degree at an Islamic University in Pakistan may be looked down upon by some Ulamas. Such a situation is important to take note of because it illustrates part of the problem and existing conflict in the regions that also contribute to some portions of the conflict. Their students and followers follow their perspectives and this develops into a new phase of the evolution of the cultural practices of the Muslims in the country.

The existence of the Ulamas in dominantly Muslim society has challenging roles. The Ulamas at some point are strongly recognized and acknowledged by members of the community only when there are Muslim festivities and gatherings during the month of Ramadan. Today, some of the Ulamas are also dependent on the rules and regulations of the authority of the secular state. This is not to imply that following existing laws is wrong, but it should be the case that Ulamas are able to also influence existing laws such that they also contribute to the development of the country. Islam is a way of life and it is already an institution that has its own rules and regulation, policies, and systems. But, the problem for the known Ulama has not been properly acknowledged and recognized by some for the layman.

It must also be noted that not all are aware of the context of the definition of the Ulama, the concepts, and the major roles to the Ulama. Also, there are limitations like resources, positions in the structured institutions, and funding that are not part of the concerns of the public majority. Ulamas’ role and capacity are limited only to religious acts and on strengthening each ‘Deen’ — the act of devotions in the Islamic way.

This generation faces a cycle of conflict in the Muslim society, involving the same communities just like before. The only difference is in terms of the forms of violence and evolution to wider spheres of conflict. There is also a separate lens in terms of approaches and mechanisms in addressing violence and conflict.

Conceptual Model

This conceptual framework aims to illustrate the vehicles for Ulamas to influence decision-making; promote understanding between and among Muslims and other religions; and in terms of conflict resolution and management. Ulamas can either utilize intangible institutions and existing political structures. In this framework, intangible institutions pertain to informal relationships between the Ulama and the respective communities. Such relationships have no tangible mechanisms of imposing but they remain regularly observed. Despite not being forced to do so, community members do respect the Ulamas’ authority. There is a recognized influence that an Ulama can exercise from the part of the community even without concrete laws or policies to force them to.

The Ulamas can also influence existing political structures. Political structures in this sense pertain to the exercise of influence of the Ulamas on governance mechanisms and structures such as local chief executives (which can be mayors and governors, perhaps barangay captains as well) as well as house representatives. They can also influence civil society and non-government organizations. Ulamas are able to participate as regular citizens, with a caveat that they also have considerable scholarly authority, through existing political structures. These political structures have a more concrete influence on communities’ decision-making and conflict resolution as compared to intangible solutions but still, the influence is present.

These two “vehicles” can be utilized by Ulamas as they try to influence decision-making. They have the power to use their authority over the mastery of various disciplines expected from Ulamas. People may follow the guidance of Ulamas in terms of the decisions they have to make. Both existing political structures (which may or may not be influenced by Ulamas) and intangible institutions involving Ulamas can also promote understanding between and among Muslims and other religions as well as facilitate conflict resolution and management. However, it must be noted that there may be times that Ulamas are part of the conflict which is why the points of the intangible institutions and existing political structure overlap. This overlap can either be harmonized or conflicting when it comes to promoting understanding and managing and resolving conflict.

This conceptual framework seeks to map the ways that Ulamas can utilize to exercise their power and this may either be informally through their relationships with the community or even influence existing political structures. It must be noted that existing political structures may not always be in sync with the Ulamas, however, but they both have roles in the promotion of social cohesion and conflict resolution, and management.


Muslim Communities’ Understanding of Ulama’s Powers

I have known Muslim communities in the past who expressed high respect for the Ulama and the position they hold as the successor to the Prophet of Islam. They have made a rough comparison between their experience in the past as opposed to their experience in the current times with community members. This comparison is made in reference to the way they are related to their respective community members, including families, friends, and other neighbors.

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They expressed that one of the factors that contributed to this change pertains to the availability of information regarding Islam to everyone, regardless of the position of the member in the community. Now, the knowledge of Islam is almost at the fingertips of everybody. They expressed that there is a perceived equalization between the community members and Ulamas in terms of knowledge of Islam.

Another factor that they expressed contributing to the decrease in acknowledge is about the experiences of communities of failed expectations from Ulamas. Communities may have had experiences with some other Ulamas who did not live up to their expectations. This failed expectation, according to them, eroded the trust and confidence of the communities such that Ulamas, in general, are affected. It is not only the Ulamas who actually failed the expectations of the communities who received lower acknowledgment from the communities. Ulamas I know were also affected, and other Ulamas as well, regardless of their actual performance. There appears to be a generalized perception of distrust and lack of confidence in some communities due to these failed expectations.

Still, they expressed that they are respected. It is just that the level of respect is not as high as before. They shared that the Darul Islam or community of Islam are still equally obligated to learn and seek knowledge from cradle to grave individually.

Ulama’s Role in Conflict Resolution and Management

Umlamas expressed indirect involvement in conflict resolution and management in their respective communities. They said that they do not necessarily involve themselves proactively in the resolution and management of conflict. They only manage and facilitate conflict resolution when one or both of the conflicting parties invite them to facilitate. They tend to avoid meddling in the conflict if they are not invited.

They emphasized more their management of the madaris privately. When asked regarding conflict resolution and management, they were more focused on how they privately manage the madaris. This management includes the teaching of the curricula as patterned from where they obtained their college degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies. They explained that a huge influence of the curricula they have designed and are currently implementing in the madaris is their educational background from abroad.

They also claimed extremeness in teaching in some schools. They made a description and comparison of extreme teachings and in some schools, moderation. The variety of teachings in schools is a manifestation of the differences in influences carried by Ulamas. They expressed these teachings because this has important implications in the way children are raised and how they learn about how they will address conflicts that they will encounter. Ulamas managed the communities by way of their children enrolled in the madaris.

Another important piece of information shared by the Ulamas pertains to delivering the Friday khutbah in different Masjid. This actually would depend on whether the Ulamas are foreign or local graduates. They noted differences when the Ulama graduated from a foreign school and from a local school. The foreign-trained Ulama tend to control the few bigger Masjids, while the locally-trained Ulamas control the many small Masjids. Control, in this sense, pertains to the level of influence of the Ulamas on the people going to the said Masjids. It also shows the preference of the Ulamas in terms of the Masjids they want to be involved in. These points are important because it provides an overview of the sphere of influence of the Ulamas and the way they would relate with other community members.

In summary, they do not resolve conflict if they are not invited, but rather, they concentrate on delivering Khutbah on the essence of peaceful, just, and progressive communities. It can be inferred that the Ulamas’ more prominent role is not so much on conflict resolution but rather the building of a culture of peace through the education of children.

Ulama’s Role in Fostering Social Cohesion

The Ulamas I’ve spoken with explained that strictly speaking, they are not clergy who serve as part of an organizational hierarchy. Rather, they can be described more appropriately as learned scholars who are given the task to spread the message of Allah as contained in the Quran. They were in unison when they explained that Ulamas must have profound intelligence, as well as that they have undergone rigorous training. They must also have a good command of the following disciplines:

  • Thorough knowledge of the Arabic language;
  • Complete knowledge of the Hadith especially those which are related to that particular verse in the Quran as well the 3 Books;
  • Familiarity with the major books of Tafseer;
  • Mastery of the Fiqh or Islamic Shariah law;
  • Mastery of the Philosophy of Islamic Beliefs;
  • Mastery of the revelation; and
  • Mastery of the History of Islam.

It can be observed that being an Ulama is a challenging role in light of the need to master all of these disciplines. Having mastered all these, the Ulamas gain religious obligations to spread the said learning through the sermon, tableegh, lectures, discourses and put into practice what they preach. These venues are where the Ulamas can exercise their influence to foster social cohesion. They explained that they have the obligation to move around regularly, similar to being a “moving University,” in order to invite all Muslims and their communities to learn.

This shows that they have a significant role in networking as well because they get to meet diverse communities as well as learn along the way in the process of imparting lectures. Ulamas, in the process, can serve as the linkage between and among these communities as they become the common nodes in their networks. They should equally involve themselves in enlightening non-Muslims about the beauty of Islam and being Muslim without compulsion. They said, in a nutshell, these are the ideal roles of scholars but they also said that this is not the way it is done mostly in the Philippines. It is important to note that while this is the ideal situation, they said that this has yet to be fully achieved.

Understanding ‘social solidarity in the Mindanao context is a path towards creating a peaceful community leading to a sustainable society. This can be a common duty of all key players of peace in the respective communities.

The ideal ‘peacebuilding’ would be realized if implemented along with transitional justice systems at the grassroots level. The ‘just political entity' is a key to attaining a more inclusive and just society that serves as the foundation in achieving social solidarity that can be a prerequisite to consensus-building (Rodriguez, 2009). The community members at the grassroots level must engage with each other and create a strong foundation in the name of being in solidarity.

© 2021 Maudi 'Algazelus' Maadil

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