Sulha, Community Mediation
“Once a wound has healed, it cannot bleed again.”
By Elahe Amani, NAFCM Associate Member and member of the Strategic Partnership & Resource Committee
National Arab Heritage Month is recognized in April, and it is an opportunity to enhance our understanding of the nuanced and diverse aspects of Arab American heritage including the tradition of Sulha or community mediation. The United States is home to over 3.5 million Arab Americans. During the month of April, individuals and organizations celebrate the rich history, cultural influences, and contributions of Arab Americans. Arabs are ethnically, religiously, and politically diverse but share a common linguistic background.
While I am an Iranian American, middle eastern countries share many of the traditional conflict resolution processes. Growing up in Tehran, my father a spiritual and educator was sort of the unofficial community mediator and our home was the place that many interpersonal conflicts were being resolved. My exposure to it perhaps unconsciously embedded the passion of mediation in me.
Although conflict is a universal reality, the nature of disputes and the methods of resolving conflict differ from one socio-cultural context to another. For instance, in the Western tradition, conflict is commonly perceived to occur between two or more individuals, while in the Middle Eastern tradition, conflict exceeds the individual to reach the collective or the wider family or tribe. Aseel Al-Ramahi, advisor to Chief Justice of Bahrain provides insight into the place of Sulha within Arab culture. She believes “Whereas westerners know the primacy of law, the Arabs know the primacy of interpersonal relationships."
Sulha process is used for resolving a variety of conflicts including murder, physical assault, theft, property conflict, and even conflicts between tribes and social groups. Sulha’s purpose is to mend the conflict-afflicted social fabric of the community by fixing the relations between and among the affected people and their relatives. It is believed that hurting an individual means hurting the community and neglecting small conflicts will result in their expansion to major conflicts.
Sulha derives from the word “Sulh,” meaning “to make peace” or “reconciliation” in Arabic. It is a term signifying an agreement or settlement. This traditional Middle Eastern method for resolving conflicts through negotiation with the two parties selecting a respected individual to mediate the conflict has its historical roots before Islam; its historic emergence is found in early Semitic writings and in later Christian records dating from the first century A.D. It is typical to Arab societies and generations have passed the practice down over thousands of years. Traditionally, Sulha was an original means for passing and enforcing rulings and subsequently utilized over centuries to prevent acts of revenge and tragic feuds, etc. among tribes of the region.
Sulha incorporates four common elements from the Arabic culture (forgiveness, reconciliation, ritual, and honor) to build a lasting resolution between conflicting parties. Contrary to traits of community mediators, in Sulha, Jaha offers a unique blend of mediator, arbitrator, investigator, and to some degree, psychology rolled into one person or team that typically is a trusted elder(s). All decisions from a Sulha are made by consensus; therefore, the Jaha must be well-respected elders from the community. The Jaha role is an unpaid position adding credibility and honor to the process. Sessions are built on trust, as trust creates equality and reason to move forward.
Many qualities are shared between Jaha and community mediators. Jaha has to be alert on several levels, evaluating the information for authenticity and their value in resolving the dispute. Jaha like mediators has to pay attention to the body language and cultural nuances, the way information is being framed by each party, and what information can be used with follow-up and leading questions.
In Sulha, Jaha must also have the trust and respect of the community not only the individual in the conflict. Like community mediation, credibility is of high value and importance. While in many community mediations in the US, the mediators are not previously known to both sides of the conflict, in Sulha, Jaha should already have the trust, credibility, believability, neutrality, trusted by the community and both sides of the conflicts. However, while in community mediation, the mediator clearly provides the scope and promises that can be delivered or not, in Sulha, the cases will be presented to Jaha with the expectation to be resolved by mediation or arbitration.
In Sulha, financial transactions will not take place as it is not a profession but rather an honor to be given the opportunity to play that role for the community.
Similar to the traits of community mediators, patience and tactfulness are valuable qualities. While in community mediation in the western world, the mediator creates and maintains the rapport between him/herself and the conflicted parties, in Sulha, the rapport should exist in advance and but enhanced in the process of resolved conflict. Of course, creativity, objectivity, and self-control are also qualities that Jaha in Sulha and community mediators share.
The peace that sulha accomplishes is prompted by utilitarian concerns as well. The Arab societies that gave rise to the traditional Sulha process were deeply interdependent and could not afford indefinite disequilibrium, or the threat of violence. Reconciliation through sulha is not just spiritually aspirational; it is economically vital.
So sulha has been effective traditionally because it is honorable; because it is restorative; because it is permeated with respect; because it is led by wise and respected people; because it affirms shared social and spiritual values; because it preserves order; but most of all because it is agreed upon by all parties to the conflict and it is necessary in order for the community to go on with their lives. Once a reconciliation through sulha is reached, the conflict may no longer be referred to; it is past. “Once a wound has healed, it cannot bleed again.”