Conflict Management–The SALAM Model

Posted on April 28, 2007


Dr. Iqbal Unus, International Institute of Islamic Thought

The English acronym SALAM is a transliterated version of the corresponding Islamic terms. I want to use the letters of SALAM to refer to a process of dealing with conflict. The SALAM model points to a systematic way of approaching the conflict and moving towards a fair resolution, assuming of course that all parties to the conflict want to reach a fair conclusion.The first letter S stands for stating the conflicting view. We should not assume that we already know what the nature or content of the conflict is. Let it be stated what it is that we are in conflict about. The Qur’an advises us not to act on what we do not know:

  • In sura Al Isra: “And pursue not that of which you have no knowledge; for every act of hearing or of seeing or of (feeling in) the heart will be inquired into (on the Day of Reckoning).” [17:36]
  • In sura Al Najm: “But they have no knowledge therein. They follow nothing but conjecture; and conjecture avails nothing against the truth.” [53:28]

Once what is in conflict is clearly stated – without agreement or disagreement, it is possible to relate it to the conflicting parties’ purposes. This will establish what is at stake and how critical is the disagreement. Some conflict might be resolved just by stating the parameters of conflict clearly, because one party or the other might find that it can live with the situation without trying to change it.

Therefore, S stands for stating the conflicting view.

The second letter A stand for agreeing that a conflict exists, again without making any judgment.

At this stage, we must detach issues from personalities. One way to do that is, when possible, let each side state the other side’s position as fairly as it can. This enables them both to focus on issue, not persons.

The third letter L stands for listening for and learning the difference. Of course, that is the tough part.

Most of the time, we listen not to learn but to respond when our turn comes. Here we must turn to the essence of the Islamic principles of shura, by focusing on the issues. The two parties should move to a higher level by consulting with one another on how to attack the problem between them. Through this exercise of shura, they direct their mutual resources of creativity, experience, wisdom, etc. to attack the problem, not one another.

As far as shura is concerned, there is probably no other Islamic concept that is talked about as much as and practiced as little as shura. Therefore, I will not spend more time discussing what shura is.

However, within the context of avoiding conflict, one must stress the pro-active nature of shura. When the Prophet received the news about Abu Sufyan’s caravan before the Battle of Badr, he consulted the members of his expedition. Sayiddina Abu Bakr and Sayyidina Umar spoke and then al Miqdad ibn ‘Amr spoke, and then there was a long silence. The Prophet (saw) asked for advice. It seemed he was anxious to hear the Ansar’s view because he had made a pledge with at al `Aqabah.

Then Sa’d ibn Mua’dh, their leaders, addressed the Prophet (saw) asking the Prophet (saw) if he was seeking to hear their views, and the Prophet (saw) confirmed that indeed he was. This anecdote stresses the pro-active nature of shura, the idea the one has to invite and seek shura, not simply engage in it because it is forced by circumstances.

Of course at this stage, we must examine the guidelines of Sharia with respect to the issues at hand. This should also be a mutual effort, to make the Sharia – in a sense – an unbiased arbitrator.

The fourth letter A stand for advising one another. This is a stage where compromises begin to take shape. We advise one another in the Islamic manner of naseeha, recognizing that the advisor is not always right. Two things are important here.

  • First: we move to common ground by proposing action that meets the principal needs of the other party while enabling us to reach our goals.
  • Second: we offer to help carry out whatever is agreed upon. Again, we are talking about a pro-active mode of behavior. It requires a continual monitoring of actions and prompt evaluative response to them.

We all know the very famous hadith of the Prophet (saw) related by Muslim on the authority of Abu Ruqayya Tamim ibn Aus ad-Dari (ra): The Prophet (saw) said: Religion is good advice. We said: To whom? He said: To Allah and His Book, and His Messenger, and to the leaders of the Muslims and their common folk.

We see that the Prophet (saw) extended the principle of naseeha to every one from the top to the bottom, from the leaders to the common folks. Thus the giving or receiving of naseeha is not restricted to one group of the other but is a general operational principle, specially when we study this hadith with the other famous one: A believer is a mirror to his brother.

The last letter M stands for minimizing areas of disagreement that could lead to aggression or withdrawal.

We do not want the other party to become an aggressor because they did not get what they wanted. In most situations, we also do not want the other party to withdraw from us. In most situations, this will be only a short-lived resolution of the conflict, until the other party feels strong enough to challenge the resolution.

Therefore, we want to seek agreement in as many aspects of the conflict as possible, minimizing those aspects in which either party has to yield its position. We recognize that conflict is unavoidable; and that it is even desirable to have functional and occasional conflict.

When two people always agree with one another, one of them is redundant.