Vol. XIX, Issue 3 (Summer 2012): "Wangari Maathai's Peace Paradigm"



Gloria Emeagwali
Chief Editor

Walton Brown-Foster
Copy Editor

Haines Brown

ISSN  1526-7822


Olayemi Akinwumi

Ayele Bekerie

Paulus Gerdes

Alfred Zack-Williams
(Sierra Leone)

Gumbo Mishack

(South Africa)



Jennifer Nicoletti
Academic Technology, CCSU

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Table of Contents




How can peace be achieved? What are some of the indispensable methodologies and virtues that peace practitioners must cultivate? What are some of the existing models on conflict resolution? Do individuals have a special role to play in the peace process? What is the role of the community?  Dr. Abdul Karim Bangura addresses these issues and others, making reference to peace philosophers such as Ibn Arabi and Rumi in the course of discussion. He then evaluates the philosophy and activism of the Kenyan Nobel Laureate, Wangari Maathai, as they relate to conflict resolution and the peace paradigm.
This discourse on the elusive but attainable phenomenon of peace is a major contribution to researchers in the field of peace studies, philosophy and theology, from the perspective of a distinguished Africanist scholar. We thank Dr. Bangura for this illuminating and scholarly contribution to Africa Update.

Wangari Maathai's Peace Paradigm
Abdul Karim Bangura


Envision a world with no wars, no “superpowers,” no weapons of mass destruction, and no threats to the environment. Envision a world where color, gender, religion and residence no longer matter, and we all share the space we call earth. Envision a world where people help one another and recognize their connectedness. Envision a society that understands and practices the true state of harmony. Is this vision of the world too utopian?  Is this world unrealistic in our over-industrialized and over-polluted world?  How do we overcome these burdens we have created for ourselves and our children and reach peace? Is this even conceivable?

People throughout history have died or experienced tremendous hardship to achieve this objective of peace. Noted individuals such as Wangari Maathai, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, the 14th Dalai Lama, Kwame Nkrumah, and countless others have all strived for this. On the other hand, were they all striving for the same type of peace?

This article seeks to explore and explain the Peace through Personal and Community Transformation or Love paradigm that undergirded Professor Wangari Maathai’s work. It begins by examining works from prominent scholars and practitioners in the field to give the essay a theoretical grounding. Much of the work in this area has focused on external factors, such as middlemen, non-governmental organizations, and international influence. By looking at different paradigms, it is revealed that such factors are not always relevant. Furthermore, certain aspects of each paradigm are integrated into a multi-dimensional approach that stresses the importance of personal development to achieve sustainable peace.

According to Jean Paul Lederach (1997), the grassroots community plays a vital role in transformation, which must be linked to middle-range actors that will help bridge the gap between the grassroots and top-level leadership. This is part of a pyramid model that focuses on the levels of leadership in a conflict scenario, which include top-level leadership, middle-range leadership, and grassroots leadership. He further explains that grassroots leaders include local leaders, leaders of indigenous NGOs, community developers, local health officials, and refugee camp leaders. Lederach explains that these individuals possess expertise in local politics and can personally relate to the average citizen’s everyday adversity. In order to build a relationship and create a greater understanding between the grassroots community and the government, the middle-range leadership, such as religious leaders, local government officials, and the business community, must serve as an integral part in the process of conflict transformation. Both the government and the grassroots community are influenced by these leaders and trust them, thereby allowing them to serve as the link between these two levels.

Along the same lines, Chadwick Alger , as cited in Elias and Turpin ( 1994),  presents peace through personal and community transformation in three phases: (1) expansion of the United Nations in the past 50 years, which has permitted more global dialogue and numerous interpretations of peace; (2) realization that peace cannot be achieved through a few actors or leaders alone; (3) peace is not just an attempt to achieve prewar conditions or a resolution to a conflict, but to also create an environment that was better than before. Alger also emphasizes the importance of the grassroots movement in the peace process.

A significant aspect of the peace process that has been neglected and marginalized for decades is grassroots involvement. Often, individuals and communities do not value their own knowledge and experiences and, thus, will assume that power centers, such as the government, are better equipped to resolve conflict. Since these centers are the ones that often control the tools of violence, it is assumed that they would know how to stop and prevent violence. Time has shown us, however, that this is often not the case, and that achieving peace still appears to be a challenging task. Most importantly, this also suggests that peace cannot be attained through controlling or using violence.

Cynthia Sampson et al. in Positive Approaches to Peace Building (2003) illustrate the importance of empowering people which, according to them, remains the most important aspect of the peace process. They developed the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) model, which emphasizes the role of the community in conflict transformation. It focuses, however, mainly on the empowerment of the communities to discover a more effective use of their distributive strength and assets in constructing a better future. The AI model concentrates on the needs of the community and how members work collectively to achieve and sustain it, while incorporating education, agriculture and other types of socio-economic programs.

Taking into consideration these paradigmatic foci, one must ask what is applicable and practical in achieving peace through personal and community transformation or love. While each focus makes significant contributions to the peace process, all emphasize community transformation and the roles of national and international actors, while neglecting the value of personal involvement. Therefore, since the community and individuals are considered to be involved in a causal relationship, in the sense that communities can transform individuals and vice versa, then both should be given equal attention and emphasis. It is necessary to understand that individuals must change their ways of thinking and acting to include a more holistic approach to peace and link it to their daily lives and communities. The individual is the only one who can diagnose and treat the problems that plague his/her community. Communities must, in turn, work together and learn from one another in order to transform their societies. For instance, it has long been the assumption that if African nations would follow the structural adjustment programs, which Western nations have recommended, they would develop economically. It was thought that since the Western powers were so affluent, then they, of course, possessed the knowledge to lead Africa to the same outcome. Yet these programs failed, and it has been realized that Africans are the only ones who can pinpoint their problems and take the initiatives to begin to solve them. In other words, personal transformation is a vital aspect of the peace process and one that should not be neglected.

Overall, peace is a much broader term which also includes the absence of conditions such as poverty and pollution. In fact, any peace agenda should address economic well-being, self-determination, human rights and ecological issues. It is essential that the knowledge, experiences, support, understanding and participation of the people be included and valued. While it is important to have the involvement of international organizations and governments, it is even more beneficial to educate and involve communities that will, in the end, be the ones to feel the full brunt of the final decisions. Peace is not something that can be forced upon the people; it must instead develop from the bottom-up.

For example, despite increased awareness that Islam is not equitable with Islamic extremists or terrorists, an inaccurate and fearful stigma has developed around Muslims and the Islamic world in general. It is likely that this social stigma would be different if the Islamic practice of ihsan (doing what is beautiful) were a more publicly exposed and explored element of Islam. Sufis were and are the most obvious practitioners of this facet of Islam and in fact devote their lives to the development and cultivation of this internal experience and transformation.

What is Sufism? Answering this question is surprisingly difficult and complicated. Being a Sufi means and has meant different things within different times, histories, and cultural contexts. When Ali, the son of Ahmad, was asked over a millennium ago to explain what Sufism was, he was said to have replied as follows: “Today, Sufism is a name without a reality, but it used to be a reality without a name” (Chittick, 2000:1). As William Chittick wrote in his book titled Sufism,

We often hear that Sufism is ‘mysticism’ or ‘esoterism’ or ‘spirituality,’ usually with the adjective ‘Islamic’ tacked in front. Such labels can provide an orientation, but they are both far too broad and far too narrow to designate the diverse teachings and phenomena that have been identified with Sufism over history. They can never do more than hint at the reality . . . and they may be more of a hindrance than a help, because they encourage people to file Sufism away unthinkingly into a convenient category (Chittick, 2000:1).

In this article, unless otherwise stated, Sufis are considered to be followers of the Islamic faith who strive for perfection and unity with God through the practice of ihsan. Islam (submission), Iman (faith), and Ihsan (doing what is beautiful) are considered the three dimensions of Islam. It is important for the reader to understand that the study of love and transformation takes place within Islam, and not in a mystical vein outside of it (Chittick, 2000:4).

There are different paradigms that seek to understand peace by examining the manner in which various entities such as ideologies, movements, institutions, processes, religions and/or ethics approach peace. Upon exploring these paradigms, it is clear that there are many competing perspectives on a multitude of issues surrounding peace and how to achieve it. In fact, the definition of peace itself is contested within the paradigms.

The paradigm of interest here deals with peace through the power of love: transformation, person, and community. In this paradigm, the roles of spirituality, consciousness, culture and education are considered. This paradigm posits that through inner personal transformation, one is empowered and can then positively impact his/her community. The process of transformation begins with an individual attaining inner peace, which then enables him/her to respond more fully to achieve peace within his/her community by actively engaging it. Within this paradigm, human nature is viewed as optimistic and good. The individual and the group are in a relationship and are capable of acting positively. The idea of original blessing is inherent to this paradigm. The source of power stems from inner power and attunement to the Divine. The decision-making process in this paradigm is a movement from within the self toward the outer world. Integrity, creativity, community, respect and cooperation are some of the virtues and values that are upheld and demonstrated by the behavior of the masses and of society. Within this paradigm, it is believed that the individual or community conscience is strong enough to act as a sanction for any wrongdoing (Bangura, 2006).

With Sufism originating from Islam, many concepts and ideas central to Sufis are central to all Muslims. This holds true in regards to the Islamic concept of peace as a presence (Funk, 2001:4). The concept of tawhid (the principle of unity) is essential to Islam.  At its core, Islam possesses a message of unity and peace that “applies to the inner person, to society, and to the cosmos” (Funk, 2001:2).

The ‘power of love’ paradigm is about transformation of person and community which, in the Islamic context, begins as “the process of submission to God, through which the part—the human microcosm—becomes reconciled to the whole, to the Universe or macrocosm” (Funk, 2001:2). Nathan Funk discusses how peace in Islam suggests equilibrium of parts or a pattern of harmony, while stipulating that the internalization and upholding of this is the responsibility of every Muslim (2001:4). Moreover, in Islam, human privilege and responsibility are intertwined, so that it is a privilege to fulfill human responsibility (Funk, 2001:5).

In parallel with the paradigm at hand, Islam stresses the importance of the inner struggle to pursue the greater good. The inner struggle referred to here is a kind of jihad, which holds a special place in the minds of millions of people, being one of the most misunderstood Islamic concepts today. This is owed to the mainstream media’s relentless hammering in of misconstrued definitions of jihad paired with images of Muslim men dressed in non-Western apparel fighting ‘Holy Wars.’  Jihad literally means “striving,” and the “greater Jihad” in the Islamic tradition had always been the inner struggle to purify the self and behave in a manner that furthers rather than disrupts the divine harmony (Said et al., 2001:7).

The core characterization of Sufism is a tradition that values selfless experiencing and actualization of Truth. In addition to this, devotion to the umma, community, has always been an important component of the mystic vocation. In demonstrating the power of love paradigm through the Sufi lens, Karen Armstrong quotes Louis Massignon, an expert on Sufi mysticism, when he explains that “the mystic call is as a rule the result of an inner rebellion of the conscience against social injustices, not only those of others but primarily and particularly against one’s own faults: with a desire intensified by inner purification to find God at any price” (Armstrong, 1992:261).

Review of Various Perspectives

While either national or international security is often based on the possession and/or use of weapons to achieve peace, scholars and practitioners have been trying to find new ways to realize peace with the absence of weapons and/or war. They have developed different schools of thought, models and assertions on how to contribute to both the theoretical and practical viewpoints of conflict transformation. It is against this backdrop that a new paradigm was created that emphasized the need for transformation in individuals as well as communities in order to create peace.

Many areas of social science research support the idea of peace through personal and community transformation. Research in political science, psychology, and sociology support the rationale that whole societies need to transform before peace can be achieved. An examination of the literature uncovers several essential characteristics that proponents of this paradigm present. Nonetheless, they all propose different ways of achieving this goal of transformation. A common theme among the authors is the need for greater participation of individuals and communities in the peace process.

In Building a Peace System (1988), sociologist Robert Irwin analyzes government policies and the social phenomena that give rise to these policies. He briefly discusses the social and psychological ramifications of the war culture. He specifically looks at the impact American culture has in creating peace and even the notion of peace. Irwin suggests that the United States’ perspective on peace is shaped by its violent culture and the need for “power” while also inadvertently influencing society that peace is attained through violence. These mutual effects produce outcomes that are cyclical and dangerous to the pursuit of peace. Irwin notes that “people in the U.S. seek relief in illusion from the terrifying and perplexing reality they are threatened by nuclear weapons in a way that no unilateral measures can remedy” (1988:79). He further explains that people understand peace as a result of war rather than as a result of change or transformation in thinking and acting (1988:80-84). However, it is important to note that Irwin does not give a solution to this problem but provides several alternatives which, perhaps, deserve more attention. For example, he suggests motivating individuals to understand the importance of voting and diversifying the peace movement that will in turn be more representative of the people (1988:121-130). Although these are great resolutions, Irwin should have focused more on what he pointed out earlier—that our norms and values may be detrimental to the goal of peace.

Nonetheless, Irwin’s argument is one that has been used by many who describe the psychological paradox that society has created to pursue peace. If this paradox is not detected and treated, the world will continue to find non-peaceful ways to achieve peace.

Noted physicist, David Bohm, examines this paradox by looking at the mechanisms societies construct to handle disruptions in their reality through force or other means in his salient work, On Dialogue (1996). Bohm presents an interesting position that scrutinizes social structures that now drive society to act irrationally. He makes the following observation:

People in each nation apparently understand the need for common human feeling and truthfulness in communications. Yet, when the nation is in danger, so strong is the reaction of fear and aggression that everyone is immediately ready to cease to treat the enemy as human (e.g., each side is ready to use bombs, killing children on the other side, when individually they would be horrified at the notion of child murder).

He continues:

And at home, they accept a censorship, which implies that they agree to take what is false as true, because they believe such self-deception to be necessary for the survival of the nation (1996:64).

The absurdity in his example is one that occurs time and time again in the name of justice and freedom. Bohm’s proposal to solve this paradox includes a total transformation of individuals by realizing that the paradox exists, rectifying the problem in self, gaining spiritual awareness, and recognizing one’s connectedness to the rest of the world (1996:63-65). While Bohm’s suggestions to treat the paradox are insightful and truthful, it would take generations for society to see the full picture of his treatment. His view that individuals must participate and take responsibility at all levels is crucial to peace through personal and community transformation.

Along the same lines, in “Confronting War: An Examination of Humanity’s Most Pressing Problem” (1987), Ronald Glossop explores the values and the views that lead to war. He states that “Since war begins in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed” (1987:218). Glossop posits that although reforming people’s attitudes is the most difficult to accomplish, it can be done in several stages. First, individuals must become interested in social issues. Second, individuals must become reluctant to use violence in situations of disagreement. Third, individuals must identify with people across the world, leading to “humatriotism.” Finally, individuals must do more than just identify with others; they must also actively participate in international development (1987:219, 221, 223).

From a similar perspective, Brian Fogarty writes that “a society’s values and beliefs are often in conflict. Thus, peacemakers find themselves in a position of not only having to rid society of unjust structures but also of trying to reconcile the very values and beliefs of the society” (2000:193). He also summarizes the benefits of societies participating in the nonviolence movement to produce a more thorough change. He cites evidence of a superficial change brought about by coups, threats, and violence.

Glossop, Bohm, Fogarty, and Irwin all propose the importance of individuals and communities harnessing the power of awareness and coalition building to create relationships that will sustain peace. In addition, they assert that power comes from individuals working together and not from the use of military force to achieve an outcome of peace. Yet, it is important to distinguish Bohm slightly from this group by pointing out the overarching theme in his work of changing the thinking process or perhaps one’s identity. Nevertheless, the enormity of changing people’s attitudes toward something so foreign may cause more harm in the short-run than scholars have stressed. The importance of recognizing the possible implications that surround transformation of norms, beliefs and values necessitates more work in this area.

Another characteristic of the works is that they rely heavily on the influence of the regional authorities and the international community to aid in transformation. Jonathan Goodhand and David Hulme, in “Positive Approaches to Peacebuilding” (as cited in Sampson et al., 2003), define transformation as the promotion of institutional and socio-economic measures at the local and national levels. They add that when local and national institutions are developed, they will improve service delivery to community, thereby improving the status of individuals. Lederach concurs, but he also points out that it should be a comprehensive, integrated, and interdependent process that includes identifying the root causes of conflict, managing crises, building structures that will limit violent conflict, and facilitating a new vision for the post-conflict societies.

Brian Martin (www.uow.edu) postulates that structural change must occur in society. He asserts that social structures influence people’s attitudes, which in turn then shape social structures. Martin refutes the notion of pressuring individuals to change; instead, he assumes that changing social structures will directly affect people’s views and, therefore, there is no pressure for individuals to change. He stresses the importance of collective work towards peace to ensure that the method, which the collective work creates, will be absent of a hierarchical system. He suggests that overcoming these social structures will mean developing long-term strategies aimed at incrementally changing the status quo. Gareth Evans, in his Cooperating for Peace (1993), claims that a just and fair society must be supported by a strong criminal justice system, states respecting human rights, and the promotion of sustainable development. He emphasizes the fact that the community must participate in the decision-making process in order to achieve conflict transformation, and the process starts with bringing leaders to justice.

Conflict transformation and peacebuilding processes are aimed at producing change in the destructive, dominant power dynamics that prevail in society. In “Positive Approaches to Peacebuilding” (2003), Cynthia Sampson states that dynamics are altered into constructive relationships that are balanced through the empowerment of all parties and by transforming abusive power through ideology, coercive use of force, control of resources, and utilization of power. She also emphasizes the truism that empowering marginalized groups is an essential principle in peacebuilding and conflict transformation. Sampson concludes that building group confidence is a necessary component to ensure participation by the group in the decision-making process.

Although Goodhand, Hulme, Lederach, and others prefer a more top-down approach to transformation, it seems that their approach is indicative of the Western way of thinking, which claims that there must be social structures in place for people to change and that people cannot change without those structures. This view takes the power from the individual and places it in social constructs that, in turn, keep people from altering their norms. Furthermore, the emphasis placed on social structures to change societies limits this paradigm to developed nations.

Some researchers, however, have taken a different approach to looking at peace through personal and community transformation. Instead of proposing blanket attributes that societies must change, these researchers look at the power of traditional rituals and forgiveness to initiate the transformations. According to Mohammed Abu-Nimer (as cited in Sampson et al., 2003), personal and community development applies a holistic storytelling method that allows the storyteller to fully connect with his/her audience. The stories, if told with honesty, compassion, and fervor, may transform perception, instill the hope that change is possible and worthy of striving. Abu-Nimer also discusses reconciliation and forgiveness as powerful tools for transformation. Moreover, in The Forgiveness Factor (1996), Michael Henderson uses stories of hope to emphasize the need for forgiveness and the significance of national reconciliation in the peace process. Henderson states that in order to do this, people must first heal the wounds of the past. After all, forgiveness is the key to one’s own liberation. Forgiveness allows feelings of anger, resentment or prejudices to disappear, thereby allowing individuals to become more peaceful themselves.

Abu-Nimer and Henderson identify critical factors in conflict transformation that have been neglected in this area of study. Forgiveness and reconciliation have always been important elements of peace. Their approach highlights the common humanity and common suffering as bases for understanding and redemption. The limitations associated with this approach, however, may hinder it from being a viable option for transformation. Forgiveness focuses on cultural factors, while often neglecting structural factors. Also, it may not be pragmatic enough for wide-scale use, as it is based on cultural and religious traditions that many do not share. In other words, their approach is case-specific and relies on different factors, including cultural, depending on who is involved and, thus, is not practical for achieving peace.

On the other hand, Ryan Stephen, in his work, “Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation” (1995), sees transformation as starting at the educational level. Stephen developed the Education for Mutual Understanding model (EMU), which focuses on children and young adults and seeks to produce generational changes in attitudes. Such educational programs emphasize reason, imagination, critical thinking, and openness. Stephen, however, cautions that while schools are only one source of influence for children, they are unlikely to overcome negative images perpetuated by the family, community, and media.

While the work in this area focuses specifically on conflict transformation and rightly so, it does not explicitly address the role of women in this process. It is vital to address the role of women in this paradigm, especially since women are the most impacted by conflict. After all, women are highly targeted in war and usually comprise the majority of refugees and displaced peoples. Most people tend to place women and men in the same category of treatment when this is never really the case. Thus, how can women and men work collectively if there are differences in the way women are treated and perceived?  Women possess different interests, needs and concerns, which are rarely tackled. Hence, it cannot be expected that women can work towards peace if all aspects of peace that relate to them are not fully addressed. In “Good Governance from the Ground Up: Women’s Roles in Post-Conflict Cambodia” (www.womenwagingpeace.net), Laura McGrew, Kate Frieson and Sambath Chan acknowledge the significant contributions made by women to good governance and peace. They also mention that in October of 2000, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which demanded that all parties include the full participation of women in peace processes. Whether this is actually occurring is still questionable, since not everyone values the important role women can play in the peace process.

Donna Ramsey Marshall produced a report entitled “Perspectives on Grassroots Peacebuilding: The Roles of Women in War and Peace” (2000) that reflects the presentations and comments made at a seminar in 1999. She writes that women and men are affected differently by war, but these differences are often not addressed as are women’s roles within the peace process. According to Marshall, scholars have long since debated the effect gender has on conflict. There are some who believe that women are more peaceful than men. There are others who think that gender is socially constructed and, therefore, it is only through education and socialization that people delineate the roles and behavior of women and men. Still, most scholars and researchers engaged in this debate do agree that while higher female participation in the public realm would change the nature of the realm, it is uncertain what type of change it would exactly wreak.

Marshall mentions Cheryl Benard, a scholar who is also the director of research at an Austrian think tank and a consultant to the Austrian government and various American-based research organizations, who explores this debate. Benard emphasizes three major points that reflect the relationship between women and peace (Benard as cited in Marshall, 2000:8):

(1) The conditions of war and peace affect women differently than they do men.

(2) Such differences are not generally taken into account in the construction of peace agreements, in post-conflict reconstruction efforts, in the distribution of humanitarian aid, or even in the conduct of day-to-day governance.

(3) While women are associated with peace, the relationship of women with peace is not always a beneficial one.

Benard also highlights that J. Ann Tickner, in her article in the International Studies Review (Tickner as cited in Marshall, 2000), thinks that the connection between women and peace and all the assumptions that accompany it serve as an excuse to keep women from directly participating in international politics and national security. Yet greater female participation in international politics can contribute constructively to conflict prevention, peace negotiations, and post-conflict reconstruction. Benard explains that how women help to prevent the outbreak of war should be emphasized. Since it is thought that women are more peace-oriented, their supposed tendencies toward communication and cooperation would have positive effects. Women’s rights and interests must also be heard and taken into consideration during policy making and peace negotiations, so that their needs and concerns can be effectively met. Women should be included in post-war reconstruction, especially in economic development.

At this point, research by Western scholars has shown the importance of transforming individuals and communities to achieve peace; the feasibility and practicality of doing so, however, are still uncertain. The confounded state of research translated into the applicability and feasibility of peace through personal and community transformation stems from the disagreement about which path to follow in transforming societies. The major Western works in this area are unable to reach a unanimous consensus as where the change should occur—individual or community?  The research also demonstrates the limitations of the Western perspectives on this paradigm by overemphasizing the need for external influences such as NGOs, intergovernmental organizations, and others in the international community to help facilitate a transformation and the need for social structures to play a role.

Clearly, additional research by Western researchers is warranted. Emphasis should shift from the community and external influences to the full participation and minds of individuals. Individual transformation should be seen as the advent of change that will help to sustain peace. In addition, more studies must be conducted on the successes and failures of this paradigm and assess the transferability to new areas. The works related to this paradigm do not seemingly discuss enough about cultural differences and how they may affect transformation. Therefore, it is paramount that transferability be tested through longitudinal studies and those that measure the application of this paradigm through cross-cultural barriers.

In the book, The Vision of Islam (1995), Murata and Chittick place special emphasis on understanding Sufism within the context of ihsan and understanding ihsan within the greater context of Islam. What is of great import here is to understand the interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith from within the context of the prevailing worldview of that time. They write: “those who ignore the interpretations of the past are forced to interpret their text in light of the prevailing worldview of the present” (Murata and Chittick, 1995: xi).

This is no simple task, because the Arabic language allows for multiple understandings and meanings to be derived from the texts.  “Muslim thinkers often quote the Prophet to the effect that every verse of the Koran has seven meanings, beginning with the literal sense” (Murata and Chittick, 1995: xv). It is believed that the final and deepest meaning of the text is one that is understood by Allah (SWT) alone.

Murata and Chittick frame their explanations of the beliefs, practices, and institution of Islam from the Hadith of Archangel Gabriel, an authentic Hadith “that Muslim thinkers have often employed for similar purposes in classical texts” (1995: xxv). In this Hadith, the Archangel Gabriel came to Muhammad (PBUH) disguised as a stranger and questions him about three things: shahadah (the profession of faith by uttering “There is no god but God,” and “Muhammad is the messenger of God”), faith, and doing what is beautiful. It is written in the hadith that he [the archangel Gabriel] then said: “Now tell me about doing what is beautiful.” He [Muhammad, PBUH] replied: “Doing what is beautiful means that you should worship God as if you see Him, for even if you do not see Him, He sees you” (Murata and Chittick, 1995:xxv). The context of worship, as prescribed by the Qur’an, means to orient one’s life around “what one considers to be Real” (Murata and Chittick, 1995: xxv). It involves attention to one’s attitude and intention in the way one approaches Allah (SWT). The authors describe the different ways that humans approach Allah (SWT). Some approach Allah (SWT) out of fear. Others approach Allah (SWT) in the way that one might when desiring to be near her/his object of love. Nonetheless, “many Muslim authorities maintain that worshiping Allah (SWT) as if you see him means that you forget all thought of either loss or gain” (Murata and Chittick, 1995:276).

According to the Qur’an, people are not able to do what is beautiful without the merciful initiation of Allah (SWT) moving them towards wholeness (Murata and Chittick, 1995:270). A true understanding of Allah (SWT) is impossible without divine revelation. Tawhid is the principle that asserts this oneness with Allah (SWT), who is the only true reality. “It recognizes that God is infinitely beyond all things (tanzih), but it also declares that He is present within all things (tashbih)” (Murata and Chittick, 1995:74). Wholeness cannot be developed without the instigation of the Divine. “Establishing wholeness, wholesomeness, and beauty depends upon the full engagement of the human being with the Real. The truly wholesome are those who act both as God’s perfect servants and his perfect vicegerents” (Murata and Chittick, 1995:294).

It is important to understand what “doing,” or “being,” the beautiful means. Within this context, “an act cannot be beautiful if it is done without the awareness of God. God is the criterion for the beautiful, the good, and the right.”  Ihsan teaches how to “bring one’s motivations and psychological qualities into harmony with one’s activity and understanding” (Murata and Chittick, 1995:267). In other words, ihsan is a verb. In this light, Allah (SWT) is seen in a way that resembles a verb, rather than a static proper noun. Murata and Chittick write: “They share in God’s quality of ihsan, and hence they are near to him and participate in his gentleness and mercy. Since they do the beautiful, they themselves are beautiful” (Murata and Chittick, 1995:271). Sufism is considered one of the manifestations of ihsan, as it is the practice of assuming the characteristics of Allah (SWT) as one’s own.

Murata and Chittick describe “practical Sufism” as the practice of implementing ihsan into everyday life. The common belief held by Sufis is that to be fully human is to actualize the divine form. This is the essence to which Sufism attempts to get, according to Murata and Chittick. Furthermore, the understanding and adoption of these characteristics are not seen as simply “attitudes, feelings, or psychological states. Rather, they looked upon them as modes of being that bring the unreal creature into harmony with the Real itself . . . a transmutation of human nature that allows for a new mode of existence” (Murata and Chittick, 1995:308). This transmutation occurs through love. As mentioned earlier, ihsan focuses on the quality of love:

Love is typically presented as the key to Islamic life and practice. In other words, for a large body of Muslims, love has always been Islam’s life-blood. In their view, without the animating spirit of love—Islam’s third dimension—the religion dries up and desiccates, and we are left with sterile debates over the fine details of activity, or polemical attacks on anyone who does not toe the dogmatic line concerning issues of faith (Murata an Chittick, 1995:309).

Murata and Chittick hold steadfast, however, in their emphasis on the import of the Shariah. Faith and practice create the necessary framework that sustains and supports ihsan.

Allah’s (SWT) raison d’etre for creating human beings is in fact to actualize Love. No other creature has the capacity to love back in the same way that humans do. The achievement of this ideal, according to the great Sufi poet, Rumi, can never be achieved by the human will alone. It is something that is given by Allah (SWT) in his own time (Murata and Chittick, 1995:270).

It is evident that this transformation is a process. One may ask: Is there an end to this process? The answer to this question is yes and no. People are forever changing and becoming. Murata and Chittick, however, describe the final stage of the soul as “the soul at peace,” based upon the text in the Qur’an that states: “O soul at peace, return to thy Lord, well-pleased, well-pleasing!  Enter among My servants!  Enter My paradise!”(89:27).

Such a Soul has attained the Real in this life. “This is the soul that has returned to God in this world. Such a soul belongs to those who have established ihsan to such a degree that they worship God not ‘as if’ they see him, but while actually seeing him present in all things, including themselves” (Murata and Chittick, 1995:316).

Sufism (1995), written by William Chittick, is a work that examines the process by which Sufis come into accord with Love, or the Divine, with an emphasis placed upon sukr (intoxication) and sahw (sobriety) thought within Sufism. The basic premise within Sufism is that in order to find God, a person must seek to be aware of the Divine incessantly. There exists within Sufism varying methods of coming into accord with Love, or the Divine.

Here, I examine the different approaches of coming into accord with the Divine as advocated by the great Sufis, Ibn Arabi and Rumi, as interpreted by Chittick in this particular work. Although there exists a multitude of Sufi saints and mystics with ideological differences, Ibn Arabi and Rumi are considered to be two of the greatest and most prolific Sufis. They provide an opportunity to examine the basic theosophical and practical differences and similarities found within Sufism. Before doing this, however, I will digress a bit to provide brief biographical information of these great Sufis. It is my hope that this information will provide a rationale for why some ideas of the two men are different and why others are similar. Furthermore, in order to grasp the importance of the works of Ibn Arabi and Rumi in promoting peace through Islam, one must first examine their origins and elements. It is necessary to identify the relevant figures and events in the molding of their characters and works, especially those responsible for tolerance, knowledge, spirituality and compassion that characterize Ibn Arabi and Rumi.

When Ibn Arabi started his mystical journey at the age of 20, he realized that the world is not what it really seems. He had a different view of the world in which we live. Ibn Arabi’s surrender to the Divine allowed him to have marvelous mystical revelations that assisted him in interpreting the esoteric expressions hidden in the teachings of Islam. Most of the writings of Ibn Arabi were of great debate between the Islamic scholars of his time, and many of them were considered more authentic. Ibn Arabi, however, had influenced many at the time, and many decided to become his disciples (Al-Araimi, 2004:69).

The passion of Ibn Arabi’s books, the warmth of his words, and the wisdom of his sentences were viewed as a masterpiece that could not have been created without divine revelations. He studied the traditional sciences of Islam, becoming an astonishingly creative author, even though his master, Abu Medyan, was an illiterate. Ibn Arabi’s writings are estimated to be 900, of which approximately 700-750 are extant and around 450 are probably genuine. In most of his writings, he cites both the Qur’an and the Hadith and in most cases would interpret their esoteric meanings, the innate wisdom, and comment on those two main sources of Islam, as well as quoting Islamic sages and mystics who lived before him (Al-Araimi, 2004:69-70).

The passionate writings made Ibn Arabi the most influential and controversial mystic author of Islamic history. The first mystical revelation of which we are aware happened while he was meeting Ibn Rushd, the Chief Judge of Seville at the time. The meeting of these two extreme scholars proves to us that no matter what the approach is, it will lead through piety, sincerity and credibility to the universal truth (Al-Araimi, 2004:70).

The writings of Ibn Arabi were of unique knowledge and wisdom, very philosophical and deep in some cases, but easy and flowing in others. His philosophical views did not emerge from the Greek or any other school of anthology; rather, they emerged from Islamic philosophy. He did not spend time reading or studying Greek philosophy nor was he a great supporter of Greek intellect; as a result, he had to seek another base for what he was saying. Islamic philosophy was enriched with his experience (Al-Araimi, 2004:71).

Rumi, one of the great mystic poets of his age, was born in Balkh, in the northern province of Khorasan, Afghanistan, on September 30, 1207. He was originally known as Jalal Al-Din Muhammad Balkhi, a name given to him after his father and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). His father, Muhammad Ibn Husain al-Khatabi al-Bakri al-Balkhi, a considerably learned man, jurist, theologian and mystic, claimed direct paternal descent from Abu-Bakr, the first caliph of Islam. With the title of King of Clerics, Baha Al-Din Valad of Balkhi, as he was also known, created the necessary environment for Rumi’s divine thought and poetry (Loughran, 2004:249).

At the age of 12, Rumi had been completely immersed into his father’s learning, subjected to the various pilgrimages and spiritual travels that had taken place during his lifetime. It was not until his journey to Nishapur, however, that Rumi was officially instructed in the arts of the spiritual. Initiated by one of his father’s disciples, Farid Al-Din ‘Attar,’ Rumi was presented with a copy of the Asnar-nama, or Book of Secrets, as the sign of spiritual greatness had been recognized in him. Nevertheless, the marvelous period of incessant wandering and religious pilgrimage came to an end, as the threat of Mongol invasions cast a shadow over the city of Balkhi, then part of the Persian Empire. At this time, Rumi and his family fled to the city of Konya, in Byzantine Anatolia and present-day Turkey. It is from this point that Jalal Al-Din Balkhi became known as Rumi to the West, meaning from Roman Anatolia, or Rome, “Rum,” as Persians, Arabs and Turks dominated this geographical area. In Muslim countries, therefore, Jalal Al-Din is not generally known as Rumi (Loughran, 2004:250).

Konya, an ancient capital city many times visited by St. Paul and, according to Arab legend, the resting place of Plato’s bones, came under Muslim influence since about 1070, when Selyuk wrested Anatolia from Byzantium. Personally invited by the Saljuk ruler, Kai-Qubad I, around 1221, to be appointed as preacher and teacher, Baha Al-Din and his family prepared to establish a living in the capital, Konya. It was there that he arranged a marriage between his son, Rumi, then 18 years old, to Guahar Khaun. From this union, a son was born, in 1226, Sultan Valad, who would later be in charge of editing Rumi’s discourses as well as composing a biography of his father (Loughran, 2004:250).

At his father’s death, Rumi took over the position of Sheikh in Konya, preaching before the monarch and teaching the sons of nobles. His spiritual progress was slow. In this respect, during this period, and in the company of Burhan Al-Din, a friend of Rumi’s family in Balkhi, Rumi ventured into Syria and continued his studies at Aleppo and Damascus. He devoted the following nine years to his spiritual advancement and initiation into the higher mysteries of the Sufi way and doctrine. It was at this time, prior to his return to Konya, that he met the great Andalusian mystic and theosophist, Ibn Arabi (Loughran, 2004:250).

From 1240 to 1244, Rumi lived and taught in Konya. As the Mongol threat abated, Rumi’s life seemed to follow the normal path of dedication, commitment and mediation, familiar to religious scholars. It was not until 1244, at the age of 37, that Rumi manifested a profound interest in poetry, after undergoing an intense emotional and spiritual experience, which would change the course of his life. It was in the fall of this same year when Rumi met this stranger, a figure that would shape his path and to whom most of his poetry was to be dedicated. This stranger was the wandering dervish, Shams of Tabriz, who traveled throughout the Middle East in search of the one “who could endure his company” (Loughran, 2004:250-251).

It was the depth and dedication of Rumi to this ecstatic relationship with Shams that led many of Rumi’s students to feel neglected and forgotten. For this and various other reasons, Shams decided to flee and rid Rumi of such inconveniences. It was only after this disappearance that Rumi began his transformation into a mystical artist (Loughran, 2004:251).

A second encounter with Shams in 1248 led to more jealousy on the part of Rumi’s followers, culminating in the final disappearance of Shams, who was never again seen, probably murdered by one of Rumi’s sons. Nevertheless, the union had been complete or annihilation had been achieved in the Beloved Friend. Rumi compiled a series of works in what he later called The Works of Shams of Tabriz (Loughran, 2004:251-252).

Consequently, after the beloved’s death and the completed union, Rumi found comfort in a new companion, Saladin Zarkub. Thus, Saladin became the object of Rumi’s poetry until he died and yet another figure would succeed him, Husam Chelebi, Rumi’s scribe and favorite student. For the next 12 years, Rumi dedicated the six volumes of his masterpiece, the Masnavi, to Husam al-Din Hasan. Rumi died at the age of 66 on December 17, 1273 (Loughran, 2004:252).

Indeed, a general split exists within the Sufi orders over the perception and experience of Allah (SWT). The differences revolve around the different states of sukr (intoxication) and sahw (sobriety). This difference is due to two distinctly different transformational experiences of the Divine that have been recorded (Trimingham, 1971:4).

It is common for Sufis to describe the experience of having the Divine fall into them as overwhelmingly intoxicating. This experience is described and commonly compared to the experience of falling in love with another human being. In such instances, individuals are overwhelmed with the intense awareness and knowing of the permeation of Allah (SWT) throughout all things. Divisions slip away. During such instances, a person experiences intense (almost ecstatic) yearnings that are described as both painful and delightful. Chittick writes: “intoxication is associated with expansion, hope, and intimacy with God. It is the human response to the divine names that declares God’s compassion, love, kindness, beauty, gentleness, and concern” (2000:26). Expressions of sukr appear throughout much of Sufi poetry. It is this element of Sufism with which the Western world is most familiar. This element is important, but it is only a piece of the puzzle that is Sufism, which I discuss in detail here.  

Sobriety is the flip side of the sukr coin described previously. Sobriety could be described as the experience of Allah’s (SWT) multiplicity. It is an experience that is quite different from that of sukr and, indeed, is seen by some as complementary, if not an absolutely necessary final state at which to arrive. If sukr is the experience of Oneness and unification, sahw is the experience of separation and the awareness of the existing veil that comes between self and God. Sukr “correlates with the absolute distinction between Creator and creatures and is associated with wonderment, awe, contraction, and fear” (Chittick, 2000:26). The states of “drunkenness” and “sobriety” are both important in developing a better understanding of the Divine. To experience this is to experience the existing paradox.

There is a common process of spiritual development in Sufism. It describes the initial state of humanity as existing in a delusional, oblivious state, subscribed to by those who unquestioningly accept the social reality with which they are presented. After awakening to the falseness of such an existence and the adoption of a focused and disciplined way of living and actively seeking perfection, it is possible after some time that the individual will be overcome by emanations of the Divine and so become aware of the nature of the Love. This is the true experience of drunkenness.

“States are gifts whilst stages are acquisitions” (Trimingham, 1971:140). The experience of drunkenness passes, too, leaving the individual “sober” again. Contrary to Western understanding, this state is one that is just as desirable (and considered more so by some) as is the state of being drunk with Divinity. As Chittick writes, 

Sobriety represents the highest stage of the Sufi path, (but) this does not imply that the sober are no longer drunk. What it means is that the true Sufi, having realized fully the pattern and model established by the Prophet, is inwardly drunk with God and outwardly sober with the world. Of course, the joy of intoxication may occasionally appear outwardly, but the sobriety of discernment remains a necessary concomitant of faith. The world is the domain of doing what is right and proper, and this needs to be established in terms of a clear distinction between dos and don’ts. Observing the necessary distinctions demands sober awareness of our actual situation in the world and society. Inwardly, however, those who have reached sobriety after drunkenness revel in the intimacy of living with God (2000:37).

The preceding interpretation of the mystical experience of union with the Divine moves beyond Western and pop culture stereotypes of mysticism and goes into the realm of everyday life and practice.

The focal points of Sufi practice vary. Most Sufi practices usually emphasize one of the following: multiplicity, the Oneness of all things, Love, knowledge, or an emphasis on the state of sukr.  Ibn Arabi was born in Murcia, Spain in 1165 AD. He was a contemporary of Rumi, who was born in what is presently the country of Afghanistan, in the city of Balkh. Ibn Arabi died in Damascus in 1240. Rumi lived out the majority of his life in Turkey. He died in Konya in 1273. Rumi is considered the greatest spiritual poet ever to walk this earth, just as Ibn Arabi was considered the greatest Sufi theoretician (Chittick, 2000:62-63). Ibn Arabi is commonly considered to have emphasized the paths of knowledge and activity, while Rumi is considered to have emphasized the paths of ecstatic love. Both, however, shared a common denominator in the way that they wrote about Love. Both Sufis are in agreement in that it is next to impossible to define love.

Another aspect shared by Rumi and Ibn Arabi is that they both perceived love to be the actualizing force behind Creation. Here, the cosmos is depicted as having come into existence by Allah’s (SWT) intense love. This vision of love being the creator force behind all that exists is taken one step further by both of them, as they both write extensively that all is indeed love. Rumi and Ibn Arabi also said quite directly in their writings that the greatest love for anything, for any being, is the love for Allah (SWT). In order to truly love, in the deepest sense of the word, Rumi and Ibn Arabi talked about the importance of right seeing. Ibn Arabi described different stages of love. He described the highest realization of Divine love that an individual can experience as the act of loving God through every action, mundane and spiritual in orientation (Chittick, 2000:64-69).

One noticeable difference between Ibn Arabi and Rumi is that Ibn Arabi explained love in his writings, while Rumi contented that the experience of love cannot be rationally transmitted; it must be experienced. One might ask how it is possible to create the space for love in the first place. According to the Sufis, we must first realize that we are nothing and that we do not know who we are. Without this basic acknowledgement and understanding, there is no space for Allah (SWT) (Chittick, 2000:63-73).

The internal, personal experience is difficult to outline, because it is intensely personal. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where Sukr and Sahw are separate and where they overlap. Different scholars hold different conclusions on the subject through different approaches of analysis of various texts. What can conclusively be said, however, is that both of these states are representative of the experience of communion with the Divine and that such experiences cannot help but transform a human being.

Professor Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement in Kenya

Fittingly, in 2004, the Nobel Foundation awarded Professor Wangari Maathai the Nobel Peace Prize “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace” (The Nobel Foundation, 2004a). A profitable question for this decision is straightforward: Why? As Jan Cottingham tells the story, Maathai, the woman once dubbed by former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi as a “mad woman,” became the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner because of her lifetime’s work in promoting peace, democracy and development. Maathai also became Kenya’s Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources. The activist who fought the government for many years found herself in the government, and she learnt a different way of fulfilling her aspirations. Maathai, the “Tree Lady,” as she was fondly referred to by some, became the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Winning the revered prize did not changed Maathai; she remained the genuine, caring, loving and passionate person that she always was (Cottingham, 2005).

Maathai came from the Kikuyu ethnic group, or “micro-nation,” the term she prefered, one of 42 ethnic groups in Kenya. A strong woman, Maathai had to face conflict bravely throughout her career and her very selection as a Nobel laureate generated controversy. Some questioned why the Nobel Committee selected a woman best known for founding the Green Belt Movement, a nonprofit grassroots organization in Kenya that focuses on environmental conservation, primarily through planting trees, for the highest of honors—i.e. the Nobel Peace Prize. They also wanted to know what trees have to do with peace (Cottingham, 2005; The Nobel Foundation, 2004b).

The relationship between planting trees and peace is one Maathai had to explain many times. It is a relationship that hinges upon people’s ability to secure their living environment. Maathai was at the forefront of the struggle to promote ecologically viable cultural, economic and social development in Kenya specifically and Africa generally. Her holistic approach to sustainable development fused democracy, human rights and gender equality. While her thinking was global, her actions were local (Cottingham, 2005; The Nobel Foundation, 2004b).

The outwardly gentle Maathai was a farmer’s daughter who endured what appeared to be a rite for many Nobel Peace Prize winners: beatings, death threats, imprisonment, ostracism and scorn. She had to hide and move around Kenya in disguises many times. Some of her partners in the Green Belt Movement were assassinated (Cottingham, 2005).

Maathai’s eldest brother, Nideritu, suggested to their Catholic parents that she be sent to school, a rare act for a girl during their youth. She was taught by Irish and Italian nuns and excelled in school. Through the financial support of the Kennedy Foundation and other groups seeking to help prepare African nations for independence by educating potential leaders, Maathai received a scholarship to pursue her Bachelor’s degree in Biology at Mount Saint Scholastica College (renamed Benedictine College) in Atchison, Kansas. She graduated in 1964 and then went to the University of Pittsburgh where she earned her Master’s degree in Biological Sciences. The more than five years she spent studying in the United States at the height of the Civil Rights Movement was a formative experience for Maathai. As an African woman, she saw the struggle for equal rights for African Americans as a demonstration of the power of activism and the power of democracy or, as she called it, “democratic space” (Cottingham, 2005; The Nobel Foundation, 2004b).

In 1969, Maathai married businessman and aspiring politician Mwangi Mathai. In 1971, she earned a PhD in Veterinary Anatomy from the University of Nairobi, where she eventually became an associate professor and department chair. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a PhD, in addition to being the first woman in the region to teach at a university and head a department (Cottingham, 2005).

It was not until 1974 after her husband decided to run for office in the Kenyan Parliament that Maathai became involved in deforestation issues. While on the campaign trail with her husband, Maathai listened to the concerns voiced by her husband’s prospective constituents in Langata in the Nairobi Province. She noticed a pattern in the problems expressed, particularly by the women. The main difficulty she delineated from the comments was the lack of jobs, despite many promises by politicians. She suggested a tree-planting project (Cottingham, 2005).

Maathai wrote in her book, The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience, that perhaps because she was naive, she took the political promises that she and her husband made to the voters seriously and agonized over finding ways to have them fulfilled, especially if her husband won the election. When her husband won, she felt compelled to fulfill the promises. She launched Envirocare, a private company, based in her home, to hire residents to do, among other things, plant trees. Lacking sufficient capital, the company eventually went out of business. During this time, however, Maathai had become quite involved in the environmental movement in Kenya and with the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK) that serves both urban and rural women. The members’ concerns included malnutrition, walking long distances for water, soil depletion and erosion leading to desertification, lack of wood for cooking and construction, lack of fodder for those who were fortunate to have animals and, of course, lack of jobs and income (Cottingham, 2005; The Nobel Foundation, 2004b).

As a scientist, Maathai saw these symptoms and looked past them to identify the cause, which was environmental degradation: i.e. deforestation. She proposed to the NCWK a tree-planting project—as trees prevent soil erosion, protect water sources, provide fuel and building material, provide food, provide fodder, and provide jobs and income. She suggested naming the tree-planting campaign Save the Land Harambee, the Kiswahili word for “let us pull together.” On World Environment Day of June 5, 1977, Maathai and her colleagues in the campaign and in the government planted seven trees in Kamukunji, a part on the outskirts of Nairobi. This gave birth to the Green Belt Movement and a journey Maathai could not have imagined (Cottingham, 2005; The Nobel Foundation, 2004).

Maathai observed that in Africa, one can see that people fight over resources. It is either because the resources have become extremely degraded and, therefore, they are scarce, or they have disappeared and people get into conflict. For instance, in Marsabit, a village in Kenya’s northern frontier, raiders had massacred scores of villagers—the toll would eventually rise to at least 95—in violence spawned by conflicts over scarce arable land and even scarcer water. Maathai also pointed out that there are many other examples in Africa of such incidents especially between grazing communities such as pastoral and farming communities. She added that even at a national or global level, many wars are fought over resources. So she believed that when one thinks seriously, s/he can see that if we were to be able, if we were to accept as a human family to manage our resources more sustainably, more responsibly, more accountably, if we were to share them more equitably, then we would be able to reduce conflict (Cottingham, 2005). She further asserted that to be able to manage and share resources responsibly and equitably, a society needs a “democratic space”—i.e. a space that respects the rule of law and human rights. Such a space is absent in a society that is in conflict or ruled by a dictator (Cottingham, 2005).

Maathai, like other Kenyans, knew something about dictators. As leader of the Green Belt Movement, she was in frequent conflict with Daniel arap Moi, while he was Kenya’s President from 1978 to 2002. In 1982, Moi turned Kenya a one-party state. During this time, the Green Belt Movement sought not only to establish “green belts” of trees throughout Kenya, it also fought against the increasing privatization and destruction of Kenya’s forests. The country’s forests were under threat from many directions: powerful elites engaged in unrestricted logging or clear-cutting for “development,” tree farmers replaced indigenous trees with non-indigenous or evasive species that grew quickly and could be harvested for income, poor Kenyans raided the forests for fuel and building material, landless and desperate citizens cleared the forests to grow crops, and the corrupt government either looked the other way or even assisted its cronies (Cottingham, 2005; The Nobel Foundation, 2004b).

One well-recorded conflict involved Maathai leading a protest against the government’s plan to develop Uhuru Park (Uhuru is the Kiswahili word for “freedom”), the only large green space left in the center of the Nairobi—a city of 2.5 million residents dispersed among high rise concrete office towers and sprawling slums of tin-roofed shacks. Moi’s business associates planned to build in the park a 62-story skyscraper to be graced with a 60-foot statue of Moi himself. The complex of buildings was projected to cost about $200 million. Maathai opposed it not only for environmental reasons but because of its exorbitant cost. Moi became furious. He called Maathai a “mad woman” and the other women who joined her in the legal action against the project people with “insects in their heads.” He added that the Green Belt Movement was “subversive” and a threat to the order and security of Kenya. The women in the movement were further denounced as “ill-informed divorcees.” But Maathai and her colleagues prevailed, and the project was abandoned. It was neither the first nor the last that Maathai’s gender would become an issue. When her husband divorced her in 1980, he stated that she was “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control” (Cottingham, 2005; The Nobel Foundation, 2004b).

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kenyans grew restive under Moi’s autocratic rule and began demanding a multiparty democracy. Hundreds of people were arrested for protesting; some were tortured, some were given long prison terms, and some were simply held without charge. In 1991, Moi agreed to permit other political parties, and elections were held in December of 1992. Moi and his party retained power, but the opposition parties won almost half of the seats in Parliament. In the middle of this, in March of 1992, mothers of the political prisoners organized a hunger strike and requested Maathai’s support. The women, most of them in their 60s and 70s, marched to Uhuru Park, remained there, and demanded that their sons be released. In an effort to force the unarmed women to disband, on the fifth day of the strike, the police attacked the women, firing tear gas and beating them. Maathai was knocked unconscious and had to spend a week in a hospital to recuperate (Cottingham, 2005; The Nobel Foundation, 2004b).

In response to the violence, some of the women stripped naked in a traditional African reproach to those beating them. A mother or elderly woman to expose herself in public is a taboo that is believed to bring on a curse, but it was the only alternative the women had to defend themselves. The hunger strike and protest continued in All Saints Church. After her release from the hospital, Maathai rejoined the other women. Finally, in 1993, the hunger strike ended after 51 of the 52 political prisoners were released (Cottingham, 2005).

On numerous occasions, Maathai was arrested and received death threats for protesting illegal logging. At one time, she and her children had to flee to Tanzania for safety. In 1999, while she was replanting a forest that was illegally cut down by property developers, security guards beat her so mercilessly that she signed the police report in her own blood (Cottingham, 2005).

In December of 2002, Kenyans elected Mwai Kibaki, a member of the opposition party, the National Rainbow Coalition, as president. He ran on an anticorruption platform. Maathai was elected to Parliament with 98 percent of the vote; she was one of 18 women elected to the 222-member legislature. In 2003, Kibaki appointed Maathai to serve as assistant environmental minister in his cabinet (Cottingham, 2005; The Nobel Foundation, 2004b).

Over time, in addition to the environment, Maathai’s activism grew to include issues concerning human rights, women’s rights, good governance and peace. Since its birth, however, the Green Belt Movement had paid great attention to community-building as imperative to its mission. When asked whether community-building helps lead to democracy, Maathai evoked her favorite metaphor: the traditional three-legged African stool. She described this holistic approach, which the Nobel Committee recognized as creating an atmosphere in which peace could be achieved, as follows:

If communities would manage their resources in a way that they can respect the rule of law and they can respect each other, we would have fewer conflicts, and it is to that extent that the environment becomes one of the pieces in the puzzle. The three things, or the three pillars, as I like to call them, are very linked. It is not as if you can deal with one and not the other. In fact, I have been using the three-legged stool, the traditional African stool...The three legs of the traditional African stool represent the environment, democracy and peace. Lacking these three legs, the stool cannot stand; it cannot provide support....The seat of the stool represents development, because the citizens who occupy that space feel secure; they can create; they are sitting on a secure base...That to me is the relationship. And I think that is the linkage that the Norwegian Nobel Committee saw (Cottingham, 2005).

Maathai also recalled that when she first started her work, she did not start out with the understanding between the environment and development. Instead, she started out responding to the problems that the women were identifying and explaining to her in a practical manner. But as she developed, as she got engaged, and as she worked with the women more and more, she began to understand how the environment, when degraded, impacts negatively on other aspects of society. She also came to the realization that in order to properly manage the environment, good governance is a necessity. This called for people who promote the right policies and do the right things for the environment (Cottingham, 2005).

When asked if, when she became part of the government, her approach to her work had changed, Maathai said that her approach had not changed. Instead, she was challenged even more. This is because in civil society, people move fast, they make decisions fast, and they want change quickly. In government, things move slowly. Nonetheless, Maathai was happy to be in the government because it was a government that the people worked very hard to bring to power (Cottingham, 2005).

When asked what kept her going, in the face of all the obstacles—derision, beatings, arrests, Maathai stated that it was her realization that what she was doing was right. And that she was greatly assisted by her formal scientific training, one that forced her to look for reasons, not just symptoms. This propelled her to search for answers as to why some people were opposed to her work. Thus, she realized earlier that what she was actually doing was right and the obstructionists were not doing what they did because they cared about the environment and the people. Instead, their actions were motivated by their greed (Cottingham, 2005).

In her book, The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach (2002), Maathai mentioned that she began looking for God within herself. What she found was that God is in everyone. The problem is that people are trained to look for and to think of God as some other person. People actually talk to God and relate to Him as if He is another person. She believed that a piece of God is in everyone and perhaps what people call God will become the consciousness that is all of them. Each person has that voice and that goodness in him/her (Cottingham, 2005; The Nobel Foundation, 2004b).

When asked what words of encouragement she had for everyone, but for women in particular, women in the country who are not respected, who are not given a place in the community, Maathai offered the following response:

Well, I think it is important for us to understand that until we get to heaven, I guess, life will always be a struggle. Life is a struggle whether you are living in a very industrialized country, very rich country, or if you are living in some of the most desolate places on Earth. Ask anybody in the industrialized countries and they will tell you, life manages to give you challenges wherever you are. So the important thing for us is to take advantage of the [opportunities] that life gives us and try to use those opportunities to improve our own [lives] and, if we can, to also help to improve the [lives] of others (Cottingham, 2005).

After reflecting for a moment, Maathai added that “Quite often happiness, real happiness, for us human beings comes when we go beyond ourselves and we serve others. Real unhappiness quite often is found in people who are too preoccupied with themselves” (Cottingham, 2005). Indeed, as Cottingham concluded, Maathai’s legacy has everything to do with who she was. She gave her time, a sense of who she was, an insight into her grit, stubbornness, intelligence and plain, untempered hope (Cottingham, 2005). Maathai joined the ancestors on September 25, 2011.



As isolation diminishes, due to globalization, the range of ethical obligations extends in space and time. There has also been an attendant increase in the calls for individual freedom and responsibility, and a change in societal organization. The effect of increase in scale is an enormous increase in choice facing each group, and any choice involves ethics.

The greatest danger to societal relations and ethics in Africa is that the old may disappear, without some new ethical force to take its place. Unchecked individualism, self-seeking, corruption and materialism are the greatest threats to contemporary societal relations. Fortunately, the past has been so thoroughly impregnated with ethics that it is difficult to imagine how an ordered African society can be established without it. Indeed, as the preceding discussion of Professor Wangari Maathai’s work demonstrates, African culture is pregnant with indigenous approaches for resolving conflicts and promoting peace. And since most Africans still cling on to many of their traditions, conflict resolution and peace promotion call for a revival of traditional African methods and a mixture of approaches. Perhaps the following Bakongo tale of “How the Wives Restored Their Husband to Life” may underscore the wisdom of such a revival and use of mixed approaches.

A certain man named Nenpetro had three wives, Ndoza’ntu the Dreamer, Songa’nzila the Guide, [and] Fulla Fulla the Raiser of the Dead. Now Nenpetro was a great hunter; and one day he killed an antelope and gave it to his three wives. They ate it, and after time complained of hunger. Nenpetro went out shooting again, and killed a monkey. They ate this also, but still complained of hunger. “Oh,” says Nenpetro, “nothing but an ox will satisfy you people.” So off he went on the track of an ox. He followed the tracks for a long way, and at last caught sight of it as it was feeding with two or three others. He stalked it carefully, and shot it; but before he could reload, another angry ox charged him, and killed him.

Now in town, they knew nothing of all this; but his wives grew very hungry, and cried for him to come back to them. Still he returned not. Then Ndoza’ntu dreamt that he had been killed by an ox, but that he had killed an ox before he fell.

“Come along,” said Songa’nzila; “I will show you the road.”

Thus they set out, and marched up hill and down dale, through woods and across rivers, until toward nightfall they came up to the place where their husband lay dead. And now Fulla Fulla went into the woods and collected herbs and plants, and set about raising him from the dead.

Then the three women began to quarrel and wonder into whose shimbe Nenpetro would first enter.

“I dreamt that he was dead,” said Ndoza’tu.

“But I showed you where he lay dead,” said Songa’nzila.

“And I have brought him back to life,” said Fulla Fulla, as the husband gradually gave signs of life.

“Well, let us each cook a pot of food, and take it to him as soon as he can eat; and then let him decide out of which pot he will take his first meal.”

So two killed fowls, and cooked them each in her own pot, while the third cooked some pig in hers. And Nenpetro took the pot of pig that Fulla Fulla had cooked, and said: “When you dreamt that I was dead, you did not give me food, Ndoza’ntu; for I was not found. And when you, Songa’nzila, had shown the others the road, I was still unfit to eat; but when Fulla Fulla gave me back my life, then was I able to eat the pig she gave me. The gift therefore of Fulla Fulla is the most to be prized.”

And the majority of the people said he was right in his judgment; but the women roundabout said he should have put food out of the three pots into one pot, and have eaten the food thus mixed (Feldman, 1963:217-218).

Indeed, similar to the preceding Bakongo tale, employing a Western approach to resolve an African conflict and promote peace may work in a particular context, but mixing Western and African methods, or employing entirely African methods, could prove to be the most prudent.



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About the Author

Abdul Karim Bangura is professor of Research Methodology and Political Science at Howard University. He also is researcher-in-residence of Abrahamic Connections and Islamic Peace Studies at the Center for Global Peace in the School of International Service at American University. He holds a PhD in Political Science, a PhD in Development Economics, a PhD in Linguistics, a PhD in Computer Science, and a PhD in Mathematics. He is the author of 67 books and more than 550 scholarly articles. He is fluent in about a dozen African and six European languages, and studying to increase his proficiency in Arabic, Hebrew, and Hieroglyphics. He is the recipient of many teaching and other scholarly and community service awards. He also is a member of many scholarly organizations and has served as President and then United Nations Ambassador of the Association of Third World Studies.

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