URF: Exquisite Judicial System [Archives:1998/30/Culture]

July 27 1998

Naturally there should be many laws to organize relations within a society. Modern societies have written codes and laws. However, some societies are subject to not only the written codes, but also to some of the customs and traditions for working out many of their differences and ways of life. In our country, such unwritten ‘codes’ are called Urf.
We need to define the word “Urf” so that we can get a more complete picture. Linguistically, Urf  is derived from the Arabic verb “Arafa” from the root “ma’arifah” meaning knowledge. In other words Urf is knowledge well-known to everybody as to how to behave or go about things. In a country ruled by tribal authority and influential groups of people in the society, this knowledge is immensely useful and vital.
However, urf also aims at working out any discord that may occur among people. Thus, urf is defined as a collection of rules and principles passed on from generation to another.
Now let us see how urf works:
Let us assume a person commited the crime of personal contempt, name-calling, etc. When disagreement between two or more individuals take place, and someone is insulted, people surely may complain to the police and get a redress. But that would mean a long process, especially in a country like Yemen. Urf provides an alternative through “waslah” or “hajar”. Waslah means that the offending party knows he/she has made a mistake, takes some friends respected by the offended party, and goes to the home of the offended person. His/Her going there is a symbol that he/she has made a mistake and is willing to make amends. Hajar means something similar, but the offending party also incurs financial expenses to please the offended party, such as buying a sheep and offering it at the doorstep of the offended person.
This is a way out of the problem, and of long procedures.
Of course, the indemnity varies with the crime that is being redressed. But by following steps of urf, crimes are absolved easily, quickly and amicably.
Urf Replaces Court Proceedings
When a person is in a big problem, he/she can cut off the legal procedures by following waslah. That is to say, the person resorts to influential people of his tribe, calls on them to stand by him and even go with him to the offended party. These chosen people agree with the aggrieved party on the day of waslah.
Those people then go to the injured people bringing with them qat, money, sheep and so on. The gifts depend on the gravity of the crime. For instance, in cases of personal affairs people may bring with them good quality qat, sheep, money and so on. In the case of a murder, people may go to the victim’s family with more qat, a bull, diyah (blood money), etc. In case of financial grievances, the waslah may involve taking the deeds to a piece of land, a house, etc. It is different from one case to another, and from one region to another.
Halfway through the qat session, the two parties would start negotiating. First, the offending party will start by apologizing and by submitting to the demands of the aggrieved. In most cases, the injured or victimized party would say that they forgive the guilty party. Then details of compensation are worked out. The aggrieved party is under pressure not to exploit the situation by exaggerating its demands, otherwise, people will consider him/her as being lowly and cowardly. They may sever social relations. Moreover, they will never stand by him if he were involved in any problem.
People pull out of the court’s proceedings to urf because they are tired. Widespread corruption in the courts forces most people to go back to urf and find it a good and easy way out to satisfactorily conclude their legal as well as personal differences.
Urf & Corruption
But for Urf to be effective and put an end to difference, it has to be managed by mediators who have the ability to resolve problems. Reconciling people, especially when they are hurt, requires a lot of persuasion. That is why senior tribal leaders and respected public figures – sometimes including the President of the Republic – are called upon to intervene. Only these figures have sufficient intuition and tactfulness in putting forth solutions to work out disagreements.
The quarreling parties may also be asked to put in writing an authorization for the mediators which specifies that they agree in advance to the solutions to be decided by the mediators. This is called “tahkeem”.
In conclusion, for urf to succeed, mediators need 3 things: knowledge of the customs, integrity of character, and firmness and insight in decision-making. Although there are more and more courts in Yemen, urf will remain at least as an “back-up treatment”, which can rescue the “patients” quickly.
By: Haifa Yahia Qanber,