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The Tribute of the Three Cows and Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad

Former Malaysia Prime Minister Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad urges Muslims to unite as brothers in Islam at the Sheraton Park Lane in London this week.

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Former Malaysia Prime Minister Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad urges Muslims to unite as brothers in Islam at the Sheraton Park Lane in London this week.

By Joanne Leila Smith

This Saturday, not far from where I live, my family will observe the annual “Junte” ceremony of the Tribute of the Three Cows between the neighbouring Pyrenean valleys of the Barétous in Béarn, France, and the Roncal Valley in Navarre, Spain.

The Tribute of the Three Cows is the oldest international treaty that is still enforced today.

The saga that led to the treaty concerned a shepherd from Roncalais, who had quarrels with a shepherd from Arette over the use of a waterhole and killed him. When the Barétounais couldn’t find the murderer, they disemboweled his pregnant wife and hung the fetus and entrails from a tree.

An expeditious execution by the Roncalais ensued. They returned, seeking revenge, and slaughtered the shepherds. The inhabitants of Arette, who had been warned, regrouped and attacked the Spaniards on their way back, assaulting them from all sides and exterminated every one of them. A merciless war raged, and over a period of two years, 600 villagers from both sides were killed.

The Barétounais were only obliged to seek a truce after a brutal defeat at the hands of their Basque neighbours, the Roncales. The victors proved magnanimous, drawing up a treaty in  1375 which the Barétounais would be granted seasonal grazing rights near their water spring in exchange for an appropriate annual tribute.

The tribute involves the people of Barétous initially handing over three white mares, which was subsequently swapped for three white heifers, without blemish, (for the lack of white mares!) to the people of Roncal. 

This peace tribute has been paid yearly since at least 1375.

The ceremony, witnessed by the town mayors and inhabitants, takes place every 13 July on the summit of the Col de la Pierre St Martin near the site of the St. Martin’s Stone, which traditionally demarcates the border between the towns of Roncal and Barétous.

As I busy myself making preparations for Saturday’s trip to the Pyrenees, I am struck by a thematic alignment from something I had heard earlier in the week. I was honoured to be guest at a Leadership Meeting, courtesy of Islam Channel’s Founder Mohamed Ali Harrath, to celebrate Malaysia’s longest-serving Prime Minister Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad’s 99th birthday on Wednesday. We all leaned in to hear his pearls of wisdom concerning good goverance, conflict resolution and the brotherhood of Islam.

Alluding to the ongoing political turmoil in Pakistan, Dr Mohamad used it as an example of the chaos that can ensue when parties can’t find the space, or grace, to demonstrate leadership through considered mediation.

“We are poor and lack influence as an ummah because we are not united. We are divided and at enmity with each other. This disunity means we can’t meaningfully impact or influence policies to help us…It is not difficult to govern well, but conflict prevents countries from development. The shame of two brothers not agreeing with each other means that the whole country suffers,” says Dr Mohamad.

Regarding prosperity between Muslim nations, Dr Mohamad was frank.

“We are all brothers but behave like our worst enemies and destabilise countries and stop development. Not a single Muslim country is classified as a developed country. We must ask ourselves why have we failed? When you have a unified ummah, you become strong even if you are from a poor people,” says Dr Mohamad.

The Pyrenees act as a natural divide between two different peoples, yet, somehow, they managed to overcome their differences, together, and each year honour the tribute that ultimately brought prosperity to two warring nations.

The tribute of the three cows is an example of good governance and goodwill, and Dr Mohamad’s words are both a condemnation and a salve for the Ummah to reflect upon and observe. On the subject of good governance, Dr Mohamad says that ultimately, if great leaders serve the people first, the grace of Allah will naturally flow.

“Great Leaders care about those who follow them. They place the welfare of their people before their own desires, and above and foremost, they uphold the rule of law.  The accumulation of worldly things is not important, as Muslims we place hope in the afterlife, however, we have our portion in this world too. Great leaders must accept their successes and failures with grace,” says Dr Mohamad.

While the tribute is a great model to emulate as to how people might creatively resolve conflict, Dr Mohamad says that the ultimate model for Muslims is to simply emulate the Quran in one’s daily actions.

“We must lead with the Quran and not by denomination. We are simply Muslims. We are not Sunni or Shia but we must promote the brotherhood of Muslims. We need to be united for strength to be able to influence world affairs positively. To achieve this, we must work on the basis of consensus, with the objective of demonstrating good governance as a model to emulate,” says Dr Mohamad.

Hear, hear.

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