The issue of human rights is crucial in the contemporary world as it is related to several areas at the same time. Although the term reflects a political, social and economic concept, the philosophical dimension of the term cannot be overlooked, which makes it significantly intersecting with religious-based ideologies. The question that arises here, therefore is: does Islam believe in humans rights? If yes, why we lack much reference to the term in classical works of Islam?
In fact, Muslims believe that Islam is a comprehensive religion that covers all affairs of life under the umbrella of the term ʿAqīdah wa Sharīʿah (creed and law). With this in mind, there must be an interaction between Islam and the concept of human rights. In fact Islam considers Man a specially dignified creature as the Qur’an states clearly, “Indeed, We have honoured the children of Adam, carried them on land and sea, provided good sustenance for them and favoured them specially above many of those We have created.” (The Qur’an 17: 70) In addition, the first verses revealed from the Qur’an clearly indicate that Man is the focus of the Qur’an, as the Qur’an states, “Read! In the name of your Lord who created; (1) He created man from a clinging form. (2) Read! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful, (3) Who taught by [means of] the pen; (4) Who taught man what he did not know. (5)” (The Qurʾan, 96: 1-5)
Thus, the first communication of the Qur’an addresses Man directly, indicating that the message of Islam is all about Man and how to leads to happiness in the life and the Afterlife. It is not conceivable then to claim that Islam neglects human rights or it does not believe in them.
History of the Concept of Human rights
The concept of human rights in Western thought reflects a long history of intellectual interaction, and it can be said that this interaction has gone through two paths: first, political experiences that aimed at opposing absolute rule, whether from kings or the Church; second, the theories set by Western philosophers and thinkers. As a result of this integrated interaction, many human rights conventions and charters have emerged, including:
- Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (La Déclaration des droits de l'Homme et du citoyen), France’s National Constituent Assembly in 1789.
- The United States Bill of Rights, approved in 1791.
However, after World War II, there was an urgent need for a document to prevent such bloody events. The United Nations was established, and in 1948 it issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which included 30 articles, all of which revolve around human rights. With the Western pressure to promote the idea of human rights on the one hand, and as a result of the intellectual and political situation of the Muslim world in the 20th century, Muslim intellectuals found themselves bound to examine the concept of human rights in Islamic law.
Human rights in Islam
After the issuance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Muslim organizations started thinking about the concept and how it relates to Islam. In fact, human rights as a term was not that common term in Islamic literature, but the implications and manifestations of the term were common and known in Islam. Actually, the issue of terminology is contextual one and it can never be taken as a justification for denying that Islam supports and encourages human rights. The efforts of Muslim scholars and researchers on the idea of human rights in Islam resulted in the issuance of various documents in the modern time include:
- The Declaration of Human Rights and Duties in Islam, issued by the Muslim World League in Mecca.
- Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam in 1990.
When reviewing the basic texts of Islamic Sharia, one can easily realize that Islam approves and supports human rights. The core of these rights rests on the idea of human dignity in Islam as the Qur’an clearly stets, “We have honored the children of Adam.”
Dignity is the foundation upon which human rights rests in Islam. It can never be claimed that Islam proclaims that humans are honored above other creatures but its neglect human rights. Also, the Qur’an is rich with verses that support human rights, including:
“You who believe, be steadfast in your devotion to God and bear witness impartially: do not let hatred of others lead you away from justice, but adhere to justice, for that is closer to righteousness. And be mindful of Allah. Surely Allah is All-Aware of what you do.” (The Qur’an 5: 8)
“We decreed to the Children of Israel that if anyone kills a person- unless in retribution for murder or spreading corruption in the land- it is as if he kills all mankind, while if any saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind.” (The Qur’an 5: 32)
“Allah does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with anyone who has not fought you for your faith or driven you out of your homes: Allah loves those who are fair.” (The Qur’an 60: 8)
Why the term human rights is lacking in Islamic Scholarly literature?
The term “human rights” is not found in the Islamic classical books, but this can never be used as an argument that Islam does recognize these rights because the issue of terminology is contextual one as stated above. In fact the Islamic culture paid much attention to the term “duties” and these rights are discussed in Islam from the perspective of being obligations imposed by Allah, the Almighty. For example, if we say that a wife has rights to be fulfilled by her husband, it equals to say that a husband has duties towards his wife. Similarly to say that children has the right to education it equals that parents have duties towards educating their children, and the state has a duty towards educating its young people.
The sources of human rights in Islam
In fact there are two main documents in Islam which can be viewed as the foundations of the Islamic concept of human rights. The first is the Constitution of Medina, and the second is the Farewell Sermon of the Prophet (PBUH). From these two documents and the other instructions mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah, Muslim Jurists produced a theory called the Higher Objectives of Sharia, and these objectives represent the foundation of Human rights in Islam. The next episode of this article will elaborate on this theory.