By Ziauddin Sardar
August 04, 2008
You are right, Andrew, to point out that this collection of verses are rather "unChristian". The weak are often the victims - they have their rights constantly violated; and it is strong who often do the violating.
So the Qur'an addresses the strong and warns them to guard against such tendencies. However, the emphasis in these verses is not simply on "individual sense of honour" but also, as I am about to argue, on communal rights.
In the Qur'an, as you rightly note, there is no "middle management" - every individual has a direct relationship to God and is ultimately responsible for his or her actions. It is a basic principle of the Qur'an that "each soul is responsible for its own action; no soul will bear the burden of another" (6:164). However, given God's infinite mercy and benevolence, we can always pray for others to be forgiven.
As you can see from these verses, human rights in the Qur'an are firmly based on the notion of human dignity. The Qur'an provides a direct and uncompromising affirmation of the dignity of human beings: "We have confirmed dignity on the children of Adam" and "favoured them specially above many of those we have created" (17:70). This dignity is not something that is earned, or is based on righteous conduct, but it is innate, the natural endowment and God-given right of everyone, whoever they are, pious or sinners, whatever their race, colour or creed. And it can never be compromised.
The idea of human dignity is combined with the Qur'an's equally categorical stand on justice and equity: "Be ever steadfast in your devotion to God, bearing witness to the truth in all equity; and never let hatred of anyone lead into the sin of deviating from justice" (5:8). This, the prime human right in the Qur'an, is echoed in the first entry of the 1948 universal declaration of human rights: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood".
Many other principles of human rights can also be seen in the Qur'an. For example, 17:33 states "do not take life, which God has made sacred", which can be read to mean “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” (article 3 of the declaration)? "Whenever you judge between people, you should judge with justice" (4:58) implies that "everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law" and "all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law" (articles 6 and 7). And
"do not devour one another's wealth to no good purpose" (2:188) can be interpreted, and has been interpreted, to mean "everyone has the right to own property" and "no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property" (article 17).
The injunctions, "do not let one make fun of another, do not defame one another, do not insult by using nicknames, do not backbite or speak ill of one another", "do not spy on one another" (49:11-12) and "do not enter any houses unless you are sure of the occupant's consent" (24:27) can all be read to mean "no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attack upon his honour and reputation; everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks" (article 12). We have already seen that the Qur'an forbids displacing communities, sending people to exile, and recommends that asylum seekers and refugees should be protected (article 17). It is quite evident that the Qur'an established many human rights that we find in the UN declaration.
But the Qur'an goes further. A dignified life is only possible, the Qur'an argues, if one has the basic necessities of life such as food, clothing and shelter. So the hungry have a right to food, the naked right to be clothed, the homeless the right to be housed: "the needy and the destitute have a right to their wealth" (51:19) that is both the wealth of individuals and the collective wealth of society. In the Qur'anic framework, a crucial aspect of human dignity is the absolute right of individuals and communities to essential necessities without which life cannot be sustained. The bounty of God cannot be restricted (17:20); and everyone has the right to be free from want, from abject poverty that undermines human dignity. So the Qur'an already balances the outlook over which the UN became politically and ideologically divided by incorporating the substance of what became the alternate charter of human rights, the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights. In its balanced approach, the Qur'an takes us beyond the framework of the negotiated UN conventions.
The difference between the Qur'anic view of rights and the various UN conventions is that in the Qur'anic framework rights are equated with duties, and both are interdependent. Humankind has the "right" to survive, for example, only insofar as it performs the duty of maintaining the world - acts as a proper trustee (Khalifa) of God and fulfils the responsibilities and trust that God has placed on humanity properly and appropriately. In the western scheme, the emphasis is on the individual; the Qur'an, in contrast, gives equal importance to the community and the notion of group rights. In the western liberal tradition, the focus is on personal freedom that signifies the ability to act. In the Qur'an the emphasis is on the ability to be, to exist. It is necessary for the community not just to survive but provide a social, cultural and spiritual environment where the individual can realise his or her full potential to be. The overall concern of the Qur'an is not just the rights of the human but the rights of humanity - including the humanity of the individual.
All this, however, does not mean that Muslims are against the conventional notion of human rights - even though some are. The idea that humans gathering in international bodies to establish conventions on human rights are an illicit activity that undermines the authority of the Qur'an is, in my opinion, the height of folly. That we get as many people as possible to recognise the principles, which as I have argued are entirely consistent with the Qur'an, is undoubtedly a good thing. It is not enunciating principles that are the issue, but actually making them real and available to all. Muslim societies have been notably lacking in that regard, as have many others, whether they follow the UN conventions route or the Qur'anic route. But also, it does means that some Muslims are concerned about the limitations of conventional thought, the thinking behind the UN conventions and their implementation, and would like to take the human rights discourse a few steps further - a point I argued at great length in my book Postmodernism and the Other.
As we considered in a previous blog the entire substance of the divide between the universal declaration of human rights and the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights turns on the enduring argument in western thought between individual and collective rights. The Qur'an's answer is a unified framework where the same moral and ethical rights and responsibilities apply to the individual as to the society incorporated as a political and social entity. The state is not empowered at the expense of the individual, nor is the individual seen as rightful in battling back the proper work of the state on ensuring equity for all.
The problem is not at the level of principles, in the UN or the Qur'anic framework. The problem is interpretation and implementation and that bedevils activity on behalf of the UN conventions as much as it does for the Qur'anic injunctions. Instead of redundant argument about which declaration is the best, a genuine effort to see whose activity is more humane and life-enhancing for those denied their rights by whatever code would do a great deal to carry us beyond this nit-picking.
Injunctions to the Strong
By Andrew Brown
August 04, 2008
The first thing that strikes me about this collection of verses is how very un-Christian it is. That's a bit obvious, maybe, but a point so obvious shouldn't be entirely overlooked.
Christian ethics are notoriously difficult because they start from weakness. The Sermon on the Mount is an up-ending of the traditional order of the world: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" and all that. But these Qur’anic injunctions are much more addressed to the strong. They are almost an ethic of noblesse oblige: God will reward his followers and they in turn are to be just, generous, and upright in the use of the powers he has granted them.
They seem aimed at a society which takes for granted a fierce, individual sense of honour, as most human societies always have: retaliation for great injury is enjoined by God (42:39) and the just recompense for injury is an injury just as great. That's not commanded: mercy and forgiveness are also acceptable but my sense of the following passage is that they are acceptable because God will exact due vengeance himself on the evildoer.
The conflict between mercy and justice is of course one of the great tragic dilemmas of humanity; these passages seem to come down firmly on the side of justice: no one can bear the sins of any other (6:164). This is a very fierce monotheism, with no room for intercessions or saviours. God has, as it were, no middle management, but a direct and personal relationship with each of his subjects. It seems to me, from a Christian background, that members of a believing community must constantly be praying for one another. Yet for all the importance of rights and duties and just behaviour, it seems to me on the evidence of these verses that this is a community in which everyone is finally on their own with God. So I suppose my question is whether, in this worldview, it would make sense to pray for anyone else.