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Islam and Human Rights ( 18 Nov 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Revisiting Islam and Human Rights


By Ahmad Ali Khalid

19 November 2010

By creating a scenario where liberals fear to engage in theology, religious ethics and epistemology by adopting the delusional principle of moral abstemiousness, we let the public sphere be filled with narrow and intolerant moralisms

The issue of human rights is contentious. More so in Pakistan, where human rights are seen as a foreign concept and, peculiarly, a repressive instrument of neo-colonial forces aimed at vilifying Muslim societies. Respectable columnist Ishtiaq Ahmed has written many times on the subject of human rights and, by and large, I am in total agreement with what he writes. However, in this article I argue that in order to justify human rights in Muslim societies, we need to adopt certain epistemic and philosophical methods.

Adopting a basis for human rights on the proviso of utilitarianism, liberal neutrality or a free standing concept of justice independent from comprehensive doctrines of religion and ideology (in the Rawlsian sense) is not feasible. The fact of the matter is that adopting a non-theistic moral framework in a religious society is not feasible either. A framework of moral reasoning grounded in a form of religious liberalism (for instance the liberal theology of John Locke), is needed to counter the conservative/traditionalist framework of religious reasoning.

Most political theorists urge us to adopt non-cultural and non-religious grounds for human rights so that we can avoid the tricky metaphysical, theological and ontological questions involved. But this is to totally avoid the crux of the matter, to skip the substance of the debate and cede ground to fundamentalists. We cannot avoid, when discussing human rights, getting involved in the indigenous traditions of ethics, justice, morality, epistemology and ontology of a specific faith or culture. Hence, rather than try and banish moral and religious arguments, liberals should engage in these arguments to provide an alternative narrative. Ishtiaq Ahmed rightly criticises the Islamic Declaration of Human Rights because it limits moral autonomy by having a narrow and literalistic conception of God’s sovereignty. So, rather than avoid the subject of God’s sovereignty altogether, we should engage in this discussion and argue that God’s sovereignty does not mean we adopt a dictator-despot concept of God, but rather that God endows us with the capacity for free moral choices (free will).

Hence, by creating a scenario where liberals fear to engage in theology, religious ethics and epistemology by adopting this delusional principle of moral abstemiousness, we let the public sphere be filled with narrow and intolerant moralisms. And that is the situation in Pakistan today. Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel reminds us that, “Fundamentalisms rush in where liberals fear to tread.”

Grounding human rights in Muslim societies will require an epistemological shift in religious theology and religious moral reasoning. In short, I argue that we must move from the traditional Asharite concept of divine command ethics (an act is only good or bad if God says that it is; an act is never inherently good or evil) towards the Mu’tazilite concept of natural law (the moral value of an act can be determined by unaided human reason). A theory of Islamic natural law will enable a dialogue between secular and religious reason and participants. This is the shift from the traditionalist-Asharite thesis to the rationalist/naturalist-Mu’tazilite thesis.

The ingredients for the religious justification of human rights are the acceptance of free will, human dignity, the moral worth of all human beings, the historical context of sacred scripture and the value of human reason.

The Mu’tazilites adopt a unique position in affirming the moral value of all human beings, the ability of all human beings, regardless of faith, to comprehend basic values of right and wrong (in contrast to the Asharites who argue our concept of right and wrong must come directly from Revelation, hence only Muslims have the ability to determine right and wrong). The Mu’tazilites adopt, furthermore, a precursor to the historic-critical method of Quranic interpretation and the crucial concept of free will that can be related to moral autonomy, which is critical for any justification for human rights. The Mu’tazilite belief that ethical values are independent of God, that we are endowed with free will and all humans have the same moral worth and dignity is the strongest opposition available to us to deconstruct discriminatory practices on the basis of religion.

Practices of misogyny, gender discrimination, religious discrimination and other such human rights abuses either stem from an outdated interpretation and theology of moral reasoning or through the virus of cultural relativism. These practices are sanctioned by the supposed guardians of religious tradition (which is then erroneously fused with issues of identity, culture and a collective communal conscience), and they go unchallenged.

Natural law may be a dated concept in the West (there are still respectable theorists who urge a natural law concept of human rights – ‘natural law liberalism’), derived from medieval scholastic theology, but it is an invaluable resource.

Contemporary examples of utilising the approach of religious natural law are Abdulaziz Sachedina and Dr Anver M Emon. Sachedina, in his recent work, Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights, argues for a theory of Islamic natural law. He uses Mu’tazilite philosophical and interpretive strategies and concepts to provide a framework of inclusive and liberal moral theology. Sachedina argues for a conversation and dialogue between religious liberals and secular moral theorists, since the goals are the same but the routes are different. This innovative set-up of moral pluralism where different cultures and traditions can reach the same conclusions but with different concepts of human nature, epistemology and ethics is attractive. Sachedina argues that we must utilise ‘religious reason’ to construct arguments from the Islamic tradition to provide a buttress for human rights.

Dr Emon’s book, Islamic Natural Law Theories, is more specialised but richer since Emon provides several possible versions of Islamic natural law from Muslim history and philosophy. Indeed the book shows that, “They (Islamic natural law theorists) asked whether and how reason alone can be the basis for asserting the good and the bad, and thereby justifying obligations and prohibitions under sharia. They theorised about the authority of reason amidst competing theologies of God and their implications on moral agency. For them, nature became the link between the divine will and human reason.”

Islamic natural law should be the adopted moral and epistemological basis for human rights in Pakistan. Liberals must realise that they cannot stay above these debates and must engage in community reasoning, identifying common grounds and building upon them. Otherwise, religiously sanctioned human rights abuses will continue and liberals will become irrelevant.

The writer is a student at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times, Pakistan