New Age Islam
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Islam and Human Rights ( 19 Nov 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Human rights, Islam and cultural argumentation

By Ishtiaq Ahmed

 A distinction must be made between making an argument for universal, non-discriminatory and inclusive human rights with the help of some Islamic moral and ethical principles and, on the other hand, creating an argument for an Islamic package of human rights which, despite all the rhetoric about universalism, remain culturally limited

Ahmed Ali Khalid’s op-ed, ‘Revisiting Islam and human rights’ (Daily Times, October 13, 2010), is a very welcome contribution to the debate on the relationship between Islam and human rights. He asserts that in highly religious societies such as Pakistan, secular humanism and rationalism on which the current package of universal human rights is based lacks proper anchorage. Therefore, one needs to find a basis for them within an Islamic cultural framework.

He proposes a revival of the Mu’tazilite standpoint to justify human rights. I think this is an interesting proposition. Students of classic Islamic history would recall that the era of conquest and expansion of the Umayyad caliphate (661-750 AD) was superseded by a period of consolidation under the early Abbasids (roughly 750-900). During their heyday, culture and science flourished. The court of Abbasid caliphs was studded with a galaxy of original thinkers, and the atmosphere was enlightened and tolerant. As a result, different schools of thought could debate with considerable freedom perennial theological and philosophical questions about the nature of God, revelation, reason, free will and so on.

The Asharites represented the literalist tradition, which upheld an anthropomorphist conception of God, suggesting that nothing happened in this world without His knowledge and approval, and things were good or bad because God had said so and not because they could be evaluated on some rational basis. In sharp contrast, the Mu’tazila presented the natural law school that assumed that the moral value of an act could be determined through the exercise of independent human reason. Such an approach affirmed the moral value of all human beings and their ability, regardless of faith, to comprehend basic values of right and wrong.

In the longer run, the Asharite school prevailed and the Mu’tazila were sidelined. After the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, advocates of free will and universal human reason were in short supply. Neo-Asharites, ranging from traditional Muslims to the fundamentalists, came to dominate Muslim societies. In the contemporary period too, neo-Asharite mode of thinking prevails in both Sunni and Shia societies, though the original elements that constituted the Asharite and Mu’tazilite standpoints are forgotten. The heroic efforts of the indefatigable Dr Riffat Hassan and of Dr Javed Iqbal, besides the Islamic Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1981), are cases in point of the neo-Asharite thinking and argumentation.

I have no problem in endorsing the project that Mr Khalid has in mind. There is, however, a trap that one must avoid even with a neo-Mu’tazila approach. A distinction must be made between making an argument for universal, non-discriminatory and inclusive human rights with the help of some Islamic moral and ethical principles and, on the other hand, creating an argument for an Islamic package of human rights which, despite all the rhetoric about universalism, remain culturally limited.

Certain axioms underpin the contemporary theory of human rights. First, human rights are universal. It means that each and every individual, regardless of ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, age, religion, political conviction or type of government, can claim them. Second, human rights are incontrovertible. It means that they are absolute and intrinsic to human nature. Third, human rights are subjective. It means that individuals possess them because of their capacity for rationality, agency and autonomy. In short, human rights are human rights precisely because they are prior to culture or geography or history.

On the other hand, the recognition of human rights as inalienable legal claims had to wait till our own times because the opposition that could be mustered against them in the name of race, religion, caste, sect, gender, sexuality and so on, had to demolished intellectually and morally. That task was completed in the 20th century, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (1948) and subsequent treaties and conventions represent that universal consciousness. The tragedy is that even when such a consensus was achieved, human rights were politicised during the Cold War. In the post-Cold War period, calls for Hindu, Buddhist, Asian and most loudly Islamic human rights have been heard. These culturally relativistic positions on human rights are mostly formulated to oppose the UDHR.

It is a misunderstanding that human rights are simply a derivative of western civilisation. If that were true, the world would not have witnessed the wars of religion, persecution of minority sects, and atypical ethnic and racial groups, the two world wars, Nazism and fascism and the Holocaust that emerged within that civilisation. On the other hand, a connection between cosmopolitan ideas and movements from the ancient period, the development of liberal and socialist thought in the modern period and the overall advances in democratic government within western civilisation have most certainly contributed to the evolution of universal human rights.

In all civilizations, there are forces that represent tribalism and forces that represent humanism. Orthodox Hinduism with its fixed caste hierarchy represents the tribal exclusiveness of the Indo-European tribes that conquered the Indian subcontinent and subjugated the indigenous peoples of this region. The caste system embodies that tribalism. On the other hand, the Bhakti movement and other anti-caste cults that evolved in our region represent universalism and humanism. Similarly, within the Islamic civilization, the Mu’tazila and the rebel Sufis represent humanism and universalism. Mainstream Sunnism and Shiaism are expressions of tribalism and exclusivity.

Keeping these things in mind, one can indeed invoke Mu’tazila and Sufi arguments to justify universal, non-discriminatory human rights. There is already a very rich heritage available in the Punjabi, Seraiki and Sindhi Sufi literatures, which can be invoked to develop an argument for Muslims to live in peace with others, believers and non-believers, as long as they obey the law, pay the taxes and render their duties as required by the law.

In other words, it would be a truly creative contribution if a set of arguments can be derived from within Islam to justify the current package of universal human rights. Neo-Mu’tazila and Sufi arguments will have to be updated in the light of the overall advances in our knowledge about human beings, the nature of modern economies and the dynamics of contemporary politics. On the other hand, to propose an alternative, culturally specific Islamic package of human rights would defeat the philosophy and purpose underlying human rights.

The writer is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times, Pakistan