By Nisar Mohammad Ahmad
MAY 17, 2014
These days, there have been too many debates on whether or not the notion of "human rights" is compatible with Islamic tenets. While people always refer to the Magna Carta or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 1948 to reflect their human rights’ perspectives, Muslims responded to the international human rights discourse with diverse opinions and perceptions. Some groups of Muslims viewed human rights as compatible with Islam. This is because the very notion of Islam is a mercy to the whole mankind and universe (Rahmatul lil ‘Alamin) and thus aims to protect the welfare and rights of every human being. On the other hand, some other groups of Muslims viewed human rights pessimistically. They took a more "hard-line" approach by connecting human rights to the Western philosophy with a hidden agenda that is clearly incompatible with Islam and therefore needs to be totally rejected.
Malaysia is not spared from this phenomenon in which some people have even claimed that human rights is a "new religion" which will deviate from Islamic teaching. For many Muslims in Malaysia, the notion of human rights is understood from a very narrow perspective as if it has nothing to do with Islam. Human rights principles have always been portrayed in a negative way, such as by connecting them with controversial issues like LGBT, same-sex marriage and many others which have been widely accepted in Western culture. It is true that these rights are against Islamic teaching and Malaysian culture, but totally focusing human rights debates on these perspectives alone is not a good idea either. The overwhelming focus on these un-Islamic facets of human rights has abandoned many other elements of human rights which are compatible with Islam such as the principle of fairness, justice and equality. As a result, human rights have always been described as a threat to Islam.
It is quite unfortunate to note that the bad perception that some Muslims have on human rights is merely because they do not know what Islam actually says about human rights. Their eagerness to describe and portray human rights as un-Islamic or even as a threat to Islam – regardless of whatever reasons – has prevented them from reading, researching and understanding their religion’s perspective of human rights. As such, this article believes that whether or not the notion of human rights is against Islamic teaching, one should first understand the concept of human rights in Islam. This is the first juncture which will determine the destiny of further human rights debates. Professor Mashood A. Baderin, an expert in Human Rights law and Islam from SOAS, University of London says that the Muslims’ response to human rights reflects the entrapment of human rights between humanitarianism and international politics rather than actual disagreements with the concept of human rights in Islamic law.
Thus, in order to know and understand whether Islam has anything to do with human rights, it is important to look human rights within the margin of Islamic law or Shariah. In principle, Islam is actually a strong proponent of the full enjoyment of human rights. In fact, the first major contribution of Islam is a paradigm shift towards human rights. The key terms used by the Quran and the Sunnah in this regard are Huquq Allah and Huquq al-‘Ibad, the rights due to the Creator and the Sustainer and the rights of Allah’s servants, i.e., human beings.
In upholding such rights, Islam advocates value of equity, “’Adl” or justice, which forms the axiological basis for human rights in Islam. It begins from the point that a human being must act with justice and cause no harm or danger to his/her owns self. It also requires the observance of justice towards parents, spouses, children, servants, neighbours and even strangers who may be in need of help and assistance. The purpose of human presence on earth, in the Islamic world view, is to realise ’adl in an individual's life, family, society, economy, polity and culture, or observance of human rights. ’Adl also refers to fair and sincere observance of human rights even for those one may not like. The Quran reminds its followers: “O you who believe, be steadfast witnesses for Allah in equity, and let not hatred of any people deviate you from justice that you deal not justly. Deal justly that is near to your duty (Taqwa). Observe your duty to Allah. Lo Allah is informed of what you do…” (Al-Maidah 5:8).
Additionally, the sources and methods of Islamic law contain common principles of good governance and human welfare that validate modern international human rights ideals. Upholding justice, the protection of human life and dignity are core principles inherent in the Shariah. They constitute the overall purpose of Shariah (Maqasid al-Sharia) to which the Quran refers: “Behold, God enjoins justice, and the doing of good, and generosity towards [one's] fellow-men; and He forbids all that is shameful and all that runs counter to reason, as well as envy; [and] He exhorts you [repeatedly] so that you might bear [all this] in mind” (al-Nahl 16:90).
In general, the overall purpose of Shariah or Maqasid al-Shari’ah consists of five core and inherent rights guaranteed by Islam. They involve the protection of the right to life Hifzun Nafsi), the right to a dynamic role and value of the intellect (Hifz ul ’Aqli), the right to preservation of honour, dignity and lineage of humankind (Hifzun Nasab Wal-Muru’ah), the right to ownership and property (Hifz ul Mal) and finally the right to “religious” freedom, tolerance and pluralism (Hifzuddin). The right to religious freedom should not however be understood that a Muslim can renounce Islam whenever he/she wants, but such freedom means that, while Islam recognises the right of others to observe their religion in a pluralistic world, it also emphasises the right of a Muslim to apply the Quran and the Sunnah in everyday life.
The five main and core rights constitute the global ethical principles advocated by Islam as the key foundations to establish full respect to human rights. In fact, many other rights – for instance, the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of speech, assembly and association and the rights to education (to name a few) – stem from the aforementioned five main basic rights. However, due to the limited space in this article, the following discussions will only focus on Islam and the principles of equality, life and security.
Islam and Equality
Islam has made it clear that it recognises and guarantees the protection of the right to equal treatment under the principle of human brotherhood regardless of race, colour or nationality. The "colour-blind" human rights principle emphasised by Islam is based on the fact that one can neither choose nor request to be born as person from any specific ethnic identity. In other words, it is beyond a person's control to decide what "colour" he will be after birth and due to that fact, it is definitely wrong to differentiate or discriminate against people on the basis of their skin colour. In fact, every one of us is descended from one set of parents, ie Adam and Eve. Allah says in the Quran; “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of male and female, and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other” (Al-Hujurat 49:13). Pride of place goes not to any particular family, race or nation, but rather to those who are righteous. Allah says; “Verily, the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you” (Al-Hujurat 49:13).
The idea of equality is also reinforced by the Prophet’s last sermon in which he said; “No Arab has superiority over any Non-Arab, and no non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; no dark person has superiority over a white person and no white person has any superiority over a dark person. The criterion of honour in the sight of Allah is righteousness and honest living." Islam also makes it clear that non-Muslims are also to be treated respectfully – “To you be your Way and to me mine” (Al-Kafirun 109:6) – and that the non-Muslims should not be insulted because of what they worship. Allah says in the Quran: “And do not insult those they invoke other than Allah, lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge. Thus We have made pleasing to every community their deeds. Then to their Lord is their return, and He will inform them about what they used to do” (Al-An ‘am 6:108).
Also, Islam has emphasised that there should be no compulsion in religion. The concept of no compulsion in Islam should be understood as no non-Muslim should be compelled to embrace Islam but once a person voluntarily embraces Islam, he/she is automatically obliged to adhere to Islamic laws and regulations. In addition, it is important to note that in Islam, no one is above law. The right to equal treatment extends to equality before the law and it applies to everyone regardless of the rank and dignity. When a woman of high rank was brought for trial for being involved in a theft, and it was recommended that she be treated leniently because of her rank, the Prophet replied: "The nations that lived before you were destroyed by Allah because they punished the common man for their offences and let their dignitaries go unpunished for their crimes; I swear by Him (Allah) who holds my life in His hand that even if Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad, had committed this crime, then I would have amputated her hand” (Sahih Bukhari Volume 8, Book 81, Number 779).
As far as equal treatment between men and women is concerned, Islamic law clearly recognises such equality on the principle of "equal but not equivalent". Although males and females are considered equal, that may not imply equivalence or a total identity in roles, especially within the family. As stated under Article 6 of the OIC Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam:
a. Woman is equal to man in human dignity and has rights to enjoy as well as duties to perform; she has her own civil entity and financial independence, and the right to retain her name and lineage.
b. The husband is responsible for the support and the welfare of the family.
Indeed, Islam does not discriminate against women on the basis of their "weaker" or "softer" natural characteristic as compared to men but instead addresses the gender discrimination which was commonplace before its coming. It also establishes the dignified position of women as human being by sharing equal rights with their male counterparts in almost all spheres of life.
Islam, Life and Security
The first and the foremost ethical principle on which human rights in Islam are founded is the value pertaining to the protection of life. Perhaps nowhere has the sanctity of human life been so emphatically established as in the Quran, which says: “Whosoever killed a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption into earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind...” (Al-Maidah 5:32). Taking a life can only be done in accordance with the due process of law (Bi’l Haqq – literally “with the truth”). At the same time the Quran emphasises the value of human life by equating one life with that of the entire people. These injunctions apply to all human beings regardless of race or religion and makes clear that Muslims are obliged to protect life wherever possible, as well as to be careful about how a life should be taken.
In addition, many people have misunderstood the idea that "Islam was meant for Muslims and therefore non-Muslims shall benefit nothing from it". This is totally against the very objective of Islam as a mercy to the whole universe and as such the mercy and blessings of Islam should be experienced by every mankind. Islam also guarantees the rights of non-Muslims since they are also human beings and this was emphasised in the address which the Prophet delivered on the occasion of the Farewell Hajj (pilgrimage). In the address the Prophet said about the dhimmis (the non-Muslim citizens of the Muslim state): "One who kills a man under covenant (ie, Dhimmi) will not even smell the fragrance of Paradise."
Indeed, the provisions related to the rights to life provided by Article 5 of the Federal Constitution and many other human rights standards are in accordance with Islamic law. In one Tradition, the Prophet Muhammad PBUH is reported to have warned that: “The first offences to be judged by God between mankind on the judgment day will be unlawful taking of lives” (Reported by al-Bukhari and al-Muslim). Based on the aforementioned Quranic verses and Prophetic traditions, Islamic jurists have unanimously agreed on the sacredness of human life. As such, acts that against this principle like suicide and the notion of “right to die” is totally un-Islamic.
To conclude, the above discussions suggest that human rights should be viewed as an important element of Islam and therefore it is not quite right for Muslims to make a general allegation that human rights are totally against Islamic teaching. Yes, there are many human rights demands these days which are against Islamic teaching, but such demands should not be viewed as "human rights" from Islamic perspectives.
This is because human rights in Islam are governed under the purview of Huquq Allah and Huquq al-‘Ibad, the rights due towards the Creator and the Sustainer and the rights of Allah’s servants, i.e., human beings. As such, rather than wasting their time creating sentiments among Muslims that human rights are a dangerous threat to them, Muslims should instead spend more time and encourage others to read, research and understand what Islam actually says about human rights. After all, human rights are part and parcel of Islam and the struggle for human rights will eventually benefit the whole of mankind and the universe.