Human Rights in Islam
With the increased attention on Islam since the terror attacks on September 11th, 2001, it has become ever so important to understand the faith as it pertains to issues of human rights, politics, social issues, etc… So much discussion has centered on how, according to some, Islam is incompatible with ideas of human rights, as well as notions of democracy. However, such thinking is not only problematic in that it fails to accurately examine the complexities and various positions held within the Islamic tradition, but it further complicates efforts to work towards bridging gaps between individuals in the world.
In this article, we will examine human rights in Islam. We will discuss assumptions that some hold regarding the relationship between the religion of Islam and human rights, and then proceed to discuss various positions held on a series of human rights issues. In related posted, we will address conversations with regards to issues of women’s rights in Islam, religious minority rights in Islam, criminal law in the religion (which will include a discussion of capital punishment in Islam), along with other related themes.
As we shall show, throughout the history of Islam, we have seen various arguments for a human rights based discourse within the religion. Even today, there are many Muslims calling for equal rights on the different topics. It would be incorrect to assume that there is only one way to view human rights in Islam, and that everyone interprets the religion in said fashion.
Why do people think that human rights don’t exist in Islam?
There are a series of assumptions that many people hold with regards to the Islamic faith. One of those assumptions is the belief that human rights in Islam are non-existent. They attempt to justify such a position by pointing to human rights abuses committed in the name of Islam; whether it is the horrific actions of terror groups such as the Islamic State, or oppressive policies by some Muslim-majority governments,
For others, they attempt to cite comments made by some Muslims themselves that seem to be contrary to notions of human rights as “proof” that this is what the faith teaches, and therefore, what the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims believe. Every time we hear something on the news by a Muslim who says–or does–something contrary to human rights, such statements or actions are taken (by some) just further confirms the feelings of those who believe that Islam has nothing to contribute to the promotion of human rights.
To be clear, it could indeed be argued that Islam, along with many other of the world’s religious traditions, leave something to be desired with regards to human rights, if one is looking at the history of these faiths, as well as what the scriptures of each religious tradition say.
For example, as Heck (2009) notes, “[n]either the Bible nor the Qu’ran decisively condemns slavery. In the past, most Christians and Muslim saw slavery as part of God’s order. Today, human trafficking is big business, but no credible religious authority backs it. It is considered an offense to the dignity and equality of all peoples” (185). Other issues are also troubling. For example, in both faiths (in many cases), women are not able to lead formal prayers (Heck, 2009).
The point here is that there are issues that one could argue are not fully protected within these religious-based traditions. However, at the same time, you have also had individuals from within Islam (also Christianity, and other religions) who have dedicated their lives towards fighting for human rights, whether through religious-based advocacy and discourse, public and community service, etc…
Yet, the rights abuses in the name of Islam continue to be mount. Whether it is beheadings or killings of Muslims (who are “infidels” in the eyes of the perpetrators), or non-Muslims, or gender abuses (on issues of marriage rights, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, etc…), violations based on sexual orientation, etc…, all of these cases continue to suggest that some people are willing to commit gross acts in the name of their faith.
As horrible as these cases are, we must remember that the vast majority of people within the Muslim tradition do not commit such human rights abuses;
What do Muslims Say About Human Rights?
One of the most important points to keep in mind when talking about “What Islam says” about human rights is the point that Islam, as a religion itself, cannot say anything. The faith has to be (and is) interpreted by adherents. Therefore, what a religion’s position on a topic or issue is actually depends on how the person interprets the religion. And rarely is there a position of unanimity. People have very different positions and viewpoints on religion, on politics, on social issues, on cultural issues, etc…
Therefore, before attempting to paint with a broad brush when discussing human rights in Islam, it is imperative that we analyze how Muslims around the world feel on different issues. When looking at the public opinion data, what we find is that, not surprisingly, people have different opinions. In fact, as Esposito and Mogahed (2007) argue, there is no “one size fits all” approach within the world’s Muslim community.
History of Human Rights in Islam
While we have discussed the history of human rights elsewhere, it is important to examine the history of human rights from within Islamic traditions. In fact, there is a long history of individuals arguing for human rights within the Islamic tradition. If one looks at Islamic history, scholars throughout the centuries stressed the importance of overriding value of justice in Islam (Mayer, 2013).
Take a look at more modern human rights movement, one finds that Muslim states were on board with calls for human rights. For example, Muslims countries together wanted to be a part of the United Nations, and all that the organization called for with regards to rights; by being members, they knew the legal implications that this would have for human rights. In addition, “The 1972 charter of the OIC, the international organization to which all Muslim states belong, expressly endorses the UN charter and fundamental human rights, treating them as compatible with Islamic values. In the preamble of the charter, two adjunct paragraphs assert that the members are:
RESOLVED to preserve Islamic spiritual, ethical, social, and economic values, which will remain one of the important factors of achieving progress for mankind;
REAFFIRMING their commitment to the UN Charter and fundamental Human Rights, the purposes and principles of which provide the basis for fruitful cooperation amongst all people” (in Mayer, 2013: 21).
Muslim states also played important roles in the formation of documents and international human rights law in the United Nations following the formation of the new international organization. Along with Muslim state participation within the United Nations, other evidence further suggests Muslim support for human rights. For example, while there were some criticisms the human rights corpus–which included but was not limited to it being Western biased, or not inclusive of non-Western religious and other perspectives, Muslim states were unwilling to abandon the human rights project completely. In fact, many Muslim state leaders wanted to come up with their own Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (which we discuss in another article here). While there are many criticisms of this document, and rightly so, there point here is merely to show that there is a development of human rights in Islam, and not a turning away from the idea of rights.
Now, this does not mean that everyone within the Islamic tradition has been fully on board with embracing rights as we discuss them.For example, Sultan Hussein Tabandeh, who was born in Iran in 1911, and a leader of the Ni’matullahi Sufi Order, wrote piece called A Muslim Commentary on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this document, Tabandeh is critical of many ideas of rights from an Islamic perspective. Within any religious tradition, political movement, etc…, there are going to be individuals who are more liberal (or progressive) on these matters, and those more conservative on such issues (Mayer, 2013). The point is that there does exist significant support within the Islamic tradition for human rights.
Esposito, J.L. & Mogahed, D. (2007). Who Speaks for Islam? What A Billion Muslims Really Think. New York, NY., Gallop Press.
Heck, P. (2009). Common Ground: Islam, Christianity and Religious Pluralism. Washington, D.C. Georgetown University Press.
Mayer, A.E. (2013). Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics. Fifth Edition. Boulder, Colorado. Westview Press.