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HUMAN RIGHTS IN ISLAM

By

S. FARMAN AHMAD NAQVI, ADVOCATE, ALLAHABAD HIGH


COURT.

We live in an age that is striking in its unprecedented technological sophistication.


Unfortunately, the prejudices and inequities that have plagued the human race historically,
continue to exist, and are responsible for untold human suffering. It is in this context that the
subject of human rights is especially pertinent.
What constitutes human rights? Can we come to a common understanding of these rights and
thereby ensure that these are universally granted to every member of society? These questions
have been the subject of historic documents such as The Magna Carta, The French Declaration of
the Rights of Man, The American Bill of Rights, and The Geneva Convention.
The history of human rights covers thousands of years and draws upon religious, cultural,
philosophical and legal developments throughout recorded history. Several ancient documents
and later religions and philosophies included a variety of concepts that may be considered to be
human rights. Notable among such documents are the Cyrus cylinder of 539 BC, a declaration of
intentions by the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great after his conquest of the Neo-Babylonian
Empire; the Edicts of Ashoka issued by Ashoka the Great of India between 272-231 BC; and the
Constitution of Medina of 622 AD, drafted by Muhammad to mark a formal agreement between
all of the significant tribes and families of Yathrib (later known as Medina), including Muslims,
Jews and Pagans. The English Magna Carta of 1215 is particularly significant in the history of
English law, and is hence significant in international law and constitutional law today. Magna
Carta (Latin for Great Charter, literally "Great Paper"), also called Magna Carta Libertatum
(Great Charter of Freedoms), is an English legal charter, originally issued in the year 1215. It
was written in Latin.Magna Carta required King John of England to proclaim certain rights
(mainly of his barons), respect certain legal procedures, and accept that his will could be bound
by the law. It explicitly protected certain rights of the King's subjects, whether free or fettered,
most notably the writ of habeas corpus, allowing appeal against unlawful imprisonment.
What is often overlooked, however, is that these questions have also been addressed by
various religious traditions. The Islamic model of human rights in particular is striking in its
rigor, its vision and its relevance to modern times.
Islam’s contribution to human rights can be appreciated when compared against the
backdrop of world history as well as the realities of modern times. Social, racial, gender, and
religious inequities have always existed. Economic and social disparities have resulted in
oppression of the lower classes; racial prejudices have been the cause of subjugation and
enslavement of people with darker skin; women have been weighed down by chauvinistic
attitudes, and pervasive attitudes of religious superiority have led to widespread persecution of
people with different beliefs.
When considering the question of human rights and Islam, it is important to remember
the distinction between textually prescribed rights, and their misapplication and misinterpretation
by imperfect human beings. Just as Western societies still fight against racism and
discrimination, Muslim societies struggle to fully implement Islamic human rights.
Divinely Mandated
The distinguishing feature of human rights in Islam is that these rights are the natural
outcome of a broader practice of faith; deeds and social behavior that Muslims believe are
divinely mandated. The Glorious Quran says:
Allah commands justice, the doing of good, and liberality to kith and kin, and He forbids all
shameful deeds, and injustice and rebellion: He instructs you, that ye may receive admonition.
[Quran, 16:90-91]
Dignity and Equality
Human rights can be seen as stemming from two fundamental principles: dignity and
equality. Dignity is a fundamental right of every human being merely by virtue of his or her
humanity.
The Glorious Quran says: Verily we have honoured the Children of Adam. We carry them on the
land and the sea, and have made provision of good things for them, and have preferred them
above many of those whom we created with a marked preferment. [Quran 17:70]
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Regarding equality, the Quranic verse is explicit: O mankind! We created you from a single
(pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other
(not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he
who is) the most righteous of you. [Quran 49:13]
Thus, what distinguishes one human being from another, in the Sight of God, is the person’s
piety and God-consciousness.
The proliferation of humanity into many races and ethnicities is a testament to Gods
Majesty and Wisdom. Physical and racial differences among human beings do not imply
inequality. However, racial superiority and discrimination is prohibited in Islam and contradicts
its essence. This concept is exemplified in the following prophetic tradition: Arab does not have
any superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab. Nor
does a white man have any superiority over a black man or the black man any superiority over
the white man. You are all the children of Adam, and Adam was created from clay.
Equality of Women
As creations of God, women are accorded spiritual equality with men. They are rewarded
for prayer and charitable acts, and likewise held accountable for their actions, good or bad, while
on earth.
The Glorious Quran says: If any do deeds of righteousness,- be they male or female - and
have faith, they will enter Heaven, and not the least injustice will be done to them. [Quran 4:124]
Both men and women have responsibilities towards their families and societies as is clear
from the following verse:
The Believers, men and women, are protectors one of another: they enjoin what is just
and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and obey Allah and
His Messenger. On them will Allah pour His mercy: for Allah is exalted in power, Wise? [Quran,
9:71]
Under the laws of Islam, women have the right to own property and businesses, engage in
financial transactions, vote, receive inheritance, obtain an education and participate in legal and
political affairs. The fact that Muslim societies do not always accord women all these rights is an
example of how human beings can fall short of fully implementing the Divine Will.

The Right to Life and Safety


The most basic right of a human being is the right to live. The Glorious Quran recognizes
this right in the following verses: Nor take life - which Allah has made sacred, except for just
cause. [Quran, 17:33]
Whosoever kills a human being without due reason not in retaliation for murder or
corruption on earth, it is as though he had killed all of mankind? [Quran, 5:32]
Islam’s position on life is that it is a sacred trust from God. No human being is permitted to take
the life of another, unless it is for justice administered by a competent court following due
process of law.
Not only do human beings have the right not to be harmed, they have the right to be
safeguarded from harm, physical or otherwise. So under Islamic law, people are legally liable for
instance, if they did not prevent a blind man from dying of a perilous fall, if they were in a
position to do so.
Even in a state of war, Islam enjoins that one deals with the enemy nobly on the
battlefield. Islam has drawn a clear line of distinction between the combatants and the non-
combatants of the enemy country. As far as the non-combatant population is concerned such as
women, children, the old and the infirm, etc., the instructions of the Prophet are as follows: "Do
not kill any old person, any child or any woman". "Do not kill the monks in monasteries". During
a war, the Prophet saw the corpse of a woman lying on the ground and observed: "She was not
fighting. How then she came to be killed?" Thus non-combatants are guaranteed security of life
even if their state is at war with an Islamic state.
Freedom of Beliefs
Contrary to popular misconceptions, a genuine Islamic state is obligated to not only
permit but respect diversity. Thus non-Muslims in an Islamic state are allowed to worship in
accordance with their religion.
When Spain was under Muslim rule, the city of Cordova, was considered the intellectual
center of Europe, where students went to study philosophy, science and medicine under Muslim,
Jewish and Christian scholars.
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This rich and sophisticated society took a tolerant view towards other faiths. Tolerance
was unheard of in the rest of Europe. But in Muslim Spain, thousands of Jews and Christians
lived in peace and harmony with their Muslim overlords. (Burke, 1985, p. 38) 5
The Right to a Basic Standard of Life
A basic standard of life includes the minimum essentials necessary for survival, such as
food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anyone suffering from deprivation of these
economic necessities is entitled to receive aid in order to meet their needs. It is the duty of every
Muslim with adequate means to give from their wealth, in order to eradicate poverty from
society.
Dignity and Equality
The Glorious Quran says: And in their wealth the beggar and the outcast had due share.
[Quran 51:19]
The Right to Justice
Islam requires that Muslims possess upright character and deal justly with the entire
human race, irrespective of their ethnicity, nationality, creed, and whether they are friend or foe.
The Glorious Quran says: O ye who believe! stand out firmly for Allah, as witnesses to
fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from
justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear Allah. For Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye
do. [Quran, 5:8]
The sense of justice that Islam encompasses is one of the most wonderful ideals of Islam,
because, as I read in the Qur'an, I find those dynamic principles of life, not mystic but practical
ethics for the daily conduct of life suited to the whole world. [Lectures on The Ideals of Islam see
Speeches and Writings of Sarojini Naidu, Madras, 1918, p. 167]
Rights and Mutual Responsibility
From the foregoing discussion, it is clear that Islamic law has divinely mandated rights
for individuals in their specific roles as spouse, parent, child, relative, neighbor, friend, and even
foe. In its distribution of rights and responsibilities, Islam has addressed the social, racial, gender,
and sectarian issues plaguing the world. Although much of the world, including Muslim nations,
have yet to fully implement it, the model of rights and mutual responsibilities enshrined in Islam,
has a tremendous potential for individual and social reform.
Ali (AS), the fourth Caliph & son in law of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) had written a
comprehensive letter articulating principles of public policy for the guidance of the newly
appointed Governor to Egypt, Maalik al Ashtar. In this fascinating directive, Ali (AS) advises the
new governor that his administration will succeed only if he governs with concern for justice,
equity, probity and the prosperity of all. There is a timeless applicability of this famous letter.
Selected passages from the text are reproduced below:
Religious tolerance
Amongst your subjects there are two kinds of people: those who have the same religion
as you [and] are brothers to you, and those who have religions other than yours, [who] are human
beings like you. Men of either category suffer from the same weaknesses and disabilities that
human beings are inclined to; they commit sins, indulge in vices either intentionally or foolishly
and unintentionally without realising the enormity of their deeds. Let your mercy and
compassion come to their rescue and help in the same way and to the same extent that you expect
Allah to show mercy and forgiveness to you.
Equity is best
A policy which is based on equity will be largely appreciated. Remember that the
displeasure of common men, the have-nots and the depressed persons, over-balances the
approval of important persons, while the displeasure of a few big people will be excused… if the
general public and the masses of your subjects are happy with you.
The rich are the people who will be the worst drag upon you during your moments of
peace and happiness, and the least useful to you during your hours of need and adversity. They
hate justice the most. They will keep demanding more and more out of State resources and will
seldom be satisfied with what they receive and will never be obliged for the favour shown to
them if their demands are justifiably refused.
On judiciary
You must select people of excellent character and high caliber with meritorious records.
When they realise that they have committed a mistake in judgment, they should not insist on it
by trying to justify it. They should not be corrupt, covetous or greedy. These appointments must
be made. without any kind of favouritism being shown or influence being accepted; otherwise
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tyranny, corruption and misrule will reign. Let the judiciary be above every kind of executive
pressure or influence, above fear or favour, intrigue or corruption.
Poverty
If a country is prosperous and if its people are well-to-do, then it will happily and
willingly bear any burden. The poverty of the people is the actual cause of the devastation and
ruination of a country, and the main cause of the poverty of the people is the desire of its ruler
and officers to amass wealth and possessions, whether by fair or foul means.
Corruption undermines national well-being
I want to advise you about your businessmen and industrialists. Treat them well; they are
the sources of wealth to the country. You must keep an eye over their activities as well. You
know that they are usually stingy misers, intensely self-centered and selfish, suffering from the
obsession of grasping and accumulating wealth. They often hoard their goods to get more profit
out of them by creating scarcity and by indulging in black-marketing.
On communicating with people
You must take care not to cut yourself off from the public. Do not place a curtain of false
prestige between you and those over whom you rule. Such pretension and shows of pomp and
pride are in reality manifestations of an inferiority complex and of vanity. The result of such an
attitude is that you remain ignorant of the conditions of your subjects and of the actual cases of
the events occurring in the State.
Peace leads to prosperity
If your enemy invites you to a peace treaty, never refuse to accept such an offer, because
peace will bring rest and comfort to your armies, will relieve you of anxieties and worries, and
will bring prosperity and affluence to your people. Be very careful never to break your promise
with your enemy; never forsake the protection or support that you have offered to him; never go
back upon your word, and never violate the terms of the treaty.
In history human rights violation is as common as any other human behaviour. All over
World history the Ruling classes to establish their hegemony curbed the rights of their subjects. It
is said that it is always advantageous for the ruling class to control the flow of information in
order to prevent public scrutiny of official decisions and also in order to be able to release
information selectively at a convenient time. Freedom of speech is one of the basic human rights
included in all religious as well as modern legislations. Right of dissent is one of the basic rights
inclusive of right of freedom of speech.
Holocaust was one of classic case of greatest Human rights violation. It is said that Nazis
killed the majority of European Jewry (an estimated 5.1 million according to Raul Hilberg, 5.27
million according to the Munich-based Institut für Zeitgeschichte) and about 30% of the Jewish
people worldwide. Although some people dispute the figures as exaggerated & some say that
Holocaust is being misused, as Arun Gandhi (grand son of Mahatma Gandhi) had said that
“Israel & Jews are ‘the biggest players’ in a global culture of violence. Jews today not only want
the Germans to feel guilty but the whole world must regret what happened to the Jews. The
world did feel sorry for the episode but when an individual or a nation refuses to forgive and
move on the regret turns into anger.” This debate may go on but the fact of the matter is that
humans were brutally killed & their right to live was snatched by using brutal force, although the
figure of deaths may vary. But the way in which we should start a dialogue is important. If
someone has a right to project their grievances then others have also equal right to project their
own grievances.
In the context of violation of human rights in Holocaust some people in Europe itself
raised their voice which is echoed by Arun Gandhi. But the dissenting voices against
exaggeration or misuse of Holocaust are being curbed in total violation of respect of rights of
dissent. Although such dissenting voices have equal right to express themselves. In Europe 13
countries ban speeches denying the Holocaust. Holocaust denial is explicitly or implicitly illegal
in 13 countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Liechtenstein,
Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Romania, and Switzerland. Slovakia made Holocaust
denial a crime in late 2001 but repealed the legislation in May 2005. Spain decriminalized
Holocaust denial in October 2007.

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