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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 13    Issue 13   01 - 31 March 2019

The Rights of God and the Rights of Humans: An Islamic Perspective on Human Rights

Professor A. R. MOMIN

In recent times, human rights have been in the focus of a great deal of worldwide discussion and debate. The contemporary discourse on human rights is embedded in the Western doctrine of liberalism, which holds that the individual is the basic source and locus of identity. Consequently, the focus is on the rights of the individual. This discourse glosses over the fact that the individual cannot be disembedded from his social milieu and that individuals as well as groups and communities are bearers of rights. The dominant discourse on human rights glosses over the fact that rights and responsibilities are inextricably linked and that rights cannot be considered in isolation from responsibilities. Another problem is that this discourse focuses exclusively on society and human relationships and has little or nothing to say about human responsibilities towards the environment or animals.

Islamic view of human rights

While Islam shares the basic concerns of the contemporary discourse on human rights, it views human rights in a much broader and deeper perspective. First, Islam views human rights as inseparable from human responsibilities. The Islamic term haqq (plural: huquq) connotes a fundamental linkage and reciprocity between rights and responsibilities. Second, the Islamic discourse on human rights is embedded in an overarching moral framework. This moral framework is defined by a consciousness of the ontological unity of reality, including cosmic, ecological and human, and a deeply-ingrained sense of responsibility and accountability to God. This sense of responsibility and accountability to God is exemplified in a Tradition of the Prophet: “All of you are (like) shepherds, and all of you are accountable for (the wellbeing of) your flock”. Seyyed Hossein Nasr has rightly pointed out that Islam never allowed the development of the idea of the Promethean man: man freed from any responsibility to a world beyond himself, to the sacred, to God, to humanity at large and to nature. Third, the Islamic discourse on human rights encompasses not only issues relating to human relationships but also to animals and the environment. For instance, Islam views the environment not as something out there, unconnected to human existence, but as a vestige or sign of God.

In Islamic view, the issue of human rights is inextricably intertwined with the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith, such as the unity of Allah, divine revelation and the prophethood of Muhammad, the notion of Shariah as the mainspring of guidance, the equality and brotherhood of mankind and social justice.

Maqasid al-Shariah

Muslim scholars and jurists, especially Al-Ghazali, Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi, Ibn al-Qayyim and Izz al-Din ibn Abd al-Salam, have dwelt at length on the guiding principles and higher intents of Shariah (Maqasid al-Shariah). They emphasize that the principles and provisions of Islamic law are essentially aimed at ensuring and enhancing the well-being of humans. Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 1350) says: "The basis of the Islamic Shariah is wisdom and welfare of the people in this world and in the Hereafter. This welfare lies in complete justice, mercy, well-being and wisdom. Anything that replaces justice with oppression, mercy with harshness, welfare with misery and wisdom with folly, has nothing to do with the Shariah." Al-Shatibi (1194) says that the primary objective of Shariah is the attainment, protection and perpetuation of the well-being of human beings in this world and the Hereafter. He focuses on the concept of the common good (maslaha) and argues that this principle provides the basis of the universality and rationality of Islamic law as well as its flexibility in regard to changing circumstance.

Equality and Social Justice in Islam

The unity, equality and brotherhood of mankind, regardless of the distinctions of birth, class or caste, are among the cardinal principles of the Islamic faith. The universal appeal of these principles has drawn and continues to draw hundreds of thousands of people from diverse ethnic and national backgrounds across the world to the fold of Islam.

The Quran says that mankind has been created from a single primordial pair, Adam and Eve, and are therefore equal (49:13). Islam considers the distinctions of birth, lineage, class, wealth or caste inconsequential. The only worthwhile distinction or honour is piety and moral virtue. Thus the Quran says: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may know each other. Verily the most honoured amongst you in the sight of God is the one who is the most righteous of you” (Quran 49:13). In his sermon during the Last Pilgrimage, the Prophet declared: “O people! Verily, your Lord is One and your father (Adam) was one. Verily, an Arab is not superior to a non-Arab nor is a red-skinned person superior to a dark-skinned person, nor is a dark-skinned person superior to a red-skinned person, except in respect of piety and righteousness. All Muslims are brothers unto each other.” Though Islam takes cognizance of social differentiation and the existence of groups that are based on descent, kinship ties and tribal affiliations, it emphasizes that that such distinctions are meant to serve the purpose of social identification and that they must not be used as a criterion of ranking or hierarchy. Islam recognizes distinction and privilege only in respect of righteous deeds, piety and learning (Quran 49:13; 58:11).

One of the cherished principles of Islamic law is equality before the law irrespective of the distinctions of class, power or rank. According to Islamic law, no one can be held responsible for the actions of another. No one can be detailed without a specific and verifiable charge and no one can be prosecuted without a fair trial. Every person has a right to defend himself. Islamic criminal law recognizes no distinctions of descent, class, power or rank in the enforcement of punishments. In Islamic society, the judiciary is independent of the ruling establishment. The judge is required to implement the provisions of Islamic law without fear or favour, and in the discharge of his obligations he is accountable, not to the powers that be, but only to God. An independent judiciary played a crucial role in establishing the principle of equality before the law and in ensuring compliance with Islamic law on the part of the ruling establishment as well as the general public. In the Roman legal code, the prince was not bound by the law. However, Islamic law admits of no exemption in favour of the head of state. The caliph or ruler and the common man are equal before the law.

Rights of Allah and Rights of Humans

Human rights and responsibilities are classified under two broad heads in Islamic law: rights and responsibilities relating to God (huquq Allah) and those relating to humans (huquq al-ibad). Specifically, the whole gamut of rights and responsibilities could be broadly grouped under the following heads:

(i) in relation to God and faith

(ii) in relation to oneself

(iii) in relation to one’s family, including parents, spouse and children

(iv) in relation to the community of believers

(v) in relation to relatives, friends and neighbours

(vi) in relation to fellow humans (regardless of religious distinctions)

(vii) in relation to animals

(viii) in relation to the environment

The conception of human rights and responsibilities in Islam is vividly brought out in the following anecdote. Salman the Persian, one of the prominent Companions of the Prophet, once came to his close friend Abu al-Darda’s house to meet him. The latter was not at home, but Salman found his wife looking perturbed and unhappy. “What is the matter,” he asked her. She replied, “Well, your friend is in no need of worldly things”. After a while Abu al-Darda returned and since it was time for the mid-day meal, he placed some food before Salman. When Salman asked Abu al-Darda to join, he declined, saying that he was fasting. Salman said that if did not join him he would not eat either. Abu al-Darda then ate with Salman. As night fell the two friends retired to bed. After a couple of hours Abu al-Darda woke up to offer the supererogatory prayers, Salman, who also woke up, told Abu al-Darda that a longer part of the night was yet to be over and asked him to go off to sleep. Abu al-Darda slept for some time. After a while Abu al-Darda woke up again, and Salman also woke up. The two of them then offered the supererogatory prayers. After the prayers Salman told his friend, “You have an obligation towards your body, your Lord, your guest and your family. Therefore, you must fulfil all these obligations”. In the morning Salman and Abu al-Darda went to visit the Prophet and narrated to him what had transpired in the night. The Prophet said, “Salman spoke the truth”.

In Islamic view, the individual is entitled to wide-ranging rights, including the right to life, belief and conscience, equality, economic security, personal honour and dignity, justice and equal treatment under law without discrimination, freedom of expression, basic education, acquisition and ownership of property, choice of one’s spouse, and freedom of movement. These rights are not absolute but are subject to moral regulations and are inseparably bound up with their concomitant responsibilities.

Islamic law recognises two sets of human rights: civil and political rights, and social, economic and cultural rights. The latter category of human rights was not recognised in the Western legal tradition until the adoption of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1966. Similarly, the right of privacy, which was not recognised in Western legal traditions until quite recently, was recognised in Islamic law since the early centuries of the Islamic era.

Moral Values as the buttress of human rights

Moral values provide the corner stone of the conception of human rights in Islam. The Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet urge Muslims to cultivate moral virtues and qualities, including kindness and compassion, humility, magnanimity and generosity, fellow-feeling, sacrifice and courtesy and eschew bad qualities such as pride, jealousy, cheating, hatred and back-biting, The Prophet is reported to have said, “All of mankind is (like) Allah’s family, and the dearest of them in the sight of Allah is the one who is the most helpful towards His family.” He defined a Muslim as one who protects other Muslims (from harm) from his tongue and his hands. He is reported to have said, “one of you cannot become a true Muslim unless he likes for his brother Muslim what he likes for himself. He is reported to have said, “The most perfect amongst you in respect of faith are those who have the best of manners and demeanour and those who are kind to their wives.”

The Prophet is reported to have said that a Muslim has six responsibilities towards another Muslim. First, when he meets him, he should greet him. Second, when he invites him for a meal, he should accept the invitation. Third, when he consults you, you should offer good counsel. Fourth, if he sneezes and says “Alhamdu lillah,” he should respond by saying “Yarhamukallah.” Fifth, when he is ill, he should visit him. Sixth, when he dies, he should attend his funeral.

The Prophet emphasised that worship and prayer cannot absolve a man from his guilt of violation of human rights. He once asked his Companions: “Do you know who is a destitute?” They said, “A destitute among us is one who has neither money nor resources”. The Prophet said: “A destitute among my followers is one who would present himself on the Day of Judgement with prayers, fasting and zakat-tax (to his credit). At the same time, however, he had been guilty of abusing someone, had made a false accusation against someone, had usurped someone’s money, had spilled someone’s blood and had thrashed someone. All such people (who were victims of his harshness) would then be called; the virtues and good deeds of this man would be offered to them and their sins would be loaded onto him, and he would be thrown into hell”.

Motivational Mainspring of Human Rights

An important issue in the discourse on human rights relates to the means or mechanisms or motivational strategies whereby the ideals of human rights could be internalised, voluntarily complied with and translated into reality. The process of socialization, education, legal provisions and social sanctions undoubtedly play a significant role in internalising the values associated with human rights. Islam emphasises the cultivation of a sense of moral responsibility and accountability as an effective means whereby human rights—and responsibilities—could be ingrained in human consciousness. It is easy to pontificate about human rights but extremely difficult if not impossible to put oneself in the shoes of another person, as it were, and to be as sensitive about his likes and preferences as one is about oneself. This feat requires a good measure of selflessness, sincerity and compassion. This consciousness is ingrained in a deeply held conviction that we are constantly in the presence of Allah, as it were, that He is watching our intentions and actions and that we are accountable to Him, in this world as well as on the Day of Judgement, for our actions.

Rights of Prisoners of War

Prisoners of war were taken as slaves in the early period of Islamic history. The Prophet took several important steps to abolish slavery over the years. He declared, for example, that if a slave from the enemy camp sought refuge in Islamic territory, he would be automatically freed. The Quran and Hadith place great emphasis on the liberation of slaves. The Quran says that liberating a slave is the best form of charity (90:11). It is possible for a slave to pay his value to his master and secure his emancipation. It is obligatory on the Islamic state to make a reasonable budgetary allocation to help slaves secure their freedom. It is note-worthy that a freed slave and a free-born are equal in Islam. The Prophet is reported to have said, “If someone has a female slave and he decides to free her and then marry her, he will be doubly rewarded by God”. The Prophet exhorted his followers to treat slaves in a humane and kind manner. He urged them to offer the same food and clothes to their slaves what they themselves ate and wore. He warned them against burdening slaves with work that was beyond their capacity. Islam thus provided sufficient scope for upward social mobility for slaves and paved the way for the gradual elimination of the barbaric institution of slavery.

Rights of Slaves

In earlier times, the institution of slavery was closely intertwined with the prisoners of war. Slavery provided an alternative to prisoners of war, who were otherwise killed by the victorious camp. Similarly, it provided a refuge to destitute prisoners of war who had nowhere to go and had no means of sustenance. In pre-Islamic Arabia as well as in many ancient civilizations, prisoners of war were generally enslaved and treated like chattel. The Bible says that in the event of victory in a war, male prisoners of war are to be killed (Deuteronomy 21:10). Islam made a radical departure from earlier practices by emphasising not only that the prisoners of war should be treated in a humane manner but also their liberation. According to the Quran, war prisoners are to be liberated gratuitously or on payment of ransom (47:4). According to Islamic law, a prisoner of war qua prisoner should not be killed. However, this does not preclude his trial and punishment for crimes beyond rights of belligerency. According to Islamic law, prisoners are to be well treated and given food and clothes. The costs for their food and clothing are to be borne by the Islamic state. Among prisoners, a mother is not to be separated from her child nor any other near relatives from each other.

In the Battle of Badr, in which Muslims dealt a crushing defeat to the Meccans, 70 prisoners of war were captured. Umar’s considered opinion was that since the Meccans were the worst enemies of Muslims who had treated them in the most barbaric manner, the prisoners of war deserved no mercy. He therefore suggested that they should be executed without any hesitation. Abu Bakr disagreed with Umar’s opinion and suggested that they should be set free on payment of ransom. He reckoned that the payment of ransom would weaken the economic position of the Meccans and strengthen that of Muslims who were badly in need of financial resources. The Prophet agreed with Abu Bakr’s suggestion.

The equivalent of a hundred camels was fixed as ransom. A few of the prisoners paid the ransom and secured their freedom. In the case of prisoners who could not afford to pay the ransom, their relatives and friends collected the money and paid the ransom on their behalf. Some of the prisoners were too poor and had no relatives to help them, but they were literate. The Prophet told them that they could secure their release if each one of them taught ten Muslim children to read and write. They agreed to the offer. A few prisoners were neither literate nor had relatives who could come to their rescue. They were set free after they gave an assurance to the Prophet that they would not engage in any kind of aggression or hostility against Muslims in the future.

Following the battle of Hunayn, about 6,000 men and women were held prisoner. The Prophet ordered them to be honourably released.

The Rights of Dhimmis

The Quran explicitly states that there is no place in Islam for compulsion (2:256). The Prophet is told to say to the unbelievers: “For you, your religion and for for me, mine” (109:6). The Prophet was advised to invite people to the path of righteousness and guidance not through intimidation and coercion but in a gentle and amiable manner. Thus the Quran says, “Invite (all) to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching, and argue with them in the best of ways” (16:125). It is significant to note that when God asked the Prophet Moses to go to the Pharaoh in order to invite him to the path of righteousness, he was told to “speak to him mildly, perchance he may heed the warning or fear God” (Quran 20:44). The Quran says that if a non-Muslim seeks protection from Muslims, he should be given protection (9:6). The Quran advises Muslims not to vilify or slander the deities of other people. “Revile not those unto whom they (idolaters) pray beside God lest they wrongfully revile God through ignorance” (6:108).

The followers of Semitic religions, especially the Jews and Christians, share some fundamental affinities with Muslims in respect of beliefs. The Quran emphasizes that this shared spiritual heritage should provide the basis for mutual understanding and dialogue between Muslims and the People of the Book (3:64). The special relationship between Islam and sister Semitic religions is reflected in the permission accorded to inter-marriage between Muslim men and Jewish and Christian women and the permissibility of the flesh of animals slaughtered by them (Quran 5:5).

For the most part, relations between Muslims and Christians during the time of the Prophet were fairly cordial. The Prophet’s wife Aisha is reported to have told her nephew, Urwah, “We spent our days in such a way that sometimes two months passed and the fireplace in our kitchen was not lighted”. Urwah asked her, “How did you remain alive then?” She replied, “We survived on dates and water. There were a few Christian neighbours of the Prophet who had some milk cattle. They occasionally sent him milk as a gift and we shared that”. In the fifth year of his prophethood, the Prophet advised some of his followers who were groaning under the persecution and oppression of the Meccans to migrate to Abyssinia, which was under the rule of a Christian king. When they migrated to Abyssinia they were allowed to practice their faith and follow their religious and cultural traditions.

The attitude and behaviour of the Prophet Muhamamd towards the beliefs and traditions of the followers of other religions exhibited exemplary tolerance, understanding and magnanimity. A deputation consisting of some 60 prominent Christians from Najran, including a bishop, visited the Prophet in Madina. They were allowed to stay in the Prophet’s mosque and to worship there according to their beliefs and rituals. The charter of rights and assurances issued to the Christian population of Najran by the Prophet included the following passage.

    An assurance is hereby extended, on behalf of God and the Prophet, to the people of Najran, that their lives, religion, lands and wealth will be protected. No change in their existing conditions will be effected. Their rights will not be violated. Their commercial caravans and deputations will be protected. No cardinal will be dismissed from his position, nor will an ascetic be denied the right to his way of life. The custodians of churches will face no interference in respect of their functions. The Christians will not be obliged to pay the tithe-tax (obligatory on Muslims) nor will the Muslim army enter their areas.

Thus the Pax Islamica included not only Muslims but also Jews, Christians and the pagan Arabs, and guaranteed to them religious, cultural, and judicial autonomy. In fact the Islamic state assumed responsibility for the maintenance and even defence of Jewish, Christian and pagan identities. The protection of minority rights under the Islamic dispensation has no parallel in the annals of history. The Prophet exhorted his followers to scrupulously protect the legitimate rights and privileges of the dhimmis (non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic state). During the conquest of Khaybar, Muslim soldiers found some copies of the Bible captured in booty. The Prophet ordered that they should be returned to the city’s vanquished Jewish population. Incensed by their defeat at the Battle of Badr, the Meccans sent a deputation to the Negus in Abyssinia, urging him to repatriate the Muslims to Mecca who had taken refuge there, so that they could be persecuted and punished at home. To counter their move, the Prophet sent Amr ibn Umayyah al-Damri, who was not a Muslim, as his envoy to the court of the Negus.

Non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic state are exempt from the payment of the surplus property tax (zakah) as well as the tithe-tax, which are obligatory on Muslims. They are also exempt from military service. In lieu of these exemptions, they are required to pay an annual tax, known as jizya, ranging from 12 to 48 drachmas (dirhams), depending on their capacity. During the time of the Prophet, the quantum of jizya was 10 dirhams in a year, which amounted to the household expenses of an average family for about 10 days. The rich were required to pay 48 drachmas, people with average means 24, and those who earned their livelihood by means of handicraft 12 drachmas. Women and minors were exempted from the payment of this tax. Similarly, the tax was not collected from the indigent, the blind who had no source of income, the disabled, the very old, slaves and from monks. In some instances, the tax was waived in recognition of public service rendered by a non-Muslim. In the battle of Yarmuk, when Muslim forces were unable to defend the non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic state, they returned to them the entire amount of jizya. Jizya was not invented by Muslims; it existed in Iran in earlier times, where those who did not discharge military duty were required to pay a tax.

Caliph Umar once spotted an old and blind man begging on the streets of Madina. He asked him, “Which community do you belong to?” He replied, “I am a Jew”. Umar then asked him, “And what has constrained you in this condition?” He replied, “I am poor and old, but I have to pay the jizya”. Moved by his pitiable state, Umar took him by his hand and brought him to his house and gave him some money. He then sent instructions to the cashier of the state treasury that he and others like him from amongst non-Muslims who are poor and destitute should be exempted from the payment of jizya. Caliph Umar once came across some Christians who were suffering from leprosy. He gave orders that they should receive stipends for life from the state treasury.

When the Muslim general Khalid ibn Walid conquered the city of Hira during the caliphate of Abu Bakr, he found that nearly one-seventh of the city’s Christian population to be sick and disabled. He exempted them from the payment of jizya and sent instructions that old persons from amongst non-Muslims who are unable to earn a livelihood due to old age or frail health and those who are afflicted with a calamity should be exempted from the payment of jizya. Furthermore, such persons should receive financial support from the state treasury.

The attitude of tolerance and sympathy was continued by the four caliphs and the Companions. It is remarkable that the occupation of Syria by the Muslim army during the caliphate of Abu Bakr met with no resistance from the local Christian population who welcomed the Muslim soldiers not as invaders but as liberators. After the conquest of Jerusalem, Caliph Umar gave the following assurance, in writing, to the Christian population of the town: “This is the assurance which Umar, the servant of God, the commander of the faithful, grants to the people of Aelia. He grants to all security for their lives, their possessions, their churches and their crosses, and for all that concerns their religion. Their churches shall not be converted into dwelling places, nor destroyed, nor shall any constraint be put upon them in the matter of their faith. During his caliphate, some Muslims usurped a piece of land belonging to a Jew and constructed a mosque on the site. When the Caliph got to know about it he ordered the demolition of the mosque and the restoration of the land to the Jew. While on his deathbed, Caliph Umar is reported to have said, “I exhort my successor regarding the treatment to be meted out to the people protected by the Messenger of God non-Muslims). They should receive the fullest execution of their covenant, and their life and property should be defended even by going to war, and they should not be taxed beyond their capacity”. During the caliphate of Ali, the Muslim-occupied territories of the Byzantine Empire faced internal strife. Emperor Constantine II sent a secret message to the Christian population in the Islamic state, urging them to rise in revolt against Islamic rule and assuring them of his military support. The Christians, however, spurned the offer, saying: ‘These enemies of our religion are preferable to you.’ During the caliphate of Uthman, Jeserjah, the bishop of Merv, wrote a letter to the Patriarch of Persia, saying that the Arabs, whom God has given dominion over the world, did not attack Christianity. On the contrary, they helped our religion, respected our priests and shrines, and offered donations to our churches and convents.

Under the Islamic dispensation, non-Muslims were entitled to preserve and maintain their places of worship and to construct new ones. In some cases, the expenses for the maintenance and repair of their places of worship were met from the state treasury. Similarly, the salaries of Jewish rabbis and Christian priests were often paid from the state treasury. When Amr ibn al-As, a distinguished companion of the Prophet, conquered Egypt in 640 A. D., he left the Christian population in undisturbed possession of their churches and guaranteed to them independence and autonomy in all ecclesiastical matters. He allowed the properties and endowments attached to Christian churches to remain with the Christian custodians. When Khalid ibn Walid signed a treaty with the Christian population of Hirah following the city’s conquest by the Muslim army, he gave a written assurance to them that their churches would not be destroyed or desecrated and that they would not be prevented from ringing their bells or from carrying crosses in their religious processions.

Islamic law guarantees religious and cultural protection not only to the Jews and Christians but also to the followers of other religions, including Zoroastrians, Sabaeans and worshippers of idols. After the conquest of Persia, the fire temples of the Zoroastrians were left untouched by the Muslims. In the 10th century, 300 years after the Islamic conquest of Persia, fire temples were to be found in every province of the country. Following the conquest of Sind, Muhammad ibn Qasim gave a written assurance to the local Hindu population to the effect that their temples would not be harmed or destroyed. Daibul continued to have a majestic Buddhist temple perched on a hillock while Hindu worshippers continued to throng Multan’s magnificent temple.

By and large, the system of administration in the conquered areas remained unchanged and the personnel associated with matters of administration were generally retained. The Islamic state did not generally discriminate against non-Muslims in respect of employment or appointment to high positions. For instance, Caliph Muawiyah’s finance minister, Surjun ibn Mansur, as well as his personal physician were Christian. A number of non-Muslims were appointed to high positions during Umawid and Abbasid periods.

Human Rights in the Contemporary Muslim World

There is growing awareness about human rights in Muslim countries. This is reflected in the ratification and adoption of various international human rights covenants by governments, the growth in human rights movements and organizations, the initiatives taken by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the organization of dozens of conferences on the subject in many Muslim countries. In 1990 the OIC issued the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which sought to reconcile international covenants on human rights with Islamic principles. The Cairo Declaration stated that “all human beings are equal in terms of basic human dignity and basic obligations and responsibilities, without any discrimination on the basis of race, colour, language, sex, religious belief, political affiliation, social status or other considerations.” In 2011, the OIC announced the establishment of an Islamic Human Rights Commission. The main objectives of the commission include the dispelling of misconceptions regarding the linkage between Islam and human rights, supporting and strengthening the efforts of Muslim countries to consolidate civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, and liaising and cording with human rights organizations in Muslim countries and at the global level.

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