Islam and Human Rights

03/06/2015 03:03 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2015

When people speak about "human rights", sometimes they are using the expression to refer to the rights that have been listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; a declaration that was signed by 48 countries in 1948 and has since been signed by many other countries. At other times, the expression is used to refer to the aggregate of rights that we recognize people to have, whether this consists of a smaller or greater number of instances than those that have been stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or consists of the same instances. In my discussion here, I am using human rights in the second, general sense.

First, some questions about human rights: a number of very important philosophical questions can be asked about human rights in the general sense, such as:

1. What is the relationship between human rights and natural rights? Are human rights and natural rights synonymous? And, if not, which one is broader and which one narrower, and which one encompasses and includes the other?

2. Do we have universal human rights; that is to say, rights that exist regardless of time and place; regardless of any particular circumstances; and applicable to every human being without exception?

3. If there are universal human rights, what are they? In other words, what are the concrete instances of universal human rights?

4. How can universal human rights be explained? In other words, why do human beings possess these rights? By virtue of what characteristic(s) do all human beings possess these rights?

5. Are human rights compatible or can they be conflicting in the sense that if we want to enjoy one human right we may have to forego another?

6. Are human rights primary and human duties secondary or vice versa? In other words, do human rights come first and precede duties or the other way around?

7. What is the relationship between human rights and morality? Are human rights extracted from morality or is morality derived from human rights?

8. What is the relationship between human rights and human needs?

9. How can universal human rights be compatible with cultural pluralism?

10. Are human rights the rights of individual human beings or can societies, institutions and organizations also have rights?

Secondly, some observations about religion: when we speak about the relationship between human rights and religion, we have to bear in mind several important points about religion, such as:

1. Nearly all religions have appeared in pre-modern times (whereas human rights is a modern concept).

2. The world's big religions - whilst they have similarities and common teachings - also have differences and dissimilarities (and it is easy to predict that these differences and dissimilarities will have an impact on their interpretations of human rights).

3. Even the followers of a single religion do not have a single interpretation and reading of their religion. At least three types of interpretations - fundamentalist, traditional and modernist - are conceivable within any given religion.

4. At the same time, regardless of the type of interpretation that they have of their religion, the followers of any particular religion cannot relinquish some of their religion's teachings. Hence, their flexibility can only go so far, although the extent of this flexibility can vary a great deal depending on the type of interpretation that they subscribe to (i.e., whether they are fundamentalists, traditionalists or modernists).

5. In addition to the rights (and duties) that religions ascribe to human beings, they also ascribe inviolable rights to God or the celestial world or the divinity or the absolute being, etc. and they consider these rights to be of a higher order than human rights - although there are differences between religions in terms of the extent and nature of these divine rights.

6. All religions, mutatis mutandis, recognize and underline human dignity.

Thirdly, the pragmatistic approach based on the reduction of human pain and suffering: I believe that none of the ten important, philosophical questions that I mentioned earlier have definitive, irrefutable answers. In other words, there are no definite, irrefutable theoretical criteria which can be used to justify human rights theoretically and epistemically. Each of the ten questions can have more than one answer and each of the answers can be argued for and justified, but none of the justifications will be strong and decisive enough to discredit all the other justifications. So, I will not attempt to answer any of those ten questions; instead, I will try to demonstrate that we should also have an interpretation of human rights that is based on a pragmatistic justification, which does not completely rule out religion, and that we should also have an interpretation of religion that does not completely rule out human rights. In other words, I believe that, if we want to reduce human pain and suffering, we have no option but to offer - like pragmatistic American philosophers such as William James and John Dewey - a pragmatistic interpretation of religion that accepts human rights and also to understand human rights in such a way that they do not completely eliminate and rule out religion. This approach does not in any way, positively or negatively, touch on the theoretical underpinnings that justify human rights or the theoretical underpinnings that demonstrate the truth of religion. I am only thinking abut reducing human pain and suffering, and I am arguing that, in order to reduce human pain and suffering, we inevitably have to offer a particular interpretation of religion and a particular interpretation of human rights.

Fourthly, religion's need for human rights: our interpretation of religion must not rule out human rights, because:

1. Experience - whether human experience over the course of history or human experience over the course of a lifetime - has shown that possessing these rights is a necessary condition (although not a sufficient condition) of a healthy and enjoyable life. This has been illustrated both by positive experiences - i.e., the experiences of those who have had these rights - and by negative experiences - i.e., the experiences of those who have been deprived of these rights. Religion cannot reject and refuse something that is a necessary condition of an enjoyable and healthy life.

2. In the hierarchy of human needs - for example, in the pyramid of needs devised by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-70) - human rights always fulfill the needs that are lower down in the hierarchy of needs and, consequently, more urgent (such as physical and physiological needs and needs relating to safety and peace of mind) and religion always fulfils needs that are higher up in the hierarchy and, consequently, less urgent (such as self-realization). Hence, human rights - whether socio-economic human rights or political-international human rights - take precedence over religion. That is to say, as long as the needs that human rights underpin are not fulfilled, the needs that religion pertains to do not emerge. So, religion cannot disregard human rights because that would prevent the blossoming of the higher needs that draw human beings to religion.

3. Human rights is the only criterion and measure on which all human beings agree despite all their differences and disagreements in the realm of religion. Disregarding human rights is tantamount to depriving human beings of the only thing that can protect them from cruelty and injustice. Religion, which underlines human dignity, cannot shut down the only court that stands between human beings and the violation of their dignity; to do so would be to sacrifice human dignity.

Fifthly, human rights' need for religion: our interpretation of human rights must not rule out religion, because:

1. Religious people acquire many of their pro-human rights sentiments - and their abhorrence of human rights violations - from religion. With their eloquent emphasis on justice, love and kindness, religions engender valuable sentiments in people towards their fellow human beings (and even towards animals and plants), and, in this way, they can serve as the best guarantors of respect for human rights. The followers of most religions have a positive view of respect for human rights. Hence, to reject and discard religion is to discard and eliminate a host of sentiments that can be useful to human rights.

2. Religions offer one of the most valid and most acceptable justifications for human rights. Of course, in a secular world, human beings can be beneficiaries of human rights simply by virtue of the fact that they belong to the human race. But religions can provide another justification for human rights given that human beings have been created by a single Being and are equal before that Being. On this basis, they possess common, equal rights. In view of the fact that most human beings believe in one of the world's religions, why should we deprive human rights of this theoretical support?

3. If human rights ignore religion, many followers of religion will become suspicious of these rights. Religious governments that violate human rights constantly harp on the non-religious and even the anti-religious basis of human rights precisely because they want to make religious people turn away from human rights and, in this way, to reduce the opposition they face, as rulers, because of their violation of human rights. The proponents of human rights must not allow the defense of human rights to be viewed as non-religious or anti-religious; this would only give a freer hand to people who violate human rights in the name and guise of defending religion.

Sixthly, what reading of religion is compatible with human rights? It seems that a reading of religion that is compatible with human rights must have the following qualities:

A. It must accept that the contents of the Quran (and the Traditions) is the record of a process. If we accept that the Quran (and the Traditions) have captured and reported a process, this will have two results:

1. Some of the passages in the Quran were intended for the resolution of local problems at a particular time and in a particular geographical location, not for the resolution of universal problems for all eternity. The corollary of this is that those passages are only useful in a particular time and place or in other identical circumstances. Many of the conflicts that arise between fundamentalist or even traditionalist readings of religion, on the one hand, and human rights, on the other, occur because these readings have inappropriately generalized the relevant precepts and assumed that all the Quran's precepts apply for all times and all places, universally; they have interpreted local solutions as universal solutions. And this has led to the emergence of precepts that torment our consciences and minds today and are incompatible with modern-day human rights.

2. By reflecting on the aforementioned precepts in the Quran, we can try to imagine, without prejudice or prejudgment, how these precepts would have changed and developed if the process in which the Quran emerged had continued and reached our day. Surely this is what reasoned religious opinion (ijtihad) - formulated in a living, dynamic way - means.

Only the precepts of theoretical reason - if they are true - can be true for all eternity and, if false, false for all eternity. "Socrates was Plato's teacher" is true for all eternity and "Plato was Socrates' teacher" is false for all eternity. But the precepts of practical reason, first, are not true or false - they are effective/fit for purpose or ineffective/not fit for purpose - and, secondly, their effectiveness or ineffectiveness is not for all eternity, it is temporary. Any precept of practical reason is issued for solving a problem. And any problem is, in fact, a problem in a particular situation and context, and when the situation and the context cease to exist, the relevant precept of practical reason loses its effectiveness. "Eat this food", "roll up your sleeve" or "be quiet" are all precepts of practical reason and each is effective in a particular situation and context and ineffective in other circumstances.

B. A reading of religion that is compatible with human rights must also accept that Islam - and, in fact, any religion - attaches far more importance to inner attributes than to outer appearances. Hence, the correct interpretation of the Quran (and the Traditions) is the mystical interpretation (in other words, the interpretation of those who strive for spiritual excellence), not the interpretation that favours Islamic jurisprudence (fiqhi). The entire focus of attention in the fiqhi interpretation is on physical actions and appearances and ensuring that they comply with religion, as if a person's entire identity and the value of that identity lies in physical actions and their correctness or incorrectness; whereas the Prophet of Islam said that the sole aim of his mission was to bring excellence of morals and character to human beings (and we know that morality and character are related words in Arabic). Hence, contrary to the judgment Islamic jurists (fuqaha) and those who are over-captivated by fiqh, we must not attach importance to the mere outer appearance of actions and consider them immutable and fixed; instead, we must follow the lead of mystics and those who strive for spiritual excellence and assess every action on the basis of the extent to which it has a positive effect on people's inner attributes. As long as outward, physical actions assist the attainment of moral virtues, we must continue to perform them. Once an action ceases to assist us in this way, continuing to perform it rigidly is not positive but entirely counter-productive. Rigidity of outward actions leads to the immutability of precepts and the immutability of precepts violates modern-day human rights.

A fair-minded perusal of the Quran also shows that, from the Quran's point of view, human beings' inner attributes are far more important than the outward appearances of their actions. Take the following examples from the Quran (and there are many more such examples): "Be steadfast in prayer. Prayer fends off coarseness and evil. But your foremost duty is to remember God." (Al-Ankabut, 45); "fasting is decreed for you as it was decreed for those before you that you will guard yourselves against evil" (Al-Baqarah, 183); "their [sacrificial offerings'] flesh and blood does not reach God; it is your piety that reaches Him" (Al-Hajj, 37); "He made the heavens and the earth in six days, to find out which one of you shall best acquit himself" (Hud, 7). And the Quran does not attach importance to the quantity of alms (which would be a corollary of a view that favours outward appearances) but attaches importance to alms as a means of purifying ourselves inwardly by giving what we "dearly cherish". (Al Imran, 92)

C. A reading of religion that is compatible with human rights must also accept that Islam divides outward actions into two big categories, ritual practices/actions and moral practices/actions, and attaches more importance to the latter. Islamic punishments, the law of talion and blood money, which are the most problematic in terms of contravening modern-day human rights, rank among ritual actions. If we place ritual actions in an appropriate moral setting, we will see that they will become more gentle. But, when they take on a violent form, we must conclude that they have been detached from their moral setting. For example, it is true that capital punishment is a violent action and the Quran has deemed it appropriate; nonetheless, the Quran also explicitly states that forgiveness (and refraining from carrying out the law of talion) is better. If someone takes seriously the moral actions that are prescribed in the Quran, such as forgiveness, they will forego demanding the execution of the law of talion even when they have the right to demand it. "Agreement is best" (Al-Nisa, 128) the Quran tells us on family disputes. In Al-Baqarah, 237; Al-Nisa, 149; Al-Taghabun, 14, believers are called on to overlook and forgive the injustices that they have suffered.

Seventhly, what traits in Islam aid human rights? Before answering this question, it is very important to note three points.

A. Many traits of Islam that aid human rights are not unique to Islam; they also exist in other religions. If we confine ourselves to traits that are unique to Islam, we will not find very much. Of course, since these traits exist in Islam as well as in other religions, they can also be ascribed to Islam.

B. Many of the traits that aid the fulfilment of and underpin human rights originally emerged out of religion, but they have become so absorbed into our culture that many people do not recognize their religious origins. For example, the notion of "the fraternity of all human beings" which played a big role in the French Revolution is a religious notion in origin: If we do not consider human beings to be the creations of a single God, how can we see them as brothers (and sisters)?

C. There are also elements in Islam (and many other religions) which are effective aids to the fulfilment of human rights. I would like to provide a brief list here of these kinds of elements that favour human rights:

1. Islam underlines justice. See for example: Al-Shura, 15; Al-Nisa, 3 and 135; Al-Ma'idah, 8; Al-An'am, 152; Al-Baqara, 282; Al-Ma'idah 95 and 106; Al-Talaq, 2; Al-Nisa, 58; Al-Nahl, 76 and 90.

2. Islam repeatedly underlines compassion. First, Islam emphasizes "God's compassion". The Quran teaches believers that God "has decreed mercy for Himself" (Al-An'am, 12 and 54). In the most important Islamic phrase "In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful", God's name is immediately followed by the qualities of compassion and mercy. God has been described in this way in at least 320 passages in the Quran. At the same time, the purpose of an Islamic life is to try to acquire the moral attributes of God. Hence, becoming compassionate is one of the important aims of a Muslim's spiritual life. It goes without saying that a compassionate human being will be diligent in respecting fellow human beings' rights.

3. In Islam, the only thing that can make one person better than another is excellence in piety. Of course, even piety only makes people more righteous in God's judgment, it does not give them any special rights. This fact can be interpreted as a kind of egalitarianism in terms of rights.

4. Islam underlines respect for contracts and does not tolerate any violation of pledges.

5. Islam never consents to anything more than a reciprocal action. If someone is treated unjustly by another, they cannot retaliate with an injustice that is greater by even one iota. Moreover, Islamic teachings always consider forgiveness better than vengefulness.

6. Islam underlines individual responsibility. Hence, it does not under any circumstances allow one person to be punished for another's crimes. In Islam, people are only punished for their own actions.

7. Islam is strongly opposed to terrorism. The Prophet of Islam has said that assassination has no place in Islam.

8. Islam does not allow anyone to kill civilians.

Any and all representations of violence one may find in the Quran and the tradition ought to be interpreted and understood in a way which conforms with a human-rights-based interpretation of Islam. Even if or when we can attain historical certainty that some form of violence was perpetrated fourteen centuries ago - and such certainty is highly improbable - it is the moral responsibility of Muslims and non-Muslims to work toward global peaceful coexistence, to mitigate suffering on an individual level, and to defend a form of Islam which is compatible with human rights.

In order to establish and explain the claims made in the "Islam and Human Rights" article, the following four articles need to be read: