Human Rights in the Islamic World Viewed from the Perspective of Cultural Diversity
November 26,2014   By:chinahumanrights.org


Li Shaoxian and Wei Liang


Human rights have been a hot topic in the international community. To the Islamic world with around one billion population, issues on human rights are growing to be a concern both in and outside Muslim countries. In the present paper, we attempt to give a preliminary analysis and summary of Islamic concepts and thoughts on human rights.

 The emergence of Islamic thought on human rights

Human rights, as a historical category, are the due outcome developed in a certain phase in history. “Human rights, namely the rights enjoyed by people, are the total rights that should be and are enjoyed in reality by a person (or the combination of persons), and that are acknowledged by society.” Human rights, a legal prescript in nature, should be protected by individuals, nations and states. The content and form of human rights are ultimately determined through joint effect and mutual restriction of material conditions in reality, social and historical conditions as well as traditional values.

In the Islamic world, Muslim tradition plays a key role in the formation of the Islamic concept of human rights. In the 7th century, led by the Prophet Muhammad, Muslim people established in Medina the “Ummah” that integrated politics with religion. Hence, Koran and Hadith turned to be the legal guarantee for state administration. The word “right” in Arabic means the combination of “Allah”, “truth” and “reality”, and also includes the meanings of “justice”, “responsibility”, “obligation” as well as “equality”. On the level of religion, the word is a reflection of Allah, and from the perspective of law, it represents the grant, the enjoyment and the protection of rights. According to Muslimism, people are not born to be entitled to human rights and freedom, which, in accordance with Islam, are godsend from Allah. God creates man, and at the same time confers on each individual equal rights to life and dignity. As the rights are given directly by Allah, human being must follow the way of God, and implement the obligations to God. Otherwise, he or she is not qualified to enjoy the rights granted by Lord. It is from this very point that Islam diverges from the western concept of human rights characterized by “natural rights.”[page]

Since the 7th century, the Muslim world began to present such conceptions as rights to life and equality and the balance between rights and obligations, laying the foundation for human rights in the Islamic world. In 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam was passed by the General Assembly of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. In the Declaration, it was highlighted that in the Muslim world, the fundamental rights and freedoms as recorded in Koran are conveyed to all mankind by the Prophet Muhammad, and safeguarding rights and freedoms is a devout practice. Meanwhile, “none of the rights and freedoms can violate Islamic law.”

Ideological foundation for Islamic human rights and rule of law

Islamic concept of human rights is established on the basis of “Allah alone”. It proclaims that all are created by God, who enjoys absolute and ultimate power, grants all human beings rights and protection of their rights. According to Islam, Islamic law is the source of all individual rights and freedoms. In order to sustain the operation of the complex social system that consists of individuals, groups, institutions and the relationships between, Allah gives His instruction through the Prophets that Islamic law, taking Koran and Hadith as the core, should be used to help with coordinating social relationships and the prescription of rights and obligations in the Muslim world, and the law should have its procedures. Therefore, Allah is the sole law-giver, and the Islamic law, as prescriptions given by God about the rights and obligations of individual and society, should be practiced by each person and society.[page]

Islamic law, as institutional safeguard for human rights in the Muslim world, reveals that Islam is much socially engaged. It covers the whole process of life from birth to death, and concerns each aspect of material and spiritual life. In the law, human rights, involving the content and the fulfillment of the rights, are protected. Regarding the content, Islamic law divides human rights into different categories. According to the law, human rights must satisfy the living necessity of each person for the essence of individual human rights is personal interests. The protection of human rights is in reality the safeguard of interests. Fundamental interests include the rights to religion, life, reason, consanguinity and property. Islamic law makes these five interests as the primary objectives in legislation, trying to protect the existence of any individual person. Other interests, including freedoms of thought, speech, work, reputation and education, are applied to ensure easy and comfortable living, and help with solving the difficulties of human being. Interests on the third level refer to the right to virtue, which is personal pursuit and perfection of life, moral character and belief. With respect to the fulfillment, Islamic law sets up its procedural protections, which are mainly reflected by the legal system called Qadi system, that is, a Qadi or a Mufti is established to handle the civil, commercial, and criminal litigations of Muslim people. Qadi system is used to protect legal rights and interests, stop illegal practices, conquer dictatorship, and maintain social justice and order. Protections from the perspectives of the content and procedure of the law are corresponding to and dependent on each other. Protection of the right content determines the legal protection of procedures, and the latter is also the approach to the self-fulfillment of the former.

The relationship of individual rights and social rights in Islamic law

Exploration of the issue on human rights will always concern the relationship between individual rights and social rights. Islamic law, for the purpose of integrating personal rights with social rights, enables close relationship between the two in society. Islam regards that the establishment of a society is based on one belief and moral system. It is against the social system that is bonded by clan, blood and class, and demands that the relation between social members be founded on brotherhood and mutual respect.[page]

Islamic law is always trying to seek balance between personal and social rights by affirming and encouraging some of the rights such as rights to life, honor, by providing favorable conditions to some of the rights such as rights of children and the right to work, and by prohibiting some of the rights such as the right to be held in slavery or servitude. When contradictions arise between personal and social rights, Islamic law will orient towards public social rights, ensuring that social rights be higher than personal rights, and will require personal rights be included in the scope of social rights at the same time. In the view point of Muslims, the exertion of personal right should not infringe upon others’ rights, or harm the interest of the community.  “If one does not fulfill his obligations to Allah, it is possible that he will be forgiven, but if he does not fulfill his obligations to others, he will not be forgiven”. Individual freedom is integrated with social restriction. “Unrestricted personal freedom cannot but curtail others’ freedom.”  In the Muslim community of brotherhood, all are interdependent on and complement each other, and each individual bears inevitable responsibilities to others and society. He must fulfill his obligations in a mutually beneficial way to reflect the spirit that “All Muslims are brothers”, and ultimately achieve the implementation of Islamic law.

Human rights from the perspective of cultural diversity

In modern history, it was Dante Alighieri, the great poet and thinker of Italy, who first presented the concept of human rights. According to him, the purpose of the whole mankind is to establish a universal world government to realize the happiness of all-under-heaven, and the foundation for his world empire is human rights.¢?  More than three hundred years ago, Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes began to view human rights as philosophical concepts. And it has been more than two hundred years since human rights were written into the US Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. As time goes by, human rights evolve from theoretical terms to ethical principles observed all around the world, from an ideology of an individual nation to anthe international consensus, and then to an enormous system of rights.[page]

Modern views on human rights came into being after four revolutions. First, in the bourgeois revolution against monarchy and hierarchy, the emerging stage of human rights, are engendered the concepts of political right and freedom, which turned to be the foundation for contemporary philosophies on human rights. Next, during the proletarian revolution against bourgeois the contents of individual freedom and political rights were enriched, and the economic, social and cultural rights that can be enjoyed by working man were also added. The third reform mainly involves such collective human rights as the rights to development and communication, which were newly added during the struggle of the Third World against colonialism and imperialism. The fourth revolution reflects concerns about resources, environment and culture in the era of globalization. The evolvement of human rights concepts demonstrates the battle and compromise between Western-oriented perspectives of human rights and human rights from the angle of cultural diversity.

Islamic views on human rights, based on religious beliefs, have special characteristics, and also demonstrate the diversity of human rights all around the world. According to Islamic human rights, Allah, the source of human society, is the Creator, Possessor, and Protector of mankind. Allah creates mankind, confers rights on human beings and selects his subjects. Therefore, human rights belong to God, and are given by God. Only under guidance from his Lord will a Muslim be able to implement and enjoy his rights to the greatest extent. Accordingly, the practice of human rights is the expression and demonstration of belief in Islam, is the obedience and observance of the law prescribed by Allah, and is more of the benevolence and virtue of realizing the value of the self. Islamic human rights, safeguarding no violation to individual rights, highlights that self-values agree with social values, giving a profound revelation of the philosophy of equality and justice. The relationship between Allah and mankind establishes unshirkable obligations of human being to God, and also the obligatory relationship between people.[page]

Since the moment of his birth, or his conversion into Islam, a Muslim is subject to obligations. Concepts such as “obligations must stand prior to rights, and rights should be enjoyed by all” are deep-rooted in the life and minds of the people, which have been the great contribution to the development of human rights concepts of mankind by the Islamic community. Although “commercial economy in the capitalist society lays the economic foundation for the generation of modern human rights, and capitalist democracy supplies the political basis for the generation of human rights, and the Bourgeois Revolution in the 18th century serves as the midwife of modern human rights”, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 by the UN General Assembly and the later United Nations Human Rights Treaty began to extend human rights as a western concept to a general goal pursued by all the nations in the world. During the course of the world’s working people’s dedicating themselves to the pursuit of self interests and rights, and during the course of non-western countries’, including the Muslim world, striving for national liberation, political independence, economic development, civilization renaissance and blending into the international community, they have been doing their best in observing their present human rights conceptions, amending and improving human rights concepts and the system related.

Not being an abstract and changeless concept, human rights has developed and varied and will develop and vary with time and space. In this process, we must advance respect and tolerance for each different culture, admit equality between cultures, and try to absorb and borrow special human rights concepts from each culture. Dialogue and communication between cultures should be oriented towards the principle of “harmony with diversity” so as to reach consensus. Only in this way can we build our world into a big harmonious family, promoting the popularization of human rights concepts and improving human rights conditions at the same time.

(The author Li Shaoxian is Vice-president and Research Fellow of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.)