Human Rights in Islam
By: Dr. Fathi Osman
According to the Qur’an, dignity of the children of Adam is a divine bestowal, which is to be secured by all means, including the law and the state authorities, and is to be defended by all forces:
We have conferred dignity on the children of Adam, and borne them over land and sea, and provided for them sustenance out of the good things of life, and favored them far above most of our Creations. (Quran 17:70)
As a demonstration of this privileged position, God ordered the angels to prostrate themselves before Adam, the first human being. What distinguishes humans from other creatures is mainly their intellect and their free will to choose between doing good and doing evil. To fulfill a human potential, all obstacles and pressures must be removed from the way, and all means should be secured to maintain and develop our humanity. The dignity bestowed on humans in the Qur’an must be defended. It is the individual, social and universal responsibility of Muslims to guard human rights because oppression is an obstruction of God’s will in His creation:
As for that (happy) life in the life to come, We grant it (only) to those who do not seek to exalt themselves on earth, nor yet to spread malevolence: for the future belongs to the God-conscious. (Quran 28:83)
It is the individual, social, and universal responsibility of Muslims, according to their faith, to protect the human merits and virtues of all the children of Adam, whatever their differences may be. Defending the human rights of any human being is a religious duty for a Muslim, who believes that any oppression is an obstruction of God’s will and plan in His creation. Moreover, a Muslim believes that God has created all mankind equal as human beings, and no one can claim superiority in this respect, whatever his/her ethnicity, family, wealth or gender may be. The Qur’an teaches:
O humanity! Be conscious of your Lord, who has created you out of one living entity, and out of it created its mate, and out of the two spread abroad a multitude of men and women. And remain conscious of God, in whose name you demand [your rights] from one another (and before Him you will be accountable), and of these ties of kinship. Verily, God is ever watchful over you. (Quran 4:1)
O humanity! Behold, we have created you all out of a male and a female, and have created you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is All-Knowing, All-Aware. (Quran 49:13)
The only One who is above all humans is their Creator and Lord:
And there is nothing that could be compared with Him. (Quran 112:4)
At the inception of the belief in one God is the belief in the equality of all human beings, since those who believe in one God believe that all human beings are created by the one Creator. Thus, deeply rooted in the conscience of believers is the duty to maintain human rights and to practice equality in the process. Any discrimination against any individual or group about their basic rights as members of humanity is a challenge to the faith of believers, since for any human to claim superiority based on origin or power is contradictory to the belief in the One Ultimate Supreme Being:
...the All-Highest, who creates [everything], and thereupon forms in accordance with what it is meant to be. He cannot be called to account for whatever He does, whereas they will be called to account. (Quran 21:23)
A tyrant is against human rights and the One Ultimate Supreme Being as well:
Behold, Pharaoh exalted himself in the land, and divided its people into castes. One group of them he deemed utterly low; he would slaughter their sons and spare [only] their women, for behold, he was one of those who spread malevolence [on earth]. (Quran 28:4)
In the same chapter, the Qur’an states that those who will attain to happiness in the life to come, as it has been mentioned before, are those who don’t seek to exalt themselves on earth, nor yet to spread malevolence; for the future belongs to the God-conscious (Quran 7:157). Thus, the Qur’an repeatedly emphasizes human rights and justice, and condemns injustice, aggression and oppression. It highlights the message of the Prophet Muhammad:
...enjoins upon them the doing of what is right and forbids the doing of what is wrong, and makes lawful to them the good things of life and forbids the bad things, and lifts from them their burdens and the shackles that were upon them. (Quran 7:157)
Justice can be concisely and precisely defined as the maintenance of human rights and equality:
Behold, God enjoins justice, and [going beyond justice to] the doing of what is magnanimous (and kind), and giving to one’s kinsfolk; and He forbids all that is shameful and all that runs counter to reason [and morality], as well as transgression; He exhorts you [repeatedly] so that you might bear [all this] in mind. (Quran 3:195)
Any discrimination between men and women in rights or responsibilities is forbidden according to the divine justice- the same as any other discrimination:
And their Lord does answer them: I shall not lose sight of the work of any of you who works [in My way], be it man or woman ... (Quran 3:195)
And [as for] the believers, both men and women - they are in charge of [and responsible for] one another [and form together one body], they [all] enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong, and keep up their prayers, and render the purifying [social] dues, and pay heed unto God and the conveyer of His Message. (Quran 9:71)
Divine justice can never be for Muslims only. It secures the rights of all human beings, whatever their beliefs may be. It is especially protective of the rights of belief and practicing one’s belief... “Let there be no coercion in matters of faith” (Quran 2:256). Defending all houses of worship is legitimate and urged:
...for if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, [all] monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques in [all of] which God’s name is abundantly exalted - would surely have been destroyed (ere now), and God will most certainly support one who supports His cause....(Quran 22:40)
Muslims are taught by the Qur’an to build their relations with others on kindness, while the minimum obligation which should be strictly observed is justice (Quran 60:8). They should always have in mind that no hostility stays permanently, and that if they follow God’s guidance, their behavior may turn an enemy into a close friend:
Yet God may develop affection between you and those of them you felt were enemies, for God is All Powerful, Much Forgiving and Most Gracious. (Quran 60:7)
But good and evil cannot be equal; repel [therefore, evil] with what is better; and so between yourself and one with whom there was enmity [it may then become] as though he/she had [always] been a close friend. Yet [to achieve] this is not given to any but those who are patient and enjoy self-control; it is not given to any but those endowed with the greatest good fortune. (Quran 41:34-35)
Islam secures the human rights even for those who may violate the human rights of others, since two wrongs do not make one right. A violation should be stopped instantly, but the rights of the violator as a human being should be secured. Islamic law aims to fight the crime in its origin, not just to inflict punishment. Islamic penal law is enforced in order to prevent the sources of violation and transgression without social justice and public education for all. It is required that every possible effort be made to educate and rehabilitate an offender, not to destroy him/her. And finally, the Prophet states that a mistaken decision in acquitting a guilty person is better than a mistaken decision of punishing an innocent one. (From an authentic tradition of the Prophet repeated by Ibn Ali Shayba, al Tirmidhi, al-Hakim and al-Bayhaqi in al-Sunan, on the authority of Aisha).
Islamic civil and commercial law prohibits illegitimate and exploitative gains while protecting the principle which has been earned legitimately and legally before usurious additions:
...and give up all outstanding gains from usury...for if you do not, then know that you are at war with God and the Conveyer of His Message. But if you repent, you shall be entitled to your principals. You will do no wrong and neither will you be wronged.
The Islamic law of war requires an open declaration of the start of military operations, and limits fighting to the combatants only. As soon as the aggression itself is stopped and the aggressor submits to justice, justice should be maintained in relation to both parties equally:
....but then, if one of the two [groups] goes on aggressing against the other, fight against the aggressors until they revert to God’s commandment; and if they revert make peace between them (both parties) with justice, and deal equitably [with them], for verily, God loves those who act equitably. (Quran 49:9)
Any of the enemy’s army who asks for protection or shelter should be granted it, and may be returned to his camp if he so requests:
And if any of those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God seeks your protection, grant him protection, so that he might [be able to] hear the word of God [from you]; and thereupon convey him to a place where he can feel secure. (Quran 9:6)
The wounded and deserters from the enemy’s army should not be attacked, but should be cared for until they are cured or repatriated.
Human rights as described by the divine message in Qur’an and Sunna were considered by the Muslim jurists to be the Avery goal of Shari’a. The jurists condensed Islamic law, as mentioned before, into the securing and developing human personality in five main areas: life, family, mind, faith, and property. The human rights covered by these five areas include the collective rights of groups and peoples as well as the rights of individuals; political and social rights have their place side by side. A collective effort to defend the powerless and the oppressed against a powerful oppressor is an essential Islamic obligation. Every right is considered a responsibility and an obligation. In addition to human rights being considered a collective responsibility of the ummah (the Muslim people as a group) and the authorities, every holder of a right must also struggle for him/her self to obtain, maintain and enjoy this right.
An accurate balance has to be maintained between basic spiritual and moral development and education on one side, and the protection of values by the law and the state on the other. A balance should be maintained as well between rights and duties:
Indeed, have We sent forth the Conveyers of Our Messages with all evidence of the truth; and through them We bestowed revelation from on high, and a balance [where with to weigh right and wrong], so that men behave with equity; and We bestowed from on high [the ability to make use of] iron, in which there is awesome power as well as [other] benefits for man; and [all this was given] so that God might mark out those who would stand up for Him and the Conveyer of His Message, even though He [Himself] is beyond the reach of human perception. Verily, God is Powerful, Almighty. (Quran 57:25)
Based on faith in God, the Islamic perspective on human rights is comprehensive and deep. When a Muslim fighter was asked by the Sassanian leader, Rustum, about the cause that he was fighting for, he simply answered, A God has sent us to transport human beings from the worship of one another to the worshipping of One God, from a narrow life to a wide world, and from the dominant injustice under other beliefs to the justice of Islam. (al-Tabari, in his reports about the battle of al-Qadisiyyah in 17 AH/ 637 CE)
This was the message of Islam in early times: a universal liberation and establishment of justice and maintenance of human rights. It is thus to maintain, develop and spread such an understanding of the divine message in our times.
Dr. Fathi Osman is a professor of Islamic Studies and has taught in several universities around the world. Among these universities are Al-Azhar University in Egypt, Houran University in Algeria, Ibn Saud University in Saudi Arabia, International Islamic University in Malaysia, Temple University, USC, and Georgetown University in America. He is an author of several books and articles which include: Islamic Thought Vs. Change, Children of Adam: An Islamic perspective on Pluralism, Jihad: A legitimate struggle for moral development and human rights and Concepts of the Quran. He is currently retired and is a resident scholar at the Institute for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World at the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation in Los Angeles, USA