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Are Human Rights Compatible with Islam ?- Part 1


The Issue of the Rights of Women in Muslim Communities

By Riffat Hassan, Ph.D.

University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky

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Table of Contents

Section One: Introduction
Section Two: Western Perception of Islam and Muslims,
and the Portrayal of Muslim Women in Western Societies

Section Three: Muslim Women and Human Rights: The Unarticulated Quandary
Section Four: Sources of Islamic Tradition
Section Five: General Rights
Section Six: Rights of Women: Versus Muslim Practice
Section Seven: Notes


Though the Universal declaration of Human Rights is called "Universal", it "was articulated along the lines of historical trends of the Western world during the last three centuries, and a certain philosophical anthropology of individualistic humanism which helped justify them" [1]. The basic assumptions underlying the Declaration were a) of a universal human nature common to all the peoples, b) of the dignity of the individual, and c) of a democratic social order [2].

In the decades since the Declaration, the term "human rights" has become an integral part of both political and popular discourse, particularly amongst Western, and Western-educated, persons. Until very recently most of this discourse has been in largely secular terms. In fact, it is frequently assumed, as well as stated, by many advocates of human rights, in both Western and non- Western (including many Muslim) countries, that human rights can exist only within a secular context and not within the framework of religion.

Underlying the stance that the concept of human rights is fundamentally secular, and, therefore, outside of, and even antithetical to, the worldview of religion, is - of course - a certain view of religion in general, or of particular religions. In Muslim countries such as Pakistan, for instance, it is often remarked by secular-minded proponents of human rights that it is not meaningful to talk about human rights in Islam because as a religious tradition, Islam has supported values and structures which are incompatible with the assumptions which underlie the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What needs to be pointed out to those who uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be the highest, or sole, model, of a charter of equality and liberty for all human beings, is that given the Western origin and orientation of this Declaration, the "universality" of the assumptions on which it is based is - at the very least - problematic and subject to questioning. Furthermore, the alleged incompatibility between the concept of human rights and religion in general, or particular religions such as Islam, needs to be examined in an unbiased way.

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Western Perception of Islam and Muslims,
and the Portrayal of Muslim Women in Western Societies

Since the nineteen-seventies there has been a growing interest in the West in Islam and Muslims. Much of this interest has been focused, however, on a few subjects such as "Islamic Revival," "Islamic Fundamentalism," "The Salman Rushdie Affair," and "Women in Islam," rather than on understanding the complexity and diversity of "the World of Islam." Not only the choice of subjects which tend to evoke or provoke strong emotive responses in both Westerners and Muslims, but also the manner in which these subjects have generally been portrayed by Western media or popular literature, calls into question the motivation which underlies the selective Western interest in Islam and Muslims. It is difficult to see this interest as being positively motivated given the widespread negative stereotyping of Islam and Muslims in the West.

Though there are a number of Americans who had not paid any serious attention to Islam or Muslims until the Arab oil embargo of 1973 or the Iranian Revolution of 1979, propaganda against Islam and Muslims is nothing new in the West. It is as old as the first chapter of Islamic history, when the new faith began to move into territories largely occupied by Christians. Dante, the great poet of medieval Christianity, perceived the Prophet of Islam as the "divider of the world of Christendom and assigned him to all but the lowest level of hell for his grievous "sin". St. Thomas Aquinas, the most outstanding scholastic philosopher who owed such profound debt to the thinkers of Muslim Spain, described Islam as nothing but a construct to accommodate the lust of Muhammad [3]. What far-reaching shadows were cast upon the future by powerful Christian voices such as those of Dante and Aquinas can be glimpsed from Thomas Carlyle's historic lecture on "The Hero as Prophet. Mahomet: Islam" in the series entitled On Heroes, Hero-Worship and The Heroic in History. Writing in mid-nineteenth century, Carlyle urged his fellow Christians to dismiss "our current hypothesis about Mahomet, that he was a scheming Imposter, a Falsehood Incarnate, that his religion is a mere quackery and fatuity" [4].

Given the reservoir of negative images associated with Islam and Muslims in "the Collective Unconscious" of the West, it is hardly surprising that, since the demise of the Soviet Empire, "the World of Islam" is being seen as the new "Enemy" which is perhaps even more incomprehensible and intractable than the last one. The routine portrayal of Islam as a religion spread by the sword and characterized by "Holy War", and of Muslims as barbarous and backward, frenzied and fanatic, volatile and violent, has led, in recent times, to an alarming increase in "Muslim-bashing" - verbal, physical as well as psychological - in a number of Western countries. In the midst of so much hatred and aversion toward Islam and Muslims in general, the out-pouring of so much sympathy, in and by the West, toward Muslim women appears, at a surface level, to be an amazing contradiction. For are Muslim women also not adherents of Islam? And are Muslim women also not victims of "Muslim-bashing"? Few Muslims can forget the brutal burning of Turkish Muslim girls by German gangsters or the ruthless rape of Bosnian Muslim women by Serbian soldiers.

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Muslim Women and Human Rights: The Unarticulated Quandary

Since the modern notion of human rights originated in a Western, secular context, Muslims in general, but Muslim women in particular, find themselves in a quandary when they initiate, or participate in, a discussion on human rights whether in the West or in Muslim societies. Based on their life experience, most Muslim women who become human rights advocates or activists, feel strongly that virtually all Muslim societies discriminate against women from cradle to grave. This leads many of them to become deeply alienated from Muslim culture in a number of ways. This bitter sense of alienation oftentimes leads to anger and bitterness toward the patriarchal systems of thought and social structures which dominate most Muslim societies. Muslim women often find much support and sympathy in the West so long as they are seen as rebels and deviants within the world of Islam. But many of them begin to realize, sooner or later, that while they have serious difficulties with Muslim culture, they are also not able, for many reasons to identify with Western, secular culture. This realization leads them to feel - at least for a time - isolated and alone. Much attention has been focused, in the Western media and literature, on the sorry plight of Muslim women who are "poor and oppressed" in visible or tangible ways. Hardly any notice has been taken, however, of the profound tragedy and trauma suffered by the self-aware Muslim women of today who are struggling to maintain their religious identity and personal autonomy in the face of the intransigence of Muslim culture, on the one hand, and the imperialism of Western, secular culture, on the other hand.

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Sources of the Islamic Tradition

Before addressing the issue of human rights in Islam, it is useful to clarify that the Islamic tradition - like other major religious traditions - does not consist of, or derive from, a single source. Most Muslims if questioned about its sources are likely to refer to more than one of the following: the Qur'an or the Book of Revelation which Muslims believe to be God's Word transmitted through the agency of Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad; Sunnah or the practical traditions of the Prophet Muhammad; Hadith or the oral sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad; Fiqh (Jurisprudence) or Madahib (Schools of Law); and the Shari'ah or code of law which regulates the diverse aspects of a Muslim's life. While these "sources" have contributed to what is cumulatively referred to as "the Islamic tradition", they are not identical or considered to be of equal weight. Of all the sources of the Islamic tradition, undoubtedly, the most important is the Qur'an which is regarded by Muslims in general, as the primary, and most authoritative, source of normative Islam.

To many Muslims the Qur'an is the Magna Carta of human rights and a large part of its concern is to free human beings from the bondage of traditionalism, authoritarianism (religious, political, economic, or any other), tribalism, racism, sexism, slavery or anything else that prohibits or inhibits human beings from actualizing the Qur'anic vision of human destiny embodied in the classic proclamation: "Towards Allah is thy limit" [5].

In the section entitled "General Rights" which follows, an account is given of the Qur'an's affirmation of fundamental rights which all human beings ought to possess because they are so deeply rooted in our humanness that their denial or violation is tantamount to a negation or degradation of that which makes us human. From the perspective of the Qur'an, these rights came into existence when we did; they were created, as we were, by God in order that our human potential could be actualized. Rights created or given by God cannot be abolished by any temporal ruler or human agency. Eternal and immutable, they ought to be exercised since everything that God does is for "a just purpose" [6].

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