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Are Human Rights Compatible with Islam ?- Part 2


General Rights

A. Right to Life

The Qur'an upholds the sanctity and absolute value of human life [7] and points out that, in essence, the life of each individual is comparable to that of an entire community and, therefore, should be treated with the utmost care [8].

B. Right to Respect

The Qur'an deems all human beings to be worthy of respect [9] because of all creation they alone chose to accept the "trust" of freedom of the will [10]. Human beings can exercise freedom of the will because they possess the rational faculty, which is what distinguishes them from all other creatures [11]. Though human beings can become "the lowest of the lowest", the Qur'an declares that they have been made "in the best of moulds" [12], having the ability to think, to have knowledge of right and wrong, to do the good and to avoid the evil. Thus, on account of the promise which is contained in being human, namely, the potential to be God's vicegerent on earth, the humanness of all human beings is to be respected and considered to be an end in itself.

C. Right to Justice

The Qur'an puts great emphasis on the right to seek justice and the duty to do justice [13]. In the context of justice, the Qur'an uses two concepts: "'adl" and "ihsan". Both are enjoined and both are related to the idea of "balance", but they are not identical in meaning.

"'Adl" is defined by A.A.A. Fyzee, a well-known scholar of Islam, as "to be equal, neither more nor less." Explaining this concept, Fyzee wrote: "...in a Court of Justice the claims of the two parties must be considered evenly, without undue stress being laid upon one side or the other. Justice introduces the balance in the form of scales that are evenly balanced." [14]. "'Adl" was described in similar terms by Abu'l Kalam Azad, a famous translator of the Qur'an and a noted writer, who stated: "What is justice but the avoiding of excess? There should be neither too much nor too little; hence the use of scales as the emblems of justice" [15]. Lest anyone try to do too much or too little, the Qur'an points out that no human being can carry another's burden or attain anything without striving for it.[16]

Recognizing individual merit is a part of "'adl", The Qur'an teaches that merit is not determined by lineage, sex, wealth, worldly success or religion, but by righteousness, which consists of both right "belief" ("iman") and just "action" (" 'amal") [17]. Further, the Qur'an distinguishes between passive believers and those who strive in the cause of God pointing out that though all believers are promised good by God, the latter will be exalted above the former [18].

Just as it is in the spirit of "'adl" that special merit be considered in the matter of rewards, so also special circumstances are to be considered in the matter of punishments. For instance, for crimes of unchastity the Qur'an prescribes identical punishments for a man or a woman who is proved guilty [19], but it differentiates between different classes of women: for the same crime, a slave woman would receive half, and the Prophet's consort double, the punishment given to a "free" Muslim woman [20]. In making such a distinction, the Qur'an while upholding high moral standards, particularly in the case of the Prophet's wives whose actions have a normative significance for the community, reflects God's compassion for women slaves who were socially disadvantaged.

While constantly enjoining "'adl", the Qur'an goes beyond this concept to "ihsan", which literally means, "restoring the balance by making up a loss or deficiency" [21]. In order to understand this concept, it is necessary to understand the nature of the ideal society or community ("ummah") envisaged by the Qur'an. The word "ummah" comes from the root "umm", or "mother". The symbols of a mother and motherly love and compassion are also linked with the two attributes most characteristic of God, namely, "Rahim" and "Rahman", both of which are derived from the root "rahm", meaning "womb". The ideal "ummah" cares about all its members just as an ideal mother cares about all her children, knowing that all are not equal and that each has different needs. While showing undue favour to any child would be unjust, a mother who gives to a "handicapped" child more than she does to her other child or children, is not acting unjustly but exemplifying the spirit of "ihsan" by helping to make up the deficiency of a child who need special assistance in meeting the requirements of life. "Ihsan", thus, shows God's sympathy for the disadvantaged segments of human society (such as women, orphans, slaves, the poor, the infirm, and the minorities)

D. Right to Freedom

As stated earlier, the Qur'an is deeply concerned about liberating human beings from every kind of bondage. Recognizing the human tendency toward dictatorship and despotism, the Qur'an says with clarity and emphasis in Surah 3: Al-'Imran: 79:

       It is not (possible)
       That a man, to whom
       Is given the Book, 
       and Wisdom, 
       And the Prophetic Office, 
       Should say to people:
       "Be ye my worshippers
       Rather than Allah's"
       On the contrary
       (He would say):
       "Be ye worshippers
       Of Him Who is truly
       The Cherisher of all." [22]

The institution of human slavery is, of course, extremely important in the context of human freedom. Slavery was widely prevalent in Arabia at the time of the advent of Islam, and the Arab economy was based on it. Not only did the Qur'an insist that slaves be treated in a just and humane way [23], but it continually urged the freeing of slaves [24]. By laying down, in Surah 47: Muhammad: 4, that prisoners of war were to be set free, "either by an act of grace or against ransom" [25], the Qur'an virtually abolished slavery since "The major source of slaves - men and women - was prisoners of war" [26]. Because the Qur'an does not state explicitly that slavery is abolished, it does not follow that it is to be continued, particularly in view of the numerous ways in which the Qur'an seeks to eliminate this absolute evil. A Book which does not give a king or a prophet the right to command absolute obedience from another human being could not possibly sanction slavery in any sense of the word.

The greatest guarantee of personal freedom for a Muslim lies in the Qur'anic decree that no one other than God can limit human freedom [27] and in the statement that "Judgment (as to what is right and what is wrong) rests with God alone" [27]. As pointed out by Khalid M. Ishaque, an eminent Pakistani jurist:

       The Qur'an gives to responsible dissent the status of a fundamental right. 
       In exercise of their powers, therefore, neither the legislature nor the executive can demand 
       unquestioning obedience...The Prophet, even though he was the recipient of Divine revelation, was
       required to consult the Muslims in public affairs. Allah addressing the Prophet says:
       "...and consult with them upon the conduct of affairs. And...when thou art resolved, then put
       thy trust in Allah" [29].

Since the principle of mutual consultation ("shura") is mandatory [30], it is a Muslim's fundamental right, as well as responsibility, to participate in as many aspects of the community's life as possible. The Qur'anic proclamation in Surah 2: Al-Baqarah: 256, "There shall be no coercion in matters of faith" [31] guarantees freedom of religion and worship. This means that, according to Qur'anic teaching, non-Muslims living in Muslim territories should have the freedom to follow their own faith-traditions without fear or harassment. A number of Qur'anic passages state clearly that the responsibility of the Prophet Muhammad is to communicate the message of God and not to compel anyone to believe [32]. The right to exercise free choice in matters of belief is unambiguously endorsed by the Qur'an [33] which also states clearly that God will judge human beings not on the basis of what they profess but on the basis of their belief and righteous conduct [34], as indicated by Surah 2: Al-Baqarah: 62 which says:

       Those who believe (in the Qur'an)
       And those who follow the Jewish (scriptures),
       And the Christians and the Sabians, 
       Any who believe in God
       And the Last Day,
       And work righteousness, 
       Shall have their reward
       With the Lord: on them
       Shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. [35] 

The Qur'an recognizes the right to religious freedom not only in the case of other believers in God, but also in the case of not-believers in God (if they are not aggressing upon Muslims) [36].

In the context of the human right to exercise religious freedom, it is important to mention that the Qur'anic dictum, "Let there be no compulsion in religion" [37] applies not only to non- Muslims but also to Muslims. While those who renounced Islam after professing it and then engaged in "acts of war" against Muslims were to be treated as enemies and aggressors, the Qur'an does not prescribe any punishment for non-profession or renunciation of faith. The decision regarding a person's ultimate destiny in the hereafter rests with God.

The right to freedom includes the right to be free to tell the truth. The Qur'anic term for truth is "Haqq" which is also one of God's most important attributes. Standing up for the truth is a right and a responsibility which a Muslim may not disclaim even in the face of the greatest danger or difficulty [38]. While the Qur'an commands believers to testify to the truth, it also instructs society not to harm persons so testifying [39].

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