When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was approved in 1948 by the UN General Assembly, the government of Saudi Arabia abstained, on the grounds that the Declaration did not acknowledge rights to be the gift of God and violated the Qur'an by asserting a right to change one's religion. However, the Muslim foreign minister of Pakistan, Muhammed Zufrullah Khan, defended his country's support for the Declaration on the grounds that the Qur'an permitted one to believe or disbelieve.1

This issue is one of several that continue to be debated among Muslims. Ann Elizabeth Mayer notes that Muslims "are currently deeply divided among themselves on the question of what kinds of human rights protections Islam provides."2 Moreover, she argues that where contemporary governments have used Islamic criteria the result has been to limit the exercise of human rights. Yet, today Muslim countries throughout the world have ratified international human rights covenants, and Muslim lawyers and scholars are quick to assert that Islam has always supported human rights. 

In this chapter I will summarize arguments given by Muslims in support of human rights. I will describe in detail the general support of one leading Muslim for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Finally, I will review the recent declarations of human rights by Muslim advocates and intellectuals.

Muslim Lawyers

In 1980 a Seminar on Human Rights in Islam was organized by the International Commission of Jurists, together with the University of Kuwait and the Union of Arab Lawyers. One purpose of the seminar was succinctly set forth in a sentence in its report: "The time has come to refute the idea that the initiation and continued development of the concept of human rights must be attributed exclusively to Western culture."3

The sixty-five participants in the seminar agreed upon several conclusions. They affirmed that: "Islam was the first to recognize basic human rights and almost 14 centuries ago it set up guarantees and safeguards that have only recently been incorporated in universal declarations of human rights."4

They acknowledged that contemporary Islamic practice in many respects does not conform to the true principles of Islam. However, they noted that "Islam was the first to safeguard personal rights and freedoms for religious minorities."5 They asserted that because "human rights and freedoms are not attributed to Nature but are considered to be gifts of God in accordance with the Islamic faith,” 

This confers on them an added measure of veneration, prestige and sanctity to protect them from inroads by the ruling authorities, lends them the qualities of completeness and universality, and renders them inalienable and irrevocable.6

Moreover, they affirmed that Islam's codification of human rights constitutes "a solid foundation for an effective exercise of human rights and freedoms and protection against any infringement of them."7

The seminar made recommendations about economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights. Islamic states were called upon to implement standards in international law consistent with Islamic law and to reform their economic systems "to achieve social justice and guarantee human dignity."8 In conclusion:

The Seminar finally addressed itself to Almighty God in a fervent prayer that all Muslims be brought together in justice and goodness, and that this humanitarian effort be pursued until the dignity of man is assured, the foundations of his rights and his life firmly established, and consolidated, and the roots of arbitrariness and injustice eradicated from the world.9

In Islam, God-given human rights are seen as the means of assuring human dignity.

This theme was set forth clearly in the inaugural address of His Highness the Sovereign Emir of Kuwait. He noted that it was fifteen centuries since the Prophet and his followers "took refuge in Medina and set up a community where the exercise of human rights, previously a mere aspiration and hope, became a reality."10 This became possible "because of Islam's primary belief in human dignity, as emphasized by God, the Almighty, in the Qur'an where He says: 'and we have edified the progeny of Adam'."11 The Emir thus affirmed that

To preserve the dignity of man, it is necessary that society guarantees him food, drink, lodging, clothing, education and employment as well as his right to express his opinion, participate in the political life of his country and to be assured of his own security and that of his kin.12

The community has a duty to acquire the competence to ensure such rights. "Duties, in this way, are seen as another aspect of rights, as though rights and duties form the twin wings which enable society to soar to the horizons of its aspired future."13

In a major address Zouheir Al-Midani, Secretary-General of the Arab Lawyers' Union, noted that appeals to human rights are being made in the Third World as a part of the ideological struggle between capitalism and socialism. He asked the participants in the seminar:

Would it be possible for us, as Muslims, to find our refuge in the spiritual values of Islam and escape being pulled right or left by embracing its concepts on human rights, basic freedoms, justice and equity, while upholding them as themes for our age, and by adhering to these fundamental doctrines of Islam which Muslims have constantly upheld?14

He called for a return to the basic principles of Islamic faith as derived from the Qur'an and the Sunnah.

Basic Doctrines

Pakistani scholar Rashid Ahmad Jullundhri writes that "Islam wants to create a society based on a deep sense of moral responsibility and justice in order to preserve human dignity accorded to man by God," and he argues that "without the practical recognition of the basic rights of man all talk of human dignity will remain empty verbiage."15 The task of the state then is to protect the rights of its citizens.

This is a religious duty as well. Jullundhri notes that the Arabic word huquq is used for human rights. Huquq is the plural of haqqHaqq is also a divine name meaning the real. In Sufi usage Haqqmeans the Absolute.16 This word is also used in the traditions of the Prophet, for the Prophet is quoted as saying: "O, God, you are the Truth."17 Therefore, Jullundhri asserts:

The Ulama [Judges] regarded human rights as an integral part of faith. A Man cannot be considered religious in the true sense of the word if he does not grant the rights of his fellowmen. The measure of judging a man's religiosity is how he deals with people, not how much he prays.18

As practice is the measure of all piety, "Faith in human rights alone cannot make man free of fear and spiritual anxiety."19 The truth must be lived as well as believed.

Mohammed Allal Sinaceur argues that contemporary human rights are recognized as compatible with Islam. "Human rights in Islam are human rights in the light of Islam, Islam as the outward medium through which its believers attain their true value, through which is realized the right to right [sic] and the right to truth."20 He identifies five basic principles in Islam that legitimate human rights: the primacy of the life and dignity of the human person, the protection against restraint on religion, respect for the dwelling, the right of asylum, and the duty of care for others.

The text from the Qur'an fundamental to all human rights reads: "that whoso slays a soul not to retaliate for a soul slain, nor for corruption done in the land, shall be as if he had slain mankind altogether."21 In Islam the human person has absolute value:

Not merely because of man's resemblance to God as affirmed, for example, by Cicero, nor because of the Christian tradition, recalled to us in a hadith, that God created Adam in his own image, nor because the human individual is of more value than a whole material universe, nor because, as St. Thomas Aquinas put it, 'the relation between each individual person and the entire community is that of the part to the whole,' nor because the individual is above the community, nor because a single man typifies or exemplifies man, like Hamlet, who is neither you nor I but all of us.22

The value of the human person is absolute because the individual is humankind as a whole: "The value of the individual is neither numerical nor rational nor social; it is the gift of God himself, a gift to man as such — without regard either for attributes of civilization or for historic renown or for the excellence of his self-consciousness."23

Abdul Aziz Said begins his well known essay, "Human Rights in Islamic Perspectives," with a challenging paragraph:

Human rights are concerned with the dignity of the individual—the level of self-esteem that secures personal identity and promotes human community. While the pursuit of human dignity is universal, its forms are designed by the cultures of people. Politics is a cultural activity reflecting tradition and environment. The debate on human rights assumes that in spite of the differences that characterize the spectrum of world cultures, political conduct can be conceptualized by certain common norms and attitudes. In the modern global system, Westerners have concentrated on discovering common denominators rooted in Judeo-Christian traditions and from which a calculus of human rights would emerge. This emphasis on Western common denominators projects a parochial view of human rights that excludes the cultural realities and present existential conditions of Third World societies.24

Politics is cultural, and human rights are political: "The character and nature of human rights are determined in the crucible of a specific sociopolitical culture."25

In an Islamic culture the state has the responsibility of enforcing the principles of the Shari'a: "the laws derived from the Qur'an, the Sunnah—the Hadith and decisions of Muhammad, Ijma'—the consensus of opinion of the Ulama (Judges) and Ijtihad—the counsel of judges on a particular case."26 As sovereignty belongs to God, the state exists not merely to protect its citizens but to achieve social justice. Thus, "it is the state's duty to enhance human dignity and alleviate conditions that hinder individuals in their efforts to achieve happiness."27

Said argues that the Western liberal emphasis on freedom from restraint is alien to Islam. Freedom in Islam is not the ability to act, but the ability to become:

The jurists see human freedom in terms of personal surrender to the Divine Will. Freedom is not an inherent right. . .. The goal of freedom is human creativity. Freedom is defined as belonging to the community, and participating with the people in cultural creation.28

Basharat Ahmad proclaims: "It was the Holy Qur'an which for the first time preached the gospel of human freedom with such zeal and emphasis that the whole world woke up, as it were, from deep sleep."29 However, this human freedom must be understood, as Seyyed Hossein Nasr clearly states in "The Concept and Reality of Freedom in Islam and Islamic Civilization," as the freedom to do what is right. For as pure freedom belongs to God alone, "the more we are, the more we are free."30

According to the Shari'a, human rights are "a consequence of human obligations and not their antecedent":

We possess certain obligations toward God, nature, and other humans. . .. As a result of fulfilling these obligations, we gain certain rights and freedoms that are again outlined by the Divine Law.31

Thus, democracy is understood differently in Islamic culture than in the West. As all members of a society are responsible to God, all share equally in delegating authority to the state. In the words of Pakistani Abul A'la Mawdudi: "In Western democracy, the people are sovereign; in Islam sovereignty is vested in God and the people are His caliphs or representatives."32

Human rights are justified because they are the gift of God and the responsibility of those who rule the world on behalf of God. This gives them ultimate authority:

When we speak of human rights in Islam we mean those rights granted by God. Rights granted by kings or legislative assemblies can be withdrawn as easily as they are conferred; but no individual and no institution has the authority to withdraw the rights conferred by God.33

Mawdudi argues that the resolutions of the United Nations cannot be compared with the rights sanctioned by God for "the former are not obligatory on anybody, while the latter are an integral part of the Islamic faith."34

Fouad Zakaria also asserts that: "the basic foundation of the concept of human rights, in the contemporary Muslim Arab mind, is religious."35 He admits that this "sacredness" of human rights was fully recognized for only a brief time in Islam and that the rulers who came after the age of the Prophet and the four Rightful or Orthodox Caliphs have distorted "the true Islamic rule."36 Thus, in Islam, human rights are not associated with history at all, but with the ancient precepts of the Qur'an and its early enforcement.

Zakaria summarizes the features that characterize the concept of human rights in Islam, as interpreted by contemporary Muslims in the Arab world:

This concept is theocentric; in it man counts only as far as he is a reflection of divine nature. It is non-historical, or rather it freezes a certain moment of history and holds fast to it till the very end, thus doing away with dynamism, mobility and historical development. Finally, it is non-empirical; it does not depend on long and graduated practice in widening the scope of human rights, but seeks to imitate a theoretical and spiritual ideal, while completely disregarding the effect of practice on this theoretical ideal.37

Tragically, there is not only a great divide between theory and practice, but few tools of interpretation are available in the tradition to bridge this gap.

The practical problems are aptly illustrated by conflict over freedom of religion. The conclusions of the 1980 Seminar in Kuwait call upon the Islamic state to guarantee the rights of non-Muslims, including their right "to practice their religious beliefs, conduct their ceremonies, pursue their professions, vocations and other activities and benefit like everyone else from public revenues such as state assistance and aid."38

However, Muslim scholar Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im argues that "discrimination on grounds of religion or belief is fundamental to traditional Shari'a law."39 And James Piscatori agrees.40

John Kelsay argues that, at least in the modern era, there is greater diversity of belief within Islam than Piscatori and others acknowledge. He notes that Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the "Great Leader" of Pakistan, affirmed freedom of religion in his presidential address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 August 1947. Kelsay asserts: "Whatever the case for Jinnah's status as a religious thinker, it is certainly true that his statement in the 11 August speech, as well as Zafrullah Khan's comments at the United Nations, would have been in accord with certain tendencies in Indo-Pakistan Islam at the time."41

As evidence for this position he notes that the popular work by Amir 'Ali, The Spirit of Islam, which was first published in 1891 and went through several editions, presents a view of Islam which is not in conflict with modern notions of freedom of conscience. Amir 'Ali writes:

By the laws of Islam, liberty of conscience and freedom of worship were allowed and guaranteed to the followers of every other creed under Moslem dominion. The passage in the Koran, "Let there be no compulsion in religion," testifies to the principles of toleration and charity inculcated by Islam. "If thy Lord had pleased, verily all who are in the world would have believed together." "Wilt thou then force men to believe when belief can come only from God?"42

Muhammed Zafrullah Khan, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, and Amir 'Ali argue for freedom of conscience on the basis of the statement in the Qur'an that there is to be no compulsion in religion.43

Abdulaziz A. Sachedina notes that the division in Islam over freedom of religious belief and conscience can be traced back to a controversy between the Mu'tazilite and Ash'arite schools of dialectical theology. The first school supports the notion that religious belief and practice cannot be compelled, because it is God "who grants or withholds the gift of faith, who either makes the heart receptive to warnings or hardens it upon unsatisfactory actions or attitudes on the part of an individual."44 In this tradition God's guidance may be known through the natural order, by reason, as well as through revelation.

The exegetes of the second school believe that the will of God is only known through Islamic law. Moreover, they interpret the Qur'an to mean that only the "People of the Book” — Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians — are to be allowed freedom of religious practice, as these peoples have God's guidance through Scripture. They also point out that the Prophet supported compelling idol worshippers, as well as those who renounced Islamic faith, to accept it.

Clearly then, the Qur'an, as understood by some Muslim commentators, contains elements which may be used to support religious liberty. However, it must also be noted that many Muslim commentators do not take this position. Moreover, the practice within Islamic cultures has often denied freedom of religion and conscience.

In Islamic culture legal capacity has traditionally been determined by one's religion, with only Muslims being recognized as full citizens of the state. To be sure, the treatment of non-Muslims in Muslim countries has varied greatly from country to country and era to era. However, Muslims have often held that "A Muslim who abandons Islam, whether or not he or she subsequently embraces another faith, is guilty of the crime of apostasy, which is punishable by death under Shari'a law."45 Christians and Jews, as believers in Scripture which Muslims believe to be divine, have frequently enjoyed a limited degree of independence, as "People of the Book" or Dhimmas. However, Abdullah Ahmad An-Na'im asserts that "even the best Dhimma system in conception and implementation would still discriminate against Christians and Jews and violate their religious freedom."46

An-Na'im argues that the Islamic tradition can be reformed, along the lines advocated by the late Sudanese scholar Ustadh Mahmoud Mohmed Taha, who "did not propose to discard any part of the Qur'an or undermine its divine nature" but suggested "that Muslims should undertake modern legislation to enact those verses of the Qur'an which were previously deemed to be abrogated in the sense that they were not made the source of legally binding rules (ayat al-ahkam)."47 With respect to religious liberty, M. Taha argued:

that the verses emphasizing freedom of choice and individual responsibility for such choice before God should be the bases of modern Islamic law. To do that, Muslims need to abrogate the verses of compulsion and discrimination against non-Muslims, in the sense of denying them legal efficacy in modern Islamic law. Such verses shall remain part of the holy Qur'an for all purposes except the purpose of legally binding rules. In other words, in the same way that early Muslim jurists employed the technique of abrogation (naskh) to rationalize and develop a body of law for their time, modern Muslim society should undertake a similar process in order to develop a body of law for modern society.48

Changes in the Shari'a such as these, An-Na'im argues, are required for Islam to be an instrument of religious freedom. Furthermore, the "immediate and total implementation of Shari'a demanded by Muslim fundamentalists would make a difficult situation completely intolerable."49 


Khalid Duran notes that M. Taha had great support among educated Sudanese, even for his position that the Qur'an supports equal rights for women.50 Muslims have long held that historically the position of women in society was improved wherever Islam was practiced. For example, an Iranian report written in 1968 affirms: "Islam, a religion based on equality, regarded women as equal to men in the political, economic, and social spheres."51 However, the report goes on to acknowledge that in Islamic society other ideologies have often resulted in unequal treatment of women.

Muslim Scholar Riffat Hassan also takes the position that, while Islamic society continues to treat women as unequal to men, the proper reading of the Qur'an leads to a very different conclusion:

Having spent seven years in study of the Qur'anic passages relating to women, I am convinced that the Qur'an is not biased against women and does not discriminate against them. On the contrary, because of its protective attitude toward all downtrodden and oppressed classes, it appears to be weighted in many ways in favor of women.52

However, she acknowledges that human rights are disappearing today "under the pressure of mounting fanaticism and traditionalism in many areas of the Muslim world."

I am particularly concerned about serious violations of human rights pertaining to the rights of women, the rights of minorities, the right of the accused to due process of law, and the right of the Muslim masses to be free of dictatorships. In the end we have what seems to be an irreconcilable gulf between Qur'anic ideals and the realities of Muslim living.53

Nonetheless, she affirms that while "others may or may not recognize our human rights . . . as human beings who have a covenantal relationship with God, we must strive under all circumstances to secure and to guard those rights which we believe have been given to us by God and which, therefore, no one else has the right to take away."54

If equality of men and women in Islam has often seemed to be a mere ideal, the Islamic affirmation of equality regardless of color or race has more often been put into practice. Mawdudi quotes the Prophet as saying:

No Arab has any superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over a black man, or the black man any superiority over the white man. You are all the children of Adam, and Adam was created from clay.55

During his pilgrimage to Mecca, American Malcolm X was so impressed by the spirit of brotherhood among Muslims of different races and colors that he changed from a black nationalist to a black human rights advocate. He wrote:

America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered "white"—but the "white" attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.56

Thus, in a time when other black leaders in America spoke only of civil rights, Malcolm X asserted that "the salvation of America's very soul . . . can only be salvaged if human rights and dignity, in full, are extended to black men."57 

A Sufi Commentary

To mark the twentieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Sultanhussein Tabandeh of Gunabad, Iran, leader of the Ne'ematullahi Sultanalishahi Sufi Order which was founded about 1400, wrote A Muslim Commentary on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and had it delivered to every Islamic representative who attended the 1968 Tehran International Conference on Human Rights.

Sultanhussein Tabandeh describes the Universal Declaration as "a masterpiece" of the United Nations, but suggests "most of its provisions were already inherent in Islam."58 Denying any involvement in politics and confessing ignorance as to the political implications of the Declaration, he asserts his concern is "only the religious angle, and in particular the relation to the sacred theology of Islam and of Shi'a belief."59 He suggests this is particularly appropriate, as the "Declaration was greeted by private individuals of all races as a gospel proclaimed for their protection by the jurists and the liberals of the world."60

After reviewing the "genesis" of the Universal Declaration, Sultanhussein Tabandeh suggests:

The UN became the Ka'aba of peaceloving hopes. It has performed great services, one of which was its publication of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Like any human institution, this Declaration has its defects, as indeed at its very inception was pointed out by the representative of Syria in the first debate in the General Assembly. It does not guarantee all the longings of mankind: nonetheless it is a great step forward in the right direction towards the foundation of the human society of peace, freedom and equality which men of vision have aimed at through the millennia.61

He then proceeds to discuss each article in detail "in order to show that what all good people hold in common, Islam possesses in itself; and offers to humanity for the benefit of all."62

Sultanhussein Tabandeh argues that occasionally the Declaration is at variance with Islamic law.63 He asserts that Islam forbids the marriage of a Muslim to a polytheist, an idolater or an infidel, and that a Muslim woman has no right to marry any non-Muslim man. Moreover, he argues that Islamic law limits the right of divorce to the husband, and in other ways does not recognize the equal rights of men and women who are naturally "adapted to different natural functions, and capable of different duties in life."64 He defends the different rights and duties assigned to husband and wife by Islamic law as necessary for the protection of the family, which the Universal Declaration affirms is "the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State."65 Moreover, he is extremely critical of Muslim representatives to the UN who agreed to the provisions of Article 16 of the Universal Declaration, which affirm equal rights in marriage.

Freedom of thought, conscience and belief are acceptable within Islamic law, he notes, but only to the extent consistent with Islamic teachings: "No one's freedom gives him the right to blaspheme or to curse God, His Prophets or His Saints."66 Thus religious minorities "who follow the one true God and the revelation given to a prophet of His," such as Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians, can pursue their religious practice freely:

But followers of a religion of which the basis is contrary to Islam, like those who demand Islam's extirpation, have no official rights to freedom of religion in Islamic countries or under an Islamic government, nor can they claim respect for their religion, any more than in certain countries definite political parties which are contrary to the ideology of the regime can claim freedom since they are declared to be inimical to the welfare of that land and people.67

In addition to stressing that the common good limits religious liberty, Sultanhussein Tabandeh argues—much as Augustine did in the fourth century—that freedom of religion should not be interpreted as allowing people to reject the truth, for no one would knowingly endanger his or her salvation. Thus, conversion is restricted to giving up "some other religion than Islam in order to accept Islam's sound faith."68

The rest of the Declaration is found to conform to Islamic teaching. Sultanhussein Tabandeh concludes:

the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has not promulgated anything that was new nor inaugurated innovations. Every clause of it, indeed every valuable regulation needed for the welfare of human society ever enacted by the lawgivers, already existed in a better and more perfect form in Islam.69

In faith he affirms that "Islam is the summit and nothing excels it!"70 

Word and Deed

In the Islamic perspective, human rights are seen as "rights which all human beings ought to have" because: "These rights 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."71 These rights are right, because they are from God. They are to be respected as a matter of religious obligation, that is, as a matter of one's faith in God.

Muslims are not surprised that the practice of these rights falls short of the ideal, for that is true of all attempts to submit to the will of God, but they continue to assert the truth of human rights. Richard Antoun notes that this approach to encouraging the ideal may be reflected in the declaratory judgments in Islamic courts, where a principle is affirmed but deviations are allowed out of respect for local customs:

Indeed, deviations from the ideal standard are always expected. What is important is to proclaim that standard and repeat that proclamation in its most elevated form in order to provide a constant guide for the community of believers.72

As in most religious traditions, words as well as deeds are believed to shape human conduct.

This declaratory approach may help to explain two contemporary proclamations of human rights by Muslim intellectuals. The first, the "Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights," is published by the Islamic Foundation in London.73 It provides a sufficiently authoritative list of human rights in the Islamic tradition to have been cited in a Shari'a court decision in Pakistan.74

The second contemporary declaration is the "Draft Charter on Human and People's Rights in the Arab World," developed by a group of Arab experts in December of 1986. This draft received the unanimous support of the fifteen hundred members of the Arab Union of Lawyers (which claims a membership of one hundred thousand) who were present at its annual meeting in 1987.75 The supporters of this Draft Charter reaffirm "their faith in the principles proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations and the International Bill of Human Rights," but they also affirm an Islamic view of implementing human rights in the modern Arab world.76

Obviously, Osama bin Laden and other Muslims engaged in terrorist acts do not share these views. How do Islamic extremists justify their violence against civilians in the name of Islam? In 1998 bin Laden declared that his war against America was in defense of Islam, because American policies and actions in the Middle East represent "a clear declaration of war on God, His messenger and Muslims."77 His justification for such an audacious claim is a list of "crimes" committed by Americans, which include: "occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors and turning its bases in the peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples."78

In the Islamic tradition, violence has often been justified in defense of Muslim faith. In a state of peace the jihad of Islam, which refers to achieving and maintaining a purity of belief and practice, may not involve the use of violence. But in times of war jihad has been understood as "holy war," and certainly violence has often been deemed necessary to protect and preserve Islam. Moreover, Islam itself was first established in Mecca through warfare, and then spread rapidly at least in part because of the success of its military leaders.

Contemporary jihad, however, bears the particular stamp of the past century. As Muslim societies sought to recover from nineteenth century colonialism and twentieth century wars among the colonial powers, Muslims initially put their hopes in the leaders of their newly constituted states and in the international system that supported them. When these leaders proved to be corrupt and tyrannical, Muslim activists at first joined ranks with Communist movements in protest. Quickly disillusioned, however, events in the 1960s and 1970s prompted Muslims to seek a "new world order" through the renewal of religious, communal life.

Israel's victory over the Arab nations in 1967 undercut the credibility of these Arab governments, and the inability of secular Arab governments (whether supported by the West or the Soviet Union) to improve the social and economic conditions in their societies led to greater unrest. Vibrant Islamic movements arose in Arab countries, and Muslim critics of Nassar in Egypt and the Shah in Iran gained sympathy among the millions of young people being educated in the universities of the Arab world.

In Egypt, Sayyid Qutb had written that all twentieth century societies were contrary to Islam, and he sought to persuade Muslims to make a radical break with the existing world in order to build a truly Islamic state. Nassar executed Qutb in 1966, but Qutb's writings were widely disseminated in the 1970s and supported through Islamic schools funded by the new wealth of the oil producing Arab countries. To resist Soviet influence, Arab governments supported religious movements, and even the United States bought into this strategy (literally) in Afghanistan. As the Communist tide was turned back, Islamic revolutions began to succeed (first in Iran first and later in Afghanistan).

Where Muslims were in the minority in their country, Islamic renewal movements began to gain influence. The Indian "Tabligh," which by the 1980s was the largest Islamic transnational organization, promoted Islamic "communalism" not only among Muslims in India, but also in Europe.

By the end of the 1980s the movements of re-Islamization "from below" were at the head of powerful networks, which sometimes controlled whole districts and had become the indispensable intermediaries between the public authorities and marginalized social groups. At that point a change occurred in relations with the government: these movements began to take part in political life, a field into which they had seldom ventured before. This happened not only in Muslim countries, but also in Western Europe. It goes a long way to explain the Rushdie affair in Britain, the "Islamic veil" controversy in France and also the Palestinian Intifada and the emergence of the Islamic Salvation front in Algeria.79

It is these movements that perceive human rights and international law as part of the secular strategy of the West to undermine Islam and the rule of God. In 1987, a leaflet published in Britain entitled "The Muslim Vote" urged Muslims to support recognition of "a charter of Muslim demands" including a ban on books that depict Islam in an "unauthentic" way.80

When the Rushdie affair exploded, at the end of 1988, the ground had been prepared. The Bradford imams who started the book-burnings were intellectually close to a Pakistani Islamist group, the Jama'at-i-islami, founded by a theoretician close to Qutb, A. A. Mawdudi (who died in 1979). They took the view that [Salmon] Rushdie, who was accused of having shown disrespect to the Prophet [in his book entitled Satanic Verses], was a flagrant example of disobedience by a person of Muslim origin toward the communal prohibitions decreed by these same imams. It was the worst kind of temptation for young Indians and Pakistanis living in the united Kingdom, who, if they followed Rushdie's example, might become Westernised, and escape by way of "blasphemy" and "apostasy" from the social control of the "re-Islamization from below" networks.81

The Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran tried to strengthen his own position, as the self-proclaimed world leader of Islam renewal, by calling for the execution of Rushdie for his blasphemy. Today, we are more likely to remember this fatwa by Khomeini than the widespread support among Muslims, before as well as after the fatwa, for suppressing Rushdie's book.

In this same period in the Middle East the Palestinian struggle for national independence, which had been controlled largely by secular Muslims and Christians, was transformed into an Islamic movement by the general uprising known as the Intifida. Israeli and Western powers that had supported Hamas in order to divide the Palestinians and weaken the Palestinian Liberation Organization, led by Yassar Arafat, were suddenly surprised to discover growing support among Palestinians for an Islamic resistance movement, which was inspired by radical movements in Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

It must be noted that Islamic movements, which justify violent acts against governments and civilians in defense of Islam, generally receive little recognition or support from traditional Islamic authorities such as leading imams and scholars. But Muslim "freedom fighters" find justification for their actions in the passionate writings of other Muslims, such as Qutb, Mawdudi and more recently Abd al-Salam Faraj. In a pamphlet published in Egypt in the 1980s entitled "The Neglected Duty" (Al-Faridah al-Gha'ibah), Faraj effectively draws on the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet in the Hadith to urge a contemporary jihad against all those who oppose the rule of Islam.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Faraj's thought is his conclusion that peaceful and legal means for fighting apostasy are inadequate. The true soldier of Islam is allowed to use virtually any means available to achieve a just goal. Deceit, trickery, and violence are specifically mentioned as options available to the desperate soldier. Faraj set some moral limits to the tactics that could be used─for example, innocent bystanders and women are to be avoided, whenever possible, in assassination attempts─but emphasized that the duty to engage in such actions when necessary is incumbent on all true Muslims. The reward for doing so is nothing less than a place in paradise.82

Faraj not only justified jihad, he practiced it. In 1982 an Egyptian court found Faraj guilty for his part in the assassination of Anwar Sadat, and he was executed.

In Islamic movements that emphasize a break with modern culture and secular governments, the only "human rights" that have meaning are those supported by the teachings of Islam. From this Islamic point of view, these "human rights" will be universal only when Islam is universally recognized as representing the will of the one and only God.


There is support for human rights in the Muslim world, but also there is great concern about the modernization of Islamic culture. Some Muslims advocate for what Abdul Aziz Said calls "a global conception of human rights."83 This understanding of human rights would allow for major cultural differences. Said asserts that the "concept of human rights must incorporate Islamic and other Third World traditions or it will continue to provoke irreconcilable quarrels."84

Rights must be linked with duties, Said writes, and individual claims must be reconciled with the common good. From his perspective human rights may be affirmed as universally true, and yet implementation of these rights will require various forms: "As law reflects the achievement of society so too the 'rightness' of human rights is determined by time, place, and experience."85

Mohammed Allal Sinaceur argues that if there is today a "confluence between Islam and human rights," it is based

on internal Westernizing forces and modernist movements, on the influence exerted by non-Muslim authorities in Islamic countries that have, in self-defense, taken over into Islamic usage the themes, terminology and various meanings pertaining to the concepts given expression in the various Declarations of Human Rights.86

This may be, but is not necessarily, a cynical response to the dominant contemporary international culture. "From the point of view of Islam," Sinaceur asserts, "what is today recognized as human rights has, below the surface, so much in common with truth that it may be identified essentially with the ethical foundations of human society."87

While grounding human rights in their own religious teachings, Muslims may also affirm the universality of human rights, and many influential Muslims support most of the human rights asserted through the international treaties formulated by the United Nations. Other Muslims resist human rights initiatives supported by Western secular societies and NGOs, for they see these assertions as strengthening an attack on the truth of Islam. Clearly, Muslims differ in their views not only about Islam, but also about the nature of human rights and the enforcement of international human rights law.

Revised from a chapter on "Muslims" in Faith in Human Rights: Support in Religious Traditions for a Global Struggle (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1991).


1 See A. David Gurewitsch, Eleanor Roosevelt: Her Day (New York: Interchange Foundation, 1973), 25.

2 Ann Elizabeth Mayer, "The Dilemmas of Islamic Identity," in Human Rights and the World's Religions, ed. Leroy S. Rouner (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 94.

Human Rights in Islam (Geneva: International Commission of Jurists, 1982), 3.

4 Ibid., 9. 

5 Ibid., 11.

6 Ibid., 9.

7 Ibid., 11.

8 Ibid., 13.

9 Ibid., 21.

10 Ibid., 25.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., 33.

15 Rashid Ahmad Jullundhri, "Human Rights and Islam," in Understanding Human Rights: An Interdisciplinary and Interfaith Study, ed. Alan D. Falconer (Dublin: Irish School of Ecumenics, 1980), 34.

16 Muhammad al-Thanawi, Kashshaf instilahat al-Funun, (Calcutta: 1864); Sarskhsi, Usul (Cairo: 1954) 2, 332-40. Quoted in Jullundhri, "Human Rights and Islam," 35.

17 In fact, these words were spoken by Salman to his companion. Later he informed the Prophet, who endorsed Salman's saying. See Bukhari, Al-Jam'i al-Sahih, ed. Rudolph Krehl (Leiden: 1862), I, 490. Quoted in Jullundhri, "Human Rights and Islam," 35.

18 Jullundhri, "Human Rights and Islam," 35.

19 Ibid., 42.

20 Mohammed Allal Sinaceur, "Islamic Tradition and Human Rights," in Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights (Paris: UNESCO, 1986), 211. However, James P. Piscatori argues that traditional Islamic beliefs are unlike modern concepts of human rights in that rights are understood as God-given rather than as natural to persons and as subject to governmental control rather than as a check on governmental power. Piscatori, "Human Rights in Islamic Political Culture," in The Moral Imperatives of Human Rights: A World Survey, ed. Kenneth W. Thompson (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1980), 142.

21 Ibid., 212. (Qur'an 5:32)

22 Ibid., 213.

23 Ibid.

24 Abdul Aziz Said, "Human Rights in Islamic Perspectives," in Human Rights: Cultural and Ideological Perspectives, ed. Adamantia Pollis and Peter Schwab (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1979), 86. For instance, unlike the Christian tradition, Islamic law has never had a doctrine of natural law and makes no claim to govern the conscience. Sinaceur, "Islamic Tradition and Human Rights," in Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights, 204-05.

25 Ibid. See also Abdul Aziz Said, "The Islamic Context for Human Rights," Breakthrough 10, nos. 2-3 (Winter/Spring 1989):39-41.

26 Ibid, 87.

27 Ibid.

28 Abdul Aziz Said and Jamil Nasser, "The Use and Abuse of Democracy in Islam," in International Human Rights: Contemporary Issues, ed. Jack L. Nelson and Vera M. Green (Stanfordville, N.Y.: Human Rights Publishing Group, Earl M. Coleman, 1980), 76-77. See Mansour Farhang, "Fundamentalism and Civil Rights in Contemporary Middle Eastern Politics," in Human Rights and the World's Religions, 64.

29 Basharat Ahmad, "Qur'anic View of Human Freedom," The Islamic Review 5, nos. 1, 2, and 3 (October, November, December 1984):9.

30 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, "The Concept and Reality of Freedom in Islam and Islamic Civilization," in The Philosophy of Human Rights, ed. Alan S. Rosenbaum (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980), 96. On 26 November 1982, before the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, Mr. Zarif of the Islamic Republic of Iran asserted that "the Islamic Revolution in his own country was aimed, inter alia, at the promotion of human rights on a world-wide scale." He maintained that "Defending human rights, whose status was so exalted in the eyes of Islam, was a difficult task, particularly since corruption and absurdity had become common practice in contemporary societies through the gross neglect and compromising of liberties in the name of individual freedom; unfortunately, freedom had become synonymous with decadence. Consequently, all rules regarding human rights must be founded exclusively on principles of divine ethics, and justice must be defined in terms of external moral principles." "Summary Record of the 56th Meeting of the Third Committee," A/C.3/37/SR.56, English, 15.

31 Ibid., 97.

32 Abul A'la Mawdudi, Human Rights in Islam (Leicester, U.K.: Islamic Foundation, 2nd ed. 1980), 10.

33 Ibid., 15. Chaudri Nazir Ahmad Khan asserts that "a fundamental drawback in the whole concept of human rights was the idea that these rights were being granted by man to man, as if they were a gift. We must realize that every child wherever born and of whatever color, caste or creed, brings into the world all these rights at the time of his birth, as a direct blessing from Allah—the Creator. They are sacred and inviolable." Khan, "Address," in The International Observance: World Law Day—Human Rights: 1968 (Geneva: World Peace through Law Center, 1968), 8.

34 Ibid., 16. See Ihsen Hamid Al-Mafregy, "Islam and Human Rights," in Human Rights Teaching 2, no. 1 (1981), 11-14. Mawdudi's Islamic Party (Jama'at-e Islami) rejected liberal notions of natural law and liberty of conscience and regarded Muhammed Zufrullah Khan as a heretic. John Kelsay, "Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," in Human Rights and the Conflict of Cultures: Western and Islamic Perspectives on Religious Liberty (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1988), 49.

35 Fouad Zakaria, "Human Rights in the Arab World: the Islamic Context," in Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights, 228.

36 Ibid., 230.

37 Ibid., 237. Zakaria observes that the Iranian Revolution represents a notable exception.

38 Human Rights in Islam, 7-8. Mohammed Allal Sinaceur argues that this conclusion is supported by the Qur'anic affirmation (2:256): "No constraint in religion." Sinaceur, "Islamic Tradition and Human Rights," in Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights, 215-16.

39 Abdulahi Ahmed An-Na'im, "Religious Freedom in Egypt: Under the Shadow of the Islamic Dhimma System," in Religious Liberty and Human Rights in Nations and in Religions, ed. Leonard Swidler (Philadelphia: Ecumenical Press, Temple University, 1986), 55. See also his article, "Religious Minorities under Islamic Law and the Limits of Cultural Relativism," Human Rights Quarterly 9, no. 1 (February 1987):1-18.

40 James P. Piscatori, "Human Rights in Islamic Political Culture," in The Moral Imperatives of Human Rights, 144-46.

41 John Kelsay, "Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," in Human Rights and the Conflict of Cultures: Western and Islamic Perspectives on Religious Liberty, 43-44.

42 Syed Ameer Ali, The Spirit of Islam (London: Methuen, 1967), 212; quoted in John Kelsay, "Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," in Human Rights and the Conflict of Cultures, 45. Wilfred Cantwell Smith acknowledges that The Spirit of Islam was widely circulated among liberal Muslims, but argues that it is superficial. He asserts that Muhammad Iqbal not only "saw through the liberal sham of democracy, to its exploitation," but communicated a revolutionary message to Indian Muslims through his poetry. In Sultanat Iqbal writes: "The West's republicanism is the same old instrument, In its strings there are no tunes but those of Kaiserism. The demon of exploitation dances in republican garb, And you suppose that it is the fairy of liberty. Constitutional bodies, reforms, privileges, rights, Are sweet-tasting western soporifics." Quoted in Smith, Modern Islam in India: A Social Analysis (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1946), 110-11.

43 David Little asserts: "Presumably genuine submission or surrender to Allah's will, along with the appropriate dispositions of gratitude, devotion, steadfastness, etc., must come from the heart, must involve the deepest and most intimate kind of personal consent and commitment. If that is true, then compulsion and external interference would appear to be the antithesis of Islamic faith." Little, "The Western Tradition," in Human Rights and the Conflict of Cultures, 29.

44 Abdulaziz A. Sachedina, "Freedom of Conscience and Religion in the Qur'an," in Human Rights and the Conflict of Cultures, 67.

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid., 56. See James Dudley, "Human Rights Practices in the Arab States: The Modern Impact of Shari'a Values," Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law 12 (1982):55-93.

50 Khalid Duran, "Religious Liberty and Human Rights in the Sudan," in Religious Liberty and Human Rights in Nations and Religions, 74.

51 Iran and Human Rights: A Brief Account of the Achievements of the Last Few Years (Iran: Compiled under the Auspices of the Iranian Coordinating Committee for the International Year for Human Rights, 1968), 95.

52 Riffat Hassan, "On Human Rights and the Qur'anic Perspective," in Human Rights in Religious Traditions, ed. Arlene Swidler (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1982), 63. Nikki R. Keddie notes that those presenting such "modernist" arguments often assert that the Qur'an has many meanings, a traditional position in Islam, and so call for "reform" in the circumstances of modern society. "An allied argument is to stress the spirit of the Qur'an—to use the book title of the South Asian reformer Ameer Ali—and to say that the Quar'an is egalitarian (largely true) and favors human rights, and that these general principles were meant to be extended to women's rights. There is also extensive reinterpretation of particular verses and passages. The Qur'an in the same chapter says that men can marry up to four wives if they can treat the wives equally, and later that no matter how hard they try men will not be able to treat wives equally. Putting the two together, it is logically held by the modernists that the Qur'an was against polygamy, as the conditions it lays down as requirements for polygamy it then says are impossible to meet. More generally, various passages are interpreted to refer to male-female equality." Nikki R. Keddie, "The Rights of Women in Contemporary Islam," in Human Rights and the World's Religions, 86.

53 Ibid., 65. James P. Piscatori argues to the contrary that the Qur'an clearly supports inequitable treatment of men and women. Piscatori, "Human Rights in Islamic Political Culture," in The Moral Imperatives of Human Rights, 144.

54 Ibid., 55.

55 Quoted in Abdul A'la Mawdudi, Human Rights in Islam, 22.

56 Quoted in Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965), 340.

57 Ibid., 377.

58 Sultanhussein Tabandeh, A Muslim Commentary on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, trans. F. J. Goulding (London: F. T. Goulding & Company, English edition, 1970), 1. However, Mansour Farhang argues that the concept of human rights in the Universal Declaration is essentially Western: "It is a preconception of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that in spite of the diversity of culture and differences in existential conditions in the world, a common standard of rights can be established for all peoples and nations." Farhang, "Fundamentalism and Civil Rights in Contemporary Middle Eastern Politics," in Human Rights and the World's Religions, 64.

59 Ibid. Mr. Zarif's statement on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran is clearly more political, although it also is concerned to defend religious rights. Mr. Zarif stated that the Universal Declaration and the major human rights covenants were "not necessarily incompatible with the principles of justice and ethics"; however, the Declaration "appeared to relegate religion to the realm of an individual's private affairs, thereby precluding the possibility of establishing a religious Government." Moreover, "Specific provisions in the Declaration and the Covenants with regard to matters such as marriage were a blatant violation of the inherent right of everyone to practice his religious beliefs. In view of the fact that most religions had their own guidelines concerning issues such as marriage, the Declaration clearly promoted the abandonment of religion even in the sphere of personal and private matters, unfortunately under the guise of religious freedom." As the Declaration reflects the Western liberalism of its time, he argued that "the Western world must set aside its traditional cultural chauvinism and consider alternative approaches to the question of human rights." "Summary Record of the 56th Meeting of the Third Committee," 26 November 1982, A/C.3/37/SR.56, English, 16.

60 Sultanhussein Tabandeh, A Muslim Commentary on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 3.

61 Ibid., 9.

62 Ibid., 14.

63 During the drafting of the Universal Declaration the Egyptian delegate also raised objections on the basis of Islamic law. See United Nations, Yearbook of the United Nations 1948-49 (New York: Columbia University Press in cooperation with the United Nations, 1950), 532; and James Frederick Green, The United Nations and Human Rights(Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institute, 1956), 32.

64 Ibid., 37-40. He notes that "Jesus Christ, too . . . decried the lovelessness which is the sin that leads to the inauguration of legal separation of a married couple."

65 Article 16, 3rd clause, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10.

66 Ibid., 70.

67 Ibid.

68 Ibid., 72. Abdullahi Ahmed El Naiem notes the same distinction, but argues for a radical reform of the Shari'a. El Naiem, "A Modern Approach to Human Rights in Islam: Foundations and Implications for Africa," in Human Rights and Development in Africa, ed. Claude E. Welch, Jr. and Ronald I. Meltzer (Albany: State University of New York, 1984), 75-89.

69 Ibid., 85.

70 Ibid.

71 Riffat Hassan, "On Human Rights and the Qur'anic Perspective," in Human Rights in Religious Traditions, 54.

72 Richard T. Antoun, "The Islamic Court, The Islamic Judge, and the Declaration of Traditions: A Jordanian Case Study," International Journal of Middle East Studies 12 (1980):455-67. Mohammed Allal Sinaceur suggests that contemporary human rights derive their "mystic sustenance" from their "declaratory character." Sinaceur, "Islamic Tradition and Human Rights," in Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights, 194.

73 Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (London: Islamic Foundation, 1981). It is published in Human Rights Sourcebook, ed. Albert P. Blaustein, Roger S. Clark, and Jay A. Sigler (New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1987), 917-26. Riad Daoudi, Professor of Law at the University of Damascus, notes that this Declaration is an important point of reference in teaching human rights in countries like Saudi Arabia where Muslim law is the only source of national legislation. See Daoudi, "Teaching of Human Rights in Arab Countries," in Frontiers of Human Rights Education, ed. Asbjørn Eide and Marek Thee (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 69-71.

74 Ansar Burney v. Federation of Pakistan (Aftab Hussain, CJ), Feb. 1983, vol. 35, no. 2, The All Pakistan Legal Decisions, Federal Shariat Court, 73-93, Shariat Petition No. K-4 of 1982, decided on 10 August 1982, 93.

75 Comments by Munzer Anabtawi, professor at the University of Jordan, at the International Institute of Human Rights, Strasbourg, France, 21 July 1987, notes by author.

76 Unpublished copy received at the International Institute of Human Rights, Strasbourg, France, July 1987.

77 Quoted in Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, updated edition with a new preface (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 145, from "Jihad is an Individual Duty," Los Angeles Times, August 13, 1998, B9.

78 Ibid.

79 Gilles Kepel, The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Modern World, translated from the French by Alan Braley (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 36. See also Gilles Kepel, Allah in the West: Islamic Movements in American and Europe, translated from the French by Susan Milner (Sanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997).

80 Ibid., 38.

81 Ibid., 38-39.

82 Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, 81. Faraj, pars. 102, 109, and 113 in Jansen, Neglected Duty, 212-213.

83 Abdul Aziz Said, "Human Rights in Islamic Perspectives," in Human Rights: Cultural and Ideological Perspectives, 96.

84 Ibid.

85 Ibid., 97.

86 Mohammed Allal Sinaceur, "Islamic Tradition and Human Rights," in Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights, 208.

87 Ibid., 220. © Robert Traer 2016