Human Rights Traditions in Islam: An Overview

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The Islamic concept of human rights contains numerous moral exhortations. Helping orphans, widows, wayfarers and the poor has been greatly stressed by the holy Quran and Sunnah (Prophetic traditions) which not only helps people overcome their economic problems but also inculcates a kind of fellow feeling among them. Its many injunctions have gone a long way in ameliorating human suffering and creating human rights obligations.

Muslim scholars also contend that the concept of human rights can be traced back to Quranic texts and prophetic traditions. Sultan H. Tabandeh, an Iranian Sufi scholar, writes that contemporary human rights doctrines merely give recognition to 1500 years old Islamic principles. In fact, these principles/doctrines existed in a better and more perfect form in Islam than in any document ever enacted by lawgivers. To him “Islam is a summit and nothing excels it”. Maulana Mawdudi also argues that “Islam has laid down universal fundamental rights for humanity as a whole which are to be observed and respected under all circumstances… fundamental rights for every man by virtue of his status as a human being”. The Sharia embodies the basic concepts and principles of human rights. In this regard, it is pertinent to note a comment made in 1927 by a Western scholar, Count Leon Ostrorog, long before the advent of modern human rights doctrine. In a series of three lectures delivered at the University of London. on the Angora Reform, he observed:

Considered from the point of view of its logical structure, the system (Islamic law) is one of rare perfection, and to this day it commands the admiration of the student. Once … the revelation to the Prophet is admitted as postulate, it is difficult to find a flaw in the long series of deductions; so unimpeachable do they appear from the point of view of Formal Logic and of the rules of Arabic Grammar. If the contents of that logical fabric are examined, some theories command not only admiration but surprise. Those Eastern thinkers of the ninth century laid down, on the basis of their theology, the principle of the rights of Man, in those very terms, comprehending the rights of individual liberty, and of inviolability of person and property; described the supreme power in Islam, or Califate, as based on a contract, implying conditions of capacity and performance, and subject to cancellation if the conditions under the contract were not fulfilled; elaborated a Law of War of which the humane, chivalrous prescriptions would have put to the blush certain belligerents in the Great War; expounded a doctrine of toleration of non-Moslem creeds so liberal that our West had to wait a thousand years before seeing equivalent principles adopted.

However, Orientalists criticize Islam saying that it does not establish complete equality of man and woman in many areas. For instance, the witness of two females is equivalent to one male witness. No doubt regarding testimony, the Quran enjoins (Chapter 2:282) that when one person lends money to another, two male witnesses should be taken but, if only one male witness is available, then two female witnesses should be taken in lieu of a second male witness. While interpreting this verse it may be noted that the real intent of the Quranic command to take two witnesses in the first place is to ensure the return of the loaned money, and that the stipulation of taking two witnesses may have been the best way possible, at that time to ensure the payment of the loan. Some modern Muslim Scholars have argued that the stipulation rests on the empirically verifiable fact that women in pre-Islamic Arabia generally had, relative to men, little experience of financial matters and likely to err in recalling the details of transactions.

Advanced Concept of Rights

 Islam provides the most rational basis to ensure the primacy of the fundamental right to life, and to guarantee its protection. It prohibits female infanticide, a practice prevalent in Arabia and other parts of the world. By not strictly prescribing the death penalty for the crime of murder, an assassin can be pardoned by the victim’s family on receiving blood money (a kind of compensation). Islam introduced the principle of humane treatment of the individual 1500 years ago. This is a marked departure from the then prevailing Roman law which prescribed “an eye for an eye”. It may be recalled that only in the 20th century European nations have enacted laws abolishing the death penalty without any compensation to the family of the victim by the guilty. It may be noted that for many centuries under British and Scottish law, capital punishment was applicable to a variety of crimes, including, horse, sheep and cattle stealing, rape, house-breaking, stealing of letters by the staff of the Post Office, etc. In England, theft of property worth more than a shilling was classified as a felony and like every other felony, was punished with death, up to as late as 1861. In comparison to English law, the Muslim law prescribing cutting the hands of thieves appears less barbaric. Moreover, with the coming up of jails in modern times and the reinterpretation of Islamic penal law most Muslim states have discontinued the practice of cutting off the hands.

The Islamic concept of human rights was very advanced as it included an elaborate set of rights. Three points may be noted: (1) The Islamic concept of human dignity applied to all humans, irrespective of whether they were Muslims or not. Non-Muslim minorities had rights under Islamic law and directives, which no ruling majority could interfere with. (ii) women enjoyed inheritance and other rights much before the West could reform its laws on gender equality; (iii) the principles of universal brotherhood, equality and non-discrimination are significant bases of Islamic concept of rights. The farewell address of the Prophet Muhammad, which he delivered during his last pilgrimage, summarizes the Islamic precept. He said: “O men, truly your God is one God, and your father, too, is one; you are all born of Adam, and Adam is but dust. The noblest of you with Allah is the most dutiful. No man, whether he is an Arab or not and whatever his race and colour, is superior to any other man except in uprightness [Italics added]. 

Environment Rights

Another Islamic ethical norm prohibits the wasteful use of resources. Prophet Mohammad said that one must not waste water even if one is sitting by a stream, and one must take from the stream only as much water as needed. Islamic environmental law uses a “duty paradigm” in the sphere of the right to a healthy environment, as human beings must not destroy, deplete, or unwisely use natural resources but have an obligation to develop and enhance natural resources. In Islamic environmental law, the human is not the owner of nature, but a mere beneficiary. Islamic environmental safety is based upon the principle of “use” without “abuse”. Environmental protection under the Islamic legal scheme does not differ from any modern environmental legal system.

Humanitarian Law

The Islamic laws of war prohibit Muslim armies from cutting down fruit bearing trees in their path, which in fact amounts to a general rule that the beneficial resources of nature must be preserved. During war, the Muslim army is required to preserve natural vegetation, crops and livestock. This prohibition may be seen as an Islamic approach to environmental issues. Furthermore, these laws introduce many exemplary principles for ensuring that non-combatants like women, slaves, the old and sick, are spread as a target in armed conflicts. Moreover, it also introduced the principle of dignity and integrity of persons towards the enemy. There are many sayings by the Prophet forbidding the burning alive of enemy warriors. The Prophet one said; “No one is entitled to punish with fire except the one who created it, i.e., Allah”. He also prohibited the practice of giving enemy corpses in exchange for money. Giving burial for the bodies of the enemy was also ordered. Prisoners of war (POW) were released either in exchange for Muslim POWs or in exchange for ransom to be paid by the POW, or simply on his agreement that, if he is literate, he will teach some prescribed Muslim. These are some of the Muslim humanitarian laws.

Gender Justice and Empowerment of Women

With regard to gender equality Islamic precepts are worth commending. Marriage is made as a contract, which can be dissolved for reasons of incompatibility and other valid reasons and not on flimsy ground. Unlike in some other religions, it is not indissoluble. Women are given inheritance rights; their consent in marriage is essential.

Though there is no specific stipulation for women assuming leadership roles, the examples of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan and Khalida Zia in Bangladesh becoming Prime Ministers of their respective countries are encouraging. It is gratifying to note that even in Iran a woman was recently appointed Vice President of the country. It is a different matter that the position of women in Muslim Society today is generally far short of fulfilling Islamic ideals. But the model of a true Islamic society does exist in Islamic history. It is in this context that we attempt in the following pages the Islamic notion of human rights.

Muslim Contributions to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

No Muslim member state of the United Nations voted against the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) as in their view human rights were not inconsistent with Sharia. Except Saudi Arabia (which abstained) the other five states (Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan) voted in its favour besides playing a constructive role in its drafting.

A brief comparison of fundamental human rights enshrined in the holy Quran and Sunnah with the rights proclaimed in the Universal Declaration will dispel the popularly held view that human rights are of western construct. The European Islamic Council (an NGO composed of eminent Muslim scholars, jurists, and representatives of Islamic movements and thought) adopted the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights on September 19, 1981. The Islamic Declaration has no inconsistency in general with the provisions of the Universal Declaration except on one or two issues related to freedom of religion and freedom of marriage (as Muslims are not allowed to renounce Islam and the Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslim men, although Muslim men are allowed to marry non-Muslim women, especially from People of the Book – Jews, Christians or Hindus without converting them to Islam).

Rights and Duties in the Quran

A birds’ eye view of the recognition of the responsibilities and rights in the Holy Quran confirms the view that Islam provided an elaborate list of rights (for reasons of space references to Hadith have been omitted). These are as follows:

(i)    Protection/security of human life (Chapter 5: 32-35; 6:151; 4:30; 17:31; 18:9-10; 17:33; 4:93)

(ii)   Freedom from slavery or servitude: (humane treatment of slaves or granting freedom to them (Chapter 4:36 & 92; 2:177, 9:60; 24:33; 47:4).

(iii)     Right to justice (4:58-59 and 148; 5:42 & 49; 5: 8-9; 4:135; 16:90; 53:38).

       (iv) Right of fair trial (2:229; 17:15).

       (v)     Right to protection against abuse of power (33:58)    

        (vi)   Protection of honour and reputation; respect for the chastity of women (49:11-12; 24: 16-19; 7:32).

       (vii)  Rights concerning emigrants and refugees (4:98, 101; 16: 42-43; 111; 22:59-60; 59:10; 9:6; 3:97; 2:125 and 22:25).

       (viii)            Freedom of conscience and conviction (Freedom of Religion of religious minorities) (18:29; 10:99-100; 2:256; 109:6; 88:21 & 22; 5:48-59; 29:46).

       (ix) Equality before law (49:10 & 13; 9:11).

        (x) Right and obligation to participate in the conduct and management of public affairs (42:38;


        (xi) Economic rights (41:10; 51:19; 76:8; 2:188; 46:19; 53:39).

        (xii) Status and dignity of workers (9:105; 46:19).

        (xiii) Liberty of work (67:10).

        (xiv) Protection of property (2:188).

        (xv) Right to privacy (24:27-28, 58; 33:53).

       (xvi) Right to found a family and related matters (4:1; 2:228; 30:21; 65:7; 17:24).

        (xvii) Rights of married women (2:229 & 237; 2:187; 4:4, 12, 19-21; 24:33; 9:71; 7:189; 30:21; 65:6).

        (xviii) Principle of racial equality (30:22; 49:13).

Of all the human rights Islam recognizes, religious liberty and tolerance stands out as the most prominent freedom. The Holy Quran pronounces that “there shall be no compulsion in faith”, (Quran, 2:257). “Proclaim: ‘It is the truth from your Lord’: wherefore let him who will, believe, and let him who will disbelieve”, (Quran, 18: 30). At another place, it pronounces that: “To each among you we have prescribed law and a path: And if God had enforced his will, he would have made you one nation or people. But his plan is to test you in what he hath given you”, (Quran, 5:48-59). “You have your own religion and I have mine”, (Quran, 109:6). These Quranic verses reveal two important principles. First, Islam cannot be propagated and preached through force. Second, God has sent messengers or prophets to every people and every nation, thereby firmly believing in religious pluralism.

The Arab Charter on Human Rights

It is gratifying to note that the Arab Charter on Human Rights was adopted by the League of Arab States in 1994. However, none of the member states had ratified the Charter. The Charter was later updated and led to the amended version by the Arab summit in Tunis in 2004. The 2004 version of the Charter came as part of an effort to modernize the League of Arab States. The Arab Charter on Human Rights entered into force on 16 March 2008. The treaty body established to supervise its implementation is the Arab Human Rights Committee.

According to its Preamble, the Charter is based on principles established by the Islamic Shari’a and the other divine religions enshrined in brotherhood and equality amongst human beings. It cherishes the humanitarian values and principles which [the Arab Nation] had established throughout its long history, having had a major role in spreading centres of knowledge between East and West, and made it the destination of people from all over the world and of those seeking knowledge, culture and wisdom. And the Arab World aiming to preserving its belief, having faith in its unity, struggling for its freedom, defending the right of nations to self-determination and to preserve their wealth, and believing in the Rule of Law and that mankind’s enjoyment of freedom, justice and equal opportunity is the hallmark of the profound essence of any society. It rejects racism and Zionism, both of which constitute a violation of human rights and a threat to world peace. It also recognizes the close link between human rights and world peace. It reaffirms the principles of the UN Charter, the UDHR, the provisions of the two International Covenants on Human Rights, and the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam.

To sum up, human rights in Islam exist only in relation to human obligations. Individuals possess certain obligations toward God, fellow humans and nature – it is a much broader concept of rights indeed!

Abdulrahim P. Vijapur is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Science and Technology Meghalaya. He was previously Professor of Political Science at AMU, Aligarh

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