Does Islam Need Saving? An Analysis of Human Rights
Published: August 21, 2017 • Updated: June 5, 2023
بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ
In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
...Political realities—such as colonialism, the persistence of highly invasive and domineering despotic governments, the widespread perception, and reality, of Western hypocrisy in the human rights field, and the emergence and spread of supremacist movements of moral exceptionalism in modern Islam—have contributed to modes of interpretation and practice that are not consistent with a commitment to human rights...Colonialism, and its accompanying institution of Orientalism, had not only played a pivotal role in undermining the traditional institutions of Muslim learning and jurisprudence, but it had also posed a serious challenge to traditional Muslim epistemologies of knowledge and sense of moral values. Although international human rights law was enshrined in various treaties during a period in which most Muslim countries had gained political independence, the experiences of colonialism and post-colonialism influenced the Muslim intellectual response in several important respects. Muslims did not first encounter Western conceptions of human rights in the form of the UDHR of 1948, or in the form of negotiated international conventions. Rather, they encountered such conceptions as part of the “White Man’s Burden” or the “civilizing mission” of the colonial era, and as part of the European natural law tradition which was frequently exploited to justify imperialistic policies in the Muslim world.
The Problem with the History of Contemporary Human Rights
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for amongst old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature by the hand of divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured.
...[It is] a superior international standard, established by common consent, which caused a disappearance of the need for standards founded on systems of divine law or natural law...To judge whether a natural law is good or bad, just or unjust, recourse is no longer necessary to the Creator or to Nature or to belief in either of them.
natural law derived from God and nature universally endowed all human beings with certain natural rights of protection and just and equal treatment irrespective of any religious or civil status.
The first steps in this direction began with the earliest thoughts and beliefs about the value of human life, what it means to be truly human, and whether people bear any responsibility for the well-being of others. Given these kind of profound, universal, and enduring issues, it is not surprising that some of the first significant philosophies concerning human rights would come from religious tradition. Virtually all of the world’s greatest religions, despite their many differences, stress the worth and dignity of human life, the common kinship of humankind, and the responsibility that believers have to show compassion, to treat others as they would like to be treated, and to care for those who suffer. These early forms of religious belief may not have created legal or personal rights, but they established traditions and manifested principles that would inform later rights developments.
One of Judaism’s fundamental theoretical convictions is that God both created the world and owns it. This immediately establishes a ground for moral claims completely different than secular alternatives. The whole drama of life, from the point of view of Judaism, is not played out on the stage of individuals with inherent inalienable rights, it is rather played on the stage of positive and negative duties to God.
the [Buddhist] precepts establish the duty of a husband to support his wife, without stating explicitly that the wife has a right to be supported. However…the husband’s duty establishes the wife’s right.
Cultural Relativism and Universalism
Radical universalism requires a rigid hierarchical ordering of multiple moral communities to which individuals and groups belong. The radical universalist must give absolute priority to the demands of the cosmopolitan moral community over all other lower communities. This denial of national and subnational ethical autonomy is dubious at best.
For example, chattel slavery and caste systems, which implicitly deny the existence of a morally significant common humanity, are almost universally condemned, even in the most rigid class societies. Likewise, basic moral distinctions between insiders and outsiders have been seriously eroded by individual mobility and by an at least aspirational commitment to the idea of a universal moral community. Relativism rests on the notions of moral autonomy and communal self-determination. To rely on internal judgments entirely would be to abrogate one’s moral responsibility as a member of the cosmopolitan moral community.
Laura Bush’s radio address on November 17…collapsed important distinctions that should have been maintained. There was a constant slippage between the Taliban and the terrorists so that they became almost one word—a kind of hyphenated monster identity: The Taliban-and-the-terrorists. Then there was the blurring of the very separate causes in Afghanistan of women’s continuing malnutrition, poverty, and ill health, and their more recent exclusion under the Taliban from employment, schooling, and the joys of wearing nail polish. On the other hand, her speech reinforced chasmic divides, primarily between ‘the civilized people throughout the world’ whose hearts break for the women and children of Afghanistan and the Taliban-and-the-terrorists, the cultural monsters who want to, as she put it, ‘impose their world on the rest of us.’ Most revealingly, the speech enlisted women to justify American bombing and intervention in Afghanistan and to make a case for the War on Terrorism of which it was allegedly a part. As Laura Bush said, ‘Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment…
The question is why knowing the ‘culture’ of the region, and particularly, its religious beliefs and treatment of women, was more urgent than exploring the history of the development of repressive regimes in the region and the US role in this history. Such cultural framing prevents the serious exploration of roots and nature of human suffering in this part of the world.
Can we only free Afghan women to be like us or might we have to recognize that even after ‘liberation’ from the Taliban they might want different things than we might want for them? Again, when I talk about accepting difference, I am not implying that we should resign ourselves to being cultural relativists who respect whatever goes on elsewhere as ‘just their culture.’ I have already discussed the dangers of cultural expectations; their cultures are just as much a part of history and an interconnected world as ours are. We may want justice for women, but can we accept that there might be different ideas about justice that different women might want or choose, different features from what we envision as best? We must consider that they might be called to personhood in a different language.
Violence and oppression in the name of human rights
The justification of torture
The erosion of civil liberties
…The USA Patriot Act…violates core constitutional principles, rendering immigrants deportable for their political associations, excludable for pure speech, and detainable on the attorney general’s say-so. And by reserving its harshest measures for immigrants—in the immediately foreseeable future, Arab and Muslim immigrants—it sacrifices commitments to equality by trading a minority group’s liberty for the majority’s security.
But what is sad is that while Europe built the edifice of the individual within its own borders, it destroyed the human person on other shores. As human rights expanded among white people, European empires inflicted horrendous human wrongs upon the colored inhabitants of the planet. The elimination of the native populations of the Americas and Australasia and the enslavement of millions of Africans during the European slave trade were two of the greatest human rights tragedies of the colonial epoch…. Though formal colonial rule has ended, Western domination and control continues to impact upon the human rights of the vast majority of the people of the non-Western world in ways which are more subtle and sophisticated but no less destructive and devastating.
Our contemporary missionaries preach democracy, free markets, and the rule of law—all institutions founded on our belief in the equality and liberty of every person. This dogged commitment to a universal community is a part of our Christian and Enlightenment traditions. We experience this simultaneously as a kind of open-ended love and as a faith in the capacity of each individual to enter into a rational debate that will result in mutual agreement. No one, we believe, is beyond conversion to our values. When we dream of a global world order, we project our own values onto it. We do not imagine that the global community of the future will be led by an Islamic cleric.
Human Rights in Islam
From its very inception in the seventh century Arabia, the message of Islam demonstrated a preoccupation with the social, moral, and spiritual condition of human beings. The deity proclaimed by the Prophet Muhammad to the world was both the ‘Lord of the Worlds’ and ‘Lord of the People.’ The subject of the prophet’s revelation, the Quran, was not exclusively a self-revelation of God to humanity, but an instant where humanity became the very leitmotif of revelation.
God sent His message and His books to lead people with justice…Therefore, if a just leadership is established, through any means, then therein is the Way of God…In fact, the purpose of God’s Way is the establishment of righteousness and justice…so any road that establishes what is right and just is the road [Muslims] should follow.
those rights and duties that have a revealed imperative and a religious rationale. They can be both mandatory obligations of a devotional kind such as ritual obligations or they could involve acts that benefit the entire community.
For this reason, We prescribed for the Children of Israel that whoever slays a soul—unless it be for another soul or working corruption upon the earth—it is as though he slew mankind altogether, and whosoever saves the life of one, it is as though he saved the life of mankind altogether. Our messengers have certainly come unto them with clear proofs. Yet even after that, many of them are prodigal on the earth. (The Quran, 5:32)
And slay not the soul that God has made inviolable, save by right. And whosoever is slain unjustly, We have appointed authority unto his heir. Then let him not be excessive in slaying. Verily, he shall be helped. (The Quran, 17:33)
Say, Come, I will recite that which your Lord has forbidden you: that you ascribe nothing as partner unto Him, and that you be virtuous toward parents, and that you slay not your children for fear of poverty—We will provide for you and for them—and approach not indecencies, whether outward or inward, and slay not the soul that God has made inviolable, save by right. This He has enjoined upon you, that haply you may understand. (The Quran, 6:151)
O Children of Adam! Put on your adornment at every place of worship, and eat and drink, but be not prodigal. Truly He loves not the prodigal. Say, Who has forbidden the adornment of God, which He has brought forth for his servants, and the good things among His provision? Say, These are for those who believe, in the life of this world, and on the Day of Resurrection they are for them alone. Thus do We expound the signs for a people who know. Say, My Lord has only forbidden indecencies—both outward and inward—and sin, and tyranny without right, and that you should ascribe partners unto God, for which He has sent down no authority, and that you should say of God that which you know not. (The Quran, 7:31-33)
There is no right for the son of Adam in other than these things: A house which he lives in, a garment which covers his nakedness, and a piece of bread, and water.
And in whose wealth is acknowledged due for the beggar and the deprived. (The Quran 70:24-25)
1 Abou El Fadl, Khaled. “The Human Rights Commitment in Islam,” in In Joseph Runzo, Nancy M. Martin and Arvind Sharma (Eds)., Human Rights and Responsibilities in the World Religions (pp. 1-25). Oneworld. 2003.
3 Fagan, Andrew. “Human Rights.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
4 Forsythe, David. Introduction. Encyclopedia of Human Rights. Volume 1. Oxford University Press. 2009.
5 Runzo, Joseph. “Secular Rights and Religious Responsibilities.” In Joseph Runzo, Nancy M. Martin and Arvind Sharma (Eds)., Human Rights and Responsibilities in the World Religions (pp. 1-25). Oneworld. 2003.
7 Paul Sieghart, The International Law of Human Rights 15 (Clarendon Press, 1995).
8 Forsythe, David.
9 Ishay, Micheline R. The Human Rights Reader. Second Edition. Routledge. 2007. “Introduction.”
10 “Reign of Terror.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.
11 Ishay, Micheline, R.
12 Bloom, Irene, J. Paul Martin, and Wayne L. Proudfoot. Religious Diversity and Human Rights. Columbia University Press, 1996. Introduction.
14 Ibid. pp. 210-230.
15 Ibid. pp. 248-267.
16 Donnelly, Jack. “Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights.” Human Rights Quarterly. Vol. 6, No. 4 (Nov. 1984), pp. 400-419.
19 “Text: President Bush Addresses the Nation.” September 20, 2001. The Washington Post Online. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpsrv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/bushaddress_092001.html.
20 Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Do Muslim Women Need Saving: Anthropological Reflections On Cultural Relativism and its Others.” American Anthropologist. Vol. 104, No. 3. September 2002.
23 Huntington, Samuel. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs. Vol. 72, No. 3. (Summer, 1993). Published by Council on Foreign Relations.
24 Withnall, Adam. “Donald Trump says torture ‘absolutely works’ in first major interview as President.” The Independent.
25 UDHR. Article 5.
26 Dershowitz, Alan. “Tortured Reasoning.” See The Human Rights Reader edited by Micheline R. Ishay.
27 Alsultany, Evelyn. The Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation After 9/11. New York University Press. 2012.
28 Cole, David. “Let’s Fight Terrorism, Not the Constitution” in Rights vs. Public Safety After 9/11: America in the Age of Terrorism (A. Etzioni and J. Marsh, eds., 2003).
29 Simon, Caroline. “The FBI is manufacturing terrorism cases on a greater scale than ever before.” Business Insider. June 9, 2016. And Lichtblau, Michael. “FBI Steps up Use of Stings in ISIS Cases.” The New York Times. June 7, 2016.
30 Muzaffar, Chandra. “On Western Imperialism and Human Rights” See “From Human Rights to Human Dignity.” 1999.
31 Massad, Joseph. Islam in Liberalism. 2015. The University of Chicago Press.
32 Moosa, Ebrahim. “The Dilemma of Islamic Rights Schemes.” Journal of Law and Religion. Vol. 15, (2001), pp. 185-215.
34 Abou El Fadl, Khaled. “The Human Rights Commitment in Islam.” in In Joseph Runzo, Nancy M. Martin and Arvind Sharma (Eds)., Human Rights and Responsibilities in the World Religions (p 1-25). Oneworld. 2003.
35 Moosa, Ebrahim. “The Dilemma of Islamic Rights Schemes.” Journal of Law and Religion. Vol. 15, (2001), pp 185-215.
37 The Quran (17:70).
38 Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, Futuh Misr wal-Maghrib 225-226. (Abd al Mun’im Amir ed., Cairo: Isa Babi al-Halabi 1961).
39 Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. (2015) The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary. HarperOne.
43 Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2341
44 Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. (2015) The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary. HarperOne.