Islamic law recognises the rights of individuals as well as of groups. Similarly, it recognizes civil and political rights, and social, economic and cultural rights. The latter category of human rights was not recognised in the Western legal tradition until the adoption of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1966. Similarly, the right of privacy, which was not recognised in Western legal traditions until quite recently, was recognised in Islamic law since the early centuries of the Islamic era.
Generally, human rights and responsibilities are classified under two broad heads in Islamic law: rights and responsibilities relating to God (huquq Allah) and those relating to humans (huquq al-ibad). Specifically, the whole gamut of rights and responsibilities could be broadly grouped under the following heads:
(i) in relation to God and faith
(ii) in relation to oneself
(iii) in relation to one’s family, including parents, spouse and children
(iv) in relation to the community of believers
(v) in relation to relatives, friends and neighbours
(vi) in relation to fellow humans (regardless of religious distinctions)
(vii) in relation to animals
(viii) in relation to the environment
In Islamic view, the individual is entitled to wide-ranging rights, including the right to life, belief and conscience, equality, economic security, personal honour and dignity, justice and equal treatment under law without discrimination, information and freedom of expression, basic education, acquisition and ownership of property, choice of one’s spouse, and freedom of movement. These rights are not absolute but are subject to moral regulations and are inseparably bound up with their concomitant responsibilities.
Islam views man as essentially a moral being who has been endowed with the capacity for thinking, self-reflection and moral choice. As a moral being it is his responsibility to create and sustain an environment that is conducive to righteousness, brotherhood, cooperation and harmony and to combat evil and viciousness. An attitude of indifference and apathy not only encourages moral atrophy in society but also weakens the foundations of one’s cherished values. The Prophet is reported to have said, “If one of you witnesses an evil (being committed), he should stop it by physical force; if he cannot do this, he should try to counter it with his tongue; if he cannot do this either, he should condemn it in his heart. And this is the weakest part of faith”.
The Prophet emphasised that worship and prayer cannot absolve a man from his guilt of violation of human rights. He once asked his Companions: “Do you know who is a destitute?” They said, “A destitute among us is one who has neither money nor resources”. The Prophet said: “A destitute among my followers is one who would present himself on the Day of Judgement with prayers, fasting and zakat-tax (to his credit). At the same time, he had abused someone, had made a false accusation against someone, had usurped someone’s money, had spilled someone’s blood and had thrashed someone. All such people (who were victims of his harshness) would then be called; the virtues and good deeds of this man would be offered to them; their sins would be loaded onto him, and he would be thrown into hell”.
An important issue in the discourse on human rights relates to the means or mechanisms or motivational strategies whereby the ideals of human rights could be translated into reality. The process of socialization, education, legal provisions and social sanctions undoubtedly play a significant role in internalising the values associated with human rights. Islam emphasises the cultivation of a sense of moral responsibility and accountability as viable means whereby human rights—and responsibilities—could be ingrained in human consciousness. It is easy to pontificate about human rights but extremely difficult if not impossible to put oneself in the shoes of another person, as it were, and to be as sensitive about his likes and preferences as one is about oneself. This feat requires a good measure of selflessness, sincerity and compassion. The Prophet is reported to have said, “A Muslim cannot be a (true) Muslim unless he likes for his brother what he likes for himself”.
An important aspect of the philosophy of Islamic law relates to what is known as the “higher objectives and intents of Islamic Shariah” (maqasid al-Shariah). These goals or foundational purposes of Islamic law include the preservation of life, religion, lineage, intellect and public interest. The eminent jurist Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi (d. 1388) considered public interest (masalih) as one of the central goals of Islamic Shariah. Some contemporary scholars, such as Muhammad al-Tahir Ibn Ashur, Jasser Auda and Jamaluddin Attia, have sought to reinterpret the maqasid al-Shariah in the context of present times by emphasizing the preservation of the family system, freedom of belief, orderliness, civility, human rights, freedom and equality as the basic objective of Islamic law.
It is ironical that Islam, which gave to humanity an ennobling conception of human rights more than fourteen centuries ago, is now an object of slander and vilification. There is a widespread misperception, especially in the West, that Islam is inimical to human rights, that it enslaves women and treats non-Muslims as second-class citizens, and that it fosters intolerance and aggression among its followers. This misperception is nurtured by ignorance and deeply-entrenched prejudices and is reinforced by the gross violation of human rights in large parts of the Muslim world.
It is therefore heartening to note that the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), the second largest intergovernmental organization after the United Nations, has launched the world’s first Islamic Human Rights Commission. The issue of human rights has been one of the central concerns of the OIC during the past two decades. In 1990 it approved a document on the subject, which is now known as the Cairo Declaration. The document emphasizes the preservation of human life, honour, family and property and reaffirms the right to education, healthcare and a clean environment. The OIC convened a conference of 57 foreign ministers of Muslim countries in Kazakhstan in June 2011, where it was decided to establish an Islamic Human Rights Commission. The proposal, mooted and persistently followed up by Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary General of OIC, has acquired an added salience and relevance in the context of the Arab Spring, which has brought into sharp focus the issues of democracy, pluralism, civil liberties and human rights, including minority rights.
Professor Ihsanoglu emphasized at the Kazakhstan conference that the major objectives of the Commission include the dispelling of misconceptions regarding the interface between Islam and human rights, supporting and strengthening the efforts of Muslim countries to consolidate civil, political, economic , social and cultural rights, liaising and coordinating with human rights organizations in Muslim countries and at the global level, and prompting and facilitating self-introspection among Muslims. This is sought to be done through counseling and legal advice, information campaigns and research.
The Commission is composed of 18 members, including four women, who are drawn from civil society, human rights organizations and academia. The first session of the Commission was held in Jakarta, Indonesia on 20 February, 2012.