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To liberate or not to liberate? Universalism, Islam and human rights (PT. 2)

Arzu Merali


This is the second part of a paper (read Part One here) presented by ARZU MERALI at the Islamic Human Rights Commission’s one-day conference on ‘Islamic and Western Perceptions of Human Rights’ in London on September 12, 2003. In the first part of the paper, published in the October 2003 issue of Crescent, she provided a detailed critique of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Western assumptions of universality underpinning it. In this concluding section, she discusses the Islamic attitude to human rights.

Islam and human rights

Having critiqued these ideas of universality, I should — like many others — be espousing a more conversational approach to human rights in which human rights are just one of many stories that validate human existence. Indeed the late and great Islamic scholar Murtada Mutahhari cites verse 6:108 of the Qur’an ("unto every nation we have made their deeds seem fair") to point out that the Qur’an:

…affirms that every nation evolves its own particular consciousness, its own particular standards and its own particular way of thinking. The consciousness, understanding, and perception of every nation has a specific and distinguishable character.

Every nation judges things according to its own standards (at least in matters involving practical values and notions). Every nation has its own special way of perception and comprehension. There are many acts which are ‘good’ in the eyes of one nation and ‘evil’ in the eyes of another. It is the social atmosphere that moulds the tastes and perceptions of the individuals of a nation according to its value system.

(Murtada Mutaharri, ‘Society and History’, Islamic Propagation Organization, 1985, p. 15.)

At first glance this seems to support the idea that value systems are particular to groups and that there is no grand meta-narrative, no ultimate truth, out there to be discovered. However, the Rortian model, although sophisticated and seductive, is not one that Muslims can condone, for we too are universalists.

When it comes to human rights, Muslims have had a tended to take one of two approaches, either failing to see any inconsistency or contradiction between Islamic rights talk and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), or rejecting any discourse outright, on the grounds that human rights talk is un-Islamic. Both approaches miss the point.

The individualism of UDHR and its Enlightenment baggage, and the latter defence of it that acknowledges UDHR’s contingency, cannot be reconciled with Islamic rights talk simply because Muslims see Islam as Divine revelation, and its values as perennial and universal. According to Mutahhari, "The Qur’an puts forward the idea of a common history, a common destiny, a common record of deeds, a common consciousness, understanding, sensibility and a common conduct for societies." (History and Society, p. 14.)

How then is Islam different in its concept of universality? Is this not more of the same of the imperialistic language that I have thus far berated, in the Western context, as distorted and unacceptable? No, because there are significant differences.

The first is that Muslims as believers hold that the rationality of Islam is a journey of discovery of God’s purpose for mankind, not a static and didactic declaration of rational individuality as guarantor of liberty, a fact that has a major ontological effect. Whilst Islam envisages a Messianic end to world history, we clearly are not in that phase, so humanity in general and Muslims in particular are still on a journey of discovery to realise the common destiny of mankind. This journey clearly has to be based on an understanding of society as having an objective existence. If mankind is journeying, clearly some within it are on different journeys or are, in the view of Muslims, misguided and misguiding others. This aside, individuals and nations and societies within mankind are understood in an Islamic view to be in flux, and therefore still in a state of universal yet varied subjectivity. This stands in stark contrast to the hierarchical didacticism of human rights discourse, which claims that its upper strata are composed of subjects who have attained to the objective reality of justice, whilst objectifying those it deems either incapable of such a stage, or backward in their progress.

As there are moral prescriptions in Islam, there are the possibilities and necessities of negotiating everyday life for individuals, groups and societies that need to be thought and rethought, at every age and stage of human development. A Muslim and Muslim society and law are constantly negotiating these with Divine revelation as their guide.

Secondly, while Islam has a universal outlook, and its end goal is the unity of world society in the future messianic age, it prohibits compulsion in religion. The Qur’an strictly states that "there shall be no compulsion in religion" (2:256). It offers free choice to mankind to opt out of belief and practice, whilst retaining a world-view that will allow any individual to opt in without restriction. By the latter I am critiquing the so-called Enlightenment process, according to which model the non-West needs to secularise before it can opt into or out of modernity. An example of this type of theory can be found in Sandra Harding’s defence of universalising feminism, in which she states:

"It is premature for women to give up what they never had. Should women, no matter what their race, class, or culture- find it reasonable to give up the desire to know and understand the world from the standpoint of their experiences for the first time? As several feminist literary critics have suggested, perhaps only those who have had access to all the benefits of the Enlightenment can "give up" those benefits. " (Quoted in Nancy Miller, ‘Changing the Subject: Authorship, Writing and the Reader,’ in T. De Lauretis (ed), Feminist Studies / Critical Studies, Indiana University Press, 1986.)

By so doing she posits, inadvertently, an alarming inversion: that feminists must come from a single race, class and culture.

By opting into the faith and its various moral, legal, social and political provisions, a believer does not have to pass an Enlightenment test, or some other version of Lord Tebbit’s cricket test. (Tebbit demanded that Asian and West Indian immigrants to Britain prove their allegience by supporting the English cricket team rather than the teams of their countries of origin.) By joining the community of believers in Islam — the ummah — a person becomes part of a community which is at one and the same time universalistic and particularist. It is particularist because believers clearly have a special role within the conceptual framework of the faith, but this particularism supports a narrow universalism. Unlike the particularism that Ignatieff concedes is fostered by human rights discourse — e.g. of Tamil versus Sinhala, Hutu versus Tutsi etc. — the ummah is open to all who chose to opt in. Further there are no bars, such as class, race or culture, unlike for example standpoint feminism which requires its adherents from the non-West to reach a certain point of entry that is defined, ironically, by male, white, Western epistemological practices.

Thirdly, Islam recognises and, according to Mutahhari, "emphasizes the reality of the individual as well as that of society." The implications of this are many, but a few can be mentioned here that pertain to human rights issues. Clearly there is a balance to be negotiated between individual and society. In the Qur’anic view, man as a spiritual being is inspired by an "awareness …called Divine or cosmic consciousness," (Muttahari, History and Society, p. 21) and this is inherent in all calls on man towards the unity of belief. By doing so (or not), man is entering into a relationship of duties and rights with his Creator. Mankind, then, has equal potentiality to be realised through personal spiritual profession. The Qur’an states that there is no difference in the eyes of God between men and women except in the level of their piety and that is for Him only to judge. This universality is in marked contrast to the vicious and innately cruel model of man that required regulation after the Second World War by human rights conventions and thought. The adoption of the regulation marks out a form of secular piety, to be judged by elites made up of governments, IGOs, NGOs and human rights activists, that is open to the same abuse of inconsistency that the application of human rights standards by western governments is charged with.

In this realm the rights to privacy, which my colleague Ossama Daneshyar will discuss, prevail. The judgement of society, either through societal discourses that demonise, or through personal slander and vilification, or indeed interference in one’s life, is antagonistic to the rights of an individual in an Islamic realm.

After this relationship, Islam encourages man’s consciousness of his humanity, and realization of the "nobility and honour of man’s station…" which inhere in man’s nature (Mutahhari, History and Society, p. 137). In this regard human life has sanctity, and gives succour to theologians such as Michael Perry, who have stated that human rights are or should be ‘ineliminably religious’, that without the belief in a higher power than man, talk of human and other rights has no foundational basis and thus lacks any sort of universal applicability.

The third level of Islamic teachings advises man of his social rights and responsibilities, and Mutahhari quotes as an example verse 4:75 of the Qur’an, which we at the Islamic Human Rights Commission also take as our reason d’etre:

How could you not fight for the cause of Allah and of the oppressed among the men, women and children who say, ‘Our Lord, bring us forth from this city whose people are oppressors, and appoint to us a protector from Thee, and appoint to us from Thee a helper’?

The significance of this verse as regards universality and rights is profound. God calls on Muslims to fight in support of the oppressed regardless of whether they are Muslim or not. At one and the same time it emphasises the unity of mankind, elsewhere discussed as a priori to the historical development of mankind (eg. verses 2:213 and 6:98), yet evidences the existence and legitimacy of difference whilst enjoining a particular group to liberate those oppressed who do not belong to, or may well have no desire to, join the group or accept its doctrines. Islam thus mandates intervention when the overriding concern is to liberate.


What future, then, for rights talk? It seems that Islamic and Western camps sit staring sternly at each other from opposite sides of the room. As in a classic Western or a police movie, the parties appear to have to choose between calling it quits and leaving each other alone, or possibly killing each other. Are there any other options?

In its opposition to Western concepts of universality, the Islamic camp cannot join forces with communitarian critiques that advance cultural relativism: we cannot live and let live in the name of stability if justice is at stake. Islam cannot accept apartheid even if it delivers a higher standard of living for its subjugated groups than their ‘free’ neighbours, as the examples of the many anti-apartheid activists inspired by Islam demonstrate (see Michael Mumisa, Imam Husain’s Political Movement, 2001). Islam cannot accept post-modern critiques that advocate anti-foundationalism, as realising ultimate truth is the goal of the faithful.

Is there any way forward? Two issues need to be recognised in this debate. Firstly, as I stated up front, the debate is structured in such a way that the non-West is now responding to a human rights agenda that lacks any relevance to it, not because the non-West does not believe in rights or because its citizens lack intellectual agency, but because of the aforementioned problems with the UDHR and the philosophy that has been raised to try and justify its universal applicability. For rights talk to have meaning, all parties must be at the table and the conversation must start afresh.

Secondly, normativity must not be mistaken for peace. Peace without justice has no meaning, and claims to be effecting human rights and individual protection have no meaning in the wider context of oppression. Whether you are talking about pornography or military occupation, all parties at the table need first to understand a working concept not only of the minimal rights that can be broadly agreed, but of the minimum standards of justice that must be the basic requirement for any society to hope to begin effecting the rights that the noble and blessed creations of God can demand.

Author’s note: This paper is dedicated to the late Sulayman Zain-ul Abdein, who spent eight months in a high security prison after being arrested and charged under the Terrorism Act 2000 in the Islamophobic post-9/11 atmosphere, only for the police case against him to be thrown out by a jury.

Although he was to be proved innocent of any offence, he was demonised as a terrorist in some of the press and by some politicians, to the extent that even human rights workers appeared unable to consider for a moment that he might be anything other than a stereotypical, bearded fanatic, let alone take on his case.

His experience made me realise that everyone has rights regardless of what they have allegedly done. His acquittal made me realise how easily we all jump to conclusions when the prevailing atmosphere is poisoned by demonization and hatred. Meeting him made me realise that articulate, intelligent and rational people are being portrayed as criminals simply because they profess Islamic beliefs.

[Arzu Merali is Head of Research at the Islamic Human Rights Commission, London.]

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 14 2003-11

Shawwal 07, 14242003-11-01

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