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Islamic Conception of Human Rights

BY: Dr Salah Mohammed Salis
Human rights in Islamic tradition has long existed before the International Bill of Human Rights
Human rights in Islamic tradition has long existed before the International Bill of Human Rights

The term used in Arabic for ‘right' is Haqq. It can also be referred to as ‘truth' and ‘duty'. Here, I wish to highlight the differentiation between terms such as “rights and “duties”, particularly in the discussion which signifies “entitlement” and “obligations”. 

Entitlement is a sense of having privileges, while obligation is inclined to a sense of responsibility and accountability. In Islamic perspective, both are interconnected and comprehensive of the religious, ethical and aesthetic.

But whose interest is served by the completion of that duty? And is the completion of that duty meant for private or for public? There are two sets of rights in Islam: right of God and right of an individual. These two rights are in constant conflict or overlap each other.

The notion of the public and private spheres is not well-defined in the pre-modern period as it is within the modern nation-state. The Iraqi scholar, Muhammad al-Māwardi (d. 1058) views the public life being contingent upon the functions of the private, and therefore, considers politics as a religious duty.

He considers Islam as inherently political, as politics is not just the function of the state, but also part of the demands of religion. He commits to consensus when it comes to Islamic political thought and projects notions of popular sovereignty, which empowers the people and subjects the ruler to their demands.

There is a strong basis in Islamic law for a democratic system through al-Māwardi's emphasis on the power sharing contract between the ruler and the ruled. The ruler has the delegated authority to exercise for the people in the public domain.

He or she must act in accordance with the established laws, because the purpose of enacting laws is to prevent that which disturbs order, disrupts the structure of society, harms individual interests and detracts from public welfare. If laws do not serve this purpose, al-Māwardi explains, “then they are but empty burdens thrown on the shoulders of the people”.

The analytical mind of humans can never be the only arbiter of just public order. Moral developments in Islamic tradition take revealed guidance, as well as naturally endowed intuitive reason, as two interrelated sources of moral knowledge that humanity needs.

Al-Māwardi narrated how God entrusted one of His attributes, “amāna”, to human beings, which requires of them to be the bearer of authority as well as moral vision. The integration of two spheres: politics and religion are democratically inclusive and more tolerant of the religious diversity.

Public order

Traditionally, public order has accommodated, by default, separate jurisdictions for religious and temporal spheres through its notions of human - God relations (al-‘Ibādāt) and human-human relation (al-Mu‘amalāt). From this, we can derive modern notions of liberty, pluralism and human rights.

The Qur'an underscores the need to develop a universal discourse of moral awareness for an inclusive human community, guided by both an ethical necessity and supernatural revelation projected by all the prophets of God. Also, God wants us to follow the right path and so connected humanity as a single community.

There is, therefore, the need to [re]interpret the universal content of key Islamic concepts to uncover the foundational sources of human rights. On this note, I wish to reiterate our organisation's support for a multi-cultural and multi-faith Ghana on the basis that we cannot force religion on a human being as clearly stated in Qur'an 2:256.


Clearly, tension always arises when the two sources of Muslim identity, revelation and reason, make incompatible demands upon an individual. The solution is provided in one of the administrative documents of classical Islam.

This administrative document was written by the Caliph ‘Ali (d. 661) when the idea of civic equality was introduced. The recognition of non-Muslims as equals in Muslim dominated societies is certainly a status that can be accorded to a citizen regardless of his or her religious affiliation.

The role of religion is to foster norms, attitudes and values that can enhance peaceful relations among different ethnic and religious communities. [To each among you –Jews, Christians, Muslims --, We have prescribed a law and a clear way. If God willed, He would have made you one nation, but that He has not done in order to try you in what has come to you. So, compete with one another in good deeds] Qur'an 5:48.

This passage from the Qur'an underscores the divine mystery that allows pluralism in matters of faith and law to exist in human society. What unites peoples of different faiths is the call to make a common moral cause and advance the common good of all. This is the foundation for moral universality of human rights.

The articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are secular in nature but share common moral platform with Islamic ethics. In my view, their foundations are not anti-Islam, and we can derive such universal declarations with the use of revelation and reason. The ethical dimension of the Islamic legal methodology can develop and sustain an inclusive universal language-a language that can engage the secularly derived universal morality of the UN Declaration.

Classical dimensions

These forms of rights are dynamic, revolutionary in nature and encompass many of basic elements i.e., dignity and equality of all human beings regardless of race, faith, social status, the right to justice, individual freedom, privacy, presumption of innocence, etc. – as mentioned in the Qur'an and the Prophetic tradition. 

Golden Age of Islamic civilisation (approximately 7th to 14th centuries) proved that human rights in Islamic tradition has long existed before the International Bill of Human Rights, which I describe above as pluralistic in structure. However, the inability (or probably the refusal) of many Muslim scholars to project and defend the system resulted in its lost momentum.


Here, I am comparing the liberty defined by Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789) with Islamic perspective. The declaration explains a list of rights, such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, assembly, etc. The declaration defined liberty as the right “to be able to do anything which does not hurt others”.

In Islamic perspective, the freedom of religion is understood to mean that no person may, under any circumstances, be compelled to profess a religion that he or she may not freely wish to embrace. [There is no compulsion in matters of faith] Qur'an 2:256.

Therefore, the rights of non-Muslims who live in Muslim majority countries is preserved under Shari'a and they are guaranteed the right to life, to own property, to profess their respective faiths and to bring up their children accordingly. They are allowed to participate in politics, economy, social and cultural activities without discriminative restrictions.

Islam looks at religion as a matter of conviction; once the basic facts are provided and explained. Faith is never a matter of coercion or compulsion. To achieve this conviction, Islam addresses the human mind and intellect, human common sense, emotions and feelings, the innermost human nature, and the whole human conscious being.

It resorts to no coercive means or physical miracles that confound the mind or that are beyond human ability to rationalise and comprehend. By the same token, Islam never seeks converts through compulsion or threats or pressure of any kind. It deploys facts, reasoning, explanation and persuasions.

The writer is the Founding President of the Centre for Islamic Thought and Civilisation.

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