Sunday, 17 November 2013

An Ijtihad (My Endeavour) into Human Rights Under Islam


An Ijtihad (My Endeavour) into Human Rights Under Islam

Sayyed Misbah Deen
Emeritus Professor of Computer Science
Keele University
Author: Science Under Islam  – Rise Decline and Revival []
Blogger: Science Digest []

Based on my seminar given at Oxford, on Friday 16 Nov, 2012.

I am a former particle physicist and now an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science. These days in my retirement life I am taking an interest in Islamic reform, an interest that led to my book Science Under Islam  –  Rise Decline And Revival. I am not a theologian, nor a HR (Human Rights) expert, but an ordinary mortal, struggling to understand HR in terms of Islam. I present here my endeavour, my ijtihad, so that I can benefit from your comments and observations.

This article forms part of my intended series on the theme, Universal Values Under Islam – An Ijtihad into Quran and Hadith, to be posted in the blogsite If the series interests you, please do let me know.

The content list of this article
§  Introduction
§  Islamic Tradition and Modern Needs
§  Interpretation of Divine Truth
§  Our Approach and Methodology
§  Application of Our Methodology
§  Conclusion


The UN Universal Declaration of Universal Human Rights proclaims universal rights for all human beings, supporting: equality of all human beings of all races, creed, religion and colour, freedom of speech, freedom from want and fear, and equal rights for men and women. The document (Charter) has 30 clauses. The European Convention of Human Rights which is now part of the British law is based on this UN Charter, supporting all aspects of human rights, irrespective of race, creed, colour and religion.  
In contrast in 1990 the Organisation of the Islamic States produced a Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, which states: Muslim societies are the best in the world, and all rights are allowed, subject to Sharia. The document is larger than the UN document in volume, and is claimed to be based on the Quran and Sunnah.  Given that Sharia is viewed differently in different countries, each country having its own version of Sharia, every Muslim country can (and does) claim that it is observing the Islamic HR, as do Iran and Saudi Arabia.  We should remind ourselves that Sharia does not support democracy, freedom of speech, rule of law, equality of men and women, equality of faiths, and so on  –  among many other things that are forbidden in the UN Charter.  Therefore we should conclude that Islamic HR is not worth much.

Islamic Tradition vs Modern Requirements

A group of Muslims, including the Prophet’s daughter Rukia and her husband the future Khalifa Uthman)
temporarily emigrated to Abyssinia, where they were expected to follow the law of the host country. Since then the acceptance of the law of the host country has been the Islamic tradition. Recently Prof Tareq Ramadan of Oxford declared that British law is his Sharia. So presumably, he supports the British Human Rights law as well.

So what is the problem for us the Western Muslims? There is no problem if we want to be only law-obeyers but not law-makers. If we want to be law-makers as well, then we need to have common values (in which we believe) for such laws in that society. If we can demonstrate that the Quran supports such common values, then our life will be richer and more fulfilling in that society.  Therefore it will be a good idea to get endorsement of HR from the Quran, noting at the same time that the Quran is not a HR charter, and hence what we can get is only general support for HR, as we seek here. I start with two scenarios:

Scenario A: Constitution of Medina

·         Multiple communities, each with its own laws
·         Headed by the Prophet as the arbitrator to resolve inter-community issues

Scenario B:
·         The Arbitrator is the elected Government (State, strictly its Judicial Arm)
·         State makes laws through a democratic process for a single community of its citizens, irrespective of their religious and/or other affiliations.

How do we move from A to B under Islam?

The formula that worked in the 7th Century Medina needs modification for the UK (or any other Western Country) with a 21st Century value system. It is essential to accept that we Muslims in the West do not live in “Darul Harb” (Abode of War), we live in an integrated society of a projected Darus Salaam [Abode of Peace], where we all are expected to contribute, as citizens, towards the achievement of peace, harmony, well-being and prosperity of all, irrespective of their religious and/or other affiliations in a democratic society. If you, the reader, do not subscribe to this view then this article is not for you. By the way, observe that the term Darul Harb does not appear in the Quran, nor in Hadith.

Theological Sources
To arrive to Scenario B from Scenario A under Islam, we need to examine the Islamic sources of law:
·         The Quran
·         Sunnah (Hadiths)

I ignore the third source ijmah (consensus). The fourth source is ijtihad (personal endeavour) which I shall be applying here.

There was no Sharia as such during the time of the Prophet right up to the time of the Umayyads and early Abbasids. Sharia is largely based on Hadiths. It was developed roughly between the 10th to the 12th century CE and it fully bloomed under the Ottomans (14th century CE onward).

Hadith writing was forbidden by the Prophet and Khalifa Umar even punished Abu Huraira for spreading Hadiths. But the same Abu Huraira was cultivated by the first Umayyad Khalifa Muawiya for Hadiths  –  in fact Hadiths flourished, with numerous fakes, under the Ummayyads, who needed  a justification for their rule.   Even though Hadith writing was forbidden by the Prophet himself, six written collections of Hadiths appeared some 200 years after his death. Now, how are we to trust them, given the numerous fakes in and poor checks on authenticity of, these Hadiths in these collections? Even the Sahih Bukhari, which is believed to be the most authentic collection, is full of many obviously ridiculous and absurd Hadiths. [See my book  “Science Under Islam”, among others, for more detail]  So, whether Hadiths are true or not, I shall play safe and return to the Quran alone.

Interpretation of Divine Truth (Deeper Truth, Common Good and Necessity)

The human understanding of the divine word can never be perfect (that is, always incomplete) due to the limitation of our imperfect human language, our limited mental capacity, and our specific social and cultural context. This is why we say: the Quran is a Dynamic Text, that unveils new insights with the passage of time and with reasoning. So how do we interpret it correctly for our time for the derivation of deeper (greater, higher) truth (or values)?   Consider the Quranic ayahs [55:5/6]:

The sun and the moon follow courses (exactly) computed;  And the herbs and the trees - both (alike) bow in adoration.

 These verses conjure up at the literal level an image of everything physically prostrating before God, while at an abstract level these can be used to deduce a deeper truth of universal laws, as interpreted by Al-Kindi (d 870 CE). Following this thought of abstraction, we shall develop the concepts of Common Good and Necessity

The Quran is full of verses commanding us, humans, to look after our parents, old people, orphans, the infirm, the needy etc. It (the Quran) repeatedly says that prayer alone is not enough, you must also do good. Note also that monkhood is not acceptable in Islam –  we must live in a community and do good.
Thus we arrive at the concept of Common Good

 Next consider the following verse [16:15] for Necessity
He has only forbidden you dead meat, and blood, and the flesh of swine, and any (food) over which the name of other than God has been invoked. But if one is forced by necessity, without willful disobedience, nor transgressing due limits - then God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. [16:

There are similar other verses, e.g, verse [2:173]. In these verses life has a higher value (or deeper truth) and abstinence from haram food is lower down in the value scale, and hence haram food can be eaten, where Necessary, to preserve life,  the higher truth. This is an example of both higher truth and Necessity.

There was a famine during the rule of Khalifa Umar.  He did not give the Quranic punishment of cutting hands to the thieves, on ground that they stole to feed their starving families. Thus the lesser truth of punishment was abandoned for the greater truth alleviating hunger. 

When Iraq was conquered Khalifa Umar awarded all the conquered lands (war booty) to the State, without giving any (let alone 4/5ths) to the soldiers, despite the contrary Quranic verse  [08:41]:
And know that whatever booty that you may acquire (in a war), one-fifth thereof belongs to God and the Apostle, and the near relatives, the orphans, the needy, …  …". 

He did this on grounds that the soldiers who knew nothing of farming, would destroy the agricultural land and create a famine. Both these actions he took against the opposition other Companions, apparently including Ali. Thus Umar placed higher value to Common Good and greater Necessity, in direct contradiction to the Quranic injunctions. See my book Science Under Islam for more details.

Finally Necessity and Common Good are the two instruments (ideas) that are used these days even by the orthodox (e.g. Saudi Arabia) for areas not covered by Sharia, areas such as Bio-ethics and Organ transplantation.

Our Approach and Methodology

Summarising we have established from the Quran and Muslim tradition, three important concepts
            Deeper (greater/higher) Truth
            Common Good

We shall employ these instruments, with logic, to examine some Quranic verses to explore HR under Islam suitable for a universal society of all faiths (including atheists) for all the children of Adam in a “Darus Salaam” in the 21st Century.  Recall the Quran is a Dynamic Text that unveils new insights with the passage of time and with reasoning. 

In my investigation I came across four difficulty levels in the interpretation of the Quran for HR:
Easy, in which the interpretation was relatively straightforward
Logically Derived, in which the conclusion was logically derived
Moderately difficult, in which I had to struggle to interpret
Most difficult, in which I had to examine a group of verses, some apparently contradictory, and then to apply over them all the three instruments, as well as logic and context, to extract a greater truth.  

I shall now give examples from each difficulty level, using only a handful of verses out of many that are available.

Application of Our Methodology

Easy Interpretation for Equality

Mankind was one single nation [2:213]
O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other)). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (the one who is) the most righteous of you. [49:13]

These two verses proclaim the highest HR truth, the equality of man, irrespective of race and colour, and also declare the best (the most honoured) person) among us (male or female) to be the one who is most righteous. So the Quran supports meritocracy, irrespective of race, colour and gender.

Logically Derived Interpretation

Right to Life
  ---  if any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole mankind: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole mankind. [05:32]
Freedom of Faith
 I worship not that which ye worship, nor will ye worship that which I worship. [109:2-3]
Let there be no compulsion in religion [2:256]
If it had been thy Lord's will, they would all have believed -- all who are on earth! Wilt thou then compel mankind, against their will, to believe? [10:99]

So it is God’s Will that there are different people with different faiths (including no faith).

In the verses below, we examine what God in His kindness does for human beings, and by implication we must also do the same.
Right to the essential necessities of Life  
Of the bounties of thy Lord We bestow freely on all -- These as well as those: The bounties of thy Lord are not closed (to anyone). [17:20].

Therefore by implication God’s bounties – the essential necessities of life must not be denied to anyone.

On no soul doth God place a burden greater than it can bear. [2:286]

Hence, by implication, it is unjust to burden someone with tasks beyond his/her capability. There are many other verses on Justice.

Moderately Difficult Interpretation

Do not marry unbelieving (pagan) women until they believe. [2:221]

How do we interpret it? I think it is highly contextual of that time of Muslim existence, which we do not have now. Consider the case of Zeinab (Prophet’s eldest daughter) and her pagan husband Abul Aa’s, When Zeinab moved to Medina to live with her father, Abul Aa’s  remained a pagan in Mecca. but still devoted Zeinab, even though the marriage was supposed to have been broken as he was a pagan. He fought against the Prophet in the battle of Badr and was captured, which the Prophet did not know at the beginning.  When a piece of jewellery was brought to him as a ransom from a Meccan prisoner, he immediately recognised it as that which Khadija gave to Zeinab, and he realised that the prisoner was Abul Aa’s. The Prophet freed him and allowed him to return to Mecca without any ransom. After some time, Abul Aa’s, still a pagan, returned to Medina to live with his wife Zeinab, who then made a declaration in the Prophet’s mosque after a Jumma prayer that she had given sanctuary to Abul Aa’s and therefore no Muslim could harm him. The Prophet responded by telling the community present that he was surprised by this declaration, but it was her right, which must be honoured by the community.  Abul Aa’s remained a pagan until the fall of Mecca when he entered Islam.  Thus Zeinab remained married to Abul Aa’s even when he was not only a pagan but was also fighting against the Prophet.  How do we interpret this situation?

My interpretation is that the above verse and some similar verses were important in that time when there was a general existential threat for the Muslims, but the verse was not applied to Zeinab, as her case did not create any existential threat. Likewise, this verse, in my opinion, does not apply today, when there is no existential threat for the Muslims, and when the cultivation of Common Good and Necessity requires that such marriages be allowed.  In defence of this conclusion, I should also cite the example of Khalifa Umar’s relaxation of the Quranic verse on war-booty.

Most Difficult Interpretation

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. … As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly); [04:34]

It says men are the protector, because they are stronger, and the financial supporter, but today the physical strength is less important and women can earn more. But the right to beat, even if lightly, is very problematic. We must ponder on this verse. We examine more verses on gender.

And to every soul will be paid in full (the fruit) of its Deeds; and (God) knoweth best all that they do. [39:70]
For Muslim men and women -- for believing men and women, for devout men and women, … … and for men and women who engage much in God's praise  -- for them has God prepared forgiveness and great reward. [33:35]   ***There many such verses in the Quran.
The Believers, men and women, are protectors one of another. [9:71].

The only conclusion I can arrive at is that in God’s eyes man and woman are equal, but not in that early society. God even declares women as the protector of men.


I have taken the ideas of Common Good, Necessity, and Deeper Truth from the Quran and Muslim practices (including that of Khalifa Umar) and applied them with logic to explore the support for HR from the Quran itself. I discovered so far four difficulty levels in interpretations: (I) Easy, (ii) Logically derived, (iii) Moderately difficult and (iv) Most difficult. In the last case (i.e. the Most difficult case), it is important to explore a group of related verses, some apparently contradictory, to perceive the greater truth.  

I have presented only some of the verses of those that I have examined, but there are many more verses that one can study for the support of HR.  Finally, I am pleased that I did this exercise. I would like to benefit from your comments.