Islam and Human Rights

Human rights are based on the fundamental principle which believes all human beings, irrespective of their differences, share the same rights, which should be protected by the state and its legal system.

However, most governments in Islamic states enjoy legitimacy, despite the fact they do not protect human rights, whichever way they are characterized. The issue for citizens of these states, especially those engaged in political opposition, therefore becomes the need to respect the rule of law as a prerequisite and guarantor for the protection of rights, whether in an Islamic or other context. While the historical practice of Muslims in a number of areas has been acknowledged by many academics to be enlightened and tolerant, it is nevertheless open to criticism, if judged according to today’s ideas about rights.

Attempts to find a basis for human rights in Islam are laudable- insofar as they reflect a commitment to these rights and a justification to uphold them, but it has produced confusion and resulted in basic rights held in common being sidelined, in a debate about the compatibility or incompatibility of Islam and rights.


Certain rights are considered incompatible with religious teaching, for example, those related to gay rights. However, the fact that a vast array of political and legal rights are denied, despite being enshrined in the very constitutions of Islamic countries, shows a clear violation that is to do more with political control than any contradiction or incompatibility, regarding Islam and rights. The issue seems to be simply that there are gross violations, ranging from imprisonment without trial and torture to child labour, which need to be addressed under whatever umbrella- secular or religious, national or international.

Governments bear the prime responsibility for the abuse that has manifest itself over decades, as highlighted by reports from the UN and other international organizations. Although human rights violations are frequently explained culturally, the most effective solutions may be political and legal. The need to uphold the rule of law is inextricably linked to human rights. We should consider international tribunals that can hold accountable those directly responsible and seek more resolute strategies for ‘naming and shaming’ and calling to account leaders or governments that are responsible in the most direct and public way possible. There are enough commonly-shared values that can be mustered to protect human rights whatever the cultural differences. There is a justification for protecting such rights, wherever and whenever a person feels under threat; this between the United Nation’s definition of human rights and various legal and religious traditions and dogma relating to Islam. This tension is not dissimilar to that felt by adherents of other faiths, as witnessed by the outright rejection of homosexuality by the Orthodox Jewish establishment or of the right of women to abortion by many in the Southern Baptist alliance in the US. In practice, upholding human rights remains selective, depending on political, religious and cultural traditions. We see the constant pull towards translating a secular set of values into a religious framework- the balance is not easy and is linked to the debate over the compatibility of Islam and democracy and the freedom of choice. So how can those who see human rights violations in the name of Islam respond? One way has been to regard these as further indicators of what has been termed an Islamo-fascism that needs to be aggressively countered by promoting secularism and liberalism. Another approach has been to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses generally in the Islamic world and to view differences in the context of cultural exceptionalism. Overall, both routes have failed to bring about an improvement in the human rights situation in Islamic countries.


The mainstream reading of Islam is that it emphasizes duties and responsibilities over rights, the community over the individual, obedience over freedom. Although the emphasis here is different to the traditions underlying the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, it nevertheless offers a criterion for the protection of the rights of others and, in turn, oneself, even if the starting point is not the individual. It may even be that in Islamic countries, despite the prevalence in some areas of ethnic and religious divisions, educating Muslims on rights, through an Islamic perspective, can offer moral and legal limitations on the prevalent abuse of human rights, although from a different perspective and tradition. The emphasis here is not on equality but rather on justice, which can be harnessed in a drive to further rights initiated and promoted by Muslims themselves. This would be in keeping with an environment where there is a continuing expression of religiosity and where many still fear Islam is systematically being diluted, through the agendas of western and secular bodies and institutions. Because of the prevalence of a more global world order, there is pressure for conformity to the western democratic value-system. The promotion by the United States and its allies of shared political and moral values has been presented as imperative in the context of security concerns. Therefore, in the Islamic world democracy and human rights are not viewed, even by those who struggle for them, as being promoted by neutral agencies, be it the UN or others, but are widely seen as a double-edged sword that brings greater westernization and requires pro-western regimes. Although all people share a desire not to be harmed or oppressed, their beliefs are different and therefore they will only respond to a common implementation of human rights on the basis of enforced political and legal measures, or through a common understanding of those rights. It is unlikely that there will be a uniform appreciation of these in Islamic societies, unless western ideals and values go unchallenged and dominate. Therefore the best option is to integrate as much of the UDHR as possible, in a context and framework that people see as part of their own legacy and traditions of tolerance and justice.

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