Islam and Human Rights by Dr. Chandra Muzaffar

This paper is divided into two parts. The first part explores the relationship between Islam and some of the major ideas associated with democracy and human rights. The second part of the paper argues that Islam embodies a concept of the human being that goes beyond rights. This larger vision of the human being is premised upon a worldview which is diametrically different from what inspires and informs contemporary Western thinking on human rights.

Rule of Law

Some of the major ideas associated with democracy and human rights would be in harmony with Islamic thought. The rule of law, a cardinal principle of democratic governance, is central to Islamic jurisprudence. Centuries ago, Islam recognised that all decisions, acts and procedures of public authorities at `all levels cannot be valid or legally binding save to the extent they are consistent with the law’. 1 This is, of course, linked to the concept of `due process’. As in any society based upon democratic norms and procedures, Islamic law states that `you cannot deprive a man of life, liberty or property except by due process of law’. 2

Islamic law is also a firm advocate of a just, equitable judicial process. It is a concept which is rooted in the Quran itself, the ultimate source of guidance for the Muslim. For the Quran lays tremendous emphasis upon judging between people in a just and equitable manner. It says for instance, `Be staunch in justice, witnesses for God, even though it be against yourselves or (your) parents or (your) kindred, whether (the case be of) a rich man or a poor man, for God is nearer unto both (than you are). So follow not passion lest you lapse (from truth) and if you lapse or fall away, then lo! God is ever informed of what you do’. 3 It is this concept of justice and equity which inspired the famous Caliph Ali ibn Talib to advise judges that `when the truth is presented they must pass their judgements without fear, favour or prejudice’. 4 Equally significant, he envisaged a judiciary that would be `above every kind of executive pressure or influence, fear or favour, intrigu e or corruption’. 5 It was one of the earliest declarations in history by a head of state of the importance of an independent judiciary. So important was this principle, that a number of judges in Muslim history were prepared to be put to death, tortured or dismissed rather than sacrifice the independence of their office.

Islam, right from the outset, also limited the power and authority of rulers. Limiting state authority is yet another democratic norm. In Islamic jurisprudence, `political power must be exercised within the framework of the Shariah’ 6 (the supreme law of the Muslim community). What this means is that the ruler should subordinate himself to laws, values and principles in the religion.


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