Generally religions are thought to be dogmatic, intolerant and suppressive of freedom of conscience. It is also generally thought that thinking and believing are opposed to each other and while science and scientific attitude encourages former, religion, or any other faith for that matter, emphasises believing. In fact believing, it is assumed, is another name for religion. It has been by and large true. All the major religions of the world, Islam included, evolved rigid dogmas and discouraged – nay punished any critical examination of these dogmas. Freedom of conscience, in other words, never went well with any of these major religions.
Hinduism is often thought to be otherwise. It has been an umbrella religion and has been quite open to different schools of thought. It readily imbibed elements from other religions. It even accepted great religious thinkers like Buddha and Mahabvir Jain as belonging to the Hindu pantheon – rishis or incarnations of God. It is also true that Hinduism evolved different schools of theology and philosophy and these schools of theology and philosophy and these schools coexisted harmoniously. There have been no sectarian wars in the history of this great religion.
However, this is not all. It should be understood that dogmatism and sectarianism is more of a psychological than theological category. It is human mind that evolves dogmas which provide a sense of security and freedom from thinking. Thinking carries responsibility and creates uncertainty whereas believing provides a soothing balm and gives a sense of security to the believer. This is one of the reasons why dogmas persist. It can be ascribed to human interests which also play central role in determining human behaviour. Interests of theological leadership also help perpetuate religious dogmas. Thus it will be seen that a sense of security on the part of believers and theological leadership, on the part of formulators, together help perpetuate dogmas.
Seen in this perspective, no religion, big or small, (also political ideologies), can remain exception to this rule. Thus Hinduism too evolved its own dogmas and rigid practices over a period of time. Caste system, for example, had its own rigidities and each caste, in turn, had its own rules and regulations which were rigidly observed and any deviation strictly punished. It should also be noted that as higher Hinduism has been free of rigid dogmas, other religions too put up with some intellectual flexibilities. However, here too, it should be admitted that Hinduism, in its higher reaches, allows greater latitude than other religions as it has not evolved any rigid frame-work of theological thinking.
Thus it will be seen that faith and belief are psychological necessity more than theological one and that security of belief and interests of theological leadership combine to perpetuate rigidity of dogmas. However, if one goes by the early teachings of the founders of the great religions, one would hardly find such rigidity of beliefs. No great religion of the world would seem to be curbing freedom of thought. The Buddha is reported to have said that do not accept just because I say but test it on your reason before you accept it. Hinduism, as pointed out above, allows much greater latitude in thinking. Christ too, spoke in parables so that latter believers could suitably reinterprete them in the light of their own experience and exercising their own intellectual freedom. Islam too, as far as the Quran is concerned, does not at all demand blind faith. It requires its addressees to think before they accept God’s message. The Quran, in fact, stresses, what can be called, synthesis of reason and faith. Erich Fromm, noted Freudian psychoanalyst, chooses to call it ‘rational faith’. Thus it will be seen that Islam too is not a dogmatic faith.
Religion seems to be problematic as far as freedom of conscience is concerned, at the level of semi-literate and semi-educated people. It is far from so at higher intellectual reaches. Since the vast majority belongs to the former level, religion too, is dragged down to that level and when religion is sought to be understood in its true spirit by those at the much higher level of intellectual reaches, they are threatened by the dogmatic majority which can be easily manipulated by the theological leadership which seeks to perpetuate certain dogmas in its own interests. It is at this level that religion seems to be problematic. It would be very difficult to break the ice at this level. In order to avoid this dilemma one has to go back to the foundational scripture rather than discussing on the basis of latter accretions. Islam’s foundational scripture is the Quran. All our discussion on Islamic attitude to human rights will naturally be based on this foundational scripture of Islam.


What are human rights? The concept of human rights might also differ from one historical era to the other. In the feudal era there was no such concept of human rights as we have today. In feudal era they had their own understanding of human freedom. In each historical era we have certain principal values. The principal value or central value, whichever way we call it, was ‘loyalty’. If one was not loyal to ones master – theological master included – one was not true to ones salt. The human behaviour in feudal ages was circumscribed, in terms of values, by ones loyalty to ones master. Any deviation from this norm attracted Sharp condemnation. It was construed as rebel, not mere differences of opinion as we term it today. Thus loyalty, in the bygone era, constituted the kingpin of human behaviour.
The central value of our post-feudal, industrial and modern era, is freedom of thought and action, it is also termed as freedom of conscience. Many other behavioural values, including the value of loyalty, is subordinated to this value. Freedom of conscience cannot be compromised today as one could not compromise ones loyalty to ones master in the bygone era. It is the very spirit of the modern era. Similarly in feudal era one had to be rigid about observing traditions. Modernisation, on the other hand, builds itself on the ruins of these traditions. Project of modernisation would not have succeeded without attacking the traditions. And traditions could not have been attacked without upholding freedom of conscience. Thus freedom of conscience became very central to the industrial era. In the post-modern period, traditions have acquired some sanctity again but the freedom of conscience has not been displaced and it retains its centrality. Pluralism is, however, as central to postmodernist values as freedom of conscience. Thus various traditions, past and present, can coexist harmoniously in this post-modern era.


The important question before us now is how to define human rights in our own era? I think United Nations’ Charter of Human Rights has gathered broad consensus around it. There is hardly any nation, Islamic or otherwise, which does not subscribe to this charter. We can also take this Charter as our reference point. Of course it should also be understood that there is no air of finality about this charter. However, it does represent the spirit of our items including that of the post-modern era. There had been no major shift, conceptual or structural, so far so as to invalidate the spirit enshrined in the Charter of Human Rights. It thus can, and should, become our reference point. We will deal with the articles of this Charter shortly.
Like other religions, Islam too has its own central values. Justice, equity, fairplay, brotherhood (which naturally includes sisterhood), equality, mercy and compassion, are among the central values of Islam. It also generally abhors violence (though, in a complex and empirical world, does not rule it out completely) and wants to establish an abode of peace (one of the names of Allah is Salam i.e. peace). The Quran chooses to use a key term to describe these values – m’aruf. Thus the term m’aruf is representative of goodness in humanity which is an all comprehensive term. What is not m’aruf is Munkar i.e. evil. The Quran prescribes as a duty for Muslims to promote what is m’aruf and fight what is munkar (i.e. evil). Since m’aruf is representative of what is good for humanity is also includes the concept of human rights which promote human welfare and by the same reason the concept of munkar includes denial of human rights which detracts from promotion of human welfare. Thus the Quran declares: “You are the best people, for you have been raised for the good of mankind, you enjoin what is equitable (m’aruf) and forbid evil and believe an Allah.” (3:111)
Since m’aruf is representative of the central and principal values and freedom of conscience is among the central values of our time, it is integral part of Islamic duty to promote it. Anything or any force that impedes or obstructs it would, therefore, be counted among the munkar (evil) which must be forbidden. The Quran also says that only those who promote m’aruf and forbid evil would prosper (3:105). Thus, in order to prosper (may it be an individual, community or a nation) one will have to guarantee freedom of thought and conscience. Any attempt to thwart it would then result in arresting the prosperity of that community or nation. Also, it must be noted that the Quran does not refer only to Muslims as far as m’aruf and munkar are concerned. Even among people of other religions, these merits are found and the Quran appreciates that merit. The Quran says, “Among the people of the Book there is a party who stand by their covenant, they recite the Word of Allah in the hours of night and prostrate themselves before Him. They believe in Allah and the Last Day, and enjoin what is good (m’aruf ) and forbid evil, and hasten, vying with one another, towards the doing of good. These are among the righteous. Whatever they do, they shall not be denied its due reward. Allah well knows the God-fearing.” (3:114-16) Thus Islam, respecting other faith and beliefs, wants to promote universal good and it is excellence in deeds which is more central to the Quran than rituals and beliefs.


The articles 1 and 2 of the Charter stress the freedom, equality and dignity of human person. These article also emphasise that being endowed with reason and conscience, human beings should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. There should be no discrimination of any kind against each other. The Quran very much lays stress on equality of all human beings. The Quran puts forward this concept in different ways. It says, “O men, serve your Lord Who created you and those before you, so that you may guard against evil. Who made the earth resting place for you and the heaven a roof, and sends down rain from the clouds then brings forth with it fruits for your sustenance” (2-21-22)

It would be seen that in the above verse equality of all human beings is accepted. All are creation of one God and also that nature’s bounties are available for all without any distinction of caste, colour or creed. It further stresses this fact in another verse : “O mankind, be mindful of your duty to your Lord, who created you from a single soul and from the same created its mate, and from them twain caused to be spread large numbers of men and women; and be mindful of you duty to Allah, in Whose name you appeal to one another, and be mindful of the ties of kinship.” (4:2). Thus the Quran maintains that all have been born from one primeval parents and thus are absolutely equal in all respects. No discrimination whatsoever could be admissible.

The Quran also declares in ringing words, : “And we have honoured the children of Adam, and we carry them in the land and the sea and we provide them with good things, and we have made them to excel highly most of those whom we have created.” (17:70) (emphasis added). Thus it will be seen that Allah has honoured all the children of Adam and hence it is the duty of one human being to honour another human being without any distinction of any sort. All human beings would thus enjoy same rights and no hieararchy of any sort will be permitted in enjoyment of these rights. These rights are theirs by virtue of their being humans. The Quran does not admit any hierarchy. Only those who excel in good deeds are above others, not by virtue of wealth and position.

As the Quran does not admit hierarchy of status and wealth, it does not admit hierarchy of ethnicity, nationality and colour. Whatever ethnicity, nationality or colour you belong to, you are all equal. These distinctions have been created only so that you may be recognised. The Quran declares this in its own inimitable style: “O mankind, we have created you from male and female, and We have made you into tribes and sub-tribes that you may know each other. Surely the noblest of you with Allah is the most dutiful of you. “ (49:13) What has been said in this verse 1400 years ago, is the very spirit of the Human Rights Declaration of our times. It could hardly be improved upon by any other declaration. This verse demolished all the hierarchies and distinctions and puts all human beings on one footing. The most honoured in the sight of God is one who is most pious and most dutiful.

The Quran’s stress on being dutiful or pious is also meaningful in yet another sense. Those who are dutiful and pious lead quite simple life and refrain from excessive consumption. In fact it is consumerism which has caused, some of the most flagrant violations of human rights in our world today. The industrially advanced countries indulge in unrestrained consumerism at the cost of developing nations which results in violations of human rights in these third world countries. The tribals and other backward sections of these countries suffer most. Even within these developing countries, the well to do elite indulge in consumerism at the cost of the basic human rights of these backward sections. Human rights for all can be assured only in an equitable and egalitarian society and the Quran wants to create just social structure.

In one verse the Quran declares that “Be just; that is nearer to the observance of duty.” (5:8) Thus it will be seen that the Quran lays emphasis on being just and one cannot be dutiful and pious without being just. The two are very close to each other. The Quran then upholds following sequence for a proper social order; leading simple and pious life, being just, honouring fellow human beings as Allah does and thus becoming most honoured in the eyes of Allah. It will be seen that only those who lead simple life and resist consumerism can ensure human rights to others and hence the Quran’s emphasis on simplicity and justice.

Allah makes humans as His “vicegerents in the earth” (35:40). This vicegerency again has been accorded to all human beings without any distinction, all those who follow above injunctions would deserve this elevated status, irrespective of their ethnicity, nationality or religion. Also, according to the Quran, “Certainly we created man in the best mould.. Then we render him the lowest of the low.” (95:4-5). Allah has made man in the best of the mould but he can retain this status only though his good deeds, simplicity and justice. But he often relapses, through his greed, lust and unjust acts, to the lowest of the low. He falls to this low status because he violates others rights though his greedy consumerism.

The article 3 of the Charter lays emphasis on the right to life, liberty and security of person. Right to life is most fundamental right. All other rights have meaning only if this right is respected. Firstly, the Quran prohibits suicide: “And kill not yourselves” (4:29). Secondly, it condemns infanticide in verses 17:31 “And kill not your children for fear of poverty…” and 81-9-10 “And when the one buried alive is asked for what sin she was killed.” Also, the Quran describes killing of one person without any justification as killing of entire humanity: “Wherefore we prescribed for the children of Israel that whosoever killed a person unless it be for killing a person or for creating disorder in the land – it shall be as if he had slaughtered all mankind; and whosoever secures the life of one, it shall be as if he had secured the life of all mankind.” (5:32)

The Quranic statement that killing one person amounts to killing entire mankind and saving one person amounts to saving entire mankind is of great significance from human rights’ viewpoint. It is quite clear that if one does not have respect for one individual’s life, he cannot have respect for human for human life per se and if one has respect for sanctity of one individual’s life he will have respect for sanctity of life in general. Thus the Quran in no case permits taking of anyones life without justification. The right to life thus becomes very fundamental. The Quran prescribes the code of conduct in this respect in the following words:

“Say : Come, I will rehearse to you what your Lord has forbidden to you : Associate naught with Him and do good to parents and slay not your children for (fear of) poverty – We provide for you and for them – and go not near indecencies, open or secret, and kill not the soul which Allah has made sacred except with justification. This He enjoins upon you that you may understand.” (6:152)

Thus the sanctity of life is of utmost importance top the Quran. Any one who does not vouch for sanctity of life cannot be true human being. Life cannot be taken except with due process of justice. Even in his farewell address the Prophet emphasised the sanctity of life: “Your persons, properties and honour are declared sacred like the sanctity attaching to this day this month and this spot let them not be violated” Be it remembered that this farewell address was delivered on the day of pilgrimage and in the month of pilgrimage in the plane of Arafat all three being very sacred to Muslims. Thus human life and property are as sacred and inviolable as these three things.

Make a donation to support us


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *