(ISLAM AND MODERN AGE)
(Continued from previous issue)
This article pertains to abolition of slavery and all forms of servitude in whatever form they are found to persist. It is important to discuss here the question of slavery and Islam. It is often though that Islam sanctioned the institution of slavery. On careful examination of the Qurancic injunctions and hadith literature it will be seen that it is not so. However, what is true is that the Quran sought to abolish slavery in a gradual manner. It was though unwise to do away with it in one stroke. The Quran and hadith prescribed, in the transitional period, very humane treatment of slaves. It also encouraged manumitting slaves. The Prophet after marrying Khadija (an 15 years before he received Divine call) freed all her slaves as she had placed them at his disposal. One young person Zaid chose to stay with him. The Prophet gave him so much love that he refused to go with his father when he came to take him learning of his son’s liberation. Not only that the Prophet continued to give great love and affection to Zaid’s son Usama after Zaid died. It is significant to note that throughout his life the Prophet never owned any slave. Slavery was quite abhorrent to him.
Also, the Prophet gave highest honour of being mu’assin (caller to prayer) to a liberated slave Bilal who was also a black from Ethopia. This honour was sought after by many close companion of the Prophet but none save a former slave could get it. No wonder than many slaves accepted Islam as it was a liberating movement for them. As we know zakat is obligatory for every Muslim and Allah prescribed in the Quran that one portion of zakat be spent for liberation of salves or captives (fi al-riqab). A portion is also required to be spent on paying off debt of the indebted (9:60). Even for prisoners of wars nominal ransom was prescribed for setting them frees. After the battle of Badr it was announced that the ransom for a literate prisoner of war could be as little as teaching alphabets to ten children. Usually the captives in the war were taken as slaves. Islam, on other hand, sought to free them for very little, almost nominal ransom to discourage slavery. Also, the Quran provides for slaves the written agreement with their masters to purchase their freedom. It is known as kitab (writing). Thus the Quran says, “And those of your slaves who ask for a writing (of freedom), give theme the writing, if you know any good in them, and give them of the wealth of Allah which He has given you. And compel not your slave-girls to prostitution when they desire to keep chaste, in order to seek the frail good of this world’s life.” (24:33)
This significant verseprovides for an agreement for liberation of slaves. The slave could enter into an agreement with his master to ransom himself through his own earnings. Before Islam too, this practice existed but it was purely optional for the master to grant freedom or not by accepting ransom. But Islam introduced a reform of this practice by making it obligatory for the master to enter into an agreement with the slave if he desired his manumission. If he were an able-bodied he could earn his ransom but if he were disabled, Allah exhorts the Muslims to spend their wealth given to them by Allah to pay for ransom. As pointed out above it could also be paid from state treasury (a portion of zakat)
In pre-Islamic period the Arabs also used to compel their slave-girls to go for prostitution to earn money. The Quran also prohibited this and gave the slave-girls the right to remain chaste, as the Quran puts it. The Muslims are exhorted by the Quran not to make slave-girls an instrument for earning” the frail goods of this world’s life”, as the Quran puts it.
Even for breaking of oath, the Quran prescribes manumission of slaves. “….for making of deliberate oaths; so its expiation is the feeding of ten poor men with the average (food) you feed your families with, or their clothing, or the freeing of a neck (i..e liberating a slave)” (5:89). Also, for expiation of a murder committed by mistake, freeing of a neck is prescribed (4:92). Thus it will be seen that the Quran encourages freeing of neck through all possible means. The idea was to abolish the institution of slavery though gradually.
This article relates to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Islam never approves of undignified behaviour, let alone torturing and attacking others, The Quran strongly comes down on what it calls istikbar (arrogance of power) and istibdad (oppression) and sumpathises with istidaf (weak and oppressed). It denounces Pharoa as mustakbir and mustabid (power drunk and oppressor). Allah does not like the arrogant (16;23). Also, Islam lays great emphasis on compassion. The Muslims begin their work by reciting Bismillah which means I begin in the name of Allah who is merciful and Compassionate. It is, therefore, duty of every Muslim to be merciful and compassionate towards others. He cannot, otherwise be a good Muslim. The Prophet is reported to have told his wife Ayesha : “Whatever is done with grace enhances its value, and that which lacks grace loses all value.” The Prophet also prohibited cruelty and torture. He said: “No one should be subjected to chastisement by fire.” He also admonished against hitting any person on the face.
The Prophet was compassionate towards animals also. When a donkey was branded on face he admonished its master and said even if it is necessary to brand the animal, brand it on side or some other less sensitive part of its body. One may object to Islamic punishments of flogging, cutting off of hands etc. We propose to deal with this subject separately as it requires detailed discussion by itself. However, we would like to say here that the way some Muslim theologians have treated these punishments has created impression of rigidity and cruelty. Even if these punishments are taken as ultimate ones, the Prophet inflicted them in the extreme cases. There is hardly any case reported of cutting off of hands for theft during his life time. When a sick person came and confessed before the Prophet that he is guilty of fornication, he asked 100 branches of date-palm tree to be tied together and one blow to be delivered to him to obviate the need for 100 lashes required as a punishment. When a case of theft of fruits by a child from an orchard was reported to him, he chided the owner of the orchard and asked him to feed and clothe the child. Thus it will be seen that the Prophet showed great compassion even to offenders.
These articles are designed to secure for all persons recognition and equality before the law and protection of the law without discrimination. It should be noted that Islam has laid basic emphasis on justice and equality before law. In fact for weaker sections of society it has shown consideration and in some cases severity of punishment is reduced as it is their circumstances which induce them to commit offence. For example if a slave-girl commits adultery or fornication, its punishment is half that of free woman i,e, she would be delivered only 50 lashes instead of 100. Thus the Quran says, “when they (i.e. slave-girls) are taken in marriage, they shall suffer half the punishment for free married women.” (4:25)
The judges are exhorted to be just and should not show any traces of partiality. “When you judge between the people,” the Quran says,” “Judge with justice. Surely, excellent is that with which Allah admonishes you. Allah is All-Hearing, All-Seeing.’ *4:58). The Quran also prohibits bribery. It also requires of the believers that even hostility with a people should not come in the way of justice it says: “O you who believe, be steadfast in the cause of Allah, and bear witness in equity and let not a people’s enmity towards you incite you to act otherwise with justice. Be always just that is closest to righteousness. Be ever mindful of your duty to Allah. Surely, Allah is aware of what you do.” (5:8).
Another verse also exhorts Muslims for justice. It goes on to say : “O you who believe, be strict in observing justice, and bear witness for the sake of Allah, even though it be against your own selves, or against parents or kindred. Whether they be rich or poor, Allah is more regardful of them than you are. Therefore, guard yourselves against being led astray by low desires, so that you may be able to act equitably. If you conceal the truth or evade it, remember that Allah is well aware of what you do.” (4:135)
It will be observed here that the Quran lays down very rigorous standards for justice. One must do justice even if it goes against oneself, ones parents or relatives, or rich or poor. One should not distort or turn away form truth. This amounts to real equality before law. Law should neither favour nor spare anyone. Apart from the prophet of Islam, the Caliphs also practiced rigorous form of justice. In their letters written to their provincial governors, ‘Umar and ‘Ali, the two illustrious Calphs, have laid down the Quranic concept of justice. ‘Ali, who was also son-in-law of the prophet, writes in his latter to the governor of Basra that he should not keep company with the rich and should not form the habit of eating rich food so that he could do justice to the poor. The idea is that the poor and the rich are equal before law and the powerful should not be spared if they do wrong.
Articles 9-11 relates to arbitrary exercise of executive powers or administrative authority and due exercise of justice where criminal charge is involved. This has been covered under dispensation of justice in Islam and need not be repeated here. The article 12 relates to individuals and their right to privacy. Islam duely safeguards it and goes further and exhorts people not to violate others privacy by entering their houses without permission. (24:27-29). We do not want to go into details of this right here. The articles 13-15 pertain to nationality, freedom of movement and residence and asylum.
In fact there was no concept of nationality in those days though some sort of restriction on travel from limits of one empire to another empire might have existed. But the Quran exhorts the believers to travel through the earth and see Allah’s creations with a sense of wonderment. As for right to seek asylum against persecution, the Prophets’s companions themselves had sought asylum in Ethopia in early days of Islam and subsequently the Prophet and his companions also had to migrate form Mecca to Medina to escape persecution. Thus the right to seek asylum is very fundamental in Islam. We find an interesting verse in the holy Quran which refers to individual’s choice to migrate for seeking asylum.
The Quranic verse is as follows : (As for) those whom the angles cause to die while they are unjust to themselves, (the angels) will say: What are you doing? They will say : we are weak in the earth. (They will) say : Was not Allah’s earth spacious, so that you could migrate therein? So these it is whose refuge is hell – and it is an evil resort. Except the weak from among the men and the women and the children who have not the means, nor can they find and way (to scape).” (4:97-98). Thus it will be seen that the Quran grants people a right to seek asylum and to escape from the land of persecution.
This article deals with the right to marry, equal rights of the parties to marriage, consent to the marriage and the protection of the family. These rights were also ensured by Islam both to men and women. Marriage in Islam is contractual and can take place only with the consent of both the parties. Women cannot be married off without their consent. No nikah can be complete without their consent. Also, women are allowed to lay down the conditions they wish. Even if girls have been married off in childhood (though the Quran makes no mention of marriage of children), they have been given what is called khiyar al-bulugh (option of puberty) i.e. they can consent to or reject the marital contract entered into on her behalf by her father, uncle or grandfather. She could not be coerced into entering marital union. Also, marriage can take place only on conditions laid down by women; also, of course by men. It is truly equal partnership in its spirit.
Even if divorced women want to marry their former husbands back, they cannot be coerced not to do so. “And when you divorce women”, the Quran says, “and they end their term, prevent them not from marrying their husbands if they agree among themselves in a lawful manner.” (2:232). Though divorce is not encouraged, it is not prevented either, in case the marriage cannot be salvaged. Both men and women have right to divorce. Women can seek divorce called khut (i.e. seeking release from marital bond). Her right to khul’. As the Prophet’s practice shows, is absolute. The Qaddi must grant her divorce, if she insists upon it.
Islam is probably the first religion to make marriage contractual and grant women equal rights in marital contract. Though in Arabia before Islam, marriage was a contract, women did not enjoy equal rights. It is Islam which granted her specific rights as an equal partner. Though she lost much of it during medieval ages, it can be retrieved again by going back to the Quranic spirit. That women enjoy equal rights with men has been amply clarified in the verse 33:35 of the Quran. That her rights are equal to her obligations has been stated in the verse 2:228. Women have also been fully protected by the Quran against irresponsible accusations against her chastity. Thus the Quran says: “Those who make accusations against chaste women and bring not four witnesses in support thereof – flog them with eighty stripes, and never admit their evidence thereafter: it is they that are the transgressors, except those who repent thereafter and make amends, for truly Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful.” (24:4-5).
This is in a way key article as it relates to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, opinion and expression, including the freedom to charge ones’ religion and manifest it in teaching, practice, worship and observance, and the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Unlike what is usually thought (and what often theologians often stress), Islam fully guarantees freedom of thought and conscience. It has proclaimed this in verse 2;256 in these words: “There shall be no compulsion in religion. Surely, guidance has become distinct from error; whosoever refuses to be led by those who transgresses, and believes in Allah, has surely grasped a strong handle which knows no breaking.” Also, in verse 18:29, the scripture of Islam proclaims: “Proclaim: It is Truth from your Lord; wherefore let him who will, believe, and let him who will disbelieve.” Thus it will be seen that the Quran imposes no compulsion whatsoever to accept the Truth from God. It is left to ones free choice. The Quran makes this further clear lest someone tries to exercise coercion: “If the Lord had enforced His Will, surely, all who are on the earth would have believed together. Can you, then, force people to become believers?” (10:99). This is clear proclamation of freedom of conscience.
Yet again the Quran says: “Proclaim: O ye people, now has the truth come to you from your Lord. So whosoever follows the guidance, follows it only for the good of his own soul, and whosoever, errs, errs only to its loss. I am not appointed a keeper over you. Follow that which is revealed to thee and be steadfast until Allah pronounce His judgement. He is the best of the judges.” (10-108, 109)
As for freedom of teaching, practice, worship and observance of religion, there are several verses in the Quran, ‘Everyone”, the Quran says, “has a direction to which he turns, so vie with one another in good works.” (2:148). Thus it is not direction or way of worship which is material but outdoing each other in good deeds. Everyone is free to worship Him in ones own ways. The Quran is more specific about freedom to worship and practice ones religion in the following verse: “To every people We appointed acts of devotion, which they observe, so let them not dispute which thee in the matter, and call to thy Lord. Surely thou art on a right guidance.” (22:67)
Similarly the Quran calls upon people to reflect think and exercise ones judgement. It discourages blind imitation, be it of ones own parents. This call for reflecting thinking and exercising ones faculty of reason, ensures to everyone the freedom of conscience and freedom of expression.
What we have discussed above is what has been laid down in the Charter of human rights and how far Quranic and Islamic ideals come close to it. The Quran had been very liberal in this respect. However, it does not mean that the Muslims have practiced these ideals. Far from it. There is not a single ideal which has not been violated by them, it would not be wrong to say that hardly any Muslim nation today has satisfactory record of human rights. Democracy is conspicuous by absence in most of the Islamic countries. Most of these countries are ruled by monarchs, sheikhs or despots. Hardly any country permits freedom of conscience and free exercise of individual opinion. Though Islam was first religion to uphold democratic ideals, Muslim countries trample them underfoot must unabashedly. In the Islamic world today there is rampant consumerism today on one hand, and; ruthless suppression of human rights, on the other. Both negate the Islamic ideals of life. It must make all of us sit and think seriously.