Islam and human rights

Copyright 1997 by Zeeshan Hasan. First published in Bangladesh in the Aug. 1, 1997 issue of Star Weekend Magazine.
Muslim societies invariably struggle to define the place of religion in the political realm. The results have been generally divisive and inconclusive; those who consider themselves liberals holding secular views fall on one side, and conservatives with a more traditionally religious view of the state fall on the other. Unfortunately, this polarization results in both a failure to acknowledge the religious beliefs of the populace, as well as an inability to reinterpret those beliefs to promote greater human rights and associated legal reforms. But as long as debate and compromise on the subject of religion is not achieved, social reform will remain threatened, as it will not be adequately assimilated into the popular religious mind-set. While the current realities of progressive religion are indeed depressing, the unexplored territory in this area is significant. In particular, debates on modernizing Islamic laws have always focused on individual Qur'anic verses and commands rather than taking a more holistic approach; yet true reform requires an underlying change of attitude which can only be accomplished by the latter. Muslims have yet to come to terms with the Qur'an as sacred literature; the possibilities of extracting reformist legal thought from its narrative passages as well as its legal verses has been largely untapped. In fact one of the most famous Qur'anic stories, that of Adam, is particularly significant in its potential for an Islamic basis of human rights.

To begin, without trapping ourselves in the polarized stalemate of religion-versus-secularism, we should realize that it is impossible to view religion purely as individual faith isolated from larger society. We often think of it as such, especially in the modern context, as we are accustomed to analyzing society in terms of individual rights. Freedom to choose one's religion is basic among these, and often leads to the assumption of a theoretically secular state.

But things become very complicated whenever we begin talking of "rights" of any sort. Society is a compromise among individuals; rights and freedoms are inevitably defined and limited by it. To live among others, one must behave in ways acceptable to them. Only in isolation is the individual perfectly free. In effect, each individual is faced with an implicit contract with society. The terms of the contract are: behave in such-and-such a way, or face consequences. Individual rights will be determined by this contract in accordance to the cultural and religious norms of each community. Social change will be determined by whether or not dissatisfied individuals have the power to force their society to re-negotiate the contract.

In the above analysis, human rights appears to be in real trouble, as it seems that there are ultimately no absolute rights of the individual. The only rights that exist are those arbitrarily determined by a particular society and the distribution of power in it. This may seem shockingly amoral; but in fact society, as all other phenomena, exists amorally. Only the ethical belief of a subjective observer can make an arbitrary moral judgement as to how things "should" be. The problem which human rights activism faces, then, is how to change the mind-set of enough subjective observers/participants to make a difference to society. Given the persistence of cultural norms, this will have to be accomplished through an internal redefinition of values. So the essence of human rights activism cannot be international conventions and agreements, but rather in the fusing of human rights concepts with indigenous cultures.

When discussing individual rights in traditionally Muslim societies, then, it is impossible to avoid talking in Islamic terms. The deciding factor for any concept of human rights will be the extent to which it can transform and then harmonize with the dominant culture. Unfortunately, a real problem with reform of any kind in Muslim societies today is that it is voiced in terms of secular ideologies such as Marxism and feminism. While these ideologies have found considerable support and helped human rights reforms in many ways, the fact is that they leave a dangerously large chunk of the population out of the process of progressive dialogue. In Muslim majority states such as Algeria and more recently Afghanistan, this has led to a polarization of society which ultimately becomes explosive.

So now the question becomes, how does one find support for human rights within an Islamic context? The answer will have to be some sort of new interpretation of sacred texts. This is the only way to combat conservative religious views, which always derive authority from claims to the "literal word" of scripture. Luckily, government naturally arises from people, and only indirectly from texts; interpretation is what gives meaning to scripture, not the "literal word". So one has to begin by reinterpreting religion, and then popularizing such reinterpretations wherever they are useful.

With a certain sense of poetic justice, we may take up the issue of human rights by examining the starting point of Qur'anic narrative; namely the creation of Adam.

And We said to the angels, "Bow yourselves to Adam";
so they bowed themselves, save Iblis;
he refused, and waxed proud,
and so he became one of the unbelievers.
{Surah 2 (al-Bakara), verse 32}

Interestingly, this is quite different from the Biblical account. There it is all the beasts of the earth which bow before Adam, who gives them names and is thus shown to be placed above all of them. In the Qur'an, the animals are replaced by angels, signifying that man has been elevated to an even higher level. But a further insight to the passage is seen if we consider that the Biblical account states that "God created Adam in His image" (Genesis 1:27). In the polytheist and idolatrous environment of the ancient Israelites, the "image of God" is something far more concrete than an abstract honorific. Literally it is the "statue" or "idol" (Hebrew tselem) of God. And in an idolatrous environment, an "idol" has a specific significance; it is the physical thing that is to be worshipped as the most immediate symbol of the divine presence. In the Islamic context, which includes a ritual prayer comprising of bowing and prostrating, God's command to "bow down to Adam" invokes even more strongly the image of believers bowing to worship God.

Some caution is of course required here, because both the Bible and the Qur'an are extremely anti-idolatry. So neither should be taken to mean that God is encouraging the worship of Adam in the manner of a conventional idol. However, both Qur'an and Bible unquestionably use the metaphor of God creating man out of earth, much as a potter might make a clay statue. Furthermore, both talk of God then "breathing" life into him; and in the Qur'an the implication is strong that this represents some sort of transfer of holiness.

Then God formed man from the dust of ground, and
breathed into his nostrils the breath of life
(Genesis 2:7)

And when thy Lord said to the angels,
"See, I am creating a mortal of a clay of mud molded.
When I have shaped him,
and breathed My own spirit in him
fall you down, bowing before him!
(Surah 15, verse 29)

So it seems obvious that in spite of being critical of idolatry, both the Bible and the Qur'an continue to make use of metaphors strongly associated with it. Nor should this be surprising, as any text or scripture must use the idioms of its surroundings if it is to make sense in them. With regards to the Qur'an, Muslim scholars have always recognized the importance of studying it in the context of pre-Islamic Arab poetry; so the "cultural location" of the Qur'an in a non-Muslim environment is already commonplace.

When we decipher all the metaphorical language about idols and prostrated angels, what we have in this Qur'anic passage turns out to be a symbolic lesson of great humanism. The divine decree contained in the scene is this; of all created things, humanity is the most sacred and worthy of respect. It is exactly the spirit of this passage which must be invoked if an Islamic concept of human rights is to emerge.

Unfortunately, the humanist message of the Adam story has generally been lost due to an emphasis on its importance as "religious history". The traditional approach to Qur'anic study has ascribed first priority to its explicitly legal verses; ethical interpretations of its narrative has been largely an intellectual exercise without real significance to society at large. This is an error which Muslim liberals will have to rectify, as literature is extremely useful. It naturally lends itself to different interpretations, which is exactly what Muslims need to break the stranglehold of conservative views.

Muslims have always recognized that one of the purposes of stories of the prophets was in the moral lessons that they contained. The Adam story, for example, has an obvious message contained in the symbols of forbidden tree and the disobedience of humanity; namely, that those who disregard the divine commands will be punished. However, the overwhelming conservatism of Muslim thought tends to strangle as rather dangerous any attempt to draw ethical lessons from sacred narrative, preferring to stick to the letter of the obviously legal verses of the Qur'an instead. Furthermore, the modern view that tries to present the Qur'an as a revelation full of "scientific fact" suppresses all attempts to view its narrative as anything other than straight history. Undoubtedly the most notable exception to the conservative position has been the Egyptian scholar Muhammad Ahmad Khalafallah, who has done an unprecedented amount of work in the field of de-historicizing and reinterpreting Qur'anic narratives. His work has focused on the distinct lack of historical detail in all Qur'anic narratives of the prophets (which really is striking compared to the correspondingly huge amount of factual detail in the Biblical accounts) and argued that Qur'anic passages were never intended to be read as history, but only as moral stories. Unfortunately, his writing has all been in Arabic and is not well known to most Muslims.

Conservative objection to the sort of reinterpretation of sacred narrative done above is easy to predict; human rights activism was not a pressing issue for the Arabs of Medina and Mecca. So using the story of Adam in this way is, in one sense, forcing a meaning to the text which may not have been intended. This is a perfectly reasonable objection when made about most sorts of literature; normally, any piece of literature can only be judged in its original context, as that is the only one in which the authorial activity can take place and "original meaning" can be located. However, divine literature is another matter entirely. As we must suppose that God has knowledge of all times and circumstances, divine scripture has the unique property of not being tied to any place or period for its meaning. Since God must have known of all possible locations of the text, the original moment of revelation can be regarded as only a particular case in which the text has a particular meaning. But beyond that it is possible for the text to be inherently flexible, with a different set of "intended meanings" for different times and places. Thus there is no reason for us to look for the "original meaning" of the Qur'an; all that is necessary is that we find the interpretation appropriate to our own circumstances. In fact this is imperative, as otherwise the scripture becomes simply a relic without any real significance to our own situation.

It becomes obvious, then, that an increased emphasis on the Qur'an as sacred literature rather than simply a book of laws opens up a vast possibilities for meeting the needs of contemporary Muslim societies. One can only hope that the most pressing of these, of which human rights is certainly one, will be dealt with quickly. A lot remains to be done by academics in terms of reinterpretation; but more crucially, reinterpretation has to find its way into religious education and mass consciousness. The question is whether or not our educational institutions are up to the challenge, and if not, what will be done to make them more effective as agents of change.