Islam and Human Rights – Conflicting Ideals or Synchronized Paths

Thursday, January 12, 2012
By Syed Gilani

Human Rights in the Middle East

One man’s suicide in Tunisia1 sparked a wave of protests across the country and soon the fever spread across the Muslim world, in the Middle East and North Africa, where people seemed suddenly awakened from a long sleep to seek their fundamental human rights. The people of the region, long plagued by poverty and lack of basic human rights, took to the streets and attracted instant global attention as one after another they successfully started toppling their oppressive regimes2. With slogans filling the air and airwaves, I couldn’t help but notice that this sudden ‘awakening’ of the people is only happening in predominantly Muslim countries of North Africa and Middle East, while similar oppressive regimes of non-Muslim nations in Africa have successfully avoided the shocks of this recent movement. One would wonder about the real causes behind this rare human awakening against poverty, oppression, and lack of basic human rights in the Islamic world. Islam being the main religion of almost all countries facing this recent change, a question comes to mind why Muslim countries at large, lag behind on human rights? And whether the religion of Islam contradicts with the global human rights ideals or are there other political reasons behind the poor history of human rights in these Muslim countries? Moreover, if Islam does support majority of the international human rights’ ideals then why people, who are mainly guided by their faith in the Arab World and Northern Africa, stayed silent for decades and centuries until recently? For this paper, my concentration will be on economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights as supported by international bodies.

The current Middle Eastern political landscape is divided between theocracy, hereditary or acquired dictatorship, and monarchy, mostly structured after the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War II. Enriched with fossil fuel resources, the political leadership of these countries heavily relies on politicizing Islam to strengthen their regimes by actively subjugating their people’s basic human rights. Although most Middle Eastern countries (except Saudi Arabia) has ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, Declaration on the Right to Development in 1986, and other important international agreements on human rights3, we find widespread violations of basic cultural, political, economic, social, and religion rights in these countries with majority Muslim population. It is important to note that countries with a majority of Muslim population do not imply to the rules of Islamic law in these countries. Nevertheless, Islam does govern a great part of their social and cultural landscape. Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam forbids “discrimination on the basis of race, color, language, belief, sex, religion, political affiliation, social status or other considerations” and proclaims the “sanctity of life” as a duty prescribed by Islamic law4.

Pogge states that, “all human rights lawyers can acknowledge that the legal rights and obligations they draft and interpret are meant to give effect to preexisting moral rights5” and morality at any community is influenced by their embraced religious teachings. Islamic principles while supporting the right to economic development under UN Declaration on the Right to Development (RTD)6 suggest that every human has a right for economic development and that needy people have a right in the wealth of rich people and that the state should provide an elaborate system of redistribution of wealth and property7. The Islamic concept of “Zakat8” or charity forms the basis of redistribution of wealth by the state. David Beetham, supporting the redistribution of wealth explains that there is a general agreement among commentators on economic and social rights that for them to be effectively realized would require a redistribution of power and resources, both within countries and between them9”. Islam’s strict rules against unfair economic practices and lack of support for unequal distribution of wealth positions it closer to the egalitarian system. Islam also actively supports the individual pursuit of wealth and economic well being through moral and lawful means. Poverty, a topic close to international human rights circles, has been described as a “capability deprivation10” by major economists and human rights scholars; Islam, while understanding the effects of poverty on a society, puts it close to negativity which breeds ignorance. Widespread poverty and income inequality in the Muslim world, in general, and in the Middle East in particular, is due to the segregated societal structures in which only few families have been thriving since decades.

When we identify political freedom in Islam while evaluating its stance vis-à-vis Right to Development, contrary to common belief, I find Islam supporting a just and accountable democracy instead of a theocratic form of government. That is why we witness many Muslim countries embracing Islamic democratic systems. However, most Middle Eastern and North African countries still struggle with the theocratic, monarch and dictatorship governments clinching tightly in the name of Islam and rule as delineated by the so-called “Will of God”. An Islamic scholar, Moulana Maududi in his book “Political theory of Islam” used the term “Theo-democracy” for Islamic states. He defined democracy within the sovereign powers of God. Non-democratic regimes in the Middle East, therefore, continue to survive only by oppression and international support by leveraging their strategic location and natural resources to gain support from powerful countries who seek their own national interest.

Islam puts the highest emphasis on acquiring knowledge for all while positioning closer to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and Convention of the Rights of the Child11. The first revelations of the Holy Qur’an ask to “Read” and at many places in Qur’an and Hadith great stress is given on acquiring education for both men and women. The prophet of Islam stresses on seeking knowledge as an obligation upon every Muslim12. Nevertheless, we find widespread illiteracy in the Muslim World especially in women, which is in huge contrast to the support for education by the early Muslim governments in the Middle East.

Freedom of religion and culture, a hot topic these days especially in the light of Islamic extremism, is also an important cornerstone of international human rights declarations. Amartya Sen states that “Islamic civilization is often portrayed as being fundamentally intolerant and hostile to individual freedom. But the presence of diversity and variety within a tradition applies very much to Islam as well13”.Qur’an clearly states that there is no compulsion in religion14 and history shows that Muslim emperors in Turkey and India were more tolerant towards different religions and cultures than their European counterparts15.  The current wave of Islamic extremism is the by-product of the Afghan War (1980s) with its own political history which has greatly overshadowed the tolerant side of the religion.

Despite the fact that Islam upholds the rights of humans as endorsed by majority of the countries in the form of the Universal Declarations on Human Rights, 1948 and Declaration on the Right to Development, 1986, many Islamic laws conflict with the international human rights ideals which are engraved by a secular global system. The dire human rights situation in the Middle Eastern and North African Muslim countries is, in my view, not due to Islamic laws and teachings but either because of strict interpretation of Islamic laws to provide political support to the oppressive regimes {Saudi Arabia and Iran (Gulf)}, or in order to prolong acquired or hereditary dictatorship or monarchy, as we witness in Libya, Egypt, Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries. It is, therefore, imperative that leading countries and international bodies come together in addressing the poor human rights situation in the Middle East and North Africa, while setting aside their own national interests as the only yardstick to act. The recent rise of the people in that region to seek their basic human rights is not powered by Islamic teachings and not even inspired by western democratic ideals – instead, it is a calling by the basic human nature to seek economic, social and political freedom. This movement will spread to the corners of the world where mankind has been oppressed for long either in the name of religion or for any other reason and will last for as long people inspire to seek their basic human rights.

“The foundations of human rights can be secular or religious, and religious in a variety of forms, because the notion that human beings are worthy of respect recurs throughout history16”.


1-      Time Magazine. “Bouazizi: The Man Who Set Himself and Tunisia on Fire”. By Rania Abouzeid Friday. Jan. 21, 2011.,8599,2043557,00.html

2-      CNN World. “Unrest in the Middle East and North Africa — country by country”. February 21, 2011.

3-      The Universal Declaration on Human Rights also see Declaration on the Right to Development

4-      Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. 5 August 1990.,ARAB,,,3ae6b3822c,0.html

5-      Thomas Pogge. “World Poverty and Human Rights”. Chapter 2 “How Should Human Rights be Conceived”. Page 59

6-       Declaration on the Right to Development, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 41/128 of 4 December 1986.

7-      Al Qur’an 51: 15-19. “Taking that which their Lord giveth them; for lo! aforetime they were doers of good; (16) They used to sleep but little of the night, (17) And ere the dawning of each day would seek forgiveness, (18) And in their wealth the beggar and the outcast had due share”

8-      Zakat-Charity. also see also see Al Qur’an verse 2:273

9-      David Beetham. “What Future for Economic and Social Rights?”, p 43

10-  Amartya Sen-“Development as Freedom”. Chapter 4 “Poverty as Capability Deprivation” Page 87

11-  Convention on the Rights of the Child, also see African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights

12-  Seeking Of Knowledge Is An Obligation Upon Every Muslim, Be It A Man Or A Woman   Mishkaat also see

13-  Amartya Sen-“Development as Freedom”. Chapter 10 “Culture and Human Rights” Page 238

14-  Al-Qur’an 2:256

15-  Amartya Sen-“Development as Freedom”. Chapter 10 “Culture and Human Rights” Page 238-239

16-  Social Rights and Economics: Claims to Health Care and Education in developing Countries VARUN GAURI World Development Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 465–477, 2004

© 2012, Syed Gilani. All rights reserved.

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5 Responses to “Islam and Human Rights – Conflicting Ideals or Synchronized Paths”

  1. Mark Wells

    Great Article Syed – Sorry it took so long to get published. What are your thoughts about the events unfolding in Syria?

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  3. ecks why

    Informed rational freedom loving people have all the reasons in the world to fear islam. The twin fogs of political correctness & ignorance must be dispersed before western society better understands this menace. Even a brief review of islamic theology & history quickly exposes the deadly roots of this evil ideology.

    Mohamhead was a 7th century murdering warlord who rose to power on a river of blood surrounded by thugs and gangsters using intimidation, violence, deception and trickery to expand their criminal empire while mercilessly suppressing and killing their opponents and enriching themselves on stolen booty.

    The evil koran is a collection of sayings and speeches by this diabolical madman claiming divine guidance from some mythical sky-god which has inspired generations of crazed fanatics to abhorrent behavior resulting in historys worst ever crimes against humanity starting 1400 years ago and still continuing even today.

    Islam is just another fascist totalitarian ideology used by power hungry fanatics on yet another quest for worldwide domination and includes all the usual human rights abuses & suppression of freedoms.

    and some snappy graphics, great for emailing…

  4. Syed

    Thanks Mark for publishing the article. About Syria or Middle East Spring overall, I think it was long overdue as dictators and empires have been ruling their people by coercion. I hope this continues on to all of the Middle Eastern countries as people continue to wake up across the region.

  5. admin

    Hey no Problem – great to ‘hear’ from you. Are there any other articles of yours that haven’t been published – send me links to them and I’ll make sure they get up there.

    Also – please consider writing more for us. Even if it is short and less formal – something about current Human Rights issues is always welcome!



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