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Human Rights:
A Comparison of the Western and Islamic Views and Practices

By: Dr. Syed Waheed Akhtar
The declaration of human rights, a result of the French Revolution, was completed on 26 August 1789. The two fundamental doctrines which gave the declaration its force as the gospel of the Revolution were those of the natural rights of man and national sovereignty. The natural rights stated in the preamble were held as inalienable and sacred, because they were considered to be inherent to human nature. These rights were defined in the article II as those to liberty, property, security, and the right to resist oppression. Liberty included two aspects, individual liberty and the freedom of opinion. Freedom of speech, liberty of press and expression of religious opinions were secured in articles X and XI. Though article I proclaimed all men to be equal in rights, it did not assert their political or social equality. As the French Revolution was mainly led by the business class, which had grievances against the feudal class, the authors of the declaration were perhaps not ready to grant equal political rights to all classes. However, clauses VII - IX secured the principle of equality before law, while clauses VI and XIII established the principles of civic and fiscal equality.6
In order to understand the loopholes in this declaration, we have to discuss at some length how the various types of rights are distinguished from one another. In general, a right is defined as a claim or title to anything that can be enforced, or a claim to act, possess or enjoy anything, or the use there of; legal authority, immunity granted by authority". The existence of a legal right implies the existence of legal remedy; for one does not exit without the other.7 Civil rights are those which appertain to citizenship and which may be enforced or redressed by a civil action. These are divided into absolute and relative rights. Absolute rights are supposed to be inherent to humanity, under which are placed rights of personal security, mobility, honour, health, and enjoyment. Relative civil rights include those which subsist between the people and the government, such as the people's right to protection at the hands of the government; the right of allegiance, which is due to the government at the hands of the people; the rights of husband and wife, parent and child, guardian and ward, master and servant, reciprocally. Right is co-existent with authority or government, and both are inherent to man. According to Bouveir rights precede government, or the establishment of States. Johnson holds that a civil right is accorded to every member of a distinct community or nation, while a political right is exercisable in the administration of government, such as the right to vote in elections. Bouvier says that certain apparently natural rights may not be actual, such as rights of privacy.
Another step towards declaration of human rights was taken by the United Nations on 10 December 1948. The General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, also known as an international Magna Carta. It enumerates the specific rights to life, liberty, and security of person; freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention, and exile; fair and public trial by an independent impartial tribunal; freedom of thought, religion, and conscience; freedom of peaceful assembly and association; and the rights to social security, work, education and participation in the life of an artistic and scientific community were added to them later.9
The civilized Western world had to go long way to reach a universal declaration of human rights. Despite a lapse of one and a half centuries after the French declaration of human rights, the U.N. declaration falls short of ensuring equal rights of people of different race and colour as well as ideological and religious freedom for all the nations of the world, particularly those of the Third World, which have no safeguard against their economic, cultural and political exploitation by the so-called advanced nations. Interpretation of terms like freedom, human rights and sovereignty is considered to be a monopoly of the industrially advanced powers. Freedom-fighters are dubbed as terrorists, while inhuman acts of aggression, suppression, subversion, interference in the affairs of sovereign nations of the Third World by the imperialists are termed as means of safeguarding the freedom and human rights of the people of the victim countries. What is inconvenient to the champions of open society and human rights is labeled violation of human rights and is condemned by international forums and mass media. Contrarily, the countries openly practicing policies of Apartheid and racial discrimination, such as South Africa's white minority government and the Zionist regime, receive all kinds of assistance and support from the civilized West. Military dictatorships and anti-people regimes which serve their Western masters and crush democratic movements of their people, are justified on the pretext of fighting against obscurantism and religious fanaticism. How human rights and freedoms are interpreted is matter of convenience for the guardians of Western civilization and supremacy. The movements of Islamic resurgence particularly invite the wrath of the standard-bearers of human rights. Socialist countries criticize capitalist nations for denying ideological and economic freedom to their people, while Western democracies accuse socialist States of totalitarianism and violation of fundamental rights. Both are right so far as the other camp is concerned, and both are wrong with regard to their claim of granting all the freedoms and rights to their people. Capitalist democracies and socialist republics represent two faces of one and the same coin in the modern world for transacting the business of human rights.
Islam, if studied and judged without any bias, can be justifiably acclaimed to have launched and practiced a universal message of human rights and freedom fourteen centuries age, in which all the above-mentioned contradictions and inconsistencies were resolved at both the theoretical and practical levels. Islam being a religion consists of a set of beliefs. And beliefs, as defined by C. S. Pierce, the founder of Pragmatism, are distinct from ideas, for they are necessarily acted upon by those who hold them, while ideas often remain unpracticed. Hence whatever Islam preached was also practiced by true Muslims. As in Islam all dichotomies of theory and practice are resolved, wherever we see disparity between professing and practicing, we can say that in such cases the essential condition of Islam is not fulfilled. Islam literally means submission to God. The submission of various selves struggling to achieve supremacy to an Absolute Self brings harmony in the world of unceasing struggle. Harmony in the human collective existence can be maintained and ensured through a balanced and just award of equal rights to all individuals along with the freedom to shoulder corresponding obligations, so that human rights are accorded to all.
Islam brought into existence such a harmonious society for the first time in the annals of human history at a time when the advanced West of today lived in total darkness and without any conception of freedom and human rights. Before the advent of Islam, the great Greek civilization had introduced a rudimentary form of democracy in the city states, and later the Romans also put up a semblance of democracy for a short time. But in Greek democracies only free men, not women, had a right to vote, and slaves were considered unworthy of having any rights. The vast Roman Empire was virtually a slave State, in which only the free ruling class enjoyed certain rights. The Byzantine Empire that succeeded the Roman Empire never practiced the teachings of Christ and denied freedom of thought and enquiry to Christians themselves. The Popes were persecuted and discriminated against. The socio-political structure of the Persian Empire was equally oppressive, in which only the priests and noblemen enjoyed some rights. In this caste-ridden set-up the common people could not even think of freedom. The Indian society was also caste-bound, where the lower castes constituting the vast majority of people were treated as subhuman beings. In such an epoch, Islam emerged with a universal message of human freedom that guaranteed equal rights for all human beings irrespective of their race, colour, nationality, faith, and sex. Despite deviating from the path of the Prophet (s) and his true successors, Muslim rulers generally observed the Islamic principle of human equality and granted much more freedoms and rights to their subjects than any other past or contemporary State. Not only Muslims, but also non-Muslims enjoyed full freedom in the States ruled by Muslims. Sayyid Amir 'Ali, in the Spirit of Islam, stating that Islam never interfered with the dogmas of any faith, writes:
"Whilst orthodox Christianity persecuted with equal ferocity the Jews and Nestorians, . . . Islam afforded them both shelter and protection. Whilst Christian Europe was burning witches and heretics, and massacring Jews and infidels, the Muslim sovereigns were treating their non-Muslim subjects with consideration and tolerance. They were the trusted subjects of the State, councilors of the empire. Every secular office was open to them along with the Moslems. The teacher himself had declared it lawful for a Muslim to intermarry with a Christian, Hebrew, or Zoroastrian".10
The rights accorded by Islam to non-Muslims, women, and slaves were not only unprecedented in those days, they also distinguish Islam from modern ideologies.
A detailed discussion on the subject of human rights granted and practised by Islam is beyond the scope of the present article. I would confine my discourse to certain rights granted to women, slaves, and non-Muslims, in order to show to what extent Islam respected human freedom. This study would enable us to understand how far the Islamic conception of freedom had been translated into action and practice. Besides the Qur'an, our other main source of reference is Nahj al-balaghah of al-Imam Ali ('a), which is in total conformity with the tradition of the Prophet (s),

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