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Living The Quran

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From Issue: 1008 [Read full issue]

Rights of Humanity
Al-Isra (The Night Journey) - Chapter 17: Verse 70

"We have confirmed dignity on the children of Adam; bore them over land and sea; given them sustenance from the good things of life; and favoured them specially above many of those We have created."

The idea of human rights in the Quran is firmly based on the notion of human dignity. The Quran provides a direct and uncompromising affirmation of the dignity of human beings in the above verse. This dignity is neither something that is earned, nor is it based on righteous conduct; it is innate, the natural endowment and God-given right of everyone, whoever they are, pious or sinners, whatever their race, colour, creed or nationality. And it can never be compromised.

In the Quranic framework, a crucial aspect of human dignity is the absolute right of individuals and communities to the essential necessities without which life cannot be sustained. The bounty of God cannot be restricted; and everyone has the right to be free from want, from abject poverty that undermines human dignity.

The difference between the Quranic view of rights and the various UN conventions is that in the Quranic framework rights are equated with duties, and both are interdependent. Humankind has the 'right' to survive, for example, only insofar as it performs the duty of maintaining the world—that is, that it acts as a proper trustee (khalifa) of God and fulfils properly and appropriately the responsibilities and trust that God has placed on humanity. In the Western scheme, the emphasis is on the individual; the Quran, in contrast, gives equal importance to the community and the notion of group rights. In the Western liberal tradition, the focus is on personal freedom that signifies the ability to act. In the Quran the emphasis is on the ability to be, to exist. It is necessary for the community not just to survive but to provide a social, cultural and spiritual environment where an individual can realise his or her full potential to be. The overall concern of the Quran is not just the rights of the human but the rights of humanity, including the humanity of the individual.

All this, however, does not mean that Muslims should be against the conventional notion of human rights—even though, perversely, some are. The idea that people deliberating in international bodies to establish conventions on human rights is an illicit activity which somehow undermines the authority of the Quran is the height of folly. Getting as many people as possible to recognise basic principles, which are entirely consistent with the Quran, is undoubtedly a good thing. Enunciating principles is not the issue, but actually making them real and available equitably to all. Muslim societies have been notably lacking in that regard, as have many others, whether they subscribe to the UN conventions or the Quranic route. But also, it means that some Muslims are concerned about the limitations of conventional thought, the thinking and implementation behind the UN conventions, and would like to take the human rights discourse a few steps further.

The problem is not with principles. The problem is the interpretation and implementation that bedevil activity on behalf of the UN conventions as much as on behalf of the Quranic viewpoint. Instead of redundant argument about which declaration is more perfect, a genuine effort to see whose activity is more humane and life-enhancing for those denied their rights by whatever code would do a great deal to carry us beyond nitpicking on the head of a pin.

Compiled From:
"Reading the Qur'an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam" - Ziauddin Sardar, pp. 261-264

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