He it is who produceth gardens. . Eat ye of the fruit thereof when it fruiteth, and pay the due thereof upon the harvest day.

Quran 6:141

Let me free so that like the Sun I shall wear a robe of fire, And within that fire like a Sun to adorn the world.


But is it always man who “chooses”? And who then is this “man who chooses”? Where is his limit and his center?

If it is man who defines himself, what objective value can be attached to this definition? And if there is no objective value, no transcendent criterion, why think?

If it is enough to be a man in order to be in the right, why seek to refer to human error?

Frithjof Schuon


Before speaking of human responsibilities or rights, one must answer the basic religious and philosophical question, “What does it mean to be human?” In today’s world everyone speaks of human rights and the sacred character of human life, and many secularists even claim that they are the true champions of human rights as against those who accept various religious worldviews. But strangely enough, often those same champions of humanity believe that human beings are nothing more than evolved apes, who in turn evolved from lower life forms and ultimately from various compounds of molecules. If the human being is nothing but the result of “blind forces” acting upon the original cosmic soup of molecules, then is not the very statement of the sacredness of human life intellectually meaningless and nothing but a hollow sentimental expression? Is not human dignity nothing more than a conveniently contrived notion without basis in reality? And if we are nothing but highly organized inanimate particles, what is the basis for claims to “human rights”? These basic questions know no geographic boundaries and are asked by thinking people everywhere.

Christianity in the West has sought to answer them on the firm theological basis that “human beings were created in the image of God” and it is the immortal soul and the spark of the Spirit within men and women that constitutes the basis for human dignity, the sacredness of human life, and ultimately human rights. In fact, many Christian thinkers, both Catholic and Protestant, as well as Jewish thinkers insist that human dignity is based on the Divine Imprint upon the human soul and that historically in the West the idea of human rights, even in its secularized version, is derived from the religious conception of the human state.

For Islam, likewise, human beings are defined in their relation to God, and both their responsibilities and rights derive from that relationship. As mentioned earlier, Islam believes that God breathed His Spirit into Adam and according to the famous hadith, “God created Adam in His form,” “form” meaning the reflection of God’s Names and Qualities. Human beings therefore reflect the Divine Attributes like a mirror, which reflects the light of the Sun. By virtue of being created as this central being in the terrestrial realm, the human being was chosen by God as His vicegerent (khalifatAllah ) as well as His servant (‘abdAllah ). As servants human beings must remain in total obedience to God and in perfect receptivity before what their Creator wills for them. As vicegerents they must be active in the world to do God’s Will here on earth. The Islamic conception of insan, or man, as the anthropos encompassing both the male and female states, can be summed up as the wedding of these two qualities in him.

But God has also given human beings free will; this means that they can rebel against their own primordial nature and become active against Heaven and passive to their own lower nature and the world of the senses, so that not all human beings remain God’s servants and vicegerents. In fact, the perfection of these passive and active modes belongs to the prophets and saints alone. Nevertheless, all human beings possess dignity, and their lives are sacred because of that primordial nature, which all the progeny of Adam and Eve carry deep within themselves.

Throughout Islamic history many philosophical, theological, and mystical discussions have taken place about this issue, but one basic element with which all schools of Islamic thought and in fact ordinary believers agree is the truth that God is our creator, or, philosophically speaking, the ontological cause of our existence. It is therefore we who owe everything to Him and our rights derive from our fulfilling our responsibilities toward Him and obeying His Will.

To understand our relation to God, we must first ask what God wants of us. The Quran makes this demand clear when it states, “I have not created the jinn and humanity except to worship Me” (51:56); also “Verily I, I am God.

There is no God save Me. So worship Me and establish prayers for My remembrance” (20:14). The word “worship” (‘ibadah) in Arabic also means “service.” To worship God is also to serve Him. Many interpretations have been given of the term ‘ibadah by commentators; its meaning ranges from ordinary acts of worship to loving and knowing God. The purpose of human existence is considered by Islam to be the worship and service of God, and only in carrying out the aim and purpose of our existence are we fully human. Otherwise, although we carry the human reality within ourselves, we fall short of it and live beneath the fully human state.


Responsibility comes from the word “response,” and one might say, in the Islamic context, that all of our responsibilities issue from that original response to God, when, according to the Quran, before the creation of the world God addressed all the children of Adam asking them, “Am Human Responsibilities and Human Rights 277

I not your Lord?” and they said, “Yes” (7:172). In this affirmation lie all our responsibilities as human beings, for in saying “yes” we accepted the Divine Trust(amanah) , which we must bear in this world. At the heart of this trust resides the affirmation of Divine Oneness and acts of worship and service. The very word for servant (‘abd) of God is related to the word for worship and service (‘ibadah). To accept to be God’s servant and to represent Him in this world means, above all, worshiping and serving Him. All the rights we have issue from the fulfilling of our responsibilities, and in the Islamic perspective responsibilities always precede rights. Although everyone these days speaks all the time of human rights and little of human responsibilities, in practice, even in the modern West, in many cases responsibilities precede rights. For example, we have to be responsible drivers before we are given the right to drive on public roads, and we have to accept the responsibility of mastering the laws of the land before being given the right to practice law. In Islam this relationship is not a matter of expediency, but of principle, and its acceptance dominates the cultural and intellectual landscape.

Now, we have responsibilities not only toward God, but also toward His creation. Traditional religious texts, in fact, delineate a hierarchy of responsibilities for human beings.

At the apex are our responsibilities and duties toward God through acts of worship and service and obedience to His Law. Then there is the responsibility one has toward oneself.

Since human life is sacred and is not created by us, we are responsible for trying to keep our souls as well as bodies healthy and not causing ourselves spiritual or physical harm (unless it is in battle or some other cause for the welfare of others or in self-defense). Therefore, as already stated, suicide is considered a grave sin in Islam. The modern idea that “This is my body and I can do whatever I want with it” is totally absent from the Islamic perspective; Islam states, “My body is not mine, for I did not create it- it belongs to God.” Responsibility to ourselves also, of course, involves our soul and mind. Our greatest responsibility to ourselves is, in fact, to try to save our soul and to be good. This is not at all a selfish act, because one cannot do good unless one is good, and to save one’s soul is also to introduce virtue and goodness into the ambience in which we live. We also have the responsibility to our minds to seek knowledge and the truth to the extent possible.

Next in the hierarchy we have responsibility toward society, starting with our family. This set of responsibilities ranges all the way from working honestly to support ourselves and our families, to performing acts of charity, to respecting others and strengthening community bonds, to supporting and sustaining all that is positively creative in human society. The vast spectrum

of these social responsibilities is delineated in traditional works on theShari‘ah and ethics and cannot be enumerated here. Furthermore, the world around us is not limited to the human sphere-

we also have responsibilities toward animals and plants and even inanimate parts of nature such as water, air, and soil.

This latter set of responsibilities involves what modern Western writers now refer to as environmental ethics. Our rights on all different levels derive from the acceptance of our responsibilities, which precede our rights in a principial manner. To flout responsibilities in the name of inalienable rights is not at all within the Islamic perspective and is considered putting the cart before the horse.

The question arises, however, about those who do not fulfill their responsibilities. Do they then have no rights? In everyday life in society it is not difficult to provide an  answer. If we do not fulfill our responsibilities at work, we will be fired and have no right to receive a salary, or if we have too many traffic violations, which means that we are irresponsible drivers, our license and right to drive will be taken away. The question becomes more difficult in the modern context when we refer to that first category of responsibilities, that is, our duties and responsibilities toward God. In modern society, the rights of citizens do not change whether those citizens fulfill their responsibilities toward God or even believe in God or not.

Some in the West have contrasted this state of affairs with the situation in the Islamic world and claim that, from the Islamic point of view, such persons would have no rights. This assertion is, however, not at all true. If certain Muslims fall into religious and intellectual doubt even about God’s existence, their right to the protection of their life and property by society still remains as long as they do not try to impose their views on others or act against social norms and laws. Even if they hold philosophical discussions on such matters, their basic rights cannot be removed.

Needless to say, throughout Islamic history some have been imprisoned or occasionally even put to death for theological and religious reasons, but usually their situation has involved a political dimension, and in any case such occurrences have been much rarer in Islamic history than in Western history. The usual Islamic theological and juridical reasoning followed for the protection of such people is that as long as a person is alive, he or she may always come back to God, and that therefore the life of such a person must be protected like any other. As for performing acts of worship, that is between each individual and God, and Islamic society cannot force anyone to carry out acts of worship. What is expected of everyone is to observe theShari‘ah as law in public and as it concerns others and not to break religious injunctions publicly; this is analogous to prohibitions in the Christian or even post-Christian West against performing acts against public morality.


It is only in light of this understanding of human responsibilities that the question of human rights must be considered.

To comprehend the meaning of human rights in the Islamic context, it is essential to ask how Muslims refer to the concept of “rights” and what they understand by it. In Arabic the basic term for “right” is haqq, which is first of all a Name of God, who is al-H. aqq, that is, Truth and Reality.

The term haqq also possesses the meaning of “duty” as well as “right,” obligation as well as claim, law as well as justice.

It means also what is due to each thing, what gives reality to a thing, what makes a thing be true. Its derivative form, ih. qaq, means to win one’s rights in a court of law, while another derivative, tah. qiq, means not only to ascertain the truth of something, but on the highest level to embody the truth. The term haqq, which is one of the richest in the Arabic language, involves God, the Quran (which is also called al-h. aqq), law, our responsibilities before God and His Law, as well as our rights and just claims.

Everything by virtue of the fact that it exists has its haqq, which means both responsibilities to God and rights. Each thing has its due by virtue of the nature with which it has been created. Rights do not belong to human beings alone, but to all creatures. Today, as a result of an emphasis of human rights over the rights of other creatures, we are rapidly destroying the natural environment, and as a result people now speak of animal or plant rights. This latter perspective  is perfectly in accord with the Islamic view, according to which rights are not the prerogative of the human state alone, but belong to all creatures. In the deepest sense “rights” means to give each being, including ourselves as human beings, its due (h. aqq).

Turning to the more specific question of human rights as currently understood in the West, according to Islam human beings have rights that are directly related to the responsibilities they have accepted as God’s servants and vicegerents on earth. These rights range from the religious and personal to the legal, social, and political. The first rights of human beings concern their immortal souls. Men and women have the right to seek the salvation of their souls, which Islam, like other religions, considers our first duty toward ourselves and toward God, to Whom we must offer our souls. This right means the freedom of conscience in religious matters. God does not wish to compel His creatures to believe in Him, but wants them to do so on the basis of their own free will and conscience. To obey the laws of society is one thing, but to be coerced to have faith is quite another. The great drama of every human soul to accept or reject the call of Heaven is inseparable from the human state itself, and Islam, while emphasizing our duties to God, also emphasizes our right and even duty to engage in this drama. No external authority can take this right- and duty-away. Furthermore, the right to practice one’s religion or not to, as long as the latter does not destroy social norms and laws, is at the heart of the Islamic understanding of human rights. The rights of non-Muslims to practice their religion is also guaranteed by Islamic Law, as mentioned above, unless it is a pseudo-religion or cult, which Islam has opposed as much as have

Christianity and other traditional religions. Needless to say, the understanding of what constitutes an authentic religion and what constitutes a cult is not the same in the traditional Islamic world and in modern Europe and America, where many cults, some quite dangerous, dot the landscape, but the principle of the right to the practice of one’s religion, whether it is Islam itself or any of the other heavenly inspired religions, is ingrained in the Islamic understanding of human rights. Furthermore, in this crucial matter there is no difference between men and women, who stand equal before God.

Next are personal rights pertaining to one’s life, property, personal choices, and so forth. According to the principles of Islam, which have not always been followed any more than have those of Christianity, every human being has the right to life and the possession of property unless he or she commits crimes, as a result of which society takes away certain or all of these rights. Human beings also have the right of choosing their personal way of living in such matters as what form of livelihood to engage in, whom to marry, how to raise their family, where to live, and so on.

Of course, in every society there are external constraints, including economic ones, that do not always allow these rights to be fulfilled according to one’s wishes, but the principles are there. For example, in contrast to many premodern societies, Islamic society allowed each individual according to the law to learn and practice whatever profession he or she wanted and in practice could follow.

Likewise, according to Islamic Law both women and men have the right to choose their spouse. Now, in practice there have often been family pressures and economic and other considerations that have limited this right, especially for many women, but the social pressure exerted by many families has had nothing to do with the rights accorded by Islam to both men and women to choose their mates freely.

In this matter, again, the situation in the Islamic world has  not been very different from that in various Western societies until quite recently and in many cases even today.

In speaking about personal rights, one must remember that the thrust of the message of Islam is not only to give rights to human beings to perform this or that act, but especially to encourage them to lead a good life in every way possible. If certain personal rights such as sexual promiscuity have been taken away in Islam, it has been done in light of what religion considers to be the attainment of the good, which is the goal of human existence and the purpose of human rights. From the religious point of view, not only must rights follow obligations, but they must themselves be conditioned by various “thou shalt nots” in order to guarantee the rights of others and also the right of our immortal soul to be protected against the tendencies toward evil that each of us bears within himself or herself.

As for legal rights, which include the right to equality before the law and the right to a trial and self-defense, they are defined and in principle defended by Islamic Law itself.

They include the right to be treated equally before the law, right to a fair trial and self-defense. In traditional Islamic society, where the Divine Law

was widely applied, these matters were handled according to extensive procedures developed by Islamic jurists. Since the nineteenth century in numerous Islamic countries many of the laws as well as court procedures have come to be based on European models, while the judiciary has at the same time lost much of its independence. Needless to say, in many instances tyrannical governments have prevented the legal rights of many from being upheld, and consequently today there is a great deal of pressure by Muslims within various Islamic societies to allow everyone to live according to the rule of law and to have the legal rights of all members of society respected. When we speak of legal rights in Islam, we do not therefore mean simply what is going on in the Islamic world today, but the teachings of Islam itself.

Even more problematic than legal rights in the Islamic world today are political rights, which, in their current Western understanding, are, of course, a modern idea neither understood nor applied in other parts of the world in the same way as they are in countries that are culturally European. The whole array of historical processes-democracy rebelling against dictatorship, freedom of the individual versus tyranny, transformation from the England of George III to the America of Washington and Jefferson, the Third Reich and present-day Germany, the Gulag and Yeltsin’s Russia-belong to Western history and do not have their equivalents in the Islamic world, which has had its own distinct struggles in the colonial and postcolonial periods. It is not possible to delve into all these issues here, but we must always remember the differences in the historical experiences of Islam and the modern West. What we need to focus on, however, is the classical Islamic ideal of political rights, which serves as a background for all that goes on in this domain today in various Islamic countries.

Traditionally, Muslims were to be consulted in matters of rule, and each person had the right to live in justice and the right to fight against injustice and oppression. With the rise of secularism, many people in the West saw the rule of God through religion as tyranny and identified the tyranny of their rulers with the tyranny of religion, as is seen so clearly in the French Revolution. In contrast, in the Islamic world the tyranny of worldly rulers was never identified with what agnostic philosophers in the West called the tyranny of religion, and in this matter there are certain resemblances  between the views of Islam and those of America’s founding fathers. Nor must the situation in the present-day Islamic world be confused with what occurred historically in the West, despite the presence of a small but vocal secularized minority in various Islamic countries for whom political rights mean freedom from tyrannical rule as well as secularization in the Western sense.

In much of the Islamic world today, Muslims are governed by dictatorial regimes, usually supported by the West if they happen to have a pro-Western stance and preserve Western interests. Muslims see Islam as a means of protecting themselves against this worldly tyranny as they had done in ages past. One of the appeals of so-called fundamentalism is this deeply rooted Islamic view of the role of religion in protecting the people from tyranny. In any case, under no condition should the lack of political

rights in many Islamic countries today be seen as being simply the Islamic understanding of this matter. In the political realm there is much turmoil in the Islamic world today resulting from the consequences of the colonial period, the destruction of many traditional institutions, and the establishment of governments that are not based on the culture and religion of the people themselves. These governments are supported and sustained by powers from another civilization that still dominate much of the Islamic world and make it impossible for authentic structures and norms to be born from within Islamic society itself. If there were really free elections in the Islamic world today, in nearly every country there would come to power a less Western-oriented regime; it would not be necessarily anti-Western, but it would place the interests of Islamic society itself above everything else.

Many who criticize Islamic countries for their lack of political rights are shedding crocodile tears, for in their hearts they are happy that such is the case and that in not many places in the Islamic world are members of society allowed to exercise their political rights according to classical Islamic teachings.

In discussing the whole question of human rights, it is essential to realize how the cultural values of each society determine to a large extent its understanding of this term.

At the present moment many in the West consider human rights to be universal. Yet the Western understanding of this term has itself changed over time. Moreover, over the years Western powers have often used this issue for political gain and sometimes with astounding hypocrisy, which has amazed not only non-Westerners, including Muslims, but also those in the West who believe sincerely in human rights as they understand them. In addition, the issue of human rights has become central in the struggle between forces of globalization and forces seeking to preserve local cultures, economies, and ways of life. One cannot in all honesty discuss human rights on a global scale without turning to these issues and also to the different understandings that various cultures and civilizations, including the Islamic, have of human rights on the basis of their understanding of what it means to be human.

Let us for a moment compare priorities in human rights according to the secular and the Islamic understandings of what it means to be human. From the secular point of view, the human being is a purely earthly creature and what matters most is the rights of the individual as a purely earthly being. If one curses God or Christ on the street today in some American city, nothing will happen legally, but if one insults an individual, one can be arrested or sued. Clearly in this perspective, the rights of the individual stand above not only those of God, but also those of faith as a social and  public reality. The priorities in the Islamic world are reversed. The rights of God stand above the rights of human beings, and for a person to insult the religion of others is not considered a right at all, even if the prevention of such an act decreases one’s individual rights. The same holds true for questions of morality, including sexual morality, over which there has been so much debate during the past few decades even in America and Europe, and the issue of “freedom of speech” as individual right versus the rights of the public.

This difference in priorities came out clearly a few years ago in the infamous Salman Rushdie affair, where a writer of Islamic Indian background living in England wrote a blasphemous work seeking to denigrate and destroy a central part of Islamic sacred history. The publication of his work led to riots, which resulted in several deaths, and finally to his condemnation to death by Ayatollah Khomeini, followed by severe reaction from Western writers, especially secularist ones. One side argued that what was most important was the right of the individual to free speech; the other championed the right of a society to preserve its sacred history.

Lest one think that this is only a dichotomy between Islam and the West, one should recall that blasphemy laws are still on the books in Great Britain, although they do not include blasphemy against Islam. In any case, it was difficult in the Rushdie affair for either side to understand the intensity of the indignation of the other, for each was operating from within a different worldview and with a different set of priorities.

If a debate were to be carried out today on the question of the understanding of human rights and the hierarchy presumed within it, one of the Westerners on the panel might say that Muslim women have few rights. A Muslim mother might answer that Western children have few rights;

their most basic right, that of having a full-time mother, has been taken away by a new economic system in which many mothers are forced to spend, at best, a couple of hours each day of so-called quality time with their children after a full day’s work and in a state of fatigue. The Muslim might add that, after the need for a mother, the most basic right of a child is to have two parents, and that this right is taken away from nearly half of the children in many sectors of Western society by complex socioeconomic factors and the prevalent “morality,” which places the desires of the individual above responsibility in marriage to one’s spouse and children. A Westerner might say that most Muslims do not have the right to a vote that counts for anything. A Muslim might respond that he agreed, but, as important as the right to vote was, along with it came the “right” to gain a livelihood in a just and reasonable manner and not by struggling from morning to night as a result of difficult economic conditions, many of them due to what is called the international economic and political order. Other Muslim debaters might further add that in their village, they always voted for their village elder on the basis of his experience and character, whereas in so many places, especially America, the choices offered in an election are strongly conditioned by the pressure of financial factors that have nothing to do with authentic democracy.

The debate could continue for a long time, but at the end the Muslim interlocutors would thank their Western counterparts and state that they were grateful for their concern, but that if they really wanted to be friends and fellow human beings, they should not impose their views but ask the Muslim team what they considered to be the rights that were most missing in their lives and that their Western  friends could help to realize. If human rights are related to love of humanity, they must be combined with humility,

not hubris. One of the Muslims might ask a Westerner if she would like to experience humiliation instead of humility.

What would happen if a group of human rights activists in Cairo with access to all the international media kept holding press conferences, at which a few token Americans were present, on the rights of battered women and alcohol abuse or the tragedy of adolescent pregnancy in America?

Would this moralistic hectoring be real concern for human rights in America, or an attempt to humiliate those who are unlike the activists and hold a value system the activists do not accept, even if the activists’ own value system is in constant flux and transition?

Anything less than mutual respect in understanding the other side makes a sham of the question of human rights.

And when the issue of human rights is used as a tool for policy by Western powers, it tends to nullify the efforts of those in the West who, with sincerity and good intention, are seeking to help others all over the globe to preserve the dignity of human life, a belief that not only Muslims, Christians, and those from other religions, but also many secularists share.


The very thought of freedom creates joy in one’s mind and heart, and there is no man or woman in the East or West who does not cherish freedom. But what is freedom? We need to answer this question in a fundamental way, especially since “freedom” has now become a shibboleth of the West, especially America, that is then presented to the world as the highest ideal. To answer the question in the Islamic context, it is first necessary to remind ourselves how religions in general view this matter.

The very word “religion” in English comes from the Latin religare, meaning “to bind,” which seems to be the opposite of “to free.” The Ten Commandments, which form the foundation of Jewish and Christian morality, consist of a number of “thou shalt nots,” that is, limitations rather than freedoms. The Gospel of John (8:32) speaks of the Truth, which will set us free, but only if one accepts the conditions set by Christ, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt. 8:34). In the Indian religions freedom is also identified with deliverance from the bondage of all limitation, or what Hindus call moks´a, and from the recurring cycles of samsaric existence, or the chain of births and deaths in the world of becoming, which Buddhism emphasizes. In most sacred scriptures freedom is identified with release from the limitations of our own existence, rather than the freedom of the individual qua ego. As many Muslim sages have said, religion is to enable us to gain freedom from the self and not to abet the freedom of the self.

Metaphysically speaking, God alone is infinite; so God alone is absolute freedom. Every mode of separative existence is limitation and to some degree bondage. Only in God are we truly free, and He has given us free will in order that we may freely submit this free will to His Will in order to gain genuine freedom, freedom from the prison of our limited egos and our never-ending passions generating unending waves of unreal wants and desires, which are then turned into needs. Once it was asked of the prince of the Sufis of Khurasan, Bayazid, “What do you want?” He answered, “I want not to want.” That is ultimate freedom,  which Islam, like other heavenly inspired religions, places at the center of its teachings. That is why the Quran, like the Bible or the Vedas, for that matter, never speaks of freedom in quantitative and earthly terms, but seeks to help one unbind the tethers that confine one’s immortal soul to the dictates of the lower passions. And that is also why Sufism, the inner dimension of Islam concerned with spiritual training of the soul, speaks so often of freedom, but always as freedom from the self, not of the self. In the deepest sense even our outward love for freedom is nostalgia for the freedom of the infinite expanses of the Divine Empyrean.

The attitude of Islam toward freedom is based on this metaphysical reality. Like other traditional religions, Islam sees its role as that of helping human beings to overcome the clutches of the power of their lower souls and thereby to be able to gain real freedom, rather than to foster an individualism that, in the guise of freedom, only strengthens the bonds of slavery of our immortal soul to that powerful slave master within it that is

the agent of rebellion, passion, concupiscence, and ultimately bondage. This highest sense of freedom has, however, never prevented Islam from believing that human beings should possess the freedom to live in dignity in this world and to practice their duty toward God as His servants and toward His creatures as His vicegerents. Indignation and rebellion against tyranny have always been encouraged in Islam.

There is, however, an important distinction that needs to be clarified. For a person of faith, whether Jew, Christian, or Muslim, to love God and obey His commandments is not considered a loss of freedom. In contrast, those who have lost their faith regard that submission itself as a loss of freedom. In the American Revolution, the founding fathers made clear that the freedom of religion was a cardinal human right, but for many during the more than two centuries that have followed, this right has come to mean freedom from religion, not of religion. Current cultural wars in America over school prayer and other issues pertaining to the separation of church and state bring out this distinction clearly. Now, obviously the secularizing experience of the West during the past centuries has not been shared by the Islamic world, and most Muslims still live in the world of faith, in which submission to God is not seen as a curtailing of one’s freedom any more than going to church and obeying the teachings of Christ would be seen as a restriction of freedom for a devout Christian. In both cases the acceptance of the authority of God would be seen as the gateway to the gaining of real freedom. It is simply meaningless for secularized Western intellectuals seeking to flee religion in order to gain “freedom” to try to apply their existential plight to Muslims who still live in the world of faith.

The love of God and surrender to His Will do not mean, however, for one moment that Muslims therefore have no interest in political and social freedom. The human desire for freedom according to who one is and what one’s cultural values are is a universal trait, and throughout history Muslims have shown as much desire for freedom for themselves and their society as anyone else, as the courageous wars of independence fought against the British, the French, the Russians (which is still going on in Chechnya), and others bear witness. Paradoxically, after all these struggles, most Muslim societies came to be saddled with governments that have provided less freedom to them than before. Not only because of modern technology, which makes the state so much more powerful than in earlier times, but also because of the loss of many traditional institutions, the modernized parts of the Islamic world  enjoy less freedom today than they did before the modern period. The contrast between talk about freedom by the West and pursuit of self-interest, usually of an economic nature, which causes support of oppressive regimes in much of the Islamic world, is certainly not lost on the general Islamic public.

If one asks if Muslims want freedom, the answer is definitely yes. But the vast majority of Muslims would add that, first of all, for them freedom does not mean freedom from God and religion; they would embrace other freedoms, provided they do not destroy their faith and what gives meaning to their lives. Second, they would point out that to be free means also to be free to understand what one means by freedom. They certainly do not want

“freedom” to be imposed on them as an ideology by a more powerful West that knows better than they do what is good for them. Coercion under the guise of freedom is still coercion.

What Muslims would like most of all is to be allowed the freedom to confront their own problems and find their own solutions. During all those centuries when the West was experimenting with all kinds of ideas and institutions, from the French Revolution to Napoleon, from the Bolshevik Revolution to Fascism and Nazism, from laissezfaire capitalism to socialism and back, the dynamic came from within Western civilization itself and the West had the freedom to develop as it did, for better or worse, without outward constraint. There was no external force, no powerful civilization breathing down its neck and preventing it from acting freely from within itself to create new institutions and norms as it deemed necessary. The Islamic world does not have such a privilege. The very Western civilization that talks of freedom has placed numerous constraints on the Islamic world in the name of protecting its own “interests,” constraints that are greater obstacles to freedom of action than any that could come from within Islamic society itself.

Under such pressure some Muslims during the last century turned to Western liberalism, others to Marxism while the Soviet world was still alive, and yet others to politicized forms of Islam. But none of these movements has been free of the external constraints the West did not have to face in its own recent historical development. In any case, the Islamic world certainly seeks its freedom, but wishes to do so according to its own understanding of the nature of the human state, its ultimate goal of freedom in God, and, in light of that reality, freedom in the human order. Muslims are no less intelligent than other communities, and if given the freedom, they could discern for themselves between venom and the elixir of life offered to them in their societies.

What the Islamic world would like most from the more powerful West, which keeps preaching freedom, is to be given this freedom by the West itself, so that the Islamic world can respond to the challenges of the present-day world on the basis of its own inner dynamic. But most in the Islamic world realize that this wish is not going to be realized and that the West’s geopolitical and economic interests in the Islamic world take precedence over the question of real freedom. And so Muslims must find a way themselves to struggle for freedom, rule of law, and human rights, all Islamically understood, while under unprecedented external and internal constraint and without sacrificing the possibility of that spiritual freedom that is the ultimate goal of human life on earth.

Muslims agree that Islam is pertinent to all conditions and circumstances, including therefore the present one.

Hence serious Muslims must seek to act correctly and to  seek freedom despite outward constraints and not to blame their own lack of initiative and drive and their inability to overcome inertia on outside forces. It is possible to live Islamically even in the most difficult historical circumstances and to seek at least certain kinds of freedom on the basis of Islamic understanding,

even in situations where both external and internal constraints are ever present.


Far from being passive to the challenges posed by the West on the issues of freedom and human rights, during the past few decades many Islamic responses have been issued by those who have tried to analyze what freedom is for an Islamic society today beyond going to the ballot box, and what both theoretical and practical engagement on the question of human rights involves. In most Islamic countries there are now human rights groups, opposed by some governments and even considered agents of the West in others. There have also been extensive discussions among theologians, philosophers, and jurists, including some of the most eminent traditional authorities, on the question of Islam and human rights. Many deliberations, conferences, and debates at the beginning of the fifteenth century of the Islamic calendar, corresponding to the early 1980s, led to the publication of an Islamic declaration of human rights that gained the support of many traditional Muslim authorities and many notable organizations and has become widely disseminated throughout the Islamic world.

Based totally on the Quran and Hadith, the rights enumerated in this document include the right to life, freedom, equality, and prohibition against impermissible discrimination; the right to justice, fair trial, protection against abuse of power, protection against torture, protection of honor and reputation, and asylum; the rights of minorities; the right of participation in the conduct and management of public affairs; the rights of belief, thought, and speech; freedom of religion, free association, freedom to pursue what concerns the economic order, protection of property, social security, and founding a family and related matters; the rights of married women; and the right to education, privacy, and freedom of movement and residence.

A skeptical Westerner might say that these are simply modern Western concepts of human rights couched in Islamic terms. The reality of the matter is that every one of these rights is supported by Quranic andHadith references.

Surely what constitutes the content of human rights, and not its form, is not specifically modern, but is to be found in one way or another in moral and spiritual teachings of various religions and the writings of moral philosophers from many lands stretching from China to France, including, of course, those of the Islamic world. What this and similar documents present are responses of the Islamic world to the challenge posed by the West on this matter, but the substance of the response comes from Islam itself.

Some may say that even if these are Islamic ideals, they are not realized in the Islamic world today. Such an observation is true to some extent, but not absolutely. But the Islamic world is not unique in this matter. No society from China to Mexico lives up to such ideals. Nor does the West itself live up to these ideals completely, as one sees in the continuous presence of racism in America. To be fair, one would have to say that some of these ideals are more fully realized in the West and some in the Islamic world, if the full gamut of human rights in relation to our duties to God  and His creation are taken into consideration. In any case, the mainstream of Islamic

thought does not have a dispute with the West, even its secularist component, on the question of the substance of human rights or even the necessity of their implementation. Where there is a basic difference is on the relation between human rights and human responsibilities and also on our rights vis-à-vis God’s rights over us and the rest of His creation. On this issue many Western Jewish and Christian thinkers are in fact closer to their Muslim counterparts than to their secularist compatriots.

On the practical level, despite numerous political and social obstacles, in recent years in several Islamic countries there have been developments toward greater respect for the law and the rights and freedom guaranteed therein. In countries as different as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Iran, there is an attempt afoot to develop what is called an Islamic civil society governed by law, a society that would not be secularized yet be a civil society in which the rights of citizens would be guaranteed. The dichotomies established by so many so-called experts in the West between a “theocracy” and a secular society and government in the Islamic world are simply false and do not apply to the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia or Iran are not theocracies in the Western understanding of this term, and Egypt is not secular.

The Islamic world today is in the process of responding to the challenges posed by modernism in this as in other domains. Many experiments are under way in countries as different as Turkey and Iran. And because this process is carried out under conditions in which there is not complete freedom either within or without, sometimes extreme forms of action manifest themselves with tragic consequences.

But these tragic eruptions must not make one forget that on the deeper level something much more basic is happening. And what is happening is the response to the difficult challenges of the modern world by a major world civilization, which, despite its current political and military weakness, has the spiritual resources to emphasize the significance of human dignity and the rights that God has bestowed upon human beings and at the same time to never tire of emphasizing that all our rights issue from the fulfillment of our responsibilities to God and His creation and that without accepting our responsibilities emphasis upon our rights alone can turn us into a species that is at once endangered and endangering.


Since the beginning of the decade of the 1990s, a number of leading figures in the West have sought to create a universal declaration of human responsibilities to complement the one on human rights declared by the United Nations.

Many have become aware that the sole emphasis on human rights without emphasizing our responsibilities to the rest of society and also the natural environment can only accelerate the suicidal course that the modern and now postmodern world seems to be taking. One does not need to be a prophet to realize that the rapid destruction of both the natural environment and the social fabric of the most highly industrialized societies cannot but end in total disaster for the whole of humanity. Islam has a crucial role to play in bringing out the primacy of responsibilities over rights in accordance with its vision of the human being as a theomorphic being and its emphasis on the ontological reliance of human beings upon God. It can also be a major force, perhaps the most powerful on earth, to oppose the  process of the desacralization of both human beings and nature, a process the result of which is the monumental crisis we now face.

Beyond the din of political and military confrontations going on today, Muslim thinkers must address themselves to the questions of human responsibilities and human rights, joining hands with both Western and other thinkers engaged in such matters globally, bringing to the table without apology the Islamic contribution to these vital subjects and especially the emphasis upon the theocentric worldview and sacred conception of creation, which are not only Islamic but are shared in one form or another by all the historical religions. The participation on a global scale by Muslims in the creation of awareness of human responsibilities to complement and precede human rights is itself a responsibility of primary order placed by God upon the shoulders of those Muslims endowed with sufficient knowledge combined with virtue to carry out such a task.

Within the Islamic world itself, Muslim thinkers must address themselves to the ever greater understanding of human rights on the basis of the Islamic conception of the nature of the human being. All the elements of human rights as delineated in the Islamic declaration above are found within traditional Islamic sources, from the Quran andHadith to poetry, aphorisms of sages, and works of moral philosophers and Sufis. But they need to be reformulated in a contemporary context in such a way as to be able to respond to modern Western challenges and also the current situation within various Islamic societies. Why must there be respect for human life and in fact all of life? If all Muslims are equal before the law, why is this not actually the case in so many Muslim societies, and what about non-Muslims? What is the foundation of the freedom of religion and worship? To what extent is personal life sacrosanct and what is the limit of state intrusion upon personal life? Such questions must be answered in a clear and convincing manner for the present generation of Muslims, not by quoting Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke as an earlier generation of

Muslim modernists did with blatant lack of success, but by drawing from the most authentic sources of the Islamic tradition.

The Islamic understanding of human rights will not necessarily be identical with the most current Western interpretations of it, but that is not a negative matter at all. What is important is that the Islamic response be authentic and deeply rooted in the Islamic tradition. The attempt to harmonize the Islamic understanding of these matters with the current Western appraisal of these issues is not only metaphysically and religiously not always feasible, but also impossible in practice, because the Western understanding of these issues is constantly changing from decade to decade. What is important for Islam is to accept the challenge of the reality of the issues involved and then provide Islamic responses, which may in fact be also of interest to certain Western thinkers grappling with the pertinence of these issues on a global scale.

A particularly difficult task, which is also a new one requiring intellectual effort(ijtihad) on the highest level by Muslims, is determining the rights of those who do not believe in God and therefore in any responsibilities that people of faith believe they have toward God. The classical Islamic works on ethics and rights, whether written from a juridical, philosophical, or theological point of view, envisaged a universe in which there was a multiplicity of religions, as we have already discussed in the first chapter of this book. Today there is a new situation in the modern and  post-modern world that is indeed an anomaly in world history.

Since extensive secularism developed within the West itself, through a gradual process, the attitude of Western Christian thinkers could accommodate itself to secularism over time.

For Islamic theological thought, the presence of a powerful secularist force in the world appears as a great shock, despite the advent of modernism starting two centuries ago in many Islamic lands and after seventy years of domination of a good part of the Islamic world by the officially atheistic Soviet regime. Today, the mainstream of Islamic thought, both Sunni and Shi‘ite, must address itself to this question of secularism and agnosticism as it did in earlier days concerning the rights of followers of other religions within the Islamic community. Whatever understanding of human rights from the Islamic perspective comes to dominate the center of consciousness of the Islamic community in the future, it must take account not only of followers of other religions, a matter that is relatively easy in light of the Quranic doctrine of the universality of revelation, but also of those who do not believe in any transcendent or immanent Principle beyond the human. And that is more difficult to achieve in light of the Islamic conception of the human state. Yet it is a task to which the ‘ulama’, or religious scholars, who wield influence over the people and who are the guardans of theShari‘ah , as well as other Islamic thinkers must address themselves. This task will of course become easier if those within the Islamic world who have decided to leave the world of faith do not act as a fifth column for modern Western secularism. But even if this is the case, a way has to be found to protect their rights under the law along with those of non-Muslims of no religious persuasion who happen to be living within the Islamic world.

Islamic thought must also challenge on the highest intellectual level the current Western notion that the presentday Western understanding of human rights is universal, which in this context means global. Now, all values are related to the worldview, or Weltanschauung, within which they are understood, and not all worldviews are the same.

The religious worldviews have basic principles in common that they do not share with views that deny the Transcendent and the Sacred. When it comes to the question of the human state, Christians speak of people being the children of God, Muslims of their being His vicegerents on earth, and both of humans being made in the “image” or “form” of God, although with different meanings of the term “image” or “form.” Hindus speak of the sacrifice of the Primordial Man to create the world and Neo-Confucianism of the human being as an anthropocosmic being and bridge between Heaven and earth. These views can be easily correlated, but they cannot be harmonized with a view of the human being as an aggregate of molecules brought together by chance out of the original cosmic soup.

Nor can human rights, which must of necessity be based on the concept of who the human being is, be considered global and universal because of such crass differences about what constitutes the human state. Islamic thinkers must come forward to point out that, yes, there are human values that are global, such as respect for human life or opposition to torture, but other human rights are dependent upon the worldview of various civilizations that together compose humanity. Are the rights of human beings more important than the rights of God? Can we have human rights without human responsibilities? Are political rights superior to economic rights? Do the rights of the individual have priority over those of the community? If human rights  are not to be a form of cultural and political coercion in the name of the love of humanity, the answer of various religions, cultures, and civilizations to such questions must be respected whatever the current strength in this world of these religions or cultures might be. One of the roles of Muslims as members of a major world civilization is to answer such questions in all honesty from the Islamic point of view. It is also to insist upon mutual respect between civilizations and the values they bear instead of accepting one-sided imposition. It is, moreover, to seek actively to cooperate with not only Westerners, but also with members of other cultures and civilizations to point to those values that we do all hold dear and that must be respected by everyone if we are going to live and function as human beings on a globe on which there seems now to be no other choice but to live in mutual respect with compassion and love for others or to perish together.

Not only the Islamic world, not only the West, but the whole world is passing through one of the darkest pages of its history, which no amount of triumphalism and chestbeating can hide. In these dark times Muslims must remain vigilant as never before about all that goes on about them and concerning all those who use the name of Islam for various purposes, including deviant ones. On the basis of the traditional teachings of Islam, some of which have been outlined above, they must be as critical of what goes on among themselves in the form of bigotry and fanaticism as they are

of the shortcomings of modern Western societies, from sexual promiscuity and the breakdown of the family to the desecration and destruction of the natural environment.

Muslims must fulfill their responsibilities before God and His creation as taught in Islam, responsibilities for which they were created as human beings, and on the basis of these responsibilities they must seek to exercise the rights God has given them while also respecting the rights of others.

In a world in which the hierarchies of the states of being are denied, and in the minds of many, human beings are elevated to the level of God, and the “kingdom of man” has come to replace the “Kingdom of God,” it is the duty of Muslims to proclaim the primacy of the Sacred, the absolute necessity of sacred laws as foundations for social morality, the ultimate goal of human life beyond the earthly, the centrality of justice in human society, and the need to seek peace within before searching for outward peace. Muslims must remind themselves again of their responsibilities to God, to human beings, and to the natural world and also of their basic rights, the most important of which is the right to be God’s servant and vicegerent here on earth. They must extend their hand in friendship to followers of other religions as ordered by the Quran and to live and let live with regard to those who have moved away from the world of faith altogether. They must even extend their hand to those Christian and primarily Protestant evangelists who express ignorant, hurtful, and even malicious and egregious views about Islam. Muslims must in this case turn the other cheek and prove in their actions that for them also Christ is sent by God and his words revered.

Men and women in the West who are still devoted to the life of faith should also know that those closest to them in this world are Muslims, if only the veils of mutual misunderstanding and distrust, which have grown so thick of late, were to be rent asunder. Every practicing Muslim, which includes the vast majority of the population of the Islamic world, could not but agree that his or her highest wish is none other than the prayer uttered by Christ, “Thy Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” No matter what the aberrations that cloud the horizons today, the Islamic tradition remains and must remain witness to God’s Oneness and dedicated to the effort to carry out His Will here on earth.

Only in remaining true to itself, clinging to the “firm cable” mentioned in the Quran and the message it has been destined to bear in this world, will the Islamic community fulfill its duties before God and the rest of humanity and contribute as the “middle people” to the creation of harmony between religions, peoples, and civilizations the world over. Only in turning to the heart of its teachings will Islam be able to bear witness in this age of forgetfulness to the basic truth about the nature of human beings as creatures destined for the spiritual world with the possibility even in this world of “seeing God everywhere,” creatures who are agents of His Will here on earth, bearers of peace, and channels of the waters of compassion that issue from the spring of Life Divine.