Prehistoric times: IN their greed for unlimited power, ancient rulers came up with the concept of the divine right of kings so that the king was a ‘god’ or a shahinshah or raja were either the shadow of God on earth (zille ilahi) or his incarnation (avatar), thus exercising material as well as spiritual power. This concept took away all power and dignity from ordinary citizens.
In his book, Quran aur Insani Huquq (‘The Quran and Human Rights’), Muhammad Akhtar Muslim writes that in the western narration of history, the concept of basic human rights is traced to 500BC Greece, then to the falling in 500CE of the Roman Empire, and suddenly to 1100CE, thus ignoring the intervening 600 years comprising the rise of Islam.
It can safely be said that the modern western movement for recognising human rights started from 1100 CE in Britain and reached its fruition with the 1948 UN Charter of Human Rights. (Magna Carta, meaning ‘The Great Charter’, is one of the most famous documents in the world. Originally issued by King John of England (r.1199-1216) as a practical solution to the political crisis he faced in 1215, Magna Carta established for the first time the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law.) Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the Quran revealed to him introduced a new concept of human rights in the sixth century CE. He is reported to have said the ‘the whole of creation is the family of God. The better a person treats this family, the higher he is held in God’s esteem’. (Mishkat) The Prophet’s landmark sermons and agreements uphold human rights. He was part of the agreement called Hilf al-Fudhul at a very young age. Made in 586 CE, 26 years before the announcement of his prophethood, its purpose was to establish peace and to support the rights of the downtrodden. The activists of this group would, against all tribal traditions, protect the persecuted, including strangers to the place, and strive for peace and economic equality. These qualities made people recognise him as a prophet later. The clauses of the oath taken by the knights of Europe centuries later were somewhat similar to the clauses of the Hilf al-Fudhul, which is said to be the first document in written history concerned with human rights.
The Mesaq-i-Madina (Charter or Constitution of Medina) of 623 CE, (1 AH), comprising 52 clauses, was drawn up to do away with the chaos of tribal society and introduce the concept of a state. An effort was made to establish peace, remove biases and create justice, freedom, freedom of religion, a classless society, rules for coexistence with non-believers and to uphold the dignity of human beings. Dr Hamidullah calls it, ‘The first written constitution of the world’. The Prophet introduced moral and ethical elements to politics and declared that real sovereignty belonged to God alone. The ruler under the system would have to be a democratically elected representative responsible for benefiting all in a welfare state.
In 630 CE, the Prophet conquered Makkah, along with his Companions, without any resistance. The Makkans were afraid of revenge but the Prophet declared a general amnesty and gave a short sermon declaring all human beings equal. He said, “Today God has … forbidden the concept of superiority on the basis of family heritage. All human beings were created from Adam and Adam was created from dust.” He also recited from Surah Al Hujrat: “O people, indeed, We have created you from a male and a female and made you nations and tribes so that you would recognise each other. Indeed, the most honourable of you, in the sight of God, is the most God-conscious” (49: 13). This verse also establishes the basis for the full human rights of women.
In 632 CE, the Prophet performed the only Haj of his lifetime. In his sermon known as the Khutba Hajjatul Vidah, he said, “No Arab is superior to a non-Arab and neither is a non-Arab superior to an Arab. No black is superior to a white and neither is a white superior to a black. If there is any measure for superiority it is piety.…”
He asked his followers to take good care of their slaves. The Quran and the Prophet’s example would gradually eliminate slavery. In future no one would be allowed to make a biased will in favour of an heir, because God has given everyone his due share. He made it clear that the criminal alone will be responsible for his deeds and asked men to be kind to women.
In ancient China, India, Greece, Rome, Persia and Europe women had no religious, moral or legal rights or identity. There was even discussion whether women possessed a soul. The suffragist movement for women’s right to vote started in Europe in 1848 CE. It was granted in some countries as late as 1971.
The Quran gave women the right to vote in the seventh century. The bai’ah or the oath of allegiance to a leader was the vote of that time. In Surah Al-Mumtahenah the Prophet is asked to take the oath from women when he was satisfied with their faith (60:12). This oath was taken, or the vote was cast by women, independently of their men.
It is for Muslims to revert to the egalitarian model set up by the Prophet; all the agreements he ever made were based on the concept of human rights that form the basis of the social rights of citizens. All prejudices of colour, caste and tribe were done away with. The Prophet emphasised the values of peace, liberty, equality and fraternity like none before him.
Western criticism on Islam’s human rights:
“We remain deeply concerned about discriminatory restrictions on religious freedom, such as policies that unduly favour majority religious communities by placing limitations on conversion (In the face of a global trend toward religious freedom which began in the seventeenth century, Islam seems to be the only major religion to maintain that conversion away from the religion – apostasy – must be punished with death. In a number of Muslim-majority countries such as Saudi Arabia, apostasy laws and the associated death penalty still prevail), proselytism (Dawah or Tableegh), religious dress and the freedom to speak openly about a given religion,” Anna Chambers of the US delegation said in a speech.