Understanding Islam in the Human Rights Discourse: The Role of “Fundamental Responsibilities” at Islam’s Core

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Understanding Islam in the Human Rights Discourse: The Role of “Fundamental Responsibilities” at Islam’s Core

By Fajri Matahati Muhammadin

Debates on Islam and human rights are always hot and ongoing. It seems that most debates lie on a right-per-right comparison or particular issues in the Muslim world. Some take a more positive approach by trying to bridge understanding and cooperation between Muslims and other groups (either the UN or Christians etc). Each different effort always has their own heavy support as well as critic.

However, at some point I start to wonder: have we been doing this all wrong? Have we used the wrong perspective to address the issue?

The Indonesian Council of Ulema (or Majelis Ulama Indonesia –MUI) once issued a fatwa in 2000 concerning human rights. While the MUI did voice support towards the general fundamental rights of humankind as generally recognized in Islam, they also criticized the international human rights instruments. Among other critics, they noted that the international human rights instrument inclined too much towards fundamental rights but not sufficient on responsibility.

This critic must be pondered on as it is essential towards understanding how Islam perceives human rights in the first place. Lack of understanding would certainly make mutual cooperation or any attempts to dialogue more difficult. To understand this, one must first start from the Islamic concept of the purpose of creation and nature of humankind.

In Islamic teachings, the primary creation of humankind is to worship Allah (Quran, 51:56). Bear in mind that the term ‘worship’ is broad, defined by the great scholar Imam Ibn Taimiyyah as “… a collective term for everything which Allah loves and is pleased with from among the sayings and inward and outward actions.” Here we find that what is primarily fundamental to humankind is not rights but responsibility.

As the Almighty Creator, nothing binds Allah to gives rights to humankind –except His own words. He then describes Himself inter alia as Ar-Rahman (The Merciful, understood to mean mercy to all in existence) and Ar-Raheem (The Merciful, understood to mean mercy to those who deserve i.e. those who fulfill their purpose and duties). Allah also says that He will never commit injustice (Quran, 4:40). So then we know that humankind also has rights which are fundamental and promised by Allah Himself: some unconditional and others conditional.

Note also that Islam is neither materialistic nor secular. As the Malaysian scholar Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas explains, Islam teaches that the humankind’s soul has two parts: the higher spiritual soul and the lower animal soul. The former seeks to worship Allah, and the latter speaks only of bodily material desires. This is not to say that any deserve abandonment. This means that the rights and responsibilities of humankind in Islam are not only materialistic but also spiritual –the latter is a higher level of the human spirit.

This fundamental understanding towards the concept in Islam of rights and responsibilities would give light on understanding derivative issues on human rights and Islam as well. A first issue, which is most fundamental, as the previous explanation would show: to worship is the most fundamental obligation, although a believing heart would find that worship is a blessing and beauty and thus is also a right. This is contrast to the international human rights regime which sees worship as primarily a right.

Another example is freedom of expression and what it means in Islam. In Islam it is prohibited to voice out an opinion on matters (whether religious or public welfare matters) when one has no proper knowledge on the issue. However, when a problem rises it becomes fardh al-kifayyah for those who do have proper knowledge to speak.

(Note: This is certainly different form addressing personal grievances)

The issue of leadership is equally interesting. Islam does not dwell much on the rights to choose or be chosen. Rather, to elect and to be a leader is fardh al-kifayyah (collective obligation). Then, from there, Islam has requirements for leaders. This is more on ‘to whom is this responsibility incumbent upon’ rather than ‘who has rights to lead’.

Further, to receive education in Islam is an obligation to all Muslim, and maybe from there one can infer that it is also a right. Laws of marriage also rules that to earn an income is an obligation of a husband instead of a right, although it is not prohibited for wives to work. Even, some scholars such as the Saudi Arabian scholar Abdulaziz Ibn Baz ruled that it is compulsory for both men and women to work in a way that is respectable for both sexes.

This list can continue, but the point is that Islamic teachings sees this whole issue of human rights from a different construct. Actually, this construct is not necessarily foreign. Studying and teaching in law school, I always speak of the need for a balance of rights and responsibilities. This starts from the earliest subjects like Introduction to Jurisprudence, then contract law, criminal law, employment law, and so much more. The MUI’s critic is not without merit. International human rights law does indeed only recognize fundamental rights. There is no fundamental obligation except a general rule to respect the fundamental rights of others: which brings us back once again to fundamental rights as the highest rule. Or, does international law really believe that there is nothing fundamental to humankind other than rights? No responsibilities?

This is not yet to mention other issues for further exploration, namely the other critic of international human rights law by MUI: that it is too individualistic in character and lack consideration towards collective and communal rights. For example, international human rights have been dubbed as narrative against criminalization of fornication and homosexual conducts. Of course, criminalization of personal manifestation of ‘deviant sexuality’ (even when consensual) is seen as a violation of personal freedom and claimed to ‘not harm others’.

However, Islam (and many non-European civilizations too) sees things differently. Not that individual rights are inexistent, but they must be seen in context of the communal and even civilizational needs. A civilization is built upon inter alia a strong society structure on the macro-level, which is built upon strong family units on the micro-level –not just strong individuals. Regulating sexuality is integral to the preservation of family units, together with the institutionalization of marriage (with all the laws, rights and responsibilities, that comes with it). Research has shown how lack of proper regulation (and wise limitation) of sexuality can cause major social problems on the macro-level. This would need further (separate) exploration probably for another day.

It would require more comprehensive research to characterize the concept of Islamic rights and responsibilities systematically in a structure which is holistic and easy to comprehend by the modern mind and in the modern context. However, on the whole, I am very confident that the international human rights could (and should!) learn from Islam in a lot of ways. A reconstruction of human rights regime to include a ‘fundamental responsibilities’ in tandem with those fundamental rights (together with ‘collective rights’ inclusion) may provide a better balance in the society. This will affect all derivative issues as previously mentioned.

Or, if the international world cannot accept this, at least a better understanding on the issue may serve as a better foundation from which to initiate more mutual efforts and dialogues.


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