Wednesday, October 13, 2010
COMMENT: Revisiting Islam and human rights -Ahmad Ali Khalid
By creating a scenario where liberals fear to engage in theology,
religious ethics and epistemology by adopting the delusional principle of moral
abstemiousness, we let the public sphere be filled with narrow and intolerant
The issue of human rights is contentious. More so in Pakistan, where
human rights are seen as a foreign concept and, peculiarly, a repressive
instrument of neo-colonial forces aimed at vilifying Muslim societies.
Respectable columnist Ishtiaq Ahmed has written many times on the subject of
human rights and, by and large, I am in total agreement with what he writes.
However, in this article I argue that in order to justify human rights in
Muslim societies, we need to adopt certain epistemic and philosophical methods.
Adopting a basis for human rights on the proviso of utilitarianism,
liberal neutrality or a free standing concept of justice independent from
comprehensive doctrines of religion and ideology (in the Rawlsian sense) is not
feasible. The fact of the matter is that adopting a non-theistic moral
framework in a religious society is not feasible either. A framework of moral
reasoning grounded in a form of religious liberalism (for instance the liberal
theology of John Locke), is needed to counter the conservative/traditionalist
framework of religious reasoning.
Most political theorists urge us to adopt non-cultural and non-religious
grounds for human rights so that we can avoid the tricky metaphysical,
theological and ontological questions involved. But this is to totally avoid
the crux of the matter, to skip the substance of the debate and cede ground to
fundamentalists. We cannot avoid, when discussing human rights, getting
involved in the indigenous traditions of ethics, justice, morality,
epistemology and ontology of a specific faith or culture. Hence, rather than
try and banish moral and religious arguments, liberals should engage in these
arguments to provide an alternative narrative. Ishtiaq Ahmed rightly criticises
the Islamic Declaration of Human Rights because it limits moral autonomy by
having a narrow and literalistic conception of God's sovereignty. So, rather
than avoid the subject of God's sovereignty altogether, we should engage in
this discussion and argue that God's sovereignty does not mean we adopt a
dictator-despot concept of God, but rather that God endows us with the capacity
for free moral choices (free will).
Hence, by creating a scenario where liberals fear to engage in theology,
religious ethics and epistemology by adopting this delusional principle of
moral abstemiousness, we let the public sphere be filled with narrow and
intolerant moralisms. And that is the situation in Pakistan today. Harvard
philosopher Michael Sandel reminds us that, "Fundamentalisms rush in where
liberals fear to tread."
Grounding human rights in Muslim societies will require an
epistemological shift in religious theology and religious moral reasoning. In
short, I argue that we must move from the traditional Asharite concept of
divine command ethics (an act is only good or bad if God says that it is; an
act is never inherently good or evil) towards the Mu'tazilite concept of
natural law (the moral value of an act can be determined by unaided human
reason). A theory of Islamic natural law will enable a dialogue between secular
and religious reason and participants. This is the shift from the
traditionalist-Asharite thesis to the rationalist/naturalist-Mu'tazilite
The ingredients for the religious justification of human rights are the
acceptance of free will, human dignity, the moral worth of all human beings,
the historical context of sacred scripture and the value of human reason.
The Mu'tazilites adopt a unique position in affirming the moral value of
all human beings, the ability of all human beings, regardless of faith, to
comprehend basic values of right and wrong (in contrast to the Asharites who
argue our concept of right and wrong must come directly from Revelation, hence
only Muslims have the ability to determine right and wrong). The Mu'tazilites
adopt, furthermore, a precursor to the historic-critical method of Quranic
interpretation and the crucial concept of free will that can be related to
moral autonomy, which is critical for any justification for human rights. The
Mu'tazilite belief that ethical values are independent of God, that we are
endowed with free will and all humans have the same moral worth and dignity is
the strongest opposition available to us to deconstruct discriminatory
practices on the basis of religion.
Practices of misogyny, gender discrimination, religious discrimination
and other such human rights abuses either stem from an outdated interpretation
and theology of moral reasoning or through the virus of cultural relativism.
These practices are sanctioned by the supposed guardians of religious tradition
(which is then erroneously fused with issues of identity, culture and a
collective communal conscience), and they go unchallenged.
Natural law may be a dated concept in the West (there are still
respectable theorists who urge a natural law concept of human rights - 'natural
law liberalism'), derived from medieval scholastic theology, but it is an
Contemporary examples of utilising the approach of religious natural law
are Abdulaziz Sachedina and Dr Anver M Emon. Sachedina, in his recent work,
Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights, argues for a theory of Islamic natural
law. He uses Mu'tazilite philosophical and interpretive strategies and concepts
to provide a framework of inclusive and liberal moral theology. Sachedina
argues for a conversation and dialogue between religious liberals and secular
moral theorists, since the goals are the same but the routes are different.
This innovative set-up of moral pluralism where different cultures and
traditions can reach the same conclusions but with different concepts of human
nature, epistemology and ethics is attractive. Sachedina argues that we must
utilise 'religious reason' to construct arguments from the Islamic tradition to
provide a buttress for human rights.
Dr Emon's book, Islamic Natural Law Theories, is more specialised but
richer since Emon provides several possible versions of Islamic natural law
from Muslim history and philosophy. Indeed the book shows that, "They (Islamic
natural law theorists) asked whether and how reason alone can be the basis for
asserting the good and the bad, and thereby justifying obligations and
prohibitions under sharia. They theorised about the authority of reason amidst
competing theologies of God and their implications on moral agency. For them,
nature became the link between the divine will and human reason."
Islamic natural law should be the adopted moral and epistemological basis
for human rights in Pakistan. Liberals must realise that they cannot stay above
these debates and must engage in community reasoning, identifying common
grounds and building upon them. Otherwise, religiously sanctioned human rights
abuses will continue and liberals will become irrelevant.
The writer is a student at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle Upon Tyne,
England. He can be reached at ahmadalikha...@ymail.com
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