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 
invaluable resource.

      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


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