Human Rights and Islam

Talking about universal human rights is not possible without first clarifying the concept of “universal”, what it means and, above all, how it applies to the numerous national, international and, where possible, religious laws. So, how compatible are human rights with Islamic law? And how much do they influence each other?

Islamic contribution to Human Rights

When the concept of “human rights” emerged in the second half of the 20th century, Islamists and Muslims began to question its possible application in the MENA area. Despite the unanimous ratification of Treaties and Covenants during the 1980s, Muslim thinkers began to think how Islam could interact with human rights, and how to reconciliate these principles with Islamic schools of thought. The general belief of Islam, and about how these new perspectives could change their cultural tradition was not, however, homogeneous[1]. During that same era, in order to overcome the obstacle, the Islamic Charters of Human Rights also began to be published; among these the most peculiar are: the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (UIDHR) of 1981, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI) of 1990 and the Arab Charter on Human Rights (ACHR) of 1994.

The first one was the UIDHR, drafted by a private body called the “Islamic Council of Europe”, while the second one, the CDHRI, was drafted by the “Organization for Islamic Cooperation”. Both are considered conservative papers, as repeatedly stressed by their reference to Shari’a. Therefore, even if a universalism of human rights is recognized, it must still be subject to Islamic law.

On the contrary, the ACHR is considered more secular; it was approved for the first time in 1994 by the “Council of the League of Arab States”, but then adopted ten years later in 2004. Hence, only a short mention of Sharia is present in its initial part, but then it maintains its secular opinion throughout the whole document. In fact, this was the reason why the more conservative States did not approve it, considering it went “against” Islamic Principles, such as Saudi Arabia, UEA, Oman, Sudan, Yemen, Bahrain and Kuwait.

Universalism and Cultural Relativism

The debate on the consideration of human rights as Western or general thoughts is still under discussion today. If we specifically consider the comparison between human rights and Islam, opinions differ. On the one hand, Muslims are convinced that these international rights cannot be applied to Islam and that human rights are a matter regulated by Islamic law, where applicable; on the other hand, certain Muslim authors consider these principles inalienable, belonging to the entire international community.

Therefore, in this framework we can consider the distinction between liberal and conservative tendencies, assuming that the former includes those who prefer progress towards democracy, while the latter involves those who fight for the preservation of old values ​​and deny any possible modification[2].
For example, Fred Halliday extensively discusses this distinction in his work[3], according to which this dialogue would consist of four phases: assimilation (complete reconciliation), appropriation (compatibility only under Islam), confrontation (consideration of Shar’ia instead of human rights) and incompatibility (irreconcilability).
Last of the fourth points, some Arab countries, where Islamic law plays a fundamental role in their constitutions, believe in the thesis of the imposition of human rights by Western countries. These countries include Saudi Arabia, who also opposes the idea of international human rights and abstained from voting on the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights[4]. Iran, among others, is also considered to be one of the countries following this conservative thinking, as its permanent representative at the UN stated: «The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which represented the secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition, could not be implemented by Muslims and did not accord with the system of values recognized by the Islamic Republic of Iran; his country would therefore not hesitate to violate its provisions, since it had to choose between violating the divine law of the country and violating the secular conventions»[5] These considerations are also assumed by the so-called “cultural relativists”, who affirm that the laws must be issued according to the cultural perspective of each individual State. The whole idea perfectly fits with Said’s work “Orientalism”, which placed the Eastern issue at the centre of his reflection. Furthermore, it must be said that the concept of “cultural relativism” is generally applied in the fields of anthropology, social sciences rather than law. Furthermore, we must take into consideration the concept of “universal” Human Rights – the naming Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHM) isn’t trivial- referring to both universalism and universality: the first term refers to a global acceptance of the “human rights” question, reached with the UDHM of 1948, the reference date for every nation to recognize the concept of human rights. Universality, on the other hand, is linked to the application of human rights in every single nation, which, as we know, has not yet happened – otherwise the UN would have achieved its goal[6]. Also, what is generally not taken into consideration is that Arab and Islamic representatives are part of the United Nations and take part in the decision-making process, as well as in the drafting of Treaties, Declarations and Covenants. As previously mentioned, the only Arab/Islamic State who abstained from voting for the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is Saudi Arabia. Finally, a great tolerance campaign would therefore be useful to spread the idea of ideological diversity, but the focal point of the debate must remain the social welfare of the person.


[1] Mayer, A. E., Islam and human rights: Tradition and Politics, Westview Press, San Francisco, 1991, p. 11
[2] Mayer, A. E., op. cit., p. 25
[3] Halliday, F., Relativism and Universalism in Human Rights: the Case of the Islamic Middle East, in Political Studies, 1/1995, pp. 152-167
[4] Baderin, M., International Human Rights and Islamic Law, Oxford University Press Inc, New York, 2003, p. 25
[5] UN General Assembly, Summary record of the 65th meeting, 7 December 1984, UN doc. A/C.3/39/SR.65 of 7 December 1984
[6]Baderin, op. cit., p. 23-24

Foto copertina: La Kaʿba è un’antica costruzione situata all’interno della Sacra Moschea, al centro della Mecca; rappresenta l’edificio più sacro dell’islam