Islam and Human
Jahanpour, TFF Associate
April 12, 2007
First posted on the
of Globalization for the Common Good
The article examines whether human rights
concepts are applicable to Islam or not. It provides a comparative study
of the popular perceptions of Islam versus the West, and argues that with
a correct understanding of the Koran and Islamic teachings it is possible
to defend human rights concepts from inside the Islamic texts. It also
argues that most Western views of Islam are due to insufficient understanding
of Islam and often based on political considerations, rather than on what
Islam stands for. The long history of Islam's peaceful coexistence and
interaction with other cultures and civilisations proves that the theory
of a 'clash of civilisations' is wrong, and it is possible to establish
real dialogue and understanding with Muslims.
War is the greatest scourge of our time. In many ways, the twentieth century
was the worst century in human history in terms of people who were killed
as the result of local, regional and international wars, most of them
fought in the name of good causes, such as freedom, democracy, socialism,
etc. Yet it was the age of mass killing on an unprecedented scale. It
was the century of technological barbarism and mechanised butchery. It
is estimated that between 150-170 million people were slaughtered in various
wars during that century.
A great American peace activist, Phil Berrigan, who spent 11 of his 79
years in prison for his non-violent protests against war, ended his review
of Sr. Rosalie Bertell's book, Planet Earth: The Latest Weapon of War,
with these words:
"The military as an instrument of mass killing is a waste institution
- humans, energy, oil, metals, scientific and technical skills,
money - it consumes all and restores nothing to the resources of
the planet. Any faithful or sane scrutiny would conclude that it
must be dismantled. It kills, threatens and wastes - it is the BIG
LIE institutionalized. Its veneer and untouchability gives new meaning
to the demonic. Is anybody out there listening?" (1)
At a time when a number of neocons are once again inciting war and violence,
this time against Iran, on equally dubious grounds that led to the invasion
of Iraq, the time has come for all the people of goodwill to raise their
voices louder against this insane venture. Ever since the fall of the
Soviet Union, some people who are not able to live without a real or imaginable
enemy have put forward the dangerous philosophy of a clash of civilisations.
The whole history of 800 years of coexistence
between Islam and Hinduism and Buddhism in India; the coexistence of Muslims,
Christians and Jews in Spain; the coexistence of Muslims and followers
of other faiths in Iran, Turkey, Egypt, etc show that it is possible for
the people from different religions or civilisations to live peacefully
Since the dreadful events of 9/11 this drive to divide the world between
'those who are with us' and 'those who are against us' has intensified
and has produced many unfortunate consequences. The world has been divided
as never before and a climate of fear and suspicion has enveloped the
world. If those who wish to prevent the realisation of that nightmare
do not oppose that pernicious philosophy, it may become a self-fulfilled
prophecy with all that it might entail.
While up to less than two decades ago there was a serious clash between
the West and the communist bloc, since the collapse of the Soviet Union
Islam or Islamic fundamentalism has been portrayed as the enemy that has
to be defeated. This is the undeclared focus of the 'war on terror', not
realising that terror is a tactic not an enemy. Although communism posed
a deadly threat to the West, it was an economic or at best a political
ideology, without deep roots in people's souls and consciousness.
Islam, like Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism
is a religion that has profound roots in the consciousness of hundreds
of millions of adherents. Unlike secular ideologies, religions tend to
get stronger as the result of persecution. The best way to deal with religious
fundamentalism is not to wage a war against it, but to remove or moderate
its influence through rational arguments, preferably borrowed from the
same religious discourse from which they emerge. This is what happened
in the West during the Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment, and this
is what needs to be done in Islam, by Muslims themselves.
The concepts of democracy and human rights are said to constitute part
of the Western crusade against the so-called 'Islamo-fascism'. It is argued
that these concepts are incompatible with Islam and, therefore, logically
it follows that their success requires the defeat or the elimination of
Islam. Not only is such an argument dangerous and provocative, it is essentially
In this article I intend to discuss some
Islamic concepts that provide a fertile ground for the development of
human rights among Muslims.
In order to discuss the universal definition
of human rights, it may be useful to start by saying that like terrorism,
the definition of human rights is not as easy as it looks. After the terrible
events of 9/11, the United Nations spent a lot of time trying to figure
out what terrorism is and they didn't reach any conclusion. Then there
was a meeting of the Islamic countries and they tried to come to an agreement,
and they didn't come up with anything. It cannot be easily defined, because
one country’s terrorist is another country’s freedom fighter.
Look at Israel. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians describe the activities
of the other side as terrorism. Hopefully, the situation may be a little
easier in the case of human rights.
In describing the relationship between Islam and the West, let me start
with what are the popular perceptions of Islam in the West, and by that
I do not mean among the readers of tabloids but among the educated and
on the whole tolerant people. In recent years, I have been teaching an
online course on Islam and the West for the universities of Oxford, Yale
and Stanford. In one of the sessions of the course, I asked the students
to list what they see as differences between Islam and the West. One of
the students provided the following list, which may act as a good basis
for appreciating Western views about Islam. Here I quote the entire list
as was written by my student:
1. Islam is Theocratic, the West is Secular.
2. Islam wants religion to have a major role in governance and in
society, whereas the West wants it excluded.
3. Islam wants to dominate the world, the West believes in coexistence.
4. Islam encourages war in defence of the Islamic Faith (the so-called
‘lesser Jihad’); the West encourages a ‘live and
let live’ approach to matters of faith [Clearly there have been
no religious wars in the West].
5. Morality is absolute in Islam; it is often situational and relative
in the West.
6. Islam is idealistic; the West is pragmatic. (In the West, if it
works, do it; in Islam, if the Koran permits it, do it).
7. Islam cherishes the rule of God as made known in the Koran; the
West cherishes the rule of man by the exercise of his reason, and
changes the rule as and when reason dictates.
8. Islam is Puritanical, the West is Hedonistic. ("If it feels
good, do it" in the West, versus "If it feels good, don’t
do it" in Islam).
9. In Islam ‘Progress’ is a return to a Golden Age (the
time of the Prophet). In the West ‘Progress’ is out there
somewhere in the unknown future to be achieved with the advancement
10. Islam honours tradition, the West honours innovation.
11. Islam honours the community; the West honours the individual.
12. Islamic economics rejects the paying and collecting of interest.
In the West interest is one of the two pillars that finance economic
development. Think bonds, mortgages, deficit financing, and bank loans.
(The other pillar in the West is equity participation in financial
ventures, which is also permitted in Islam.)
13. The family structure in Islam is extended and patriarchal; in
the West it is nuclear and parental.
I have quoted the above list in full because
it provides a good example of public perceptions in the West about the
differences that separates Islam from the West. These ideas are deeply
ingrained, and it is not possible to dispel them easily. What surprised
me, however, was not the list itself. I would have expected such a list
from a secular Western observer who is indifferent or even hostile to
religion as a whole and Islam in particular.
What surprised me was that it was prepared
by an ordained clergyman who, one can assume, is religious and makes a
distinction between secular or even hedonistic aspects of contemporary
Western culture, and its Christian roots that still permeate the society
and provide it with its spiritual and moral underpinnings.
From the above list, one can see that the student is not comparing Islam
with the 'West', but is providing a list of differences between a religious
and a materialistic or secular point of view. If we look at the list and
simply replace the word Islam with Christianity, we will see that nearly
all the differences are still valid. Like Islam, Christianity is theocratic,
not secular; it believes that religion must play a major role in one's
life; it believes that morality is absolute and its rules are laid out
in the Bible; it is idealistic, not pragmatic; it believes in divine law
rather than human law; it honours tradition, supports family life, cherishes
community and is not hedonistic. Christ preaches that his kingdom is not
of this world, and prepared his followers for admission to the Kingdom
As for wishing to dominate the world, neither
Christianity nor Islam wants to dominate the world, although both of them
would like to teach their faith to the whole world. So, people seem to
be confusing religious versus secular worldviews with Islam versus the
West. They are juxtaposing Islam, a diverse and varied religion with followers
spread from Indonesia to Tunisia, with the West, which is a geographical
or cultural or political concept.
In the same way, that it was possible for Christians to move towards the
establishment of democracy and the institutionalisation of human rights,
there is no reason why the same cannot take place among Muslims.
The approaches to the application of human
rights to the Middle East and other developing countries are threefold:
The first approach was that of the colonialist period that saw
the Western way of life as intrinsically superior and universal and looked
down upon all other cultures and civilisations. It believed in the necessity
of civilising the natives, i.e. forcing them to wear Western dress and
follow a Western way of life, to adopt Western laws and to relinquish
their own religious beliefs.
The second approach was exclusively selective and non-universalist.
It was concerned with the fate of Christians and citizens of Christian
states in the Muslim world, as was the case in Lebanon where the Christian
minority was given power over the Muslim majority. This approach has now
been extended to the support of the Jewish state, where the activities
of the Israeli forces and the killing and maiming of thousands of Palestinians
and the destruction of homes and orchards are often described as acts
of self-defence, while any form of Palestinian resistance is described
Israel has become part of the West and its
ideology is part of the 'Judeo-Christian' civilisation, while Islam which
is also a continuation of Judaism and Christianity and furthermore accepts
and reveres the mission of Christ is regarded to be outside that exclusive
The third approach that has been given the clumsy term "hegemonic
abstentionism" basically tries to limit the application of universal
concepts of human rights, sometimes with good motives. Numerous other
terms are used to describe this approach, namely communitarian, relativist,
tradition-based, post-modernist, realist, etc. (2)
According to this approach, concepts of democracy
and human rights are limited and applicable entirely or to a large measure
to the West, while other societies must live by different set of rules
that suits them best. This approach suits those in the West who wish to
downplay the issue of human rights, democracy and justice in the Middle
East. It also suits the Middle East despots who, in the name of regional
authenticity or Islam or whatever else, violate norms of human rights.
The fundamentalists in some Islamic countries use this tactic in order
to fend off the criticism of their denial of human rights to their citizens
or those who are under their occupation, by claiming that their behaviour
is sanctioned by Islam.
When the Iranian President Mohammad Khatami started his presidential campaign
in 1997, he introduced a number of very interesting slogans. Two of the
most important slogans of Khatami were civil society and the rule of law.
Of course, these terms do not evoke a great deal of interest or controversy
in the West, but in a conservative Islamic society such as that of Iran
under the mullahs the slogans were revolutionary, especially as the Persian
terms signify a meaning that is not conveyed by their English translations.
Jame’e-ye madani (civil society) stands opposed to jame’e-ye
dini (religious society), and hokumat-e qanun (the rule of law) stands
opposed to the rule of the Shari’a or religious law. In the same
way, at the beginning of the 20th century when some people were calling
for a constitutional government (hokumat-e mashruteh), the leading clerics
of the time, Sheykh Fadlollah Nuri, called for "hokumat-e mashru’eh"
or a government based on the Shari’a.
These words made alarm bells ring among the conservative clergy. Therefore,
shortly after becoming president, Khatami decided to soften the blow by
saying that he advocated an "Islamic civil society" (which actually
sounded like a contradiction in terms in Persian, the same as Islamic
democracy. There is no Islamic, Jewish, Hindu or Christian democracy.
Democracy is democracy, period).
In a speech he gave to the Islamic Conference
Organisation in Tehran, in which more than 50 heads of Islamic countries
were assembled, Khatami said:
"The kind of civil society that we wish to establish and develop
in our country, and which we also recommend to other Islamic countries,
is qualitatively different in its historical origins and its fundamentals
from the kind of civil society which is based upon Greek philosophy
and Roman political legacy. The two, however, are not necessarily
in conflict and contradiction in all their manifestations and consequences.
This is exactly why we should never be oblivious to judicious acquisition
of the positive accomplishments of Western civil society.
From a historical point of view, the Western civil society is derived
from the Greek city states and its theoretical foundations are based
on the Roman [and European] political system; while the civil society
which we have in mind, is ideologically rooted in the Koran and historically
based on the City of the Prophet." (3)
When Muslim philosophers refer to Madinat al-Nabi, or the "City of
the Prophet", by that they do not mean only what was going on in
Medina at the time of the Prophet; but as the Prophet also acted as the
head of the state, Muslims believe that his government there represented
the most perfect form of government and acted as a model for subsequent
The main difference between Prophet Muhammad
and Jesus and Moses and other prophets is that while those prophets were
only spiritual leaders and not the head of the state, Muhammad managed
to form a government in Medina and later in the whole of Arabia. Therefore,
the concept of the City of the Prophet also conveys a philosophical idea;
namely a city modelled on the one established by Muhammad in Medina.
Shortly after this speech by Khatami, a leading
religious cleric in Iran, Hojjat ol-Eslam Sadeq Larijani, wrote an article
in an Iranian magazine, pointing out the logical incoherence in Khatami’s
statement. (4) He pointed out that "civil society" has an accepted,
historical meaning. He asked why one should use that term if one has a
different meaning in mind and when one is only referring to the City of
the Prophet. He wrote: "If we are trying to establish a society which
is inspired by the City of the Prophet and the values that govern that
concept, namely Islamic values and culture, is it not more appropriate
to speak of ‘Islamic society’, so that we can avoid unnecessary
confusion of terms with their different philosophical connotations?
He then questions the value systems
that are implied in that term. In Western usage, the term civil society
refers to a different value system from the one that is behind the concept
of the City of the Prophet. He continues with firstly providing a brief
account of the historical development of the term. Secondly, he defines
the concept of civil society as it is understood in the West, which is
a society based on a form of contractual definition provided by the people
and is free from religious restrictions. Thirdly, he discusses the principles
of an Islamic society or the City of the Prophet. He speaks of the close
relationship between civil society and Western liberal democracy.
He points out that the powers of the government are purely "borrowed"
rights, derived from the people, and the government represents the wishes
of the people. "The role of the government is to allow the individuals
to enjoy the greatest freedom, so that they can pursue their rights and
interests in the way that they see fit. The role of the government is
not to impose its own values, goals and principles upon the citizens,
and it should in no way interfere in such issues… The role of the
government is to provide a suitable environment that would allow the individuals
to make their own choices in the society." As John Locke said: "Where
law ends dictatorship begins."
Larijani goes on to say: "There is no doubt that the existence of
laws, the rule of law, the equality of individuals before the law, and
the just implementation of the law are among the principles that are supported
by an Islamic society and in any other society that wishes to live in
a rational and reasonable way."
However, he points out that laws have a different
meaning in civil societies and in Islamic societies. In Western civil
societies the government is neutral and must implement the laws promulgated
by the legislature. The task of the government is only to provide and
ensure individual freedom. In other words, civil society and liberalism
are like twins. This is a thinking that is not in keeping with Islamic
laws, according to him.
The Islamic society is not based on the laws made by men, but on the general
principles set out in the Koran. Sadeq Larijani writes: "We support
a society which is based on the spirit of Islam and religious faith, in
which Islamic and religious values are propagated, in which every Koranic
injunction and the teachings of the Prophet of Islam and the Imams are
implemented. It will be a society in which the feeling of servitude to
God Almighty will be manifest everywhere, and in which people will not
demand their rights from God but are conscious of their obligations to
God." In other words, it has less to do with individual rights, than
with religious obligations. It looks for a political environment that
allows the people to perform their religious obligations. It is less interested
in individual freedom and more concerned with social responsibilities.
He criticises the views of people, such as Abdol-Karim Soroush, who say
that there is no such thing as an Islamic society or an Islamic civilisation,
but the society of Muslims or the civilisation created by Muslims. Soroush
maintained that Muslim radicals were trying to use Islam as an ideology,
while Islam is a spiritual and individual way of life.
This debate is not limited to Iran, but is the common preoccupation of
many Muslims or Islamists throughout the Islamic world. Sa'id Hawwa, a
Syrian theologian, wrote: "Democracy is a Greek term, which signifies
sovereignty of the people, the people being the source of legitimacy;
it is the people who legislate and rule. As for the shura, it denotes
consultation [by the ruler] with a person or persons with regard to the
interpretation of a certain point of Islamic law. In Islam the people
do not govern themselves by laws they make on their own, as in a democracy;
rather, the people are "governed by a regime and a set of laws imposed
by God, which they cannot change or modify in any case." The concept
of majority rule is rejected by Islam "because Islam would not concur
that the majority is sovereign, whatever its mistakes and errors."
Across the border in Tripoli, Dannawi summed it all up in a simple formula:
"The state in Islam obeys Divine Law, not the people; liberating
the state from subservience to human passions, whims and fancies... be
they of the majority or the minority."
This kind of thinking is not limited to Islam. Many Christian and Jewish
fundamentalists and indeed the members of the Moral Majority in the United
States say the same thing. Those who attack abortion clinics in the United
States and kill or injure the doctors who are carrying out abortions do
so because they believe that the law of God supersedes the laws made by
Is there a way of bridging the
gap between these two points of view? I believe one answer to this anxiety
felt both by sincere Muslims and Christians is to point out that modern
concepts of democracy and human rights have themselves evolved out of
a religious context.
In a broad-ranging book, The Secularization
of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century, Professor Owen Chadwick
argues convincingly that the concepts of democracy and human rights and
the separation between religion and state developed out of religious debates
in Europe and America. (5) They were born out of a desire to put an end
to the conflict among various denominations and to provide an environment
in which different sects could hold on to their own principles and follow
their own religious injunctions.
I would go a step further and argue that, in fact, religious concepts
that regard man as being created in the image of God according to Christianity,
or as the vicegerent of God on earth according to the Koran, provide the
proper underpinning for human rights. If we regard human beings as mere
flesh and blood, as economic consumers or as animals in a human zoo, we
would have fewer qualms about suppressing their rights than if we believe
that human beings have an intrinsic value in themselves, that they are
masters of their own fate, that they are the children of God and that
they are related to us as members of a universal human family.
The third way of bridging this gap, and arguing particularly from an Islamic
point of view, is to show that the Koran itself is not hostile to human
rights. The Koran contains a variety of law-making provisions and legal
injunctions interspersed throughout its chapters (suras) and verses (ayat).
A number of rules exist for interpreting these provisions, such as the
position of a given ayah within the context of the sura, which in turn
is interpreted in accordance with its place in the sequence of revelation,
its reference to other revelations, and its historical context in relation
to particular conditions which existed at the time of the given revelation.
These and other rules are known as the science
of interpretation (ilm usul aI-fiqh). According to these rules, for example,
one initially is to refer to a specific provision and then to a general
provision dealing with a particular situation. In other words, religious
injunctions must be placed in their historic context, and must be interpreted
in such a way that they do not contradict the more general universal concepts.
If one verse that refers to a particular event contradicts the more general
and universal principles expressed in other verses, the universal principle
must be adopted as it overrules the verse that referred to a particular
event in the past.
Reasoning by analogy (qiyas) is permitted, except where expressly prohibited.
Simplicity and clear language are always preferred. Similarly, the clear
spirit of certain prescriptions cannot be altered by inconsistent interpretations.
A policy-oriented interpretation within the confines of the rules of jurisprudence
is permissible and even recommended, as is the case with the doctrine
of ijtihad (progressive reasoning by analogy).
Most Muslim scholars do not
consider Islam to be an evolving religion, but rather a religion and legal
system, which applies to all times. It is, therefore, the application
that is susceptible to evolution. Indeed, the provisions of the Koran
are such that by their disciplined interpretation, with the aid of the
Hadith and Sunna and other sources of interpretation, Islam can be interpreted
in such a way that it can provide the solution to contemporary social
There are numerous verses in the Koran that tell the believers not to
oppose or molest the followers of other faiths. For instance, The Koran
preaches that there should be no forceful conversion. The believers are
told to only discuss their faith with others in the kindliest manner:
"Summon men to the way of the Lord with wisdom and kindly warning.
Debate with them in the kindliest manner." (Koran xvi, 126). God
admonishes the believers not to force others to join their faith: "Wilt
thou force men to become believers?" (Koran, x, 10).
There is this clear injunction
in the Koran: "Let there be no compulsion in religion" (Koran
ii, 257). The way the sentence has been formulated in Arabic has led many
Muslim theologians to say that not only there should be no compulsion
in religion, but by its nature religion is not susceptible to compulsion.
Due to the nature of faith that is a matter of personal conversion and
the relationship between man and God, there simply cannot be any compulsion
in religion. Otherwise, conversion and faith mean nothing. Faith must
be voluntary, or it is meaningless. It is a personal and fateful act and
not a communal venture.
Even the Prophet himself is ordered to desist from forcing other people
to follow his teachings: "It is not for a Prophet to be fraudulent
and put people in chains: for he who puts others in chains shall bring
the fruit of enslavement upon himself on the Day of Judgement." (Koran,
III, 161). This is a very important statement that teaches that anyone
who tries to enslave other people’s minds and souls will enslave
himself and will bring the fruit of enslavement upon himself on the Day
Many early believers wanted Muhammad to force the Arabs to become Muslims,
but he is told by God: "We are best aware of what they say, but thou
(O Muhammad) art in no wise a compeller over them. But warn by the Koran
him who feareth My warning." (Koran, 50: 45). Therefore, the Prophet’s
job, as it is stressed elsewhere in the Koran, is merely to warn and to
call the people towards God, but not to coerce them to follow it. Faith
and guidance ultimately comes from God: "Say: The truth is from your
Lord; then whosoever will, let him believe; and whosoever will, let him
disbelieve." (Koran, 18: 28)
Muhammad was unhappy that some of his close relatives, including his favourite
uncle, had not become Muslims, but he was told in another verse: "And
if thy Lord had willed, whoever is on the earth would have believed, all
of them, altogether. Wouldst thou then compel the people, until they are
believers?" (Koran, 10:98). Again: "Say: O mankind! Now hath
the truth from your Lord come unto you. So whosoever is guided, is guided
only for his own soul, and whosoever erreth, erreth only against his soul.
And I am not a warder over you." (Koran, 10: 107)
There are many references in the Koran, telling Muhammad that he is not
people’s guardian, that he has no authority over them, and that
he should not force the people to believe. Therefore, if the Prophet himself
has no authority over others, and if his job is merely to warn and preach
the word of God, clearly none of his followers can claim to have greater
authority than him. They should not force those who are not members of
the Islamic community to become Muslims or to be oppressed, and they should
not force members of the Muslim community to do what the clerics or authorities
tell them to do. People are responsible for their own action and must
be given freedom to make their own choice freely.
As far as jihad or the war against the non-believers is concerned, the
most important Koranic verse that defines the limits and conditions for
jihad is the following: "Fight in the way of God against those who
attack you, but begin not hostilities. Verily god loveth not the aggressors…
And if they [the enemies] incline towards peace, incline thou also to
it, and trust in God." (Koran, 2: 189).
According to many Muslim theologians,
this verse means that the only form of war permitted by Islam is a defensive
war. They regard this verse as providing the parameters of a "just
war". Muslims are told to "fight in the way of God", in
other words not for any personal or aggressive intention, but merely for
the sake of God, "against those who attack you", but they are
emphatically warned "but begin not hostilities". Therefore,
there is absolutely no suggestion that Muslims should go and eliminate
the people in the "House of War".
There is another Koranic verse that allows the Muslims to fight against
those who drove them out of their houses, and to pursue them until there
is no persecution. The Koran says: "And kill them whenever you find
them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out, for persecution
is worse than slaughter… And if they desist, then lo! God is Forgiving,
Merciful. And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is
for God; but if they desist, then there should be no hostility except
against oppressors" (Koran, 2:190-193).
All Koranic commentators have
said that this verse refers to the attacks that were launched by Meccans
against Muhammad’s followers, and is not a blanket authority for
waging war. That verse too only allows a defensive war against those who
had attacked the Muslims, but even here it says, "but if they desist,
then there should be no hostility except against oppressors."
Therefore, there is absolutely no authority anywhere in the Koran or in
Islamic jurisprudence for attacking the people in the "House of War".
There is a long tradition of treaties and agreements going back to the
time of the Prophet that allows other people to live in peace, so long
as they do not attack Islamic communities. Those territories were said
to belong to the House of Peace, or House of Security, as opposed to those
who lived in the House of War, namely those who were engaged in a war
against Muslims. When Muslims conquered Iran, Egypt and parts of the Byzantine
Empire, at the beginning there was a certain amount of violence, but there
was no attempt for the forced conversion of the conquered nations. The
bulk of the Iranian population did not become Muslims until about two
hundred years after the initial conquest. Large Christian and Jewish communities
also survived in Egypt and other Islamic lands.
In fact, as non-Muslims who lived in an Islamic country had to pay a higher
rate of tax because they did not contribute to the military, very early
in Islamic history some greedy rulers discouraged people from joining
Islam in order to increase their own tax revenue. This was the case in
Iran and Iraq under Hajjaj bin Yusef who was the governor of Mesopotamia
in the first century of the Islamic calendar who sent orders to his local
officials telling them to stop converting the people to Islam.
The situation with Islam is
the same as we find with other traditions. What is the Bible's position
on war and violence? For some, the Bible authorised the Crusades, the
Inquisition, slavery, the extermination of the American Indians, the killings
of the Ku Klux Klan, the atrocity in Oklahoma City, and most recently,
the organised genocide against Bosnian Muslims. For others, the Bible
has motivated and sustained movements of non-violence, the anti-slavery
movement, efforts to support Bosnian Muslims and others in the face of
genocide, the nurturing of movements of democracy and social justice,
and lifetimes of sacrifice in the service to other human beings.
Many reformist Muslims have started interpreting Islamic texts with the
help of Hermeneutics. A great Iranian reformer, Ayatollah Mohammad Mojtahed
Shabestari has written many volumes about the need to interpret the Koranic
verse in a way that they can be applicable to the present age. Shabestari
maintains that Islam has three main categories of teachings. They are:
Spiritual and devotional [Ibadat]; issues dealing with social matters,
including politics, economics, various forms of transactions between people
[Mu’amilat]; and finally religious injunctions [Ahkam], including
hudud (religious punishments) and qisas (retribution), based on the Shari’a
or Islamic law.
He maintains that the spiritual
elements of Islam – like those of other faiths – are eternal
and unchangeable and can provide Muslims with guidance and spirituality
today. Some of the teachings belonging to the second category, namely
social teachings, and can be adapted to present circumstances through
ijtihad (independent interpretation of the law). As far as the third category,
namely ahkam, hudud, qisas, etc are concerned, their time is passed, in
the same way that the laws dealing with slavery are no longer operative
because the time for slavery has come to an end. In the modern world,
Muslims must formulate new laws on the basis of modern requirements. (6)
He says that when he asks his friends why they do not refer any more to
the Koranic teachings regarding slavery, they say that the time for that
has been passed. He then asks them why they cannot see that the time for
harsh Islamic punishments, flogging those who drink, killing the adulterer
and the adulteress, chopping off hands, unequal treatment of women, etc
has also passed.
If we wish to create a more
harmonious world, we must seek ways of reducing differences and hostility.
Instead of dwelling upon differences, we must stress similarities. Instead
of giving the most negative and limited interpretation to any Koranic
or Biblical text, we must look for the most enlightened and the broadest
interpretation. There is no disagreement among different religions that
a good society, a well-governed society, is one in which people feel that
they have equal chances to find fulfilment and where there is a sense
How do we achieve that in the
world? I believe that the idea of human rights, the rights of individuals,
can be achieved through dialogue and collaboration among nations, rather
than as the result of recrimination and point scoring. I must add that
this is a difficult task to perform, especially in the light of the clash
among various cultures and civilisations that we are witnessing today.
The way to begin is by supporting institutions like the International
Criminal Court. Religious and secular leaders and scholars must lay down
the principles and concepts that are acceptable and those that are not.
We need to encourage the United Nations to begin to develop regional courts
of human rights to try those who violate the principles of the Human Rights
Charter. Step by step, we'll get closer to a Supreme Court of human rights
within the context of the United Nations. It is very shortsighted for
the US – alongside Somalia and a few other undemocratic nations
- to refuse to join that court. In the light of the terrorist attacks,
now we need such international institutions more than ever.
What we can also do as individuals and organisations is to encourage dialogue
among people and civilisations. Instead of spending hundreds of billions
of dollars on weapons of war, we can achieve much greater harmony in the
world by spending a fraction of that on bringing the people from various
countries together and encouraging dialogue between them.
Of course, dialogue is much
more difficult in practice than it sounds. It requires listening, as well
as talking. It requires a feeling of genuine respect for the views of
others and a desire to learn. At the moment, due to its technological,
military, economic and intellectual pre-eminence, the West is more interested
in lecturing others and telling them what to do, instead of engaging in
a real two-way dialogue.
Andre Gide said once that the individual was the most irreplaceable of
beings. A moment's thought indicates how true this is. Individuals are
irreplaceable. All religions also stress the uniqueness and the sanctity
of human beings. Therefore, their rights are absolutely vital and extremely
precious, and their rights must be preserved. We must insist that human
rights are universal and we must apply them without discrimination, both
in the West and in the rest of the world.
 Quoted in an Internet letter by Peter Challen, entitled “Peace,
personal witness and the rule of law”, 08.12.2002.
 For a further discussion of “hegemonic abstentionism”
see Fred Halliday, Nation and Religion in the Middle East (Saqi Books,
2000), pp 15-30.
 Salam newspaper, dated 9.9.1376 (30 November 1997), Tehran, p 2.
 Sobh newspaper, No 80, Farvardin 1377 (March 1998), p 44. All other
quotations are from the same article.
 Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the 19th
Century (Cambridge University Press, 1991).
 See Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, Hermeneutics, the Book and Tradition
(Tehran, Tarh-e No, 1996).
About the Author
Farhang Jahanpour is a British
national of Iranian origin. He received his Ph.D. Degree in Oriental Studies
from the University of Cambridge and is a former professor and dean of
the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan. He has taught at
the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, as well as teaching online courses
for Oxford, Yale and Stanford. He spent a year as a Senior Fulbright Research
Scholar at Harvard. Dr Jahanpour also spent many years as Editor for Middle
East and North Africa at the BBC Monitoring Service. For the past 20 years
he has been a part-time tutor at the Department of Continuing Education
at the University of Oxford. He is the author of three books and numerous
articles in academic journals.
© TFF & the author 1997 till today. All rights reserved.
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