Individual Rights in Islam
Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Khamenei
Freedom is too broad a concept to claim definition, the truth of which can be best perceived by human conscience and soul. The most limited definition for freedom is not being in a state of slavery and the broadest one is not remaining in chains of servitude.1 This article is concerned with the definition of freedom particular to man in general and the explanation of individual freedoms in particular.
The use of the word freedom, which has traveled from the realm of philosophy and law to that of politics, is paradoxically used in different connotations, and sometimes lacks a stable political status. Hence, this spiritual definition of freedom is used as a political weapon.
One of the most important points of our discussion is to study the exact definition of words. One of the difficulties of encountering the clashes between ideas and opinions is the ambiguity one may encounter in case of undefined words. In addition, these lexical common points can lead to logical fallacy and sophistry.
Words such as right, human being and human rights, freedom, justice and tens of other words are of this sort which are frequently talked about and for which there are no certain definitions. That is why instead of solving the problem, they only intensify it.
At this juncture, a fundamental question comes up: Who is this human person? And where is he for whom rights are considered?
In some of the cultures and civilizations – either in the past or in the present – man was defined in very limited terms, which only included a certain nation or a certain ethnic group or followers of a certain religion excluded other human beings. Instances of this are the idea of the Greek people about the non-Athenians (calling them Berbers) and the idea of the Romans about the non-Romans and the idea of Semite contemporary Western countries about the non-Europeans or the non-whites or the Semite tribes, this being implicitly stated in their holy book, the Talmud, that regard the non-Jews as having human dignity.
Hence, when discussing freedom or when interpreting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international documents of the United Nations or the international compacts and agreements, the concept of human rights should be first clarified by the two parties and the signers or the users of this word should agree upon an exact definition for this concept.
To complete our discussion here on the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam on freedom, we need to mention that man in Qur’an and in Islam is used to mean man without regard to any limitation such as race or color or religion or culture. The word nas (which means people) in Qur’an includes all people in the world and it is not important whether they are Muslims or whether they have a certain race or not.
The holy Prophet always stated, “All people are the descendents of Adam and of one family and race. Adam was from dust and pride does not become of the children of Adam and in practice, he did not make any distinction between the Arabs and the non-Arabs, between Muslims and non-Muslims and treat everyone equally.”
Freedom at First Glance
Every living creature is endowed with a natural yearning for freedom. Plants need freedom to take in light and heat in order that they may have their roots take in food and grow although there are natural impediments which prevent them from earning this freedom or even from reaching natural growth.
Every creature struggles for breath, food, water, mate and an arena for a comfortable life, regarding itself rightful to provide these things and struggle towards this end. In addition, according to the natural law or the laws of jungle he fights the rivals or tries to remove the obstacles. And ultimately due to the last resort which is force and domination, right is distinguished from wrong and justice from injustice and one reaches one’s natural freedom and others lose it and reconcile oneself to limited freedom.
Man has the same instincts as well like any creature obeying natural laws. If there were no humane elements such as conscience, religion, and tradition, he would pursue his animalistic desires and follow the law of force for survival.
Hence, it is natural that all creatures share a yearning for freedom. Therefore, freedom is an important principle in nature although it is rarely found.
Freedom within Man’s Realm
At a deeper level, man is supreme compared to other creatures. Besides his carnal and vegetable desires, (or in philosophical term, animal and vegetable self) he has the rational soul, reason, power of distinction, and most importantly, the willpower for organizing his human desires and the power of choice for choosing the best and the most rational things.
In other words, the willpower logically leads us to the existence of the inherent freedom in man, for freedom must have inherent roots. Moreover, if freedom is not inherent in man, it is meaningless to grant him willpower.
In short, man is a creature endowed with special dignity and rational soul and voluntary power of choice. Hence, it should be said that man is the only creature on earth that has two kinds of natural and inherent freedoms:
First: the same instinct for freedom, which exists in all creatures just as the instincts for eating, sleeping, passions, and rage. The child is an instance of this whose behaviors like animals are all based on instinct and without the interference of will power2 or based on natural or conditional reflexes.
Second: the freedom particular to man which due to his inherent dignity and respect for his reason and this power and divine gift in the Holy Qur’an is described as heart and from this power man is bound to revelation and religion and deserves the title of being addressed: that is why all human beings and animals have rights but assignment is particular to man.3
The interesting point is that in Islam and in most traditions and customs, the freedoms of the second group (human freedoms) are juxtaposed with the first group freedoms (wild freedoms), putting them aside or limiting them. From this one can realize that in human and social communities, the limiting of wild freedoms (the freedoms shared by man and animals) is in fact to the gain of man. Since the beginning of civilization wherever there is a society, which considers the general welfare, the animalistic freedoms are limited and laws have taken the place of force and domination.
Man’s Freedom in Islam
According to Islam, the second group freedom, which is particular to man, is the main basis of social, political and even individual life of the human person. In addition, the Divine laws (known as Shari’ah) are fixed based on this external reality for man. A perfect man is he who transcends the realm of animal life, uses his inexhaustible power and attains worldly and spiritual bliss or in philosophical terms, the second inherent perfection and the second nature of the creation of Adam.
All manners and traits of man must emanate from his basic natural dignity; in other words, man should have the commendable traits he is expected to have.·
In the story of the creation of Adam in the Qur’an, when God tells the angels, “I am setting in the earth a viceroy.” The angels reply, “What, wilt Thou set therein one who will do corruption there, and shed blood, while we proclaim Thy praise and call Thee holy?” Then God answered, “Assuredly, I know that you know not.”4
In other words, Adam is distinctive from other creatures because God is setting in the earth Adam and his descendents as his viceroys; it is manifest that in Islamic and Qur’anic sense, Adam is a creature endowed with a faculty and aptitude to be God’s viceroy and not a wild one. In addition, the goal of Islam is to build the very same chosen man, not an animal one.
Islam and Man’s Instincts
Islam agrees to the first group freedom and the rights relative to it to a large extent, for it is the selfsame gift granted by the Lord to man: however, as I said earlier, Islam limits it to individual and social welfare; for instance, if it says, “Eat and drink” it also enjoins extravagance in these acts.
The nature of animals is such that they do not know extravagance and unlike man, they act on their unconscious nature, which is harmonious with their welfare and real needs, and the general system of nature.
This limitation exists even in the realm of liberalism and absolute liberalistic freedom is a clear matter, for with regard to the common freedom of animals and the special freedom of man, they mix it with civil and penal laws of each society and inevitably limit it.
Hence, the limitation of freedoms is not particular to Islam or to other religions inasmuch as anywhere any society is established based on a social convention, freedoms are limited.
Limitations and Boundaries
This freedom is generally limited or confined in two ways; first, by the traditions and habits of the people of the society, even in the farthest and wildest regions or in the oldest human societies. Thus, a kind of limitation has existed differently in every society in each age.
In sociology, these traditions and habits are referred as being social norms. And the binding guarantee of abnormalities in any society or social group is the penal behaviour of people (or the majority of people) towards abnormal person. Secondly, the limitation of nature by law namely the same laws made by people as deriving from experience, thought, culture, traditions and habits of that society.
In no society, especially in the civilized ones, individual or individuals have the right to freely take whatever their instincts covet.
The right to private property or the respect for the family unit and other civil and human rights, exist in fact to limit the reckless animalistic freedoms and man’s wild instincts. Man has constantly regarded this limitation as prevention from invasion and violation and social welfare and an emblem of his urbanity.
The result of these two freedoms is the freedom that makes Islam meritorious of man. Indeed, instinct is the innate programming characteristic of man, enabling him to respond appropriately to particular stimuli; the wisdom and the rational soul check and guide it. In addition, a well appropriated combination of these freedoms arising from these two forces in man guide man and his actions, enabling him to perfonn his humane-divine acts.
Backgrounds of Freedom
Theoretically speaking, the freedoms of man can be catalogued under six categories, each one of which is observant of one aspect of his freedom and a manifestation of that freedom.
One-Freedom Vis-A-Vis Others
In this kind of freedom, people do not have the right to hurt the physical health of their wives and children, and others’ properties, secrets or personal affairs. Civil rights and parts of the penal rights are relevant to this kind of freedom.
Two-Freedom Vis-A-Vis The Society
This kind of freedom constitutes great respect for the life, property, family, dignity of people in the society, giving each individual freedom of residence, movement , religion, opinion and expression and the right to participate in the government towards his own destiny.
Three-Freedom Vis-A-Vis The State
Although in an equitable humane and religious system, the State is the representative of people, due to the authorities of the State and the political and legal authority it exerts on the individuals, the individual and social freedoms of people should be studied in isolation and ensured. As we shall see, the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is laid on these relations.
Besides the rights noted above, we should include the right to the choice of administrative and political representation, the right to comment on the political approach, the right to participate in public supervision, the right to protest against the vices of the authorities and the likes.
Four-Freedom Vis-A-Vis The International Community
Every nation is entitled to the enjoyment of public rights such as independence, leadership, natural resources, defense against the enemy or any form of invasion or retaliation against the enemy, the instituting of relations with nations or other nations or private rights such as the right of movement, the seeking of asylum, and complaint in judiciary centers.
These four rights are recognized by Islam and the common rights in use; however, there are two other rights in Islam, which form the fifth and the sixth category.
Five-Freedom Vis-A-Vis The Almighty
Although man, due to inherent poverty in his essence and in his acquisition of natural qualifications and in his real relations is dependent on the Almighty, this man due to his power of choice is entitled to choose his destiny and accept or reject the divine religion5 and no one shall be compelled to accept Islam; even after the acceptance of Islam and all the commitments imposed by it, man finds himself in the horizon of allowed freedoms.
Sixth-Freedom Vis-A-Vis Oneself
As man is made of different psychological and internal elements, (for instance, the Qur’an refers to three souls, the despotic soul, the reproaching soul and the peaceful soul and psychology points that human psyche is divided into three parts, the id, the ego and the superego) there is automatic relation between the clash of these internal souls with man’s inherent power of choice and man is responsible to himself and his conscience serves as an interward mediator, he is free towards it. That is why some are virtuous and others are unrighteous. That is why some accept moral values while others reject them.
In Islam, freedom embodies a vast body of meanings and realities, which may be discussed under the six categories noted above, and none of them can obstruct any other one. These freedoms can be divided into two main human aspects, soul and body, namely the physical and spiritual or mental freedoms.
Physical liberty includes whatever belongs to him6; hence, slavery, detention, exile, prevention of life and free movement are the violation of man’s physical freedom and the violation of the right to property is the violation of the freedom of property. _
Spiritual liberty includes the freedom of thought, will, choice, and destiny, opinion, science, art and traditions.
These two liberties are generally interpreted as civil freedoms, individual freedoms, and the freedom in enjoying fundamental rights, the will and choice of individual, social destiny and political freedom.
Study of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was provided in 30 articles by the Western European countries, approved by the General Assembly on December 1945. The Declaration was actually influenced by post revolutionary mottoes of France and the United States, itself arising from influence of Islamic culture on the West. A large portion of the declaration is allotted to different forms of freedoms.7 In fact, stress is on the first group freedoms, the freedoms common among men and animals, although in the preamble, it talks of the inherent dignity of man and the inalienable rights. The comparison between these rights and the rights in Islam reveal certain facts.
The freedom of thought, opinion, religion or participation in elections or complaining is particular to man, but the rest of the freedoms cited therein are common among men and animals. The important thing neglected or forgotten is the spiritual freedom, which we refer to as liberty and Islam places particular stress on it.8
Physical freedom relates to man’s carnal desires; although it is essential as breathing, and eating, it is not very instrumental in the spiritual perfection of man,and in escalating him from the common level of being to perfection. By natural disposition, every creature seeks freedom of marriage, residence, movement, property, occupancy, and gets enraged when these rights are denied him and combats oppression and violations.
However, man’s special freedoms such as the freedom of expression, thought, belief, religion, and the right to participate in his social and political destiny known as political rights, are but vaguely adumbrated in this declaration despite its apparent statements.
There are two ways for voluntarily entrusting political rights and iindividual leadership to a certain individual, State or group:
1. Open and Wholesome Atmosphere – in which each individual relying on his reason, conscience and experience can exercise his will; for instance, he may choose an eligible individual or individuals endowed with a wholesome soul, and belief in justice-and good will as authorities.
This is the same way emphasized by Islam and the Qur’an. The Holy Qur’an enjoins people to think wisely before they choose and enjoy the historical experiences. It even attributes the acceptance of the divine religion and prophet to the conscience, reason and intellect.9
2. Unwholesome atmosphere – In which the deceitful religious or political demagogues lay before people’s feet the enchantment of propaganda, and inculcations and false promises. In Islam, this kind of leadership is called hidden servitude and those who drag people behind them like slaves are called the lords of people.
The Holy Qur’an scolds those people of the book who take their rabbis and monks as their lords and addresses them thus; “Come now to a word between us and you, that we serve none but God, and that we associate not aught with Him, and do not some of us take others as Lords, apart from God.” (Surah Aale Imran 3:64)
In another verse, God chides those that have forsaken God, placing the chain of servitude of their masters on their necks and says; “They have taken their rabbis and their monks as lords apart from God” (Surah at-Tawbah 9:31)
and there is a hadith as a protest against the despotic Amavid government: Itakhezu din alah dowalan wa ibadellah kholan.10
According to the Qur’an, this type of enjoying the will and choice is hidden force and is thus condemned as people are pushed to an imposed way in the name of democracy.
With a keen glance, we can find the forestalling of freedom in two ways:
1. By force, namely by imposing one’s will on others which is, in jurisdiction, called coercion or aversion, rendering void any contract thus agreed on and in international custom, illegal duress is condemned and void.
2. By directing people’s benighted minds to a trajectory which is nothing but mere mirage: however, Machiavellian demagogy makes it look like a clear stream, goading people into the vortex of that otiose wasteland.
This unconscious force and the clandestine forestalling of freedom are generally found in most countries noted for their democratic manner. The mass media take from people the power of telling right from wrong, and evil from good, and drag them on under the banner of democracy. This apparent existence of choice is, in fact a kind of lordship over them.
Lordship means that the Lord decides and exerts his will in every affair. This existed in the form of master vis-a-vis peasant in the Iranian rural system before the Islamic revolution.
However, the Islamic Shi’ite Imamate (political leadership), despite what the foreigners had in mind, is based on the free choice of people and this rulership is based on alliance (the will and the free choice of people in an open horizon and without discrimination of any kind) and compulsion is not allowed therein.11
In this kind of free choice and will, the mental state of people should be at peace and for the same reason, Islam and the Qur’an bid people to free thinking and reasoning before making a choice and commends the intellectuals and regard only those who choose the best they hear as ‘abd, namely the true believers.12
On the contrary, the perversion of people’s thoughts from the right path and true expediency to unlawful goals are called bandits, those who impede the path to nature and the right path in the Qur’an, considering chastisement for them.
One of the problems with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights lies in its preamble where it talks of the inherent dignity and equal, inalienable rights of man, but they are without equal basis to explain why man has inherent dignity, for the probation of such dignity seems impossible without philosophical or inherent or reasonable basis and anyone can reject them and as long as the origins of these inherent traits are not made clear, the function of laws-which are the subdivisions of ideology-shall not be made clear.
We know that such a claim is completely logical and acceptable in Islam, for the root of this dignity lies in the viceroyship of man granted by God who has put the crown of nobility on man’s head.
Hence, the inherent dignity of man is the main basis for granting rights to man. His advantages can be taken into account, he can be given ample freedom in order that he may determine his own destiny. Or the human beings should be equal in rights and dignity13 and nothing sch as race, color, sex, language, religion and political opinion as well as nationality, the social status, wealth, birth or any other status14 can disturb this equality or no one can hold others in slavery15 or subject them to torture.16
However, the probation or the fonnulation of such rights or committing others or expecting them to accept these laws from others is impossible without a philosophical or religious basis and this shortcoming still exists in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
After all, words such as right, man, freedom, dignity and the likes have not yet been properly defined and their boundaries have to be detennined by the States. That is why the Western States in the attitude of the Greeks and the Romans denounce rights of others and relates man to the people of Rome (or any country populated with white people) and freedom to a kind of slavery.
By comparing the Islamic stance on spiritual and political rights with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights one can understand that despite the deep Islamic stance on human freedoms, what in practice is proposed at international level as human freedoms is ambiguous and in practice and in theory, they pay scant attention to them in international laws and policy: in fact they are political playthings for players in political arena although people are apparently free and freely go to the polls.
1. This is called negative freedom and positive freedom suggests the ability to do any desired thing.
2. That a child does not use his willpower before the age of maturity is because it has not reached full maturity. In addition, this is one of the veiled scientific points, which has found scant attention. There are philosophical and psychological differences between will and desire, although they have been mixed up.
3. Some criticize the Islamic laws and jurisprudence for heing filled with assignments and different commands and if the words of this humhle writer are true which are not, this is not the fault of the Muslim jurisprudence but the perfection of it and that of a community in which these rules dominate for if that community is tilled with rights but without assignments, is not a human community and in practice, such a community has never existed. Even in the olden communities, (like Hammurabi or in time of Ghengiz), the assignments had priority over rights.
4. Surah Al-Baqarah (2:30)
5. “There is no compulsion in religion.” Surah al-Baqarah, 2:25; “Indeed God changes not what is in a people, until they change what is in themselves.” Surah ar-Rad, 13:11
6. Freedom is a spiritual affair which may have spiritual and physical manifestations.
7. At least 18 articles out of 30 articles.
8. Like ”Worship not any one but The Almighty'”, which will be later on dealt with.
9. “And think in the creation of the heaven and the earth, (Surah Aale Imran, 3:191); I exhort you only to one thing, that rise up ye for God’s sake in twos and singly, then ponder ye, (Surah as-Saba 34:46); “Reflect they not within themselves” (Surah ar-Rum 30:8); “So related the story; haply they will reflect” (Surah al-A’raf 7:176; Surah al-Hashr 59:41; Surah al-Jathiyah 45:13; Surah az-Zumar 35:42; Surah Yunus 10:24 and the likes, and verses like “Do you not understand?” in surahs: al-Baqarah 2:44, 76 & 442; Aale Imran 3:32: al-A’raf 7:169; Yunus 10:16 and several other verses.
10. See Bihar al-Anwar, Vol. 22, p.391, “izaa balagha abi al-as thalathin rajolan itakhezu din allah dakhalan wa ibadallah kholan wa mal allah dowalan”, (in a hadith of Abudhar from the Holy Prophet and in the sermon of Imam Husayn (a.s)
11. Imam ‘Ali, Nahj al-Balaghah, Is Victory at the Price of Tyranny over Me Allowed?
12. “The true servants of God are those who hear everything, follow the best and these are the ones whom God guides and people call wise.” Verses which encourage thinking are already dealt with.
13. Article 1
14. Article 2
15. Article 4
16. Article 5