17. Islam and human rights

17. Islam and human rights

17.1 Introduction

On 10th December 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration, consisting of thirty articles, was designed to achieve – by teaching and education – a  common standard for the rights and freedoms for all people and all nations.

The Declaration of Human rights does not have the force of law. Undoubtedly, real enforcement of human rights can only be achieved by each state through appropriate legislative process, enforced through an independent judiciary.

While it is necessary that our efforts should be directed towards securing such rights through executive, administrative, legislative and judicial processes, we must all, individually and collectively, strive continuously to fulfil the duties we owe to each other at the moral and spiritual levels.

For the Muslims, and indeed for all mankind, Islam seeks to achieve a society in which equity is fostered and iniquity eschewed in all spheres of life – individual, domestic, national and international.

17.2 Future Relationship between Islam and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

On the question of Islam vis-a-vis the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we would like to quote a few paragraphs from Islam and Human Rights by Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, President of the Seventeenth Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations and a Vice-President and a judge of the International Court of Justice at the Hague. His book attempts a comparative study of Islam and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The following passages are taken from pages 140-143 of his book, published in 1967.

The Declaration concerns itself with only certain aspects of human life and human relationships and must perforce seek to achieve its ideals through legislative, administrative and judicial safeguards and action. It cannot avail itself of the means and methods necessary for achieving a more comprehensive and far-reaching revolution in the lives of individuals and peoples. The purely moral and spiritual aspects of life, except in so far as they are inevitably involved in all human conduct, are beyond its objective. Nor does or can it concern itself with the Hereafter. Even subject to these limitations it constitutes an epoch-making formulation of human rights based upon the widest possible consensus so far achieved and recorded.

Religion (deen) must travel far beyond the Declaration both in its objectives and in its methods. It is concerned with the totality of life, both here and Hereafter. The Declaration certainly, like Islam, claims universality and seeks that the rights, freedom and duties set out and expounded in it should be accepted and made effective everywhere in respect of everyone. Thus, in spirit, the Declaration, so far as it goes, and Islam are in accord. In respect of certain specific details, the Declaration employs language which is too general; Islam spells out the necessary safeguards. Occasionally, but unavoidably, there is a difference of approach. Islam and the Declaration are both concerned with human welfare, prosperity and happiness; but while the Declaration is concerned to secure them at the material level, through physical means and during this life only, Islam being a religion (deen), is concerned to secure them at all levels, through every available means, both here and the Hereafter. Islam recognises the interplay and interaction of all values and neglects none, but pays due regard to the need of co-ordination between them, which necessitates that a certain primacy must be assigned to and observed in respect of moral and spiritual values. These latter are not the primary concern of the Declaration. This divergence of approach leaves open the possibility of conflicting provisions for the regulation of specific detail. Should this happen, and the conflict prove irreconcilable, then it is obvious that so far as Islamic society is concerned, the Islamic provision must have priority.

Subject to this somewhat remote contingency, the revival and strengthening of true Islamic values would only help and further the achievement of the objectives of the Declaration.

As already indicated, Muslim thought, in all its aspects, has now been experiencing a healthy revival for close upon a century. The most hopeful feature of this revival is that attention is being directed more and more to the Qur’an in search of light and guidance in the fast-growing complexity of the conditions and values with which man is confronted today, and the effort is proving abundantly, richly, extravagantly fruitful and rewarding. This is indeed in accord with the assurance contained in the Qur’an that its treasures of light and guidance are inexhaustible.

Proclaim: ‘If the ocean became ink for the words of my Lord (Sustainer), surely the ocean would be exhausted before the words of my Lord (Sustainer) came to an end (18:109).

And even more explicitly:

If all the trees that are in the earth were to become pens, and the ocean were ink, with seven oceans swelling it thereafter, the words of Allah would not be exhausted. Surely, Allah is Mighty, Wise (31:27).

These treasures will be preserved and safeguarded for future generations of mankind: Â Â Â

Verily, We Ourself have sent down this Exhortation, and most surely We will be its Guardian (15:9).

Thus the guidance set forth therein will continue to be available through all ages.1

See section 6.2 for the references of Qur’anic verses on human rights and obligations.


  1. Islam and Human Rights, by Muhammad Zafrulla Khan. Published by The London Mosque, 63 Melrose Road, London SW18. p. 140-143.