Islam as Purely Human – Dignity and Rights
Farhan Shah, Muslim philosopher, University of Oslo
By arguing that Islam is in concord with basic human rights because of the very fact that all human beings possesses an “essence” (Divine energy) in terms of innate dignity and natural rights, it is not equivalent to asserting that Islam is externally responding to human rights standards, thus accommodating itself to the “Western paradigm”. Rather, human-rights thinking has always been an integral element of the Islamic faith-praxis. As the Muslim philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) affirms: "Islam is purely human". Thus, to endorse a humanistic belief system implies (re)embracing the original purity and universalism of Islam.
In Islamic historical consciousness, it is the Medina Charter, written and institutionalised by the Prophet in 623 CE, that gave rise to a systematic document that adumbrates individual`s natural rights in the seventh-century Arabian Peninsula. The charter consists of 47-52 clauses ranging from the principle of mutual consultation as a method of government to autonomy for each community to practice its own faith-tradition (freedom of belief/religion). However, due to the growing pressures parochial and imperialistic tendencies, this germinal document survived only until the beginning of the Omayyad Dynasty in 661. From then on, the humanistic-pluralistic and egalitarian focus of Islam metamorphosed into a more “top-down”, imperialistic-dogmatist and hierarchical focus. That is, it stressed the importance of obligations and duties to God (to obey God`s law without question) rather than asserting one`s individual natural rights.
According to the dominating theological view in Muslim consciousness, the concept of God is that of an absolute ruler, who is the only one to claims rights. Human beings, on the other side, have no inborn rights. They only have duties unto God. The development of conservative trends (especially a duty-based culture) strangled the earlier dynamic and humanistically-oriented societies, and as a result of its eruption transmuted the Islamic society and culture according to an absolute, state-imposed doctrine: It was Shafi`sm in legal law and Ash`arism in theological thinking.
Nevertheless, there were certain Muslim theologians/philosophers who endeavoured to assert the Islamic humanistic ethos, but such revivalist projects were, as in our times, met with considerable opposition from imperial political orders and the conservative, opportunistic clerics and theologians, whose (mis)interpretations of Islam focused on externals and technicalities rather than fundamentals and essentials. That is why Dr. Iqbal laments that their (mis)interpretations and ignorance of Islam alienated people from their faith, and even transformed Muslims into “non-believers”.
However, despite the unfortunate turn of events, the Medina state-model can serve as a guiding light on an ethical and socio-political level for Muslim countries. First, the State of Medina exemplified a “paradigm-shift” in political philosophy. In earlier communities, the dominant understanding implied that the state is primary and the individual secondary. This idea can be traced back to Hellenistic civilisation, and was dominant in the politico-philosophical works of Plato and Aristotle. The emergence of the Medina State, on the other hand, turned this “top-down” model to a more “bottom-up” approach: individuals are the primary agents, the state is secondary, that is, the state’s obligation is to implement and defend the natural rights of human beings, and not curb them through unrighteous use of power. As Iqbal asserts in his book The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam: “The state, from the Islamic standpoint, is an endeavour to transform these ideal principles [equality, solidarity and freedom] into space-time forces, an aspiration to realize them in a definite human organization”. In other words, within the Quranic framework, the body politic is only a primary agent in the actualisation of allocating justice goals. However, society and “secondary agents” such as Sufi orders, mosques, charitable organisations and non-governmental organisations are also responsible for advancing a more salubrious and humanistic-oriented culture within their respective societies. Socially beneficial actions have more value than merely praying or being engrossed in religious ceremonials in order to satisfy private inclinations. In short, it is a more interrelational framework we ought to implement in order to forfend structural abuses of humanity`s essential dignity.
The Qur’anic scripture, when freed from the shackles of sterile, atomistic and ideological interpretations, points toward an emancipating view of human potential and human organisation that is respectful of the dignity of each and every perspective, awed by the beauty of the natural world, and encouraging of an “integral ecology” that lives with respect and care for all life on our good planet earth. We can speak of a kind of Islam that truly is constructively postmodern.