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modern islamIn its modern sense, the concept of human rights could be said to be alien to the Islamic tradition. That is because the modern doctrine of rights is an invention of the European Enlightenment. It was an attempt to base the humane social order on reason rather than revelation. Unfortunately the secular foundations of the doctrine of rights were never successfully secured. Philosophers disagreed on the origin of rights and even on what counts as a right. Some philosophers believed that rights derived from an implicit agreement among human beings to maintain a mutually beneficial social order. Others based rights on some idea of human nature and personal dignity more or less derived from the earlier notion of man as the image of God. But most Enlightenment discourse about rights tended to revolve around the concept of freedom. The most important right was freedom, meaning in this case freedom from constraint (freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom to speak one’s mind, freedom from the authority of the Church, and so on). Even the right to life was defined in terms of freedom—freedom to live one’s life without having it taken away.

And yet absence of constraint had been a relatively minor element in the traditional notion of freedom, which we might call the “religious” notion of freedom. Servais Pinckaers OP in his important study The Sources of Christian Ethics has shown that the traditional Christian idea of freedom was “freedom for excellence” rather than “freedom of indifference”; that is, the freedom or power to do the right thing, and to be what God intended (“excellent”), rather than merely the freedom to choose between (often meaningless or “indifferent”) alternatives. The modern world, ever since the French Revolution and perhaps ever since the Nominalists of the fourteenth century, has been striving for the freedom of the supermarket shopper, rather than the freedom of the saint. It is this that has transformed the notion of rights during the same period, by turning them around: “Rights have changed hands: I think now in terms of my own rights, not the rights of others,” says Pinckaers. Not, that is, in terms of responsibilities and duties, but in terms of what is due to me, or what I can hope to obtain from others.

According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr in one of the best introductions to modern Islam (The Heart of Islam), the Islamic basis for rights is very similar to the traditional Christian one. If true this could be a much more helpful starting point for discussion with Muslims on the topic of rights than that offered by Enlightenment rationalism.

“In Arabic the basic term for ‘right’ is haqq, which is first of all a Name of God, who is al-Haqq, that is, Truth and Reality. The term haqq also possesses the meaning of ‘duty’ as well as ‘right’, obligation as well as claim, law as well as justice. It means also what is due to each thing, what gives reality to a thing, what makes a thing be true. Its deivative form, ihqaq, means to win one’s rights in a court of law, while another derivative, tahqiq, means not only to ascertain the truth of something, but on the highest level to embody the truth.”

Nasr goes on to discuss the various kinds of rights to which Westerners tend to appeal, and to locate the corresponding responsibilities and duties within a framework set by the Quran. He even extends the notion to what we might call “animal rights” (along lines I have suggested elsewhere):

“Everything by virtue of the fact that it exists has its haqq, which means both responsibilities to God and rights. Each thing has its due by virtue of the nature with which it has been created. Rights do not belong to human beings alone, but to all creatures. Today, as a result of an emphasis of human rights over the rights of other creatures, we are rapidly destroying the natural environment, and as a result people now speak of animal or plant rights. This latter perspective is perfectly in accord with the Islamic view, according to which rights are not the prerogative of the human race alone, but belong to all creatures. In the deepest sense ‘rights’ means to give each being, including ourselves as human beings, its due (haqq).”

I am not going to trace Nasr’s detailed discussion of the various rights supported by Islamic tradition, or the allegations and counter-allegations that tend to be thrown around whenever this subject is raised. I only want to draw attention to the fundamental point, which I think is true, that the objective basis for rights must lie in the nature of creation itself—the intrinsic value God placed in each creature (“God saw that it was good”). Aside from that, justice can have no meaning other than as a cover for the use of force, whether crude or subtle. If the traditional idea of freedom is freedom to do the will of God, a freedom whose mortal enemy is sin, modern liberalism has a very different ideology of freedom at its heart, and a correspondingly distorted conception of justice. It conceives of rights as those benefits that can and should be demanded by the sovereign self—a list that grows longer as constraints on the self are progressively removed. Christianity and Islam should be natural allies in the critique of this corrosive form of liberalism (and in much else, not least the stewardship of the natural world and the recovery of metaphysics). We both recognize rights and responsibilities that belong to the nature of man as a “relational” creature.

Books related to the topic of this article may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Published here by the gracious permission of the author, this post originally appeared in Beauty in Education.

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7 replies to this post
  1. Very good article in principle, but I strongly disagree with the conclusion that Christians and Muslims should be allies in any fight. Muslims hate God just as much as rationalists. Any correspondence their beliefs have with the truth, is only on the surface. There is no inner conviction that is needed for true and virtuous action.

  2. I am aware of the general disrepute that voluntarism is in these days, but surely freedom to will what God wants isn't the whole story. Surely there are some choices that are morally neutral, say, whether I have penne or spaghetti for dinner. Plus, the Pinkaers/Thomist view requires one to know God's will for every decision in order to be truly free.

  3. One problem is conservative Christians so often criticise Islam based, partially at least, on premises that liberal in origin. This is very much evident in arguments and the right of women and such things.

    Now, this is not to say the Islamic position is correct in all such arguments, but simply that the arguments of these conservatives so often utilise perspectives that fundamentally anti-traditional and anti-Christian.

    Take the issue of women. Now it may well be correct that Muslims (although their views on women's rights are far from uniform, and the more Saudi/Salafi ideology is actually a modernist influenced fundamentalism) take an incorrect position. However, when conservatives argue from a position that, implicitly at least, is built around privileging the worldly (and this is really the issue, at heart Muslims tend to always reason about these things, from the perspective of what is eternal, whereas even many modern, Western conservatives are too quick to give worldly considerations a central place) autonomy of women (to dress as they like, to equality, and that sort of thing) over their freedom in God and the place of spirituality in general, then they are dangerous grounds.

    Dr. Nasr must rank as one of the most insightful contemporary philosophers (though he is, obviously, fundamentally engaged in a different vocation to most of those in modern philosophy departments). His Knowledge and the Sacred is one outstanding. It is could to see a mature commentary on the relationship of Islam to Christianity.

  4. a seminal point is that rights are not so broadly or universally ascribed under Islam, say for rich or poor or men and women. Afghans say the same rule for lions and lambs is justice for neither

  5. As much as I admire many of the publications on this website, I strongly disagree with this article on its points regarding the nature of rights contrasted against the nature of virtue. Governments have an obligatory duty towards God Himself to enact just laws for their people, and so to legally provide for the "freedom of the supermarket shopper", as well as for the "freedom of the saint".

    On the other hand, "freedom of the saint", in the only context which can mean anything at all to the devout Christian, must first and foremost mean a person's freedom to share, and live out, the Christian Gospel. After that freedom is secured, next in priority is one's freedom of worshipping God, and to seek after His Truth as the conscience of the seeker demands. Islam, doctrinally and historically, has been an anathema to those freedoms.

    What happens, for example, if a moslem commits apostasy in his (or her) own search for the worship of the True God? Islam's doctrinal track record on the point has decidedly not been an unbloodied affair… So under the islamic framework, the concept of "rights" is not synonymous to, nor friendly towards, the concept of "freedom" (not even the "freedom of the saint").

    Is it a good thing to know the underlying "how?" and "why?" of an ideological opponent's views on the world? Certainly! Just so long as fundamentally contrary viewpoints are not confused for being conciliatory ones… If we remember that the islamic concept of "rights" are generally incongruous with the fundamental principles of "freedom", this article may even serve as a useful conversational tool.

  6. I think it important to distinguish the rationalist notion of rights from the idea of rights that lies at the heart of English and American tradition, arising from the medieval Church's incorporation of Roman law into the Gospel message. It is the sense of right which the Church strove guard for herself against secular encroachments. It is equivalent to a licit liberty to act and to use; it is not “freedom for excellence” as Pinckaers describes, yet neither is it indifferent, for it recognizes proper uses vs. abuses.

    This sense of right is found in important chapters of the Magna Charta:

    “We have granted to God…that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable.”

    “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions… except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”

    I highly recommend reading Brian Tierney’s book, The Idea of Natural Rights, before we jettison this precious idea upon which our political freedoms are based.

    And if a proud father may be permitted to quote his son’s senior thesis, from which I learned much, I will share his conclusion about the advancement made by the American founding’s emphasis on the traditional notion of rights:

    Thus, the American notion of rights is a clear descendant of the Medievals’, although the place which rights hold in American society is different. The Americans make subjective rights the immediate end of government while still retaining justice, or virtuous interaction among the citizens, as the overarching goal. The protection of subjective rights, rather than being present by implication in their laws, is the foundation of the entire American system. “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” This was not the way of Aristotle, in the Politics, or St. Thomas, in On Kingship, who defined the end of government as, first and foremost, the common good and by extension the rights of the people, where the common good, since it is found only in societies of men, is primarily the presence of the best sort of justice in and among the citizens.
    However, as Tocqueville reminds us, their emphasis on the notion of natural right, whatever else it may do, has advanced the Americans beyond the ancients precisely in terms of justice. “The most profound and vast geniuses of Rome and Greece were never able to arrive at the idea, so general but at the same time so simple, of the similarity of men and of the equal right to freedom that each bears from birth.”

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