Lecture: Islam & Human Rights

On April 30th, 2009, Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina of the University of Virginia spoke on the topic of Islam and Human Rights at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California. This event was the third in the series, Faith in Human Rights, which is sponsored by the Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology with partners from the Graduate Theological Union, Masjidul Waritheen, and Congregation Beth El. The series purpose, which also featured lectures on Christianity and Judaism in Human Rights, was to study and dialogue about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN Human Rights Treaties and the human rights work of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Notes from lecture:

  • It is common belief that human rights are often violated by those in the religious community because they refuse to recognize the human rights of those outside of their community. It is this belief that kept the collaborators/writers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 from getting entangled with such religious communities when preparing the document. Religious representatives were not invited, though some were present.
  • The media/press often criticizes Muslim societies for their violations of human rights. A question arises: How should religion be part of the human rights discourse? Should it?
  • Dr. Sachedina wants to increase awareness of human dignity. Increase awareness for all those inside and outside of Islam, for the women, the children, the minorities, etc.
  • Sharia is discriminatory, which is a fundamental problem with Muslim law:
    • Sharia is not compatible with human rights.
    • Sharia sees a difference between believers and non-believers
    • Sharia discriminates against women
      • Ex: Case in Saudi Arabia where man has right to sell women. Can selling of women be ok in Sharia? Yes, but the real question that should be asked: Is the selling of women endorsed by religion? No.

Is it Sharia that is responsible for this? Or is it Muslims that have imputed/interpreted Sharia that makes this case? Have they interpreted Sharia to uphold the values of human rights? Or does it have to do with the culture in which Sharia is being used that determines what is and is not right?

  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was secularly conceived with universality in mind. Dr. Sachedina objects that religion is not taken seriously by the secular and traditionalists of human rights. Why should they be afraid to entangle themselves with religion?
  • We are looking for universal values. Rights = unconditional entitlements. As moral agents we know right from wrong. Human dignity = the respect we can expect to receive as being a member of the human family.
  • Dr. Sachedina referred to past legal systems that were challenged, and why legal systems can and should be challenged.
    • Sharia should be challenged!  We need to look at the foundational sources. Is anyone looking at the Qur’an? Muslims did not/do not study theology. Iranians do, but nowhere else do you find Muslims studying theology. They have separated theology from the law. But it is there that we need to be looking.
    • Some societies have institutionalized discrimination because of how they read the Qur’an. Why is it that when some read the Qur’an, they see it as taking dignity away? And yet we hear from Mohammed that the person with dignity is the most pious.
    • If you go to the theology of Qur’an, you will come out for human rights. It has essential teachings about human dignity. The more you go to Sharia, the more you are confined. Sharia defines just three groups of people: believers, non-believers, and people of the book. The teachings of the Qur’an on human dignity need to be recaptured!
    • If you were to ask those who debate Sharia: Can people negotiate their spiritual destiny? They would say yes. But if the answer is yes, then why are those outside the Muslim community not tolerated, or treated as second class? Human rights mean the equality of all citizens. So the distinction between believers and nonbelievers is fundamentally discriminatory.
  • When Dr. Sachedina worked on the Iraqi Constitution a few years ago, he argued that because citizenship is a missing concept in Sharia, because no such vocabulary exists, the idea of citizenship is not accepted. When it was suggested the Iraqi constitution be based on Sharia, he asked: Whose sharia? The Sunni Sharia – Shiia Sharia – etc? Also, if the constitution is based on Sharia, then who will be considered a citizen? Dr. Sachedina argues that the constitution can only have Sharia values, not its actually corpus, if you want everyone to be citizens.
  • Secularist and traditionalist of human rights are not asking the right questions. In order to protect human rights, we need to answer: Why do we deserve these rights? Why must they be protected? Why just human rights, not animal rights, planet rights, etc?
    • The secularist are not asking the right questions, and so the religious communities are not convinced. They are suspicious of the language used in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They need foundational arguments, such as recognition of God’s image.
    • We must recognize human nature, before we can demand human rights. The Qur’an says all humans are endowed with human nature, not just Muslims, but all humans.  By nature we know right from wrong, so by nature we should ask Why?
  • Politics is a human institution. It is not part of religion. The Qur’an says humans’ purpose is to seek justice. Justice must always be strived for. The purpose of government is to guarantee justice and fairness. Humans must create institutions that strive for justice, which means human rights.
    • Conformity with Muslim faith is not required to enjoy the fruits of justice. The Qur’an says “Justice is for everyone!”
    • Qur’an says “Give them the message and then leave them alone! Actual guidance is done by God.” This functional secularity is part of Islam. Religious people can recognize the validity of other’s rights/approach to salvation. We can recognize their right to believe what they want. Qur’an says, “There is no compulsions in the matter of faith.”
    • Governance is not tied with faith, and according to the Qur’an, unjust governments will not last. Government must be held accountable for what it does.

Abdulaziz Sachedina, Ph.D., is Frances Myers Ball Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virgina, Charlottesville. Dr. Sachedina, who has studied in India, Iraq, Iran, and Canada, obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. He has been conducting research and writing in the field of Islamic Law, Ethics, and Theology (Sunni and Shiite) for more than two decades.

In the last ten years he has concentrated on social and political ethics, including Interfaith and Intrafaith Relations and Islamic Biomedical Ethics. Dr. Sachedina’s publications include: Islamic Messianism (State University of New York, 1980); Human Rights and the Conflicts of Culture, co-authored (University of South Carlolina, 1988); The Just Ruler in Shiite Islam (Oxford University Press, 1988); The Prolegomena to the Qur’an (Oxford University Press, 1998), The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism (Oxford University Press, 2002), Islamic Biomedical Ethics: Theory and Practice (Oxford University Press, 2008), Reform through Human Rights: Islamic Political Theology (Oxford University Press, 2009), in addition to numerous articles in academic journals. He is an American citizen born in Tanzania.