As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the U.N. proclamation of Human Rights and celebrate the life of human rights champion Nelson Mandela, I cannot help but reflect on the core values of human rights as revealed in Islam 1,435 years ago.
Historically, man has always struggled to ensure human dignity and equity without discrimination and bias. The message of Islam, on the other hand, has consistently and universally promoted human rights and freedoms as fundamental for human development.
In Islam, the origins and implications of human rights are supported by the revelations in the Qur'an, God's promise and message to all of mankind. The Qur'an is meant to be universal, and clearly speaks to all of humanity: "O mankind! We have created you from a single (pair) of male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is the most pious of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things)" [49:13].
Whether mankind chooses to listen to the Qur'an, more often than not depends on man's God-given right to choose.
This single Qur'anic verse is testament alone to the foundation of diversity and pluralism in Islam. It is important to note that in the above mentioned verse, God is addressing all of mankind not just one kind; stating that all of humanity is one, created by the One. Thereby, declaring the sovereignty of our God-given human rights, universal and timeless, regardless of race, gender, wealth, language, national origin, color or creed. No legislator, dictator, or other affiliations, religious or otherwise, can take these rights away from us; they have no authority to amend them or withhold them.
So where does this leave the followers of Islam?
Well, based on the teachings of Islam, every Muslim should be a champion of human rights, because human rights principles, as per the Qur'an, must underpin a Muslim's daily life, since the Qur'an teaches us how to respond to the needs of the most marginal and vulnerable people. In the words of Prophet Muhammad: "You do not truly believe until you love for your brother what you love for yourself." The fact is, Islam inspires mankind to create a society in which there is acknowledgement of the need for human dignity and respect for one another. Ironically, the basic human right to acquire education is so often withheld in the name of the religion that is so rooted in education. Sadly, it is the absence of education that has prevented the teachings of human rights in Islam, and its practical applications to human beings to be totally neglected.
Time and again, human beings with various beliefs, in various forms and capacities, have continued to violate human rights across the world. Although the reality of Islam is not to be single-minded, the integration of nations through the process of globalization has brought to light the confusion and conflict people face in accepting pluralism. Unfortunately, the word of God is lost in the language of cultural interpretations, which fails to understand the Islamic perspective in realizing that discrimination and bias are counterproductive to equity and justice. Therein misrepresenting Islam.
In other words, any person or nation that does not respect diversity and pluralism does not respect Islam's view for social justice.
No wonder the issue of human rights and equity, as per Sharia, is one of the most misrepresented and least understood issues of our times, because the Qur'anic view, as per the teachings of Islam, is absent. The problem is further enhanced by ideologies that project their sense of juristic interpretations, as if they were synonymous with the Word of God, leaving behind the primary sources of Islam: the Qur'an and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad. Failing to acknowledge that full equality and equity of all human beings before God is beyond doubt.
Nonetheless, the promotion and protection of human rights, as revealed by the Qur'an, rests upon mankind. God has entrusted each and every human being (not just Muslims) with the responsibility of being his trustee on earth, to prevent harm and stand up for justice:
O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor; for God can best protect both. Follow not the desires (of your hearts); lest you swerve, and if you distort justice or decline to justice, verily God is well acquainted with all that you do. [4:135]
When examined, the revelations in the Qur'an, and Prophet Muhammad's example in creating the first written constitution in the world, known as the Medina Charter in the year 622 A.D., should inspire those with understanding to establish a moral code of justice. One that is inclusive of everyone's respective rights, diversity and plurality, without compulsion, with justice, equality and freedom for all. The Qur'anic view of human rights frees human beings from the bondage of traditionalism, authoritarianism (religious, political, economic, or any other), tribalism, racism, sexism, slavery or anything else that prohibits or inhibits human beings from experiencing God's vision of human dignity and respect as embodied in Islam.
As Nelson Mandela so profoundly said: "No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."
As we remember the positive words and work of people like Nelson Mandela, let's not forget the negative impact of words and works of hate used as a weapon to discredit an entire religion such as Islam -- not to protect its people, but to attack them, to cause fear and hate, to discriminate. Many people today lack the balance of understanding the right to express one's opinion and beliefs and the right to be attacked and undermined to the extent that it affects an individual or group's capacity to be human and to be active participants in society. Relatively speaking, such views tend to come from those who are unlikely to bear the brunt of such bias themselves, and therefore unable to appreciate the extent to which they can cause real harm. On this Human Rights Day, I want to celebrate Islam's affirmation of our fundamental rights, as they are so deeply rooted in our humanness, denial of which leads to the path opposite of Islam. Simply said, these rights came into existence when we did; they were created as we were, by God in order that our human potential could be realized. Rights created or given by God cannot be abolished by any temporal ruler, theocracy or human agency, because they are eternal and immutable.