Basic human rights

1. The Right To Life

The first and foremost basic right is the right to life. The Holy Quran lays down:

Whosoever kills a human being (without any reason like) man-slaughter, or corruption on earth, it is thought he had killed all mankind. (5:32)

The propriety of taking life in retaliation for murder or for spreading corruption can be decided only by a competent court of law. During a war it can be decided only by a properly established government. In any event, Quran makes clear:

Do not kill a soul which Allah has made sacred except through the due process of law. (6:151)

Homicide is thus distinguished from destruction of life carried out in the pursuit of justice. The Prophet, blessings of Allah and peace be upon him, has declared homicide as the greatest sin after polytheism. A Tradition of the Prophet reads: The greatest sins are to associate something with Allah and to kill human beings.

In all these verses of the Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet the word 'soul' (nafs) has been used in general terms without any indication that citizens belonging to one's own nation or the people of a particular race or religion should not be killed. The injunction applies to all human beings.

The 'Right to Life' has been given to man as a whole only by Islam. You will observe that reference to human rights in constitutions or declarations in many countries clearly implies that these rights are applicable only to the citizens of that country or to the white race. For example, human beings were hunted down like animals in Australia and the land was cleared of the aborigines for the white man. Similarly, the aboriginal population of America was systematically destroyed and the Red Indians who somehow survived this genocide were confined to reservations. In Africa human beings were also hunted down like wild animals. Contrary to this partial concept of human rights, Islam recognizes such rights for all human beings.

2. The Right To The Safety Of Life

Immediately after the verse in the Holy Qur’an which has been mentioned in connection with the right to life, Allah says:

And whoever saves a life it is as though he had saved the lives of all mankind. (5:32)

There can be several forms of saving man from death. If a man is ill or wounded it is your duty to get him medical help. If he is dying f starvation, it is your duty for feed him. If he is drowning, it is your duty to rescue him. We regard it as our duty to save every human life, because it is thus that we have been enjoined in the Holy Quran.

3. Respect For The Chastity Of Women

The third important element in the Charter of Human Rights granted by Islam is that a woman's chastity must be respected and protected at all times, whether she belongs to one's own nation or to the nation of an enemy, whether we find her in a remote forest or in a conquered city, whether she is our co-religionist or belongs to some other religion or has no religion at all. A Muslim may not physically abuse her under any circumstances. All promiscuous relationships are forbidden to him, irrespective of the status or position of the woman or of whether she is a willing partner to the act.

The words of the Holy Quran in this respect are: Do not approach (the bounds) of adultery (17:32). Heavy punishment has been prescribed for this crime, and no mitigating circumstances are indicated. Since the violation of the chastity of a woman is forbidden in Islam, a Muslim who perpetrates this crime cannot escape punishment-whether he receives it in this world or in the Hereafter.

This concept of the sanctity of chastity and the protection of women can be found nowhere else except in Islam. The armies of the Western powers need the daughters of their own nations to satisfy their carnal appetites even in their own countries, and if they happen to occupy another county, the fate of its womenfolk can better be imagined than described.

But the history of the Muslim, apart from individual lapses, has been free from this crime against womanhood. It has never happened that after the conquest of a foreign country the Muslim army has gone about raping the women of the conquered people, or, in their own country, the government has arranged to provide prostitutes for them.

4. The Right To A Basic Standard Of Life

Speaking about economic rights, the Holy Quran enjoins its followers:

And in their wealth there is acknowledge right for the needy and destitute.(51:12)

The wording of this injunction shows that it is categorical and unqualified. Furthermore, this injunction was given in Makkah where there was no Muslim society in existence and where the Muslim came in contact mostly with disbelievers.

The clear meaning of this verse is that anyone who asks for help and anyone who is suffering from deprivation has a right to share in the property and wealth of a Muslim; irrespective of whether he belongs to this or to that nation, to this or to that country, to this or to that race. If one is in a position to help and a needy person asks for help or if one comes to know that he is in need, then it is one's duty to help him.

5. The Individual's Right To Freedom

Islam has categorically forbidden the primitive practice of capturing a free man to make him a slave or to sell him into slavery. On this point the unequivocal words of the Prophet (blessings of Allah and peace be upon him) are as follows: There are three categories of people against whom I shall myself be a plaintiff on the Day of Judgment . Of these three, one is he who enslaves a free man, then sells him and eats this money (Bukhari and Ibn Maja).

The words of this Tradition of the Prophet have not been qualified or restricted to a particular nation or race, or to followers of a particular religion. The Europeans take great pride in claiming that they abolished slavery from the world, though they had the decency to do so only in the middle of the last century. Before this, the Western powers had been raiding Africa on a very large scale, capturing free men, putting them in bondage and transporting them to their new colonies. The treatment which they meted out to these unfortunate people was worse than that given to animals. Accounts in Western books themselves bear testimony to this fact.

The Slave Trade Of Western Nations

After the occupation of America and the West Indies, traffic in slave trade continued for three hundred and fifty years. The African ports where the Africans were brought from the interior and put on ships came to be known as the Slave Coast. In the course of only one century (from 1680 to 1786) the total number of free people who were captured and enslaved for the British Colonies amounts, according to the estimate of British authors, to 20 million. We are told that in the year 1790, 75,000 human beings were captured and sent for slave labour in the colonies. The ships which were used for transporting the slaves were small and dirty. These unfortunate Africans were thrust into the holds like cattle and many of them were chained, one on top of the other, to wooden shelves on which they could hardly move because they were only eighteen inches apart. They were not given proper food, and if they fell ill or were injured, no attempt was made to provide them with medical treatment.

Western writers themselves state that at least 20 per cent of the total number of people who were captured for slavery and forced labour perished while being transported from Africa to America. It has also been estimated that the total number of people who were captured for slavery by the various European nations during the heyday of the slave trade was at least one hundred million. This is the record of the people who denounce Muslims for recognizing the institution of slavery. It is as if a criminal is pointing the finger of blame at an innocent man.

The Position Of Slavery In Islam

Islam tried to solve the problem of the slaves that were already in Arabia by encouraging people to set them free. Muslims were told that freeing slaves would mean the expiation of some of their sins. Freeing a slave of one's own free will was declared to be an act of such great merit that the limbs of the man who manumitted a slave would be protected from hell-fire-one for each limb of the slave freed.

The result of this policy was that , by the time the period of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs was reached, all the old slaves of Arabia had been liberated. The Prophet (blessings of Allah and peace be upon him) alone liberated as many as 63 slaves. The number of slaves freed by A'isha was 67, Abbasliberated 70, Umar liberated one thousand and Abd al-Rahmnpurchased thirty thousand and set them free. Other Companions of the Prophet liberated a large number of slaves, the details of which are given in the Traditions and books of history of that period.

The problem of the slaves of Arabia was thus solved in under 40 years. After this the only slaves left in Islamic society were prisoners of war captured on the battlefield. These were kept by the Muslim government in question until their own government agreed to receive them back in exchange for Muslim soldiers they captured by them or arranged the payment of ransom on their behalf. If the soldiers they captured were not exchanged for Muslim prisoners of war, or their people did not pay their ransom money to purchase their liberty, the Muslim government distributed them among the soldiers of the army which had captured them.

This was a more humane way of disposing of them than penning them like cattle in concentration camps and taking forced labour from them and, if their womenfolk were also captured, setting them aside for prostitution. Islam preferred to spread them through the population and thus being them in contact with individual human beings. Their guardians, in addition, were ordered to treat them well.

The result of this policy was that most of the men who were captured on foreign battlefields and brought to the Muslim countries as slaves embraced Islam and their descendants produced great scholars, imams, jurists, commentators, statesmen and generals. So much so that later they became rulers of the Muslim world.

Today, prisoners of war throughout the world are exchanged on the cessation of hostilities. This is a practice which has been learnt from Islam. But treating well prisoners who cannot, for one reason or another, be exchanged, has not been learnt. Can anyone tell us, for example, the fate of the thousands of prisoners of war captured by Russia from the defeated armies of Germany and Japan in the Second World War? No one knows how many thousands of them are still alive and how many thousands of them perished due to the hardships of the Russian concentration and labour camps. It is doubtful if, even in the times of the ancient Pharaohs of Egypt, such harsh labour was exacted from the slaves who built the pyramids as was exacted from the prisoners of war in Russia who developed Siberia and other backward areas of the country.

6. The Right To Justice

This is a very important and valuable right which Islam has given to man. The Holy Quran has laid down: Do not let your hatred of a people incite you to aggression (5:3). And do not let ill-will towards any folk incite you so that you swerve from dealing justly. Be just; that is nearest to heedfulness" (5:8). Stressing this point the Quran again says: You who believe stand steadfast before Allah as witness for (truth and) fair play (4:135).

The point is thus made clear that Muslims have to be just not only to their friends but also their enemies. In other words, the justice to which Islam invites her following is not limited to the citizens of one's own country, or the people of one's own tribe, nation or race, or the Muslim community as a whole; it is meant for all human beings.

7. The Equality Of Human Beings

Islam not only recognizes the principle of absolute equality between men irrespective of colour, race or nationality, it makes it an important reality. Almighty Allah has laid down in the Holy Quran: O mankind, we have created you from a male and female. In other words, all human beings are brothers. They all are the descendants from one father and one mother. And we set you up as nations and tribes so that you may be able to recognize each other (49:13). This means that the division of human beings into nations, races, groups and tribes is for the sake of distinction, so that people of one race or tribe may meet and be acquainted with people belonging to another race or tribe and co-operate with one another.

This division of the human race is neither meant for one nation to take pride in its superiority over others nor for one nation to treat another with contempt. Indeed, the noblest among you before Allah are the most heedful of you (49:13). That is, the superiority of one man over another is only on the basis of Allah-consciousness, purity of character and high morals, and not colour, race, language or nationality. People are therefore not justified in assuming airs of superiority over other human beings. Nor do the righteous have any special privileges over others.

This has been thus exemplified by the Prophet (blessings of Allah and peace be upon him) in one of his sayings: No Arab has any superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over a black man, or the black man any superiority over the white man. You are all the children of Adam, and Adam was created from clay.(Bayhaqi and Bazzaz). In this manner Islam established the principle of equality of the entire human race and struck at the very root of all distinctions based on colour, race, language or nationality.

According to Islam, Allah has given man this right of equality as a birthright. No man should therefore be discriminated against on the grounds of the colour of his skin, his place of birth, the race or the nation in which he was born.

Malcolm X, the leader of African Negroes in America, once launched a bitter struggle against the white people of America in order to win civil rights for his black compatriots. But when he went to perform the pilgrimage, he saw how the Muslims of Asia, Africa, Europe and America were all wearing the same dress and were all hurrying towards the Ka'ba and were offering prayers standing in the same row. He realized that this was the solution to the problem of colour and race, and not what he had been trying to seek or achieve in America. Today, a number of non-Muslim thinkers openly admit that no other religion or way of life has solved this problem with the same degree of success as Islam.

8. The Right To Co-operate And Not To Co-operate

Islam has prescribed a general principle of paramount importance and universal application. The Holy Quran says: Co-operate with one another for virtue and heedfulness and do not co-operate with one another for the purpose of vice and aggression (5:2). This means that the man who undertakes noble and righteous work, irrespective of whether he is living at the North Pole or the South Pole, has the right to expect support and active co-operation from Muslims. But he who practices vice and aggression, even if he is our closest relation or neighbour, does not have the right to our support and help in the name of race, country, language or nationality, nor should he expect Muslims to co-operate with him. The wicked and vicious person may be our own brother, but he is not of us, and he can have no help or support from us as long as he does not repent of his ways. On the other hand, the man who is doing deeds of virtue and righteousness may have no kinship with Muslims, but Muslims will be his companions and supports, or at least his well-wishers.


This is a brief sketch of those rights which 1400 years ago Islam gave to man, to those who were at war with each other and to the citizens of its state. It refreshes and strengthens our faith in Islam when we realize that even in this modern age, which makes such loud claims of progress and enlightenment, the world has not been able to produce more just and equitable laws than those given 1400 years ago. On the other hand, it is saddening to realize that Muslims nonetheless often look for guidance to the West. Even more painful is the realization that, throughout the world, rulers who claim to be Muslims have made disobedience to their Allah and the Prophet the basis and foundation of their government. May Allah have mercy on them and give them true guidance.

This article is based on a talk by Syed Abul Al Maudoodi and has been translated into English by Prof Ahmed Said Khan and Prof Khurshid Ahmad. It was published by the Islamic Foundation, UK.

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