Islam and Human Rights

By Hakkan Suslu

Hakan Suslu discusses the different interpretations of Islam and the Qur'an and how they relate to human rights - Can they be reconciled? Is there any necessary conflict between them

Islam, like any religious tradition, can be interpreted in different ways depending on whether the people interpreting it support human rights, democracy, and respect among different communities, or want to justify oppression, authoritarianism, and violence, depending on the choices and actions of Muslims everywhere.

Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

The right to life, is among the most basic and fundamental human rights and which modern constitutions are meant to protect. Article 3 is concerned with the inviolability of human life. The Qur’an and Islam though, despite Al Qa’ida and critics of Islam, can be interpreted in ways which guarantee the right to life.

We are witnessing an increase in the number of terrorist networks and attacks around the world. Many terrorist networks with different goals exist, however , some of them regarded as being Islamic by most people of the world and the word Islam added next to the hate motivated actions of terrorists.

Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist network also never hesitated to claim that they are acting upon Islamic faith and accordingly Islam has been seen as a violent religion and Muslims regarded as crazed fanatics. However, the Qur'an expresses the sanctity and absolute value of human life. Life is seen as among the biggest gifts granted by Allah. The existence of life itself is a trust for every man and woman to utilize and it is the basis of rights and duties. Therefore Islam regards life as a trust to human beings and does not allow life to be taken by any form of killing, suicide or murder.

If someone kills another person - unless it is in retaliation for someone else or for causing corruption in the earth - it is:

“as if he had murdered all mankind.”

Thus, this verse has a firm order that prohibits human life to be taken, and a regards murder as murdering all mankind. Although this verse sends a clear message against murder, it can be also considered to open the gates to take life in retaliation for murder or for spreading corruption on this earth.

Today in most Islamic states in which Sharia law is applied there is a right to take life in retaliation for murder in the form of a death penalty for some crimes. (However it should be noted that in many non-Islamic states, such as many states in the USA, Japan etc. the death penalty also exists.) However whether the Qur’an advocates the death penalty for murder or not depends on the interpretation of the verses.

First of all, the Qur'an does not impose an absolute duty on Muslims to kill another person in retaliation for murder – or to make the death penalty part of Sharia law. The Qur'an states that retaliation or killing is permitted in certain circumstances such as in the case of self-defence in a war.

“And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits, surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits”.

Secondly, the Qur'an does not necessarily give the right to individuals but to the proper and competent courts to decide killing for retaliations.

Finally the Qur'an states: .

“if anyone gives life to another person, it is as if he had given life to all mankind”

There can be many ways to give life to another person. Giving food to a starving person, saving someone from drowning, applying emergency first aid to someone who is having a heart attack, helping an ill or wounded soldier or saving his life by not killing him, forgiving him. The following verse also has the most basic and firm order about human life's inviolability: .

“do not slay the soul, which Allah has forbidden” .

Therefore human life is sacred in Islam and Muslims are obliged by the Qur’an to respect the inviolability of human life. The Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) also re-affirmed the holiness of human life in his farewell speech by stating that the persons are sacred.

Hakkan Suslu is a postgraduate student at the University of Glasgow

Email Hakkan Suslu