human rights

Why Islam and Muslims Didn’t Need a Human Rights Revolution

When reading about the history of human rights in the West, numerous authors emphasize how it was a reaction to the extremes of governmental power. Europe had gone through a long history of both church control and the concept of the divine right of kings.

In Islam, as is not uncommon when comparing Christianity with Islam, the situation was very different because Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, as opposed to Prophet Jesus, was also the head of a government. Thus, from the outset, the rules of good governance were laid down by the Prophet ﷺ himself and followed by his Companions afterward.

From the outset, obedience to the ruler was conditional upon obedience to God. Hence, the limits of the ruler were already set and established. In fact, when a military leader during the time of the Prophet ﷺ went too far in his demands on his soldiers, the Prophet ﷺ clearly stated, “There is to be no obedience to a created being if it involves disobedience to Allah.”[1]

O Allah, if anyone is in charge of anything for my Ummah and he is harsh upon them, then be harsh upon him…

Thus, the ruler is not free to demand any more than what the Law has given him. Furthermore, the ruler must realize that he is bound to the citizens and must act in their best interests. The Prophet ﷺ prayed to God, “O Allah, if anyone is in charge of anything for my Ummah and he is harsh upon them, then be harsh upon him. And if anyone is in charge of anything for my Ummah and he is gentle upon them, then be gentle with him.”[2]

The Prophet ﷺ also said, “The just will be with Allah upon pulpits of light to the right of the Merciful, and both of His hands are right hands. They are the ones who are just with respect to rulings, people and what they are in charge of.”[3] The Prophet ﷺ also, “No one is given charge of the affairs of the Muslims except that if he does not strive on their behalf and act sincerely toward them, then he will not enter Paradise with them.”[4]

The early caliphs followed the guidance of the Prophet ﷺ and set the example for all who should come later, including today. Abu Bakr, the close Companion to the Prophet ﷺ, was the first caliph in Islam. His inaugural speech is probably well-known to all students of Islamic history. In it, he stated,

“O people, I have indeed been appointed over you, though I am not the best among you. If I do well, then help me; and if I act wrongly, then correct me. Truthfulness is synonymous with fulfilling the trust, and lying is tantamount to treachery. The weak among you is deemed strong by me, until I return to them that which is rightfully theirs, Allah Willing. And the strong among you is deemed weak by me, until I take from them what is rightfully (someone else’s), Allah willing.… Obey me so long as I obey Allah and His Messenger. And if I disobey Allah and His Messenger, then I have no right to your obedience.”[5]

The following anecdote demonstrates Umar’s, the second caliph, view of the ruler:

Umar stood up and delivered a speech in which he said: “O people, whoever among you sees any crookedness in me, let him straighten it.” A man stood up and said: “By Allah, if we see any crookedness in you, we will straighten it with our swords.” ‘Umar said: “Praise be to Allah Who has put in this ummah people who will straighten the crookedness of ‘Umar with their swords.”[6]

As is said, “Power corrupts.” Throughout Islamic history, rulers have exploited their power and position—although perhaps not like those who believed in the Divine Right of kings, as in Europe. However, scholars continually took it upon themselves to at least attempt to correct them and to use any leverage that they could against them.

They had some solid [ground] to rest their complaints upon that gave them great legitimacy: The fundamental teachings of the religion of Islam. Obviously, Islam does not call for revolting against legitimate rulers and there is also a proper etiquette to be followed when correcting them. But it does call for attempting to restrain the rulers and guiding them back to the straight path.

For this reason, Islam has a rich history of scholars standing up to the rulers on behalf of the masses and demanding that the rulers give the people their rights—even though they may not have referred to them as “human rights.”

A classic example is that of al-Nawawi, who wrote and spoke directly to the rulers on a number of cases. His advice and words have been well-documented and preserved. In reality, though, he was simply one among a large number of such scholars.[7]

Excerpted from Human Rights in Islam


[1] Recorded by Ahmad, al-Tabaraani and others. Another narration is, “…if it involves disobedience to the Creator.” According to al-Albaani and Shuaib al-Arnaaoot, it is authentic. See Silsilat al-Ahaadeeth al-Saheehah, vol. 1, p. 297; Musnad Ahmad, #1095.
[2] Recorded by Muslim.
[3] Recorded by Muslim.
[4] Recorded by Muslim.
[5] Quoted in Ali al-Sallaabee, The Biography of Abu Bakr As-Siddeeq (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Daar al-Salaam, 2007), p. 246.
[6] Al-Sallabi, p. 213.
[7] For a history of the relationship between the scholars and the rulers, see Abdul Azeez al-Badri, al-Islaam bain al-Ulamaa wa al-Hukkaam (Madinah, Saudi Arabia: al-Maktabah al-Ilmiyyah, n.d.).

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