Chapter 14: What is Islam by Dr. Muhammad Sharif Chaudhry



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What is Islam

By Dr. Muhammad Sharif Chaudhry


Human Rights

I- Meaning of Human Rights

II- Basic human rights

III- Prophet’s Farewell Address


I- Meaning of Human Rights

Human rights are the rights and freedoms of all human beings. The expression “human rights” is relatively new, having come into everyday parlance only since World War II and the founding of the United Nations in 1945. It replaces the phrase “natural rights” which fell into disfavour in part because  the concept of natural law (to which it was intimately linked) had become a part of great controversy, and the later phrase “the rights of men”, which was not universally understood to include the rights of women.

Rights are those conditions of social life without which man cannot be at his best or give of his best what is needful to the adequate development and expression of his personality. Looked at from another angle, rights are those opportunities the absence of which deprives man of something essential. A man without rights, absolutely dependent on the caprice of a superior authority, is a slave. Political thought of every community has, therefore, assumed the existence of these rights. Laski in his book “A Grammar of Politics” holds that every state is known by the rights that it maintains. Our method of judging its character lies, above all, in the contribution that it makes to the substance of man.

Human rights are variously called. Sometimes they are called fundamental rights, sometimes they are called civil rights and in reference to freedom from state restrictions they are called civil liberties. However, all these terms have no fixed and uniform definition. Often they are used interchangeably. By fundamental rights we generally understand those rights which are considered inalienable and in no circumstances they can be denied. Such rights are very few but generally they are embodied in constitutional provisions of modern states. They not only guide policy but in fact override any administrative act or legislative enactment contrary to them.

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II- Basic human rights

Before we discuss the human rights granted by Islam, we should keep in mind that the rights given by Islam have been bestowed upon human beings by Allah, the Almighty God of the universe in His Book ‘Al-Qur’an’ and by Muhammad (PBUH) the last Messenger of God and the Prophet of Islam in his Sunnah, and therefore, these rights cannot be violated or abrogated by the Islamic state. These rights even cannot be altered or modified. The Islamic state can only interpret these rights and if it wishes it can grant more rights in accordance with the spirit of Islam, but it cannot suspend them in any circumstance not even in war. On the contrary, the rights granted by the modern non-Muslim states to their citizens (after a long struggle made by the latter) in their constitutions, are altered, modified and even suspended or abrogated by their parliaments, and that is often done on pretext of national emergencies.

List of the fundamental rights and civil liberties granted by Islam to the citizens of the Islamic state is quite exhaustive. It includes among others:

1.    Right to protection of life and person.

2.    Property rights.

3.    Right to personal freedom.

4.    Right to equality.

5.    Right to protection of honour.

6.    Freedom of religion.

7.    Freedom of thought and expression.

8.    Right to basic needs.

9.    Right to Justice.

10.  Right of being heard.

11.  Freedom from responsibility of others’ actions.

12.  Right to freedom of work and profession.

13.  Right to education.

14.  Right to privacy.

15.  Family rights.

16.  Political rights.

However, in this chapter we shall discuss, because of space constraints, only few most important of the above listed rights. It should be kept in view that all the rights granted by Islam are meant for all the male and female citizens of an Islamic state without any discrimination based on gender, race, colour, language, blood, place of birth, caste or creed.

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Right to protection of Life and Person

Of all the things of the world, life of man is no doubt the most valuable. Rights arise because of human life and without that there can be neither state nor rights. Life is, in fact, a trust of Allah and it is our bounden duty to preserve it and to protect it in all circumstances. The right to protection and security of life is, therefore, the most fundamental human right and Islam as the religion of humanity has greatly stressed the sanctity of human life. Al-Qur’an, the revealed book of Islam says, after condemning the first human murder committed by a son of Adam (Cains) who murdered his brother (Abel): “For that cause we decreed for the children of Israel that whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the land, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of the whole mankind ……” (5:32). This verse emphatically asserts that human life is very valuable. It is so valuable that murder of even one individual without justification will be treated as if the whole mankind were killed, and the preservation of the life of a single person will be taken as if the whole human race had been saved. A few other verses of the Qur’an are quoted to emphasise how strongly the murder of a human being has been forbidden by the holy book of Islam.

  • …… And that ye slay not the life which Allah has made sacred, save in the course of justice. This He hath commanded you, in order   that ye may discern.    — (6:151)

  • Slay not your children, fearing a fall to poverty, We shall provide for them and for you. Lo! the slaying of them is a great sin.    — (17:31)

  • And slay not the life which Allah hath forbidden save with right. Whoso is slain wrongfully, We have given power unto his heir, but let him not commit excess in slaying. Lo! he will be helped.    — (17:33)

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Right to Equality

Islam has conferred equal rights on all human beings and no distinction or discrimination is made between man and man on the basis of race, caste, colour, nationality, sex, language, faith or place of birth. It has removed all artificial and man-made barriers and brings all human beings on the same level in social, economic and political areas of life. According to the teachings of Islam, all mankind has sprung from one man and one woman. Just as there is no reason for discrimination between the children of one parents, similarly, it would be absurd to discriminate between man and man or between man and woman on any basis what-so-ever. The Qur’an says: O mankind! Lo! We have created you from a male and a female and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the Sight of Allah, is the best in conduct…..(49:13). Thus all human beings are equal according to the revealed book of Islam and there is no reason why there should be made any distinction between them. However, superiority of one over the other in the Sight of Allah is due to one’s virtues and merits. One who is more pious and righteous would be considered more honourable. The basis of superiority is thus moral excellence and good conduct instead of race, tribe, caste, nationality or colour.

This point was further clarified by the Prophet of Islam by his words and actions. In his famous sermon delivered on the occasion of farewell pilgrimage, he declared: “Verily all the rites and traditions of the period of ignorance are trampled under my feet.” “O people! be aware: your God is One, No Arab has any superiority over a non-Arab, and no non-Arab any superiority over an Arab, and no white one has any superiority over a black one, and no black one any superiority over a white one, except on  the basis of taqwa (piety). The most honourable among you in the Sight of Allah is he who is the most pious and righteous.” Again, according to another tradition, the Prophet said: “You are all the children of Adam, and Adam was created from dust. Let the people give up boasting of their ancestors, otherwise, they will stand more degraded than a mean insect in the Sight of Allah.” Women were not treated well and so the Prophet (PBUH) declared: “Fear Allah in your treatment of women. You have certain rights over them and they have certain rights over you.” About down-trodden people like slaves, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) enjoined upon his followers:” Do justice to your slaves. See that you give them to eat of what you eat and clothe them with what you clothe yourselves.”

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Freedom of Religion

The right to religion and conscience provides every citizen liberty of belief and worship. It means everyone is free to profess and practice any religion he has adopted. He is free to perform the rites connected with his religious beliefs and the state would neither interfere nor prevent him from doing so.

Islam guarantees religious freedom to every individual. In an Islamic state, every citizen is at liberty to profess and practice any religion which he has chosen. It is the fundamental right of an individual in an Islamic state to follow any religion and perform worship and rituals according to his religious beliefs. The state does not interfere in religious matters and shows complete tolerance to those who profess and practice religions other than Islam though the religion of majority is Islam. Even the Muslim citizens are not allowed to interfere in the religious matters of non-Muslims or obstruct them from following or practicing their religion. The Qur’an, the revealed book of Islam, says:

  • There is no compulsion in religion…….. (2:256)

  • Say: O disbelievers! I worship not that which ye worship; Nor worship ye that which I worship. And I shall not worship that which ye worship. Nor will ye worship that which I worship. Unto you your religion and unto me my religion.   (109:1-6)

The above mentioned verses show that there is no compulsion in the matters of religion in an Islamic state. Everybody is free to follow and practice his religion on the basis of the Qur’anic principle: “Unto you your religion and unto me my religion.” It is because everyone is responsible for his own actions before God and none is accountable for the actions of others. Hence nobody can be forced to embrace Islam.

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Right to Protection of Property and Honour

Property rights include right to earn and acquire property, right to own, possess and enjoy property, and finally the right to alienate it through sale, gift, exchange, will or through other lawful means. Islam recognized all these rights to property and granted the same to its followers some fourteen hundred years ago.

Islam allows an individual to acquire property, movable or immovable, through lawful means. He can earn as much wealth as he can through his knowledge, skill, experience and effort. The Qur’an says: “…… unto men a fortune from that which they have earned, and unto women a fortune from that which they have earned …” (4:32). At another place, it says: “….. And that man hath only that for which he maketh effort. And that his effort will be seen. And afterward he will be repaid for it with fullest payment……” (53:39-41). Thus there is no restriction or limit on acquiring of property provided it is acquired through permitted, fair, moral and legal means. In the Islamic state, no body is allowed to earn and acquire wealth and property or earn livelihood through unlawful and prohibited (Haram) means. The Qur’an says: “And eat not up your property among yourselves in vanity, nor seek by it to gain the hearing of judges that ye may knowingly devour a portion of the property of others wrongfully.” (2:188). At another place it exhorts the believers not to usurp each other’s wealth by unlawful means by saying: “O ye who believe! Squander not your wealth among yourselves in vanity, except it be a trade by mutual consent, and kill not yourselves. Lo! Allah is ever Merciful unto you” (4:29).

The right to protection of honour means that each citizen of the state, irrespective of his race, colour, faith, property, sex or status, possesses honour, dignity and self-respect, and that it should not be violated by any individual or even by the state. In Islam right to honour and self-respect is inviolable. It is the duty of an Islamic state to protect the honour of its citizens. It cannot pass any law or do any act which ridicules or humiliates or brings any dishonour to any of its citizens. The state has also an obligation to protect the honour and dignity of its citizens from others. The duty is also obligatory on every member of the Muslim Ummah not to degrade or humiliate any other one who is his brother.

The Qur’an says: “O ye who believe! Let not a folk deride a folk who may be better than they (are), nor let women (deride) women who may be better than they are; neither defame one another, nor insult one another by nicknames. Bad is the name of lewdness after faith. And whoso turneth not in repentance, such are evil-doers. O ye who believe! Shun much suspicion for lo! some suspicion is a crime. And spy not, neither backbite one another. Would one of you love to eat the flesh of his dead brother? Ye abhor that (so abhor the other)! And keep your duty (to Allah). Lo! Allah is Relenting, Merciful.” (49:11-12)

The Prophet of Islam in his famous farewell address which was delivered by him in his last pilgrimage, said: “O people! Surely your blood, your property and your honour are as sacred and inviolable as the inviolability of this day of yours, this month of yours and this very town of yours. Surely you will soon meet your Lord and you will be held answerable for your actions.”

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Right to Basic Needs

Another right which has been greatly stressed in Islam is that of provision of basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter to every individual. It is an essential right of every person that he should be provided with these basic human needs for him and his family if he is unable to earn and arrange them due to any disability. The individual has a legal right to demand from the state that it should fulfil its obligations of providing him with a livelihood before it demands obedience from him. This is one of the fundamental rights of a citizen of an Islamic state that he should be provided with the basic necessities of life.

Islamic state has been vested with the right to collect Zakat from its well-to-do citizens, to collect Ushr, to collect Khums from spoils of war, to acquire Fai properties and, above all, to collect Jizyah and Kharaj so that adequate sources should be available at her disposal for meeting its expenditure and for providing basic needs to the poor and the distressed who are unable to provide for themselves. Following verses of the Qur’an throw light on the purpose of Zakat, alms (Sadaqat), spoils of war, etc, which are collected by the Islamic state:-

  • And know that whatever ye take as spoils of war, lo! a fifth thereof is for Allah, and for the Messenger and for the kinsman (who hath need) and orphans and the needy and the wayfarer………. (8:41)

  • The alms (Zakat) are only for the poor and the needy and those who collect them and those whose hearts are to be reconciled and to free the captives and the debtors, and for the cause of Allah, and for the wayfarers;  (9:60)

  • That which Allah giveth as spoils unto His messenger from the people of the townships, it is for Allah and His Messenger, and for the near of him and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer that it become not a commodity between the rich among you…….   (59:7)

The duties of the Islamic state towards the poor and the needy have been further elaborated by the Prophet of Islam in his following sayings:-

  • Allah has made Zakat obligatory upon the Muslims. It is to be collected from the wealthy among you and distributed among the needy ones.

  • The government is the guardian of anyone who has no other guardian.

  • When anyone dies in debt or leaves behind dependants unprovided for, the latter should come to me because I am their guardian (as head of state)

  • If anybody dies while he owes a debt and does not leave behind any property for its payment then the responsibility for its payment is mine (as head of the state). But if anyone leaves any property behind, it is for his heirs.

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Political Rights

Modern democratic states give to their citizens political rights like the right to vote, the right to be elected, the right to seek a public office, the right to criticize the government, etc. All these rights have been granted by Islam to the citizens of the Islamic state. The same are discussed in the following paragraphs:-

One of the attributes of the believers, according to the Qur’an (42:38) is that their affairs are a matter of counsel. This verse is very important in the socio-political life of Islam. It is of great constitutional significance and has laid down the foundations of Islamic democracy. According to the Qur’an the believers are to decide their matters with mutual consultation and no autocrat or dictator or despot has the authority to decide for them or impose his decision on them. The believers, men as well as women, have equal rights to participate, to discuss and decide their matters regarding social, public and political issues. In the matters where the Prophet of Islam did not receive any guidance from Allah through revelation he used to consult his companions. Matters regarding Jihad, the social or political life of the community were decided with mutual consultations by the Prophet (PBUH). Men and women both were consulted and many such incidents have been reported in the compilations of Ahadith and books of Islamic history.

This idea of mutual consultation lead to the establishment of Shura or consultative body in the early days of Islam and can lead to the right of vote, election of representative, establishment of parliaments and election of the heads of Islamic republics in modern times. Women have equal rights with men to elect their representatives, contest elections and seek public offices.

Political rights also include the right to criticize the government. This right is implicit in the verses of the Qur’an which read: “…..obey Allah, and obey the messenger and those of you who are in authority; and if ye differ concerning any matter, refer it to Allah and the messenger ….”(4:59); “…. And enjoin good and forbid wrong ….” (22:41). Thus, the Qur’an hints at the possibility of differences between the ruler and the ruled and ordains that such differences should be resolved in the light of the teachings of Allah and His messenger. The duty of a Muslim to enjoin good and forbid wrong entitles him to criticize the government – the rulers as well as the government officials – if they are doing wrong, committing injustices, oppressing the people and are not working for the good and betterment of the citizens. Criticizing oppressive rulers has been encouraged by the Prophet of Islam. According to a tradition, he is stated to have said: Verily, the greatest jihad (holy war) is the expression of a word of truth before a tyrant.”    

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III- Prophet’s Farewell Address

During his Farewell Pilgrimage Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) delivered his famous address on 9th of Zilhajj 10 A.H. at Mount Arafat to multitude of believers exceeding one lac according to some estimates. This address is known as Address from the mount or Farewell Address and is regarded not only by the Muslims but also by non-Muslim impartial scholars and historians as gist of Islamic teachings. This address which is fairly comprehensive contains in itself, apart from Islamic teachings on devotional acts, a charter of human rights which can be favourably compared with Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued by United Nations Organization some fourteen centuries later (1948). It would be most appropriate if we conclude this chapter with some of the extracts from the said historical address of the Prophet of Islam.

  • Ye people! Listen to my words: I will deliver a message to you, for I know not whether, after this year, I shall ever be amongst you here again. O people! Verily your blood, your property and your honour are sacred and inviolable until you appear before your Lord, as this day and this month is sacred for all. Verily you will meet your Lord and you will be held answerable for your actions. Have I not conveyed the message? O Allah! be my witness.

  • He who has any trust with him he should restore it to the person who deposited it with him.

  • Beware, no one committing a crime is responsible for it but he himself. Neither the son is responsible for the crime of his father nor the father is responsible for the crime of his son.

  • O people! Listen to my words and understand them. You must know that a Muslim is the brother of the Muslim and they form one brotherhood. Nothing of his brother is lawful for a Muslim except what he himself allows willingly. So you should not oppress one another. O Allah! have I not conveyed the message?

  • Behold! All practices of paganism and ignorance are now under my feet. The blood revenges of the days of Ignorance are remitted. The first claim on blood I abolish is that of Ibn Rabi’ah Harith who was nursed in the tribe of Sa’d and whom the Hudhayl killed.

  • Usury is forbidden, but you will be entitled to recover your principal. Wrong not and you would not be wronged. Allah has decreed that there should be no usury and I make a beginning by remitting the amount of interest which ‘Abbas b. Abd al-Muttalib has to receive. Verily it is remitted entirely.

  • O people! fear Allah concerning women. Verily you have taken them on the security of Allah and have made their persons lawful unto you by words of Allah! Verily you have got certain rights over your women and your women have certain rights over you. It is incumbent upon them to honour their conjugal rights and, not to commit acts of impropriety which, if they do, you have authority to chastise them, yet not severely. If your wives refrain from impropriety and are faithful to you, clothe and feed them suitably. Behold! Lay injunctions upon women but kindly.

  • O people! Listen and obey though a mangled Abyssinian slave is your amir if he executes (the ordinances of) the Book of Allah among you.

  • O people! Verily Allah has ordained to every man the share of his inheritance. The child belongs to the marriage-bed and the violator of wedlock shall be stoned. He who attributes his ancestry to other than his father or claims his clientship to other than his masters, the curse of Allah, that of the Angels, and of the people be upon him. Allah will accept from him neither repentance nor righteousness.

  • And your slaves! See that you feed them with such food as you eat yourselves; and clothe them with the clothes that you yourselves wear. And if they commit a fault which you are not inclined to forgive, then part with them for they are the servants of Allah and are not to be chastised.

  • O people! Verily your Lord is one and your father is one. All of you belong to one ancestry of Adam and Adam was created out of clay. There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab and for a non-Arab over an Arab; nor for white over the black nor for the black over the white except in piety. ‘Verily the noblest among you is he who is the most pious.’ (49:13)

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