Human Rights versus Obligations: Conversation with a Muslim Sheikh

A couple of months ago, during an extended conversation with our friend the Chief Judge of the Sunni Court in Saida about a rights-based approach to addressing poverty, he said, “Islam does not believe in human rights”. After a long pause, during which my mind conjured up all the worst prejudices about Islam that I had ever heard, he went on to say, “Instead we believe we have an obligation to the poor”; he used the word ‘duty’.

The conversation of course did not end there. But I have since thought much about his observations. His comments reflect the Islamic perspective on the obligations that the individual, the community, its leadership (government), and God have to each other.

The responsibility for the welfare of the individual is very different in the West versus in more traditional societies. In the West the individual has rights and has to fight for them because society may or may not recognize these rights to the basics of life and ensure access to them, even though these rights are enshrined in international legal frameworks.

In the more traditional societies, the community recognizes the reality of the poor and vulnerable in society and knows it has an obligation to them. This is a moral obligation that is often rooted in the tenets of one’s faith or worldview. So if poverty exists it is because the community has failed in its obligations. The Islamic perspective of obligation and duty is rooted in its origins among the Bedouin tribes of the desert. Ibn Khaldun the 14th century North African historian wrote, “Only tribes held together by group feelings can live in the desert…” since the group ensured the survival and well-being of the individual. Yet this obligation was always limited to the immediate group, family or clan and very rarely beyond it.

So was the Sheikh from Saida wrong in saying that Islam does not believe in human rights? Interestingly, Abdulaziz Sachedina writes that during the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, there had been extensive consultation to ensure that the proposed rights and their underlying morality reflected universal values – including those of the major religions. However the representatives from participating Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Syria were secular educated Muslims who had almost no training in the key Islamic texts and thinking with regards to human rights in order to be able to articulate the “universal impulse of Islamic doctrines”.[i] In fact, Jamil Baroody, the Saudi representative on the drafting committee was a Lebanese Christian. There was no effort to engage traditional Islamic scholars on the universality of the status of the individual and of some of the obligations under Islamic law. As a result most traditional Islamic jurists never accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as valid or relevant. However, the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights in 1981 and the Cairo Declaration adopted by the Organization of Islamic States in 1990 rectify this by showing that human rights were always a part of Shari’a. The challenge within Islam has been to broaden the application of human rights beyond the Muslim community and to have an appreciation of the value and worth of the individual.

So do the two concepts of human rights and obligations ever converge? Interestingly, the Hebrew word in the Old Testament and the Arabic word in Islam for charity are the same, tzedakah or sedaquah and sadaqa. While in Islam sadaqa is a term for charitable and voluntary gifts, in Judaism “the most frequent word used by the rabbis to express charity, sedaquah, meaning ‘righteousness’ or justice, reveals a basic attitude, namely that of the donor’s obligation and the poor’s right”.[ii]

Human rights and obligations are inherently connected and neither can have an impact without the other. Interestingly, societies that focus only on obligations never see beyond their own community and are only concerned about the well being of their own. Maybe this has something to do with our fallen nature. Human rights are a reminder of the fact that we are all created beings and have needs pertaining to life and dignity. Human rights force us to look beyond our immediate family and community.

The comments of our friend from Saida forced me to find balance in my thinking with regards to the poor. I am amazed how often I see the poor as an irritation, an embarrassment, or as someone who is a leech on society preying on the goodness of people. Of course they may have a right to the basics of life, but they need to work for it. “There are no free lunches in life”. There are genuine concerns about creating dependency. Yet Scripture is clear that we are responsible for and have an obligation to the most vulnerable in society.

Paul writing about the first theological controversy that almost split the early Church concludes in Galatians (2:8-9) that Peter was to be the apostle to the Jews while he (Paul) and Barnabas were to be the apostles to the Gentiles. The thought process in chapter 2 should have ended there. However Paul recounts a strange request, which seems completely out of place in the theological discussion that had just taken place. He writes, “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along” (vs.10).[iii] The obligation to the poor was so important that everyone needed to be reminded of it even in the midst of a theological argument.

Does our vision for our community and the world beyond bear the hallmarks of compassion or do we believe in a Darwinian survival of the fittest? As followers of Christ how seriously do we take our obligation to the poor, or do they have to fight for and earn their right to be able to live life with dignity?


[i] Sachedina, Abdulaziz, Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

[ii] Hamel, Gildas, Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine: First Three Centuries CE, Near Eastern Studies 23, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990, p. 216

[iii] For a more in-depth discussion of Gal. 2:10 and who the “poor” referred to could have been, read Bruce Longenecker, Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty and the Greco-Roman World, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.

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