The Human Rights Tradition in Islam: A Book review by Murad Wilfried Hofmann

The Human Rights Tradition in Islam By Muddathir ‘Abd al-Rahim. Westport, USA: Praeger Publishers, 2005. Pp257. ISBN: 0275980456. Reviewed by Murad Wilfried Hofmann.

This book is the third of a series produced by Praeger on Human Rights in the world’s major religions, i.e in the Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Its Sudanese author, Dr. ‘Abd al-Rahim, since 1997 professor of political sciences and Islamic studies at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC) in Kuala Lumpur, is eminently suited for presenting this subject, given his first hand knowledge of both East and West and his previous diplomatic career.

In fact, the author took degrees both at the universities of London and Nottingham, subsequently himself teaching at academic institutions in all continents except Australia, including Khartoum, Rabar, Kano, Philadelphia, and Manchester. As ambassador, he represented his country at the UN in New York and UNESCO in Paris as well as in Scandinavia.

Aside from his discussion of human rights in Islam, the author provides an annotated bibliography and foundational texts on human rights from the Qur’an, the Charter (Sahifah) of Madinah, the Sunnah, early Islamic history (including Abd Bakr’s acceptance speech) as well as from all contemporary Muslim human rights declarations (1981: private effort in London/ Paris; 1990: OIC in Cairo; 1994: Arab league in Cairo). Altogether covering 133 pages, this useful documentary apparatus makes up almost half the book.

Usually Muslim publications on human rights in Islam simply claim that Islam has invented the whole category and that there is no deficit in practising these rights, also vis-à-vis Muslim women. Ducking all the issues, this prototypical Muslim apologetic literature in point is utterly useless and even harmful. So much more welcome is the publication under review because the author is as learned as he is realistic and frank.

True, he too enters the human rights discussion with a historical panorama, proving that the modern human rights syllabus can be anchored in the earliest Muslim tradition. But he admits that these rights were systematically violated (and even denied) during much of Muslim history, and still are. As an example he illustrates how Qur’anic injunction to rule through the institution of shura was dismantled by the practical doctrine of accepting whoever usurps power (nahnu ma’a man ghalab). (p. 81)

The author describes in great detail how colonial rule created in the destructive perversion of the Islamic legal system, the result being the same even though the Russian, French, and British plus Dutch approaches differed markedly (Chapter 4). This helps to understand (but not to excuse) the current human rights situation in the Muslim world.

I found chapter 3, which is devoted to the Interplay of Theory and Practice: Questions of Gender and Minorities, most impressive (even though I dislike lumping minority and women’s rights together as if 52% of mankind were a minority.) clearly, the violation of these rights is the very fact that scares off most Western people from accepting Islam. In view of this, no other defence will do except the author’s approach of acknowledging all abuses and of calling on Muslims finally to accord their wives their divinely given status, rank, dignity, and function in public and family life. How else shall Muslim minorities in the West be able credibly to demand respect of their human rights, to have them accorded as a matter of course?

The author concludes that the “overall condition of democracy and human rights in the Muslim world in general and especially at the official and governmental levels of its Arabic core is truly dismal.” Therefore he believes that it is rather from non-Arabic countries such as Malaysia, Turkey, Indonesia, and Bangladesh that “model Muslim democracies are likely to emerge” (pp. 114-116).

In a future edition the author might provide translations for all larger quotations given in Arabic, so as well on pp71f., 75 and 81.

The book is remarkably free from spelling mistakes, except for the bibliography. It should read Erdogan (not Erdugan) on p.115, Dilthey (not Dilthy) and Gadamer (not Gadamar) on p. 206 (Note 3), Makdisi (not Makdis) on p.209 (Note 65), Kluwer (not Klewar) and Khadduri (not Khaddure) on p. 210 (Notes 99 and 114), and Atartük (not Atartuk) on p.216 (Note 51).

Bonn, Germany – Murad Wilfried Hoffman

Note: The Bahasa Malaysia translation of this book has been recently co-published by the Allied Coordinating Committee of Islamic NGOs (ACCIN) and Yayasan Dakwah Islamiah Malaysia (YADIM). It was launched by Yang Amat Bahagia Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad at Dewan Muktamar, Pusat Islam, Kuala Lumpur on 24th January 2014.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: