Capitalism Communism Poverty The Holy Qur'an

Poverty and Human Rights

14 The Review of Religions – June 2006 Throughout recorded history, philosophers and thinkers have sought to solve the problem of how to establish a balance between the rights and obligations of man. In the earlier period, loyalty to a community was rewarded by distributing portions from its possessions. Later, the feudal or tribal lords guaranteed security and safety of their followers in return for personal or tribal obedience. The Greeks realised that a contented man was necessary for a happy society. The advent of the Renaissance paved the way for the Age of Man in which human needs and urges for individuality and freedom have been accorded recognition. Since then, as the limits of human knowledge have widened, more and more attention has been paid to the requirements of identifying and safeguarding such rights as are considered essential for the progress of mankind. The famous English-American writer of the eighteenth century, Thomas Paine, spelt out the ideas of constitutional enlightenment which provide the framework of human rights as a part of Western political culture and social morality. As a result, many states have incorporated provisions dealing with the social, economic and political rights for their citizens in their constitutions or legal systems. The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the General Assembly of the U.N. in 1948, represents a broad consensus of contemporary civilisation on the subject of human rights. However, this does not mean that everyone in this world is POVERTY and HUMAN RIGHTS The following paper was presented at the Assembly of the World’s Religions held in New Jersey U.S.A. in November 1985 By Maulana Ataul Mujeeb Rashed – Imam of the London Mosque 15The Review of Religions – June 2006 guaranteed full freedom or that all the governments are committed to safeguarding human rights without any exception. Far from it. Man continues to be a victim of discrimination, intolerance, and cruelty at the hands of fellow men. Despite the existence of the U.N. Human Rights Commission and similar bodies at regional and national levels, there is no foolproof system under which an individual or a community can seek immediate or effective redress of grievances pertaining to human rights. There are two main reasons for this unsatisfactory situation. First, the legislative or legal guarantees designed by the Western Society cover but a segment of the total field of human rights. Further, the legal sanctions can be applied only after the violations have taken place and can be substantiated by relevant evidence. The U.N. Human Rights Commission and the many governments which are represented on it, fail to recognise the seriousness of the violations unless there is mass bloodshed or destruction of life and property. Lastly, the question of safeguarding human rights is frequently considered on political or ideological basis. For example, the Western thinking is concentrated on political rights of man while the focus of attention in the Marxist society is on the economic rights of man. Again, Western countries are more interested in the human rights violations in the Communist countries but ignore similar violations in the countries allied to the West. The Americans and the Europeans shed so many tears at the fate of Jews in the Eastern bloc but remain silent at the plight of Arabs in Israeli-occupied territories. Both East and West subscribe to the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights concerning freedom of travel but all over the world barriers are raised to restrict travel and movement on grounds of colour and race. The Soviet Union is in the forefront demanding economic and social rights of farmers and workers in Central America and condemning apartheid in South Africa but it has effectively curbed religious and POVERTY AND HUMAN RIGHTS 16 The Review of Religions – June 2006 cultural freedom of Muslims in Central Asia and is denying the people of Afghanistan the right to follow their own way of life. Thus, serious contradictions exist between the precepts and practices of the contemporary world in respect of safeguarding human rights. It is my submission that this diabolical situation can be corrected if the world would understand and adopt the provisions regarding. Human Rights embodied in the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah (Precepts) of the Holy Prophet Muhammad(saw), which are the most authentic and authoritative sources of the Islamic Code of human behaviour. Poverty and Human Rights But, before I proceed further to explain the human rights and its principles as laid down in Islam, let me explain briefly the phenomenon of poverty and its impact on human rights. Allah, the Almighty, our Creator and Maker, has created us all in such a way that no two persons are exactly identical. This change and variety bestows a unique beauty and individuality upon each individual. The good aspects aside, the other side of the overall situation very often presents a gloomy picture. These differences in creation, such as colour and race, have led to the division of human society into various groups and blocs. The difference in mental and physical capabilities has further resulted in various divisions based on social and economical standards. This division is found at all levels. Individuals are torn apart by the barriers of poverty and richness. Nations are being classified as developed and developing countries on the same basis. And the phenomenon does not end here. Nations and individuals are being subjected to all sorts of discrimination due to their poverty. Individuals are looked down upon by their fellow beings merely because they were not born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Poor nations are hated and deprived of their equal position in the community of nations. The victims of poverty are persistently denied their basic human rights individually and collectively. The organisers of this World POVERTY AND HUMAN RIGHTS 17The Review of Religions – June 2006 Assembly have rightly pointed out in their statement that poverty, that condition where human beings lack the basic necessities to sustain life, is a pervasive reality in our world. Islam, being a universal and comprehensive religion, has thoroughly commented on various aspects of this question and has guided us to such methods as may be helpful to safeguard the rights of the poor. Some of these points are mentioned below: 1. Discrimination stems from the feelings of superiority. In order to nip this evil in the bud, Islam has stressed the idea of absolute equality of all human beings in the sight of Allah. Neither membership of a tribe nor citizenship of a state confers any privilege, nor are they sources of honour. The true source of honour in the sight of Allah is a righteous life (Ch.49: V14). In his Farewell Address, the Holy Prophet of Islam(saw) said: ‘You are all brothers and are all equal. None of you can claim any privilege or any superiority over any other. An Arab is not to be preferred to a non- Arab, nor is a non-Arab to be preferred to an Arab; nor is a white man to be preferred to a coloured one, or a coloured one to a white, except on the basis of righteousness.’ (Hanbal V, p.41). 2. Islam has stressed this point time and again in the Holy Qur’an that the whole universe, with all its potentials, has been created for the benefit of the whole of mankind without any dis-crimination. They are not intended for, or confined to, any particular section of human society. This teaching rules out the ideas of exclusive ownership or monopoly in regard to natural resources. All that God Almighty, the Creator, has created in this universe is to be used and shared by all. 3. After establishing the above- mentioned principles, in order to assure the equal position of the poor in a society, Islam has particularly stressed the status of such members of society who are generally looked down POVERTY AND HUMAN RIGHTS 18 The Review of Religions – June 2006 upon and maltreated by others due to their poverty or other drawbacks. The orphans, the widows, the servants, the labourers and the poor are granted a respectable and honoured position in Islamic society. Muslims are enjoined to do maximum good to such people and any act of kindness and honour done towards these people is extremely praiseworthy and noble in the sight of Allah. Just to mention two examples, I wish to quote three sayings of the Holy Prophet of Islam(saw),: In one place he is reported to have said that he who strives for the welfare of a widow will be joined with him in heaven as the two fingers of a hand are joined together. Similarly, he has enjoined his faithful followers to pay the wages of a labourer before the sweat dries upon his body. With regard to servants, the Prophet(saw) said: ‘They are your brothers, and you should treat them as such. Provide them with the kind of clothes that you wear and if you set them a hard task, join them in it to help them complete it’ (Abu Dard). 4. Islam has established a very comprehensive economic sys- tem in order to secure the widest and most beneficent distribution of wealth through institutions set up by it and through moral exhortations. Wealth must remain in constant circulation among all sections of the community and should not become the monopoly of the rich (Ch.59: V.8). Islam has ensured the achievement of this sublime object by establishing a system of inheritance and a system of regular charity on the one hand and prohibition of interest, gambling and all such ways of accumulating wealth by unlawful means on the other. This economic system laid down by Islam minimises the gap and difference between the poor and the rich and thus, goes a long way in eradicating the imbalance which is the root- cause of economic discri- mination and denial of human rights. POVERTY AND HUMAN RIGHTS 19The Review of Religions – June 2006 Principles of Human Rights The principles of Human Rights enunciated by Islam differ from the Western concept in two important aspects. First, the Islamic values are comprehensive and universal. Second, they are guaranteed by divine sanction derived from the Word of God. No other judicial or constitutional system can make this claim. Let us briefly examine the fundamentals of Islamic code on human rights. In the opening verses of Surah Al- Rahman, and at several other sections of the Holy Qur’an, we are told that the aim of Islam is to establish a balance and to bring about an accord in the relationship of man and his Maker, his relationship with the Universe and with his fellow men through beneficent judgement. Islam insists upon the acceptance and comprehension of the unity and coordination of the creation and the unity and equality of man. The Holy Qur’an informs us time and again that the universe is created in an orderly design and that there is a specific purpose behind the creation of man. The most striking character of Islam is its universality and the place that it assigns to man as the focal point of the universe. A unique position is thus allotted to man in the Divine scheme of the universe. Equipped with all the inherent qualities and capacities, and with Divine guidance available at all stages, and with the whole of the Universe subjected to his service, Man has been placed in the most favourable position for the complete fulfilment of his life. The second fundamental charac- teristic of the Islamic code is the place of honour accorded to the freedom of man and the rejection of compulsion or coercion. However, it does not sanction unrestricted or unbridled freedom, as it would be against the very law of nature. Freedom has to be balanced with certain limitations. To ensure freedom for everyone, the freedom of each must be, to a degree, curbed, curtailed or controlled. The freedom that man enjoys is the right to discipline his freedom. Like most subjects affecting human personality, the subject of human rights has many facets. As an all- pervading and complete religion, Islam provides a comprehensive framework for human conduct in terms of individual, moral, social, POVERTY AND HUMAN RIGHTS 20 The Review of Religions – June 2006 economic and political rights and obligations. The Holy Qur’an has spelt out the rights of man during all phases of life – starting from pre-birth to childhood and through adult life to old age. The Holy Qur’an also lays down broad principles governing man’s relations with all those who will possibly come into contact with him throughout his life. These include the rights of children, the rights of parents, the rights of a wife and a husband, the rights of neighbours, the rights of travellers, the rights of the needy, the rights of orphans, the rights of workers and wage earners. The list of the items is so comprehensive that the subject could provide a challenge for any legal or constitutional expert of modern times. To begin with, Islam stands firmly and uncompromisingly on freedom of conscience. It does not seek to secure even belief in God through compulsion or coercion. Much less does it object to restricting freedom on the ground of one’s belief and conviction. Belief is a matter of conscience and conscience cannot be compelled. This truth is proclaimed by the Holy Qur’an in Verse 257 of Surah Al-Baqarah: There should be no compulsion in religion. Surely, right has become distinct from wrong; whosoever refuses to be led by those who transgress, and believes in Allah, has surely grasped a strong handle which knows no breaking. And Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing. (Ch.2: V.257) Again, in Verse 30 of Surah Al- Kahf, the Holy Qur’an mentions: And say,‘It is the truth from your Lord; wherefore let him who will, believe, and let him will, disbelieve.’ It follows that Islam gives a person the right to profess what he truly believes, and not to profess belief in that which he does not sincerely believe. In the same context, the change of belief, howsoever offensive from the moral or spiritual point of view, does not attract any physical penalty. There is another fundamental right which the Holy Qur’an recognises and accords to man. This is the exercise of reason, understanding and judgement at every step. At the same time, man is allowed the POVERTY AND HUMAN RIGHTS 21The Review of Religions – June 2006 freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. This is essential so that knowledge may be fostered and ignorance repelled. The Holy Prophet(saw) is quoted as saying: ‘The seeking of knowledge is a duty laid upon every Muslim, man and woman’. One should not get the impression that Islam speaks about human rights in abstract terms only. The limited time at my disposal has prevented me from discussing the social and economic rights enjoined by the Holy Qur’an. The principles concerning the protection of personal property and possessions, equality before law, equality of opportunity to work, reduction of poverty, balanced distribution of wealth, and sanctity of contracts and agreements are sanctioned by Islam and these also form the true basis of the concept of the Welfare State. Within a few years of the establishment of the first Islamic state, the provision of the basic necessities for everyone was assured. This is the reason why Islam is considered not only a religion but also a system and a civilisation which fulfils man’s spiritual as well as material needs. Earlier, I had mentioned that the excellent example of the Holy Prophet of Islam(saw), along with the Holy Qur’an, constitutes the most authentic source of instruction for a code of righteous conduct and for the preservation of the rights of man. The Holy Qur’an describes his functions as the creation and strengthening of faith through drawing attention to Divine Signs, the moral and physical uplift of the people, teaching them the Law and furnishing them with guidance and expounding the philosophy underlying the guidance given by the Holy Qur’an. What do we learn from his life about the preservation of human rights? From innu- merable instances, let me mention only two events to illustrate his regard for the rights of the enemies of Islam and his own proclamation on human rights in the most precise terms. The Holy Prophet(saw) had appointed Hadhrat Ali(ra), the Fourth Caliph of Islam, to conduct peace negotiations at Hudaibiyya with the Makkans who were sworn enemies of Islam and had waged war against the Holy Prophet(saw) and his followers. After protracted negotiations, when the final terms POVERTY AND HUMAN RIGHTS were being drawn, the Makkans strongly objected to the designation of the Holy Prophet(saw) as the ‘Messenger of Allah’ and insisted that he should be described only as ‘Muhammad, Son of Abdullah’. When this was brought to the attention of the Holy Prophet(saw), he said: ‘I am the Messenger of Allah and I am the son of Abdullah. If the Makkans so prefer, I may be described as ‘Muhammad, Son of Abdullah’. Hadhrat Ali(ra) could not bring himself to bear the responsibility of removing the words ‘the Messenger of Allah’ from the draft and the Holy Prophet(saw) amended the draft with his own hands. On the occasion of his last pilgrimage, the Holy Prophet(saw) addressed his people in Mina on the 11th of Dhul-Hajj, which is the epitome of the entire teachings of Islam. In this historical proclamation, he said: ‘All men, whatever nation or tribe they may belong to, and whatever the status in life they may hold, are equal’. He further declared: ‘Your lives and your possessions have been made immune by God to attacks by one another until the Day of Judgment’. This is the most eloquent and most perceptive universal declaration on the rights of free and equal man. So the entire mankind owes gratitude to the Holy Messenger of Islam(saw), for drawing attention to the Divine Guidance concerning the status and rights of man as enjoined by the teachings of Islam. 22 POVERTY AND HUMAN RIGHTS The Review of Religions – June 2006