Vivienne Stacey discusses the concept of human rights according to Islam. She addresses the topic of apostasy and the infamous blasphemy laws of Pakistan. This topic is significant as historically hard-line Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia attempt to reform their societies to be more compatible with twenty-first century. The question remains whether or not Islam can be reformed to accommodate ideas like religious pluralism. Similarly, Pakistan continues to struggle with the incompatibility of its blasphemy law and its membership in the UN which upholds a declaration of universal human rights.

These lectures were given at Columbia International University in partnership with the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies. The Zwemer Center was founded in 1979 and exists to offer comprehensive courses on Islam, facilitate research, foster dialogues, offer seminars, conduct training, and provide resources for effective witness and ministry among Muslims. We also have a course study guide for these lectures that you might find helpful.
Here starts the auto-generated transcription of Vivienne Stacey’s Lecture on Human Rights in Islam:

Our subject in this session is law reform and human rights for women in Islam. I think we have first to think about human rights in Islam in general, and then how women are affected. Islam presents as a quotation from a Muslim, Breuil, who wrote a book on the subject, Islam presents man, mankind, I think, with a charter of human liberty within a religious framework, which emphasizes the necessity of his being aware of his responsibility and accountability. I have here actually, a paper on Islamic human rights in Islam, And there are Muslims do also have a charter of human rights, which isn’t the same as the United Nations charter, but they have subscribed to the United Nations charter. But there is an innate, what should we say, ideological conflict on the, on the idea of human rights, as I hope to show by by, taking some notes out of a lecture given by Colin Chapman in Cyprus in 1995.

One of Colin Chapman’s books is over there, and then somebody’s bought it. He’s he’s an up and coming thinker and, writer. So three basic convictions about human rights in Islam, Muslim convictions, Islam is theocentric while the west is anthropocentric. So God is at the center of thinking for Muslims, and man is at the center of thinking for many in the West, or not just the west. And then here’s a quotation from another Muslim writer.

Human rights in Islam exist only in relation to human obligations. Individuals possess certain obligations towards god, fellow humans, and nature, all of which are defined by the Sharia law. When individuals meet these obligations, they acquire certain rights and freedoms, which are again prescribed by the sharia. Those who do not accept these obligations have no rights, and any claims of freedom that they may make upon society lack justification. And then another Muslim writer, unlike Western philosophical and political perception of the separability of the individual and the state, Islamic social concept concepts do not make such a distinction.

The individual does not stand in any adverse adversary position, vis a vis the state, but is an integral part thereof. The consequence of this relationship is that there is no apparent need to delineate individual rights in contraposition to the state. So we’ve got, duties rather than rights, and then secondly, communism rather than individualism. I’m sure you’re aware of this. Human rights have developed in the West to protect individuals from the coercive power of the state.

Such an idea is alien to Islam. And so this is why it’s extremely difficult, to well, I I don’t know how, actually, some Muslim countries can accept the Charter of Human Rights, the UN Charter. But except for sections about religion, I think, Saudi Arabia has accepted it, but he there’s an exception on the religious points in that. Most other nations have accepted the UN Charter, but there is a contradiction at the basis. The contradiction that, that one’s rights, are defined in terms of one’s obligations to God, fellow human beings, and nature in Islam.

And, the the fundamental idea, that an individual doesn’t need rights, his human and individual like like rights protected from the power of the state because the individual is an integral part of the state. So you how do you reconcile that? I I ultimately, I think you can’t, perhaps. But anyway, there’s an effort to do it. So there are tensions.

Let’s look at 1 or 2 of them. The United Nations Charter of Human Rights of Rights. It’s a charter of human liberty, actually. Oh, no. No.

It’s the it’s UN Charter of Rights, isn’t it? Human rights. It’s the, Muslims who have a Charter of Human Liberty, which is a parallel setup, according to their real their thinking. Okay. Well, the here we’ve got tensions and conflicts.

The United Nations article number 2 says, no distinctions to be made, equality without distinction of any kind. That’s in inverted commas. Without distinction of any kind. In quality, without distinction of any kind. But fiqh, take that, the Muslim understanding of it, takes distinctions for granted.

Dignity and brotherhood were originally only for believers in Islam. And Sherfi speaks of 3 great inequalities in the Islamic legal tradition between men and women, between Muslims and non Muslims, between free men and slaves. And then under the question of women, United Nations article number 16 and, 16.1. Equal rights as to marriage, during marriage, and its dissolution. But Muslim women cannot marry a non Muslim man.

And it but the other way around, a Muslim man can marry a world, And probably the most celebrated inequality under traditional Islamic law is the unequal treatment of women, who are considered the wards of men. Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, United Nations article 18 includes this, in inverted commas again, freedom to change his religion or belief. And there is a different understanding of freedom of conscience in Islam. A freedom a Muslim will say there is freedom of belief, but it is, in effect, freedom to become a Muslim or freedom to remain a Muslim, but it is not freedom to leave the household of Islam and join anything else. So Kenneth Craig makes this very clear in his writings.

Freedom to remain Muslim, obviously. Freedom to become Muslim, but not freedom no basic freedom to leave Islam. It’s unthinkable. But in Islam, freedom of expression is allowed on conditions that this right is to be exercised for righteousness of all, we may call it the common good, as one Muslim writer says. Individual freedom in Islam is perhaps the most difficult to relate to the modern concept of freedom, says another Muslim writer, Majid Khaduri.

And then, there are certain arguments that Muslims use. They say, the west uses the concept of human rights for its own advantage, and I think we could find some justification for that as I always like to read the newspapers, in my own country when I go to Britain, and occasionally, I read them in Cyprus. I like to read them when I come to the States. I have a go at the New York Times, and then I try one of the Los Angeles papers and so on. But I think that the West is guilty here.

Uses, the West uses concept the concept of human rights for its own advantage. It’s true in this sort of international dealing. Anyway, but this is not the point. The point is that there is a basic difference between the way Muslims look at human rights and the basic difference in the way they look at, freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Let’s have a look.

I’ll just quote 1 or 2 texts from the Quran. I’m not giving this as a, you won’t get a handout because it’s, these are notes on a lecture a lecture, and I haven’t got I haven’t asked for permission to circulate it. But Quran, chapter, surah 2 verse 256 says, there is no compulsion in religion. Muslims are very keen on quoting that, that no one is going to be compelled. There is no compulsion in religion.

And then Sura 49 verse 14 distinguishes between belief based on personal conviction and formal acceptances of Islam. The state cannot enforce Islam. Sura 109 verse 5, to you, your religion, and to me, mine. Now this was addressed to Meccan idolaters. It can provide a basis for coexistence and pluralism, or can it?

Muhammad was only a warner, a warner with no authority to convert forcibly. Sura 10 verse 99, if God had willed, all could have believed together. If God had willed, he could have made you all 1 Ummah, Ummah community, all one community. He could have done that. Surah 30 verse 30.

Man’s freedom is based on the innate disposition given to man by God. And there are a whole lot of verses which are favorable to Christians, and some of them have been abrogated, canceled, but some remain. And, there’s a a really, you can find a a sort of argument in the Quran or a statement in the Quran that the purpose of the conquest of Arabia and between 622 AD and 6 32 AD when Mohammed died, he united Arabia, which was no considerable which was a considerable feat. But the purpose of the conquest was not to impose Islam, but to create a situation in which Islam could have a hearing. That’s that’s an argument.

There were relations that Mohammed had with Christians in Abyssinia. There was the constitution of Medina, and there was the code of Ummah. These are all, if you like, statements about relationships, with those who well, certainly, the relationships with the Christians in in Aben Abasinya, and the letter that Mohammed sent, we have still got record of it, that he sent to local, surrounding countries, to Bahrain, and to some who accepted and some who rejected the invitation to to join Islam. So how is conversion seen by Islam? This will affect men and women.

There’s a verse in the Quran, Surah 4 verse 89 that says, how Muslims should deal with those who renounce the faith of Islam. Now not allowing someone to renounce the face of faith of Islam is, denying what we would consider basic human rights. But this is what the Quran says. They long that you should disbelieve, even as they disbelieve, that you may be upon a level with them. So choose not friends from them till they wherever you find them.

Choose no friend nor helper from among them. None of these verses that are quoted I’ve only quoted 1. Excuse me. None of them are about Muslims becoming Christians. But they are about people who are renouncing Islam.

A study of Muslim commentaries shows that in their original context, none of these verses are concerned with Muslims becoming Christians. Most of them deal with those who are known as hypocrites, that is idolaters who made a profession of Islam but were not sincere, and later went back to their former life. But you see, these these these verses have remained and have formed the basis of what is called the law of apostasy, that anyone denying Islam, renouncing Islam is, to be punished by death, and it would be considered a merit for someone to kill such a person. This accounts for certain we’ve talked about martyrdom, and it but it’s extends further than that. The Hadith literature contains a variety of sayings of the prophet about apostasy, and we find reference to the death penalty.

The death penalty isn’t actually mentioned in the Quran, but there’s an implication of it in the verse, that I read. I mean, it’s not a blanket statement in the Quran that anyone who renounces Islam should be killed, but there is a statement that those who were hypocrites, idolaters, and who then took on Islam and then drifted away or denounced it, they should be killed. So it was for that immediate situation. But from that, they there’s a possibility of building this whole law of apostasy, and it’s reinforced with the Hadith, which definitely says, that anyone leaving Islam or rejecting Islam, is an apostate and should be killed. It may not be accord according to the law of the land, so we have Saudi has no other law but the Quran.

So it’s the constitution of the country. So it’s death for anyone who declares themselves who’s Saudi by birth and declares themselves non Muslim. But it doesn’t apply in quite a numb a large number of countries, because there is civil law as well as religious law. And, it doesn’t The nearest we come to it in Pakistan is the blasphemy law, and that’s being a real test and very, very difficult. They have no one has ever actually been, executed under the blasphemy law.

Blasphemy law has been in, probably for the last, I don’t know, 8 or 10 years. It first was that anyone, in any way saying anything offensive about Mohammed or or or Islam, could be imprisoned for life or killed. And then about 3 or so years ago, it was changed that there was no other punishment except death. And Christians have been tried under that law, and, Muslims have been tried under it. If anyone has reports somebody having said something denigration to the prophet denigrating the prophet, they could be arrested and tried.

And, unfortunately, people have used it to they want some land belonging to a neighbor, then they’ve accused the neighbor of, saying something about the prophet that he shouldn’t have said. So, you know, that sort of there’s a political twist to some of these things. And sometimes it’s been somebody completely innocent, like Rehmat Masih, Christian boy, who was about 12 or 13. He was accused of of, writing something, not according to what the, writing something that was disrespectful of the Quran, I think it was. Well, actually, he was illiterate.

It was highly unlikely that he wrote anything. I think he’s supposed to have written it on the walls of a mosque or something. So anyway, he was freed but eventually acquitted. But, in being acquitted, he was in danger of his life from the religious leaders, so he cannot live. Anyone who’s acquitted, I think a 100 people have been arrested under this law, some Muslims and some Christians.

But, any Christian arrested under it and acquitted is unlikely to be able to stay in Pakistan because of the religious leaders wanting to bring into operation what the civil law didn’t bring in, the law of apostasy. So the traditional response to apostasy in sharia law is summed up by a Sudanese Islamic scholar, Abdulahi Ahmed Anaim. And he says, on the basis of these sunnah and standard commentaries on the Quran, traditional Islamic schools of jurisprudence are unanimous in holding that apostasy is punishable by death, although they differ on such questions as whether to execute the sentence immediately or grant the apostate a reprieve of a few days to allow him time to reflect and reconsider his position in the hope that he may reembrace Islam, thereby saving his life as well as his soul. The most significant test of Muslim attitudes to conversion, however, is not, sorry, I’ve lost my place, is not the statements of jurists and theologians of the past and present, but what actually happens in practice. However liberal and tolerant Muslim leaders can be, what really seems to count at the end of the day is the attitude of a particular family to 1 or more of their number who seem to be turning their backs on their religion, and that was instance you saw that in the case history that we studied earlier, my Pakistani friend who was killed, and shame and dishonor to the family.

It’s either the family or it may be religious leaders. The civil courts may acquit. Movement from the Muslim Ummah community to another community necessarily implies the repudiation of the Islamic state along with its ideology, which comes from the religion of Islam. To convert out of Islam means clearly to abandon its world order, which is the Islamic State. That is why Islamic law has treated people who have converted out of Islam as political traitors.

No state can look upon the political treason directed to it with indifference. It must deal with traitors. So it needs to be pointed out that there is a real tension, if not an inconsistency, at this point between the traditional Islamic responses to conversion and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this charter has been officially accepted by most countries, including Islamic states and states in which Muslims are a majority. It allows the freedom not only to hold and practice one’s own religion, but also to change one’s own own religion. But the punishment by death, in the case of apostasy, has been unanimously agreed upon by all the 4 schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

So there are 4 main schools of Islamic law, and they all agree on the punishment is right this punishment of apostasy. So I have to, I think, give this sort of background because this affects men and women. It affects any any who is any person who is Muslim. I think you could, it’s useful to have a have a a a printout or a published text of the charter of unit UN Charter of Human Rights. I’m always misquoting almost quoting its title.

It’s the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That’s the correct title. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I when I traveled across North Africa Africa in the seventies early eighties, I used to keep it in a copy of it with me. I had it in Arabic and in English.

I just felt this, and I used to give it to certain photocopy it and give it to certain, people because I thought it’s, people at least should know, what is written and what their country has signed. But, we have, as you see, a sort of dichotomy here because, there is a different concept of the rights and duties of the individual and the responsibilities between state and the individual, particularly this idea, that this the individual is to be protected from the state by by the human rights here delineated. Whereas, that is not a Muslim idea because the individual is an integral part of the state. Well, we’ll try to come back in the next session when we study. We’ll deal more particularly, further with this question in relation to women.