Human Rights: Towards a Universal Values System! Islam, Part 2

I am continuing  a series of blogs on human rights that I began in December: “Towards Human Rights.” The purpose of this blog series is to make the case for the implementation and acceptance of human rights as a global values system. It is based on my Human Rights: Towards a Universal Values System?

 “…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

 Towards Human Rights as a Global Values System, part 21

 By Dr. Denise R. Ames

A History and Philosophy of Human Rights,   Islam, Part 2                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Early Islamic law promoted the concept of inalienable rights, which prohibited  a ruler 20.3 Five Pillarsfrom taking away certain rights from his subjects. Islamic judges also said the rule of law should be equal for all classes. No person was above the law, and the law did not allow discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, color, or kinship.

The law recognized two sets of human rights. In addition to the category of civil rights and political rights, Islamic law also recognized an additional category: social, economic and cultural rights, which was not recognized in the Western legal tradition until the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1966. The right of privacy, which the Western legal traditions did not recognize until modern times, was part of Islamic law since its beginning.

Early Islamic law introduced the concepts of welfare and pension as forms of charity or almsgiving, one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Islamic governments collected taxes which they used to provide income for the needy, including the poor, elderly, orphans, widows, and the disabled. Historians consider these to be one of the earliest welfare states. A

21.1 al-Ghazali


famous Islamic jurist Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), said the government should store up food supplies for the needy in every region in case a disaster or famine occurred.

The institution of slavery has existed in past Islamic societies. But Islam has outlined five ways to free slaves, severely condemned those who enslave free people, and regulated the slave trade. Slaves, arguably, had more rights under Islam than Christianity, since an owner could not mistreat them and laws said slaves should be treated as equals. Owners freed many slaves after a certain period of time.

21.2 13th century slave market in Yemen

13th century slave market in Yemen

Women generally had more legal rights, such as the right to own property, under Islamic law than they did under Western laws until changes in the 19th and 20th centuries. Islamic law gave women legal status, which directly affected the areas important to women at the time: marriage, divorce, and inheritance. For example, under Islamic law the dowry, which for many years traditions had regarded as a brideprice paid to the father by the groom’s family, became a gift retained by the wife as part of her personal property.

Islamic law viewed marriage as a contract, in which the woman’s consent was necessary. Islamic societies gave women inheritance rights; this right of inheritance had previously been restricted to male relatives. In fact, Muhammad’s wife Khadijah was 15 years his senior and a wealthy

21.3 Khadijah

Khadijah in Arabic calligraphy

merchant in her own right. They had a monogamous marriage (one spouse at a time) until her death 25 years after their marriage. After this time, Muhammad took four wives, according to tradition. Apparently, Muhammad improved the lives of women legally and in the area of family life, marriage, education, and economic rights.

Most countries of the Middle East and North Africa today continue a dual system of secular (non-religious) and religious courts; the religious courts mainly regulate marriage and inheritance, while secular courts decide legal matters. At the time of this writing, Saudi Arabia and Iran keep religious courts for all aspects of jurisprudence.

About the Author:

Dr. Denise R. Ames is a long-time educator, grade 7-university, author of seven books, and president of an educational non-profit, Center for Global Awareness, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. CGA provides books, resources, and services with a holistic, global- focused, and perspective-taking approach for their three programs: Global Awareness for Educators, books and resources for educators and students grade 9-university; Gather, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a self-organizing study and conversation program for adults focusing on seeing different perspectives of pressing global issues; and their most recent program Turn, Transformative Understanding and Reflection Network, which encourages lifelong and transformative learning to help us arrive at a place of personal and global well-being using a seven “path” approach.

1.5 bookPlease email or visit for more information.

For more information about the topic of human rights see Dr. Ames’ book Human Rights: Towards a Global Values System, $17.95, 225 pgs. Also available on Amazon.

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