Islam and Human Rights

By An-Na'im, Abdullahi | Tikkun, January/February 2003 | Go to article overview

Islam and Human Rights


An-Na'im, Abdullahi, Tikkun


As is already clear from the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, reckless wars that topple regimes while leaving the structural causes of oppression and violence intact are not the best way to respond to human rights violations, the oppression of women, terrorism, or political violence. Instead, we need to promote internal transformation within these countries' existing cultural and religious traditions, confronting underlying causes of oppression on their own grounds. This work will necessarily have to be done by internal agents of social change, acting from within their own societies and local communities. These internal actors will normally need the material and political support of external actors, but that support must be given in ways that do not undermine the credibility and legitimacy of internal transformation.

While such transformations are difficult, they happen. My own transformation began in June of 1968 when, as a bored law student in Atbara, Northern Sudan, I reluctantly agreed to accompany a friend to a public lecture by a man named Mahmoud Mohamed Taha. Little did I know then that Taha's lecture was going to forever change my life by confronting me with the contradiction between my belief as a Muslim that Shari'a (the historical formulations of the religious law of Islam) was divine and immutable, and my personal commitment to constitutional governance and respect for human rights, including equality for women and non-Muslims.

All Muslims, including Taha, believe that the Qur'an is the final and conclusive revelation of God to the whole of humanity, and that the life of the Prophet Muhammad is the ideal model for understanding and living by that message, thereby making the Sunna (Traditions of the Prophet) the second source of Islam after the Qur'an. These sources were systematically interpreted and elaborated during the first three centuries of Islam (from the seventh to the ninth centuries of the common era) into what came to be commonly known as Shari'a. Taha argued, essentially, that because Shari'a was necessarily conditioned by the specific historical context of those interpretations, it was not immutable (unlike the Qur'an, which is immutable). Taha called for a fresh reinterpretation in light of the drastically transformed present context of Muslim societies today. Unlike other Muslim intellectuals who called for this process of creative juridical reasoning (ijtihad) without explaining how it might be done and to what ends, Taha developed a comprehensive methodology for the reformulation of Shari'a.

Once I heard Taha speak, I realized I could reconcile my political beliefs with my religious beliefs. That gift of personal peace and a sense of coherence prompted me to join the social movement he founded and led to propagate fundamental social and political change in Sudan. In the early 1980s, militant fundamentalists took control over the country and Taha's movement was suppressed following his trial and execution on political charges in January 1985. I left Sudan in April 1985, with the goal of publicizing Taha's methodology of internal and cross cultural discourse within and between religious and cultural traditions and applying it to questions of constitutional government, human rights, and international relations.

The success of such internal and cross-cultural discourse is dependent on several factors. For one, those in the culture being asked to accept human rights must be able to observe serious and consistent efforts to uphold human rights standards by other countries and the international community in general.

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